Historic neighborhoods often seek creative ways to present and preserve the past, visible in the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, which offers tours that explore the history of sweatshops, or Singapore’s Chinatown Heritage Center, which displays life-sized models of the tiny dormitories where generations of Chinese migrants lived.
In East Harlem, a neighborhood once home to Italian, then Latino, and increasingly Asian immigrants, a host of local arts organizations including the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center, East Harlem Preservation, and El Museo del Barrio have been working to preserve the neighborhood’s cultural legacy. Now, the Caribbean Cultural Center Africa Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) is taking this mission into the digital realm by creating public art projects that can only be seen using a mobile device with an app called Layar.
Among the things you can see with your smart phone or tablet is a four-foot-high barricade of burning trash built by the Young Lords in 1969. Or you might also see the ghost of Julia de Burgos, reciting poetry from a local community garden on Lexington Avenue and 104th Street. These are just a few of the augmented reality artworks that make up CCCADI’s Mi Querido Barrio, a project that uses augmented reality software as an artistic platform to both preserve East Harlem’s rich culture and history, and to invade spaces where those histories have been erased.
“We are fostering curiosity in the history of a neighborhood that was put on the map by a particular cultural group,” says CCCADI’s executive director Marta Moreno Vega, a longtime arts and culture ambassador and activist, who heads up the project. She was born and raised in East Harlem, which is also known as El Barrio.
Mi Querido Barrio represents the work of an interdisciplinary group of artists including muralist Yasmin Hernandez, sculptor Alejandro Epifanio, and comic book artist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez. These artists have created flashbacks to East Harlem’s history using augmented reality. But their augments also layer forgotten spaces with contemporaneity by creating direct links between past and present social, cultural, and artistic movements.
Augmented reality (AR) is an emerging technology that only recently started to break free from commercial advertising and video games, and take root as an artistic medium. According to Tamiko Thiel, the technical and artistic advisor for the project, AR has gone through several transformations since first arriving on the scene in the early 90s, although at the time, few people were using the technology or knew it existed. She points to popular skepticism of its relevance, and the lack of adequate technology and Internet bandwidth available to average consumers, as reasons why AR had a slow birth. But with games like “Second Life” gaining popularity, the advent of virtual communities via social media, and the possibility of AR to influence product advertising, suddenly there was room to grow. One project that echoes the artistic and activist possibilities of Mi Quierdo is NAMAland. Based in Dublin, Ireland, NAMAland uses AR to superimpose the Monopoly man on buildings that were purchased as a result of a controversial real estate operation.
Thiel says Mi Quierdo Barrio is the largest, most involved AR project to date.
“I hope other cities and organizations look at this project and are amazed by what is possible,” she says.
AR gives artists the opportunity to embed history, culture, and meaning into any location, outside of the confines of physical space and materials, although graffiti art and murals are still splayed atop many buildings in the area. And in that same way, the technology becomes an almost limitless mechanism for adding dimension to spaces that no longer signal the historic events that took place there.
When the project is complete in 2015, there will be markers at each of the locations with instructions on how to activate the art. The artists will also be working with local schools to teach students how to create their own AR projects, and much like NAMAland, will be providing AR tours of El Barrio. Each artist has a very different take on the project, some harkening back to Puerto Rican literary roots, others drawing from moments not so far in the past.
Take Yasmin Hernandez, a Puerto Rican artist and Brooklyn native perhaps best known for the mural of artist Frida Kahlo and poet Julia de Burgos holding hands in a garden at the corner of 104th street and Lexington Avenue. Hernandez is working on a few AR projects, but she’s most excited about a ghostly figure of de Burgos, who famously died alone on the streets of East Harlem in 1953. The image will be accessible around the block from where she died, in front of Hernandez’s mural. Her projects, which she thinks of as “cybermurals,” are about bringing meaning back to significant places, Hernandez says: “El Barrio is a stronghold of Puerto Rican identity. I’m trying to rebuild a place that no longer exists.”
Sculptor Juan Alejandro Epifanio, a Puerto Rican native who now lives in New York, is working collaboratively with San Juan-based artist María de Mater O’Neill—more commonly known as Mari—on an augment of La Marqueta. His work explores the marketplace in general as a space of cultural exchange that often plays an important role in immigrant communities.
For this piece, he has created an animated palm tree meant to conjure the Caribbean islands, Southeast Asia, and Africa, and act as a sign for La Marqueta, while bringing about the feeling of warm weather that connects directly to East Harlem’s Puerto Rican roots. He plans to include video interviews with past vendors and customers who share their memories, and more broadly connect La Marqueta with specific markets in other locations including the Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Brooklyn’s Grand Street Market, and La Plaza del Mercado in Rio Piedras, P.R. in order to further highlight the universal role markets have in bringing people together and bridging cultural differences.
“I want to show visitors what it was, and what it is now,” Epifanio says.
Among the pieces that most directly link current residents of El Barrio to East Harlem’s activist roots is Edgardo Miranda-Ramirez’s future augment of a protest by the New York chapter of the Young Lords, an activist group predominantly made up of Nuyoricans (or Puerto Ricans who grew up in New York). The group was influential during the late 60s and early 70s, staging actions that brought attention to race and class issues faced by blacks and Latinos in the city. In 1969, responding to an ongoing lack of sanitation services in East Harlem, the group stacked piles of uncollected garbage in the middle of the street and lit them on fire. Now, when passers-by walk down Park Avenue at 110th Street, they’ll see a recreation of this influential protest.
The project hasn’t been easy to implement since Harlem is still an under-served region. For example, the lack of technological infrastructure has created roadblocks. AR requires a mobile device, such as a tablet or smart phone—and Internet connectivity. And whether that comes from a WiFi hot-spot or your phone’s existing mobile Internet, neither service is consistently provided in East Harlem, or in many lower-income communities in New York. Vega, director of CCCADI, points to a larger systemic problem that creates disadvantages for young people growing up in the neighborhood, as well as technology innovators who want to set up shop there.
Vega also fears that the very services that could help make the project a success coincide with a gentrification process that will make the neighborhood less affordable for those it aims to honor. Although East Harlem remains primarily Latino, newcomers have been moving in steadily over the past 20 years or so, changing the cultural dynamic and slowly erasing Harlem’s history from the collective memory. But through Mi Quierdo Barrio, artists are allowing existing residents to stay connected to the neighborhood’s roots, while also introducing newcomers to the legacy of art and political action that makes East Harlem so unique.
“You know it and I know it, racism and disenfranchisement are at play,” Vega says. “The community is being gentrified, and you’ll see a change. But I think that the project brings forth those issues of the pushing out of our community. Gentrification [might help] modernize the area, but our community may not be there to see it.”