SPARTANBURG — The housing project is abandoned now. Eleven two-story structures, each the same, form a square. They sit in the economically stressed Highland neighborhood of Spartanburg. In April they will be demolished.
Early last month, these buildings became part of an unusual art installation. To visit them now, just after the sun has set, is to witness a remarkable expression of civic pride.
Installed in each of the second-floor windows are flat-screen monitors on which a series of images are displayed: interviews with elderly Highland residents and old photographs from the 1970s and 1980s when the public housing complex was new.
The video documentaries, divided among these 52 screens, were made in part by the people of Highland. They conducted the interviews. They provided the b-roll. They learned to digitize the video tape and edit the clips on desktop computers.
Maybe this is a sign, a turning point in this mostly black community. Maybe this art project, called “Video Village,” and the demolition soon to come will lead to a brighter future.
Before the housing project was built in the late 1960s, the Highland neighborhood had a swimming pool and tennis courts; it was a relatively comfortable place to live, said Leroy Jeter, president of the neighborhood association and a man with a long memory.
The low-income housing project was an assault, he said. “These buildings caused an explosion in the neighborhood.” They marked the beginning of a terrible decline.
Today, they are art.
“I’m hoping that this will give people the belief that Highland can move in a different direction, empower them to do better,” Jeter said.
If the organizers of the art installation have their way, it will.
“Video Village” is one of nine public art installations in Spartanburg, the result of a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Spartanburg is one of four cities selected in a competitive process by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which received 237 applications and narrowed them down to 12 finalists. Cities applying had to propose a temporary public art project that addressed a critical need.
Spartanburg officials argued that the project could help improve police-community relations and engender civic pride, thereby potentially reducing crime in an area that has endured economic strains since the decline of the textile industry in the 1980s.
Other winning cities are Los Angeles (issue: water); Gary, Ind. (issue: food justice); and a trio of cities — Albany, Troy and Schenectady — in New York (issue: urban renewal).
The project was spearheaded by the Chapman Cultural Center, an umbrella nonprofit arts agency in Spartanburg that supports many local arts organizations and manages an impressive building complex in the heart of the city.
Mark Sloan, director of the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, joined the project early on as curator and helped with the grant application process.
Sloan said the Chapman Cultural Center’s president and CEO, Jennifer Evins, already was aware of the grant opportunity when he came on board. She had in mind an art project involving light, one that could impact the behavior of residents. She was looking up light artists on the internet, Sloan said.
“Spartanburg had the desire for this, they had the idea to do something in the first place,” he said.
Then the name Erwin Redl came up. Redl, an Austrian-born artist based in New York City and in Bowling Green, Ohio, had a reputation for making innovative, mesmerizing art using light, color and motion.
Evins had found her artist.
Can't say no
With $1 million in hand (plus a little more raised locally), Evins and her team could think big.
“How do we use the arts in the neighborhoods with relationships that are strained by race and socio-economic status?” she asked. How do you bring people together with a common purpose?
The team — Evins, Sloan, Redl, along with the video production and storytelling company White Elephant Enterprises, various neighborhood associations, city agencies and others — organized in early 2015 a series of meetings, first to consider pitches from neighborhoods, then to plan and manage the undertaking.
Initially, Redl was to prepare five installations, but representatives of 10 neighborhoods, some affluent or middle-class, others low-income, made pitches so compelling that the artist decided to accommodate them all.
“They gave these impassioned pleas for bringing something to their neighborhood,” Sloan recalled. “They were so proud of their neighborhoods, all of them thought theirs was the best.”
He attributes the success of the project largely to Redl’s open-mindedness, his ability to come up with multiple compelling ideas and, most of all, his decision to integrate work created by local people. This content — haikus displayed along the Cottonwood Trail in the “River Poetry” installation, and the documentary film used in “Video Village” — fortified a sense of ownership among Spartanburgers. This was not public art imposed on the community by an artist from off; this was their art.
“This project helped people become friends who were from different neighborhoods (and) that built trust,” Evins said.
'Unity of purpose'
Nine designs. Nine construction projects. Nine neighborhood parties.
“This project was very special from the get-go, because it was clear that I had to leave my ego outside of the city limits,” Redl said.
He went on a sort of listening tour; he entertained all kinds of ideas he would never have thought up himself. Some of those ideas he chose to embrace, he said.
“As soon as I accepted that process I was fine with it,” he said. Well, more than fine with it. It has changed the way he thinks about his work. “I will do things that I never would be able to do with just me and my studio.”
Some of the installations are unavoidable. Walking downtown by Denny’s headquarters, one can’t help notice “Mobile Suspension” in the plaza, a colorful series of hanging “curtains” made from 7,000 small acrylic squares.
Pass by the Spartan Mills smokestacks in Beaumont Village or in the Northside neighborhood and you are sure to see the morphing colors. Drive along Duncan Park Lake and the “Islands of Light” will grab your attention. Use the picnic shelter in South Converse and the patterns of colored light from LED strips installed in the rafters will glow above your head.
Spartanburg Police Chief Alonzo Thompson, an early endorser of the project, said it’s a creative, innovative way to provide both citizens and police officers with a commonly shared purpose. As community relations improve, crime is likely to subside — or at least, the hope is that residents will view the police as partners and protectors, not as opponents and persecutors.
“This is symbolic of what we can do with unity of purpose and collaborative partnership,” he said.
The project encourages the sort of “community policing” Thompson has long advocated, he said. And it taps into an idea he has put forth before: “crime prevention through environmental design.”
The mere fact that these installations each involve illumination enhances public safety, Thompson said. When the urban landscape is well-lit, includes few hiding places and is bustling with activity, criminals are dissuaded.
“It’s an exciting time to be here in the city,” he said.
The public realm
Sloan said “Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light” has renewed his enthusiasm for public art and encouraged him to pursue ambitious projects of his own.
The last big public art project he worked on was a set of four outdoor murals and one indoor installation by Shepard Fairey, made in conjunction with a 2014 show at the Halsey. It was complicated and expensive, relying heavily on the largess of private property owners, Sloan said. It was also wildly successful, and the three murals that have survived still are much admired by visitors and locals alike.
“The great thing about public art is it’s literally in the public realm,” Sloan said. “It becomes part of the vernacular landscape.”
People need make no special effort to encounter it, and that makes it a shared experience, a conversation starter, part of the social fabric of a community, part of the lore, Sloan said.
“Anything that takes art out of the museum — the tyranny of the white cube — is good for me,” he said.
And sometimes public art lends itself to other purposes, as in Spartanburg, a city of about 40,000 located in a metropolitan area that’s home to around 150,000.
Evins said the project is much more than just nine installations around town, passively awaiting their visitors. She has scheduled programming at each of the sites: dance instruction, afro-pop music performances, community gatherings and even ongoing computer training.
“This has taught us how to use the arts to transform community,” Evins said. “This project is particularly special because it allowed residents to participate in the creative process.”
Jeter, standing in the parking area after dusk in Highland’s Cammie Clagget Courts, looks around at the videos and recalls the Oct. 4 “National Night Out” project launch.
“At the beginning it was just the core group, the word wasn’t out,” he said. The police expressed concern about vandalism, but Jeter convinced them it would be OK. “When it launched, that’s when we saw the result.”
People came. They watched the short documentary film. They recognized themselves in it. They became acutely aware of the importance of place, the history it absorbs, the life stories that unfold there. The people of Highland were proud to be part of an initiative designed to tell their stories. Others soon contacted the project team wanting to participate.
After the installations are taken down, after Cammie Clagget Courts is demolished, the computers set up in the basement of the Bethlehem Community Center to manage “Video Village” will become available to local residents. They will become part of a public workspace where people can put together resumes, apply for jobs, learn computer skills and more.
Tim and Robyn Farrell of White Elephant Productions plan to connect “graduates” of the project, armed with new credentials, with Spartanburg Community College, they said.
And they are already thinking about how to tell more of the story of Highland. Perhaps they will help organize a series of exhibits that trace the neighborhood’s history, from the early part of the 20th century through the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s and into the future.
“This story hasn’t been told much here in Spartanburg,” Tim Farrell said.
Redl, whose work was on display at the Halsey Institute earlier this year, now is quick to credit his various South Carolina collaborators for the success of “Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light.” He said the project perhaps has planted a seed. On view until April 1, 2017, the art installations encourage residents to think of their city, and its potential, in new ways.
“I hope it will continue on,” Redl said.