Art

“Art asks, not dictates.” Thoughts from Brooklyn’s Inside Out Project group action

Curious about starting your own Inside Out Project group action? Over at TEDPrize.org, they’re interviewing people from around the world who’ve been inspired by the artist JR and his TED Prize wish to photograph and paste the faces of their community. In this Q&A, meet Dana Eskelson of Brooklyn, New York, who organized one of the Inside Out Project’s first group actions, on the stoops of Park Slope.

IOP: Was this your first foray into exhibiting your art on the street?

DE: I am not a visual artist. I have never done anything like this before.

What was the pasting experience like for your team?

One of my favorite moments from the entire experience was at the end of the day we were pasting. My neighbors had started to come home from work; they all walk from the train and take the same route and have to head up the block. And as they did, they saw us and what was happening, and they gathered and shook hands and introduced themselves and stood around talking and watching together. Neighbors on one end of a Brooklyn block don’t often know the others at the opposite end, and on that day, the project had shrunk the size of a Brooklyn block to a smaller and more personable expanse. It was not something I had really thought about at all — I was only focused on celebrating the local, longtime shop owners. In the end, it was not only a beautiful repercussion of participating in the project, but something that would have a long-term positive influence on the people who live here — long past the time when the posters dissolve and fade away.

What inspired you to get involved in the Inside Out Project?

I had seen an article about JR in The New York Times maybe in January and saw some of his photos, and I was so blown away by them that I cut them out and put them up on my walls. Then months later, when I heard he won the TED Prize, I watched his speech and the announcement of his wish. I was too moved and inspired to remain inactive.

How did you determine what statement to make?

When I asked myself what I cared about, past my son and friends, the answer was ‘people.’ I am very grateful for my life and everything I have in a world where so many have so little and yet they remain optimistic, joyful and generous. I thought of my neighbors who began as strangers and then became friends as they helped me over the years while I struggled as a new homeowner and a single mother raising my son. And then I expanded that thought to my neighborhood and how much I love it, how grateful I am to live here, even have this house. And my neighborhood is made of a community of small shopowners — some of whom have been here more than 44 years, long before it became hip to live here — and their continued presence is what makes our neighborhood so great. And they are largely an immigrant community supporting family members back home in countries all over the world. I wanted the shopowners and their families to know that their sacrifices to be here and the long hours they work are not in vain: that we see them. And I wanted them to be celebrated in a way that their families back home, who I am sure miss them very much, could witness. I wanted their families as well as the shopowners to know that the community is not taking their presence here for granted.

How did you recruit people to participate?

I counted how many stoop stairs there were on my block and made 44 two-page flyers with photos of JR’s work and a one-sheet proposal of my idea and gave my contact info.

Did it take a lot of time and effort to find the right walls? To get permission?

I figured that if I proposed the posters to be on the stoop stairs, I’d have a better time getting people to agree to me pasting on their properties. I gave myself a deadline of about three weeks for people to respond, because I felt that if someone had to think too much about it or they were hesitant, it was probably not a good idea for them to participate. I didn’t want to talk anyone into anything. I wanted it to be a project of optimistic enthusiasm, because I actually had no idea how I was going to do it or what it would look like — and since there were no guarantees, I only wanted property owners who were excited. I initially wanted to reach out and organize this to happen in the entire borough of Brooklyn, with pockets of blocks doing this for all of their local shopowners, but I thought it could take me all year to organize something like that and I was only one person. So I forced myself to limit it to my block.

What was the community’s reaction to your action?

Complete support and interest. Amazement. While it was not my intention, it has also fueled the ongoing dialogue and political fire that has been going on in our neighborhood a few years now due to the ongoing construction of a new sports arena one-and-a-half blocks away. This construction has enacted the eminent domain law and has forced many businesses to close, while putting many people out of their homes — although the politicians would not phrase it that way.

Our block is also a bus route, and every day as people pass on the bus, it’s like they are in an outdoor art gallery and you can see the surprise on their faces. People stop every day and take pictures and ask questions. Best of all, it not only brings a smile to anyone who sees them for the first time, but to all of us who live here as well, every day, even 2 months later.

What conversation do you hope results from your group action?

I didn’t do it to inspire anyone or hope for dialogue or anything like that at all. I just wanted to publicly honor my local shopowners and give my neighbors a forum to express the gratitude I knew they felt as well.

Why do you feel art, and particularly the Inside Out Project, was the best way to express that?

Any time someone publicly stands up for something, there is an opportunity for those that are silent who may be feeling internally the very same thing — the quieter people in a community — to feel connected and maybe even inspired in their newly discovered unity to be a little more brave, to speak up or to participate. It just takes one person to start. Others will always follow. Art is not for the elite. It’s not for inside walls where only a few can afford the time or money to see it. It should be for everyone. If it really is a reflection or meditation on society or humanity, then society should have access to see it.

What piece of advice would you give to someone else who wants to organize a group action?

If not now, when? Do it.

Do you think art can change the world? Why?

Yes. Art is the peoples’ politics. It gives everyone a voice: both the artist and the viewer. It provides the opportunity for a communal experience, and anytime strangers are brought together to experience something, discourse occurs and diversity of thought is encouraged. This is the definition of a true democracy. Movements and revolutions are begun by someone speaking up, whether verbally or visually. Sometimes you can’t give a public speech to protest against injustices, but you can create something that speaks even louder, moves even more people, transgresses language barriers, can’t be stopped and doesn’t need a permit to exist. People are put off by political parties, the class system, governmental alliances, religion, all of the things that separate us and differentiate us and divide us from being one race. Art asks, not dictates. All people need to unite is one person to start. That is the essence of change: unity.

Read more about Inside Out Project in Brooklyn in the New York Times >>