Because I was stationed at the corner of a busy street, looking as if I knew what I was doing, I got a lot of questions from curious passers-by.
“What’s going on? Is this some kind of festival?”
“What are they trying to sell?”
“What are these movies about?”
Each time I answered with a scripted response, not wanting to sound condescending or impatient.
“A group of artists collaborated with business owners on Mitchell Street to project videos on the outside and insides of buildings—for one night only.”
The best reaction I got was from a couple of girls my age, one of them holding a baby. They looked so excited, and full of wonder at the idea. “It’s just for fun?” they asked. I watched them from my post as they hopped from one video to the next, mingling with the regular Milwaukee art crowd. As they got in their car to leave, they shouted thank you from across the street and I smiled back at them.
Encouraged, I stood diligently at my post.
I came as a volunteer that day, wanting to be involved in an event that I hold in high esteem: Temporary Resurfacing II, an outdoor video event organized by a few industrious Milwaukee artists. The event aims to bring art to an area of the city that is often neglected, and also to repurpose some of the historic buildings in the area by projecting video onto them. This is the second installment of Temporary Resurfacing; the first one was held two years ago in the same location.
I offered to volunteer because I love the event and admire the scope of its vision. The only problem was, I had no exceptional volunteer skills to bring to the table; video projection is not exactly my area of expertise. In fact, a hired visual productions company even seemed a bit stymied by the process, making me feel as if this whole event was a bit out of my league. My job for the night, as an unqualified helper, was to guard the sound and projection equipment to make sure no one stole it. I was well aware that a skinny girl with a distracted look on her face was maybe not the best deterrent for thieves, but I was given one job, and I was going to do it, dammit.
My first post was in a clandestine alley behind a hair salon called “Taso's.” Yep, there I was: a white girl in a Latino neighborhood standing by herself in a dark alley (in a dress). “Taso's,” like many of the businesses in the area, is run by Latinos who seem to know each other quite well. They might have been a family; that was my guess. I felt the strangeness of the situation as various employees walked past me. I could almost see the question in their eyes: “What is this chica doing here?” The projection equipment didn’t even arrive until halfway through my shift, so my presence in the alley made no sense until that point.
A few other people, mostly men, saw me standing there as well. Two guys in a truck, and two Nigerian men who walked past me and cat-called in a foreign language. Although unwanted, these interactions were at least entertaining. Without the stealthy advances from men, there was nothing to look at, and nothing to do. I started to pick up pieces of glass from the ground just to throw them down the alley and watch them bounce away.
Eventually I was switched to another post on a busier street. Here I watched two of my friends up on the roof of their apartment building drinking beers and people-watching. Because I couldn’t move, I watched a piece by Ted Brusubardis, a chorus of his family members singing Bach, probably 50 times. I watched people watching it, as well. From a distance their eyes would light up when they saw the figures of his family projected onto two adjacent buildings. Then they would hear the harmonious tones echoing down the historic avenue and stop in their tracks to imbibe the entire spectacle.
A drone circled over the event throughout the evening, capturing the scene from the opposite of my own viewpoint. I’m sure he caught me on video a few times, swaying back and forth on my feet to ease my back, looking bored, or dancing to lighten the mood. I wondered if anyone else felt invaded by the drone’s watchful eye.
Finally, I was relieved of my duties and got the chance to wander through the crowd to see the videos. Some of it was a bit lost on me, as I was tired from the sun, the heat, and the standing. The crowd also made it hard to watch the videos intimately. I watched every one, but felt like I missed some of the details and the overall intention of the pieces.
Later on I ended up on the roof where I had watched my friends watching me a few hours before. Here I could see the event from a privileged viewpoint, and I felt like the drone from earlier. I could see some of my friends and the people they came with. I could see couples holding hands strolling through the alleys. I could see groups of college students laughing as they drank beers in secret. I could see the large piece by Ted Brusubardis without having to strain my neck. I could see the event organizers and the visual productions company hurrying around, doggedly attempting to make everything perfect.
What they didn’t know was, from my point of view, everything was perfect. The details that were lost on me earlier didn’t seem to matter as much, because I could see the whole picture. People from the neighborhood wandered among the visitors, all of them entranced by the abnormality of the evening. The commercial businesses turned off their lights and all that remained was the light from the videos, the passing cars, and the streetlamps. The historic buildings shined with a radiance they had in their prime. They were useful again, and that made them glow.
Under this glow, Historic Mitchell Street was, for one night, a vision of a surreal world that doesn’t really exist. In time, though, and with enough hard work, Mitchell Street could become a hub of artistic creation as well as a diverse and historic area with something for everyone to enjoy. Temporary Resurfacing is just one step towards this transformation. In the meantime, the most important lesson to take away from an obscure and complex event like Temporary Resurfacing is actually quite simple: always remember to look at the world around you from a different point of view.