In this post, Heather Michael, shares insight from a presentation by Christopher Allen on the intersection between his beliefs about art and politics vis-à-vis the creation of Living Los Sures, a multifaceted, six-year documentary project about the community of Southside, Williamsburg.
Returning to his Alma Mater, Christopher Allen, Founder and Executive Artistic Director of UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art kicked off the 2016-2017 Oral History Master of Arts, Oral History and the City Series. As an ode to his English degree from Columbia—and in many ways, signifying his philosophical foundations as an artist—Allen opened his presentation by making a reference to his favorite book, James Joyce’s Ulysses, noting that, “It is said that you can recreate the city of Dublin from the text itself because it is so exhaustive in its detail—in some ways it is a profound document of the city.”
This subtle, yet purposeful, introduction served to foreshadow the importance of the compressive, layered detail that not only is reflected in Allen’s finished projects, but also in his methodological approach to documentary and oral history work.
Allen opened UnionDocs in Williamsburg fifteen years ago, with the intention of having a place that looked at “the intersection of art and politics, especially after the aftermath of 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war, and continuing to the Republican National Convention in New York…” He said, “I wanted to be more politically invested in the work that I was involved in. For me, art and politics meet very solidly in documentary.”
UnionDocs is located on the edge of the Southside neighborhood in Williamsburg, home to a large population of people with Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican heritage. Allen noted that engaging the community was a goal for the organization. Yet, in spite of offering programming onsite, he and his colleagues initially found it difficult to get local people to come to their events. This, he feared, represented a sense of distrust and disinterest the community had about their work.
He wanted to overcome this divide so that he could engage them not only as viewers, but also as contributors with stories to tell. Herein lies part of the challenge: creating art with and about a community is not only philosophically political as an idea and ideal, it is also operationally political in how it is enacted, whose stories are told, and how they are represented. Managing these ethical and operational considerations seems to have been central to UnionDocs’ success.
Six years ago, Allen was given a copy of a 1984 documentary about the community entitled, Los Sures. In watching the footage, he and his colleagues decided to use the film as the foundation for a community project that attempted to build on the story told. Knowing that he needed to navigate the community’s interests, he and his colleagues tried to align their beliefs about the politics of storytelling with the way they took on the project.
Rather than trying to tell the story in one single way, they tried to tell multiple stories in multiple ways in a form they describe as “expansive documentary.” This arguably served to show that it is not possible to complete a story, but it is possible to provide a collection of insights by using different voices and different formats. Allen said, “Something that we heard from our interviews [was that] people were dissatisfied with the original film from 1984 of Los Sures… Some people found that the focus on poverty was limiting… Where are the entrepreneurs, the doctors, the lawyers… the fighting spirit?... If the original film failed on that route… what we wanted to do was use the fact that the internet has an open form for representation and make it something that was unwieldy and crazy.”
As Allen shared the videos and multimodal web-based features that make up some of the component parts of the documentary, his commitment to complicating the narrative came through, “Part of the idea is that you really can’t capture a neighborhood, that’s not a thing. Instead, you kind of need to gesture towards that through this kaleidoscope effect of so many different possible voices coming together and different angles on what’s going on.”
And perhaps that is the most compelling idea about using oral history and documentary as a way to intersect art and politics and understand community. It’s not about trying to finish a story but instead about illustrating tension, conflicting visions, and complexity.
To quote Allen’s favorite book, Ulysses, "The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.” In leaving space, by not concluding, there remain so many ways stories can spring, go and be told.
To learn more about UnionDocs, visit www.uniondocs.org. Check out Christina Pae's (2015) reflection on Christopher Allen's presentation here. The trailer for Los Sures and various projects within Living Los Sures can be viewed here.