How Both Physical And Social Public Interactions Make You A Better Citizen
For those who read PublicAdCampaign on a regular basis, the notion that physical interaction with public space breeds psychological attachment to our streets and its occupants, might sound familiar. I truly believe that the act of mark making in public space, be it authorized or done under the cover of darkness, creates a bond between the producer and the city that goes far beyond the normal sense of duty an average citizen might feel for his or her shared environment. By leaving a mark, you leave a piece of yourself behind. For this reason, I have found street artists and graffiti artists to be some of the most engaged citizens in public space. Their love affair with the city and the people who occupy it is a direct result of their physical interactions. Simply put, creating in public produces a strong sense of responsibility for public space and in doing so enriches your experience as a public individual and thus your role in our collective social fabric.
While this is something I believe wholeheartedly, it is also something I think people take lightly and or dismiss as idealistic brouhaha chalked up by an activist intent on justifying his unauthorized use of our shared public environment. While this is not the case, a social interaction that took place over the last week has helped me clarify why physical interaction creates a sense of loyalty and responsibility that might otherwise not have existed.
I have lived in Brooklyn, in the same apartment, for the last 8 years. Over this time, I have watched my neighborhood develop and go through the sometimes slow, sometimes rapid steps of gentrification. While the neighborhood has changed drastically, the homeless figures who occupied the streets when I first moved in continue to do so to this day. While they are familiar faces, sadly I have not made an effort to bring them off the canvas that is my neighborhood and interact with them as something other than constant fixtures in my daily routine. This changed last week when I met Jamel, AKA H.M. (Homeless Man)
My first interaction happened outside of my local coffee shop. Lighting a cigarette, I was asked by Jamel if I would get him a cup of water. I of course obliged and returned with a plastic cup of tap water. He thanked me and we both went opposite directions. A few days later, again outside of my local coffee shop, I ran into Jamel. It was early in the morning and the bright sun made the street warm despite the freezing temperatures. As I turned to walk towards the train, Jamel stopped me and told me to take his picture, pointing to the phone in my hand. I told him that I did not have a camera, at which point he began to profess the artistic qualities of his makeshift home on wheels, ostensibly why he thought a picture was in order. Abstract art he called it, and began to explain the postmodern appeal of the "art" object he pushed around the neighborhood. He referred to the blankets he had piled high, and the multiple patterns which made up a large portion of his cart. He framed intimate moments with his hands and talked about how if you looked hard, there were aesthetic moments worth pondering. Indeed, the juxtapositions of some of the objects he carried with him were worth musing over and I was duly impressed with his understanding of how interesting his traveling home actually was.
Our conversation continued for some time as we talked about the merits of art. Jamel continued to note that both his cart and himself were interesting subjects. He explained how people spent time looking at him and his things, pondering as he saw it, an object with aesthetic value. While I'm not sure if passersby are pondering aesthetics when they look at Jamel, huddled in a doorway, the fact that he was lucid enough to see this potential, I found extremely interesting. The fact of the matter is that he is right. Like a collage, the endless interactions between disparate objects provided a reason for continued investigations. How fantastic I thought, and bid Jamel farewell as I left to continue my days work.
For the first time since I had moved into my neighborhood, Jamel ceased to be another homeless person. While his cart might be abstract art, Jamel was no longer abstracted to me but rather a living personality. I had socially interacted with him and there was no turning back. Later that evening I was returning from a meeting around 8pm. I stopped by the local supermarket to pickup a pork shoulder and continued towards my house. En route, battling vicious winds, I passed by Jamel huddled in a doorway tucking himself in for the night. Groceries in hand, I continued towards my house but was unable to shake the image of Jamel bedding down for the evening in the unforgiving elements. I had passed Jamel like this on countless evenings and somehow this one was different. I returned to Jamel 15 minutes later with a winter jacket and a blanket I had stored away for when guests visit. Jamel was excited to say the least and after I helped him up from his lying position, we stood in the freezing cold talking about art and the universe. He told me he had an answer for any question I asked him and I drilled him with everything from the meaning of life to where did the universe come from. Sure enough he had an answer for each of my queries.
While it is fine and dandy to give clothes to those in need, that is not what I'm interested in here. Why after neglecting this person for so many years had I suddenly felt so compelled to help? The obvious answer is that I had finally humanized this person and was unable to shift him to my peripheral vision once this had happened. But what had shifted him from the periphery to seemingly astral focus was something very tangible, our social interaction. The conversation we had was the vehicle upon which our intimacy developed. Without that social interaction I would have continued to ignore this aspect of my shared environment. The subsequent feeling was guttural and I felt responsible to bring a jacket to Jamel.
It is at this point that I drew the connection between physical interaction with public space and social interaction with public individuals. Both tend to create an unshakeable sense of respect, responsibility, and duty. Similarly to my conversation Jamel, my aesthetic interactions in public space have drawn me inextricably closer to the city structure. No longer can I go about my day, passing through our shared public spaces, without feeling a sense of responsibility for how they are used. It is interaction which breeds connection and therefore of the utmost importance that we allow our streets to be places accustomed to both social and physical interaction since each has the ability to tie us directly to the spaces and people we live with. If, like a conversation with a stranger, drawing on the walls of our city can help develop a responsible citizenry, we must make an effort to promote this type of behavior in earnest.
It is with this in mind that PublicAdCampaign promotes public media productions in public space and continues to question private medias existence in our shared environment. For further discussions on why private media does not further our social interactions and is one of the main hurdles in opening up public space to a more democratic form of public participation, please feel free to contact me or read our many other musings on the topic.