At Villanova University

A traveling version of The Kensington Riots Project exhibit has been installed in Falvey Library at Villanova University, and will be on display through Thursday, November 8th. Jeb and Maria will be leading a presentation and discussion about the project on Tuesday, October 30th at 6:30pm at the library. Thanks to the Irish Studies Program, the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, and the Center for Peace and Justice Education for hosting.

On the final day of the workshop, we had an informal evaluation of the process. Take a listen to hear what Noor, Eman, Mohammad and Jibreal had to say about the experience.

In answer to the question: “What would you change?’ the answer was: more kids, more time, and more special guests like Frank Sherlock. Duly noted…

The Exhibit: June 2 and 3, 2012

Over the course of two (mostly) sunny days, we had over 120 people stop by the White Space to take a look at what we had created. People lingered in the gallery: it was very satisfying to see people spend so much time reading and absorbing the work.

The indoor portion of the exhibit was centered around the map we used for the first workshop’s “history hunt”. We marked the map out on the floor with black tape, and hung the historic markers created during the hunt over them.

Each wall contained “artifacts” from a different workshop. The poetry workshop featured one of the poems created, as well as photographs of the process.

We recreated one of the installations from the third workshop.

Jeb built a house using materials created during the project, and the fourth workshop’s video was projected through the chimney.

The fifth and sixth workshops were presented together, along with reproductions of woodcuts about the Riots.

More photos of the process lined the entryway walls.

We had a flyer in English and Arabic that gave some more detailed historical information about the Riots, as well as a handout with the “history hunt” map. Visitors were encouraged to go outside and seek out the places on the map; there they would find additional photographs and signs.

Thanks to all who helped make the project possible —- and thanks especially to Eman, Noor, Mohammad and Jibreal, who brought so much openness, enthusiasm, and creativity to the process.

We’ll be remounting a version of the exhibit at Villanova University from October 22 through November 9, accompanied by programming by the Irish Studies Program and the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies. 

Conflagration from Maria Möller on Vimeo.

The final version of the stop-motion movie.

Workshop #6: Occupy American Street

The final workshop: hard to believe.

We’re in the thick of preparing for this weekend’s exhibit, so just a brief post.

Much of our last Saturday was devoted to thinking about what we had to say in response to the Kensington Riots. What had we learned by investigating a piece of Philadelphia’s “hidden history”? If we were living back then, what would we say to the rioters? And —-living as we  do in 2012 —- what do we have to say in response to the Riots that speaks to our present moment?

We made signs out of our statements:

And took photos holding them:


Workshop #5: Our Stories

The past four workshops had been driven by the story of the Riots and involved a lot of running around out on the streets of Kensington.

Workshop number five set a different pace. After some warm-ups, the team reviewed some of the photos Maria had taken in the past weeks and made some choices for the exhibit. And then we headed outside —- to talk.

We were armed with the list of questions that we brainstormed two weeks before. These included:

-Has immigration effected your family history?

-Do you identify with where your family or ancestors come from? In what ways?

-Where do you “belong”? What does “belonging” mean to you?

-Do your cultural beliefs differ from your religious beliefs?

-Has something “historical” happened in your lifetime? Explain.

-Have you ever been judged based on your appearance and, if so, how?

-Have you ever felt like an outcast because of where you are from or how you look?

-Do you think that your religion or your culture has kept you from the “outside world”?

-Do you feel that your community mixes religion and tradition together?

-Do you feel that you have ever been “stereotyped”?  If yes, then explain.

We made ourselves comfortable out on the grass of the graveyard of Saint Michael’s Church and then broke into small groups to conduct oral histories.

Jeb and Jibreal paired up, Eman and special guest Julie Chinitz paired up, and Noor, Mohammad and Maria made up a group of three.

We took turns interviewing each other and taking notes. It was hard to stop talking —- but eventually we came back inside and circled up to share stories.

Everyone related to the group what they had heard from their interviewee, and then we took a few minutes to write up a brief biography. After showing it to the interviewee to make sure that it didn’t disclose anything they really didn’t want to make public (a best practice in oral histories), the team made “oral historical markers” —- identical in appearance to the historical markers we made at the first workshop, but completely different in terms of content. Noor had the idea to put a photo of the marker’s subject at the top, where the Pennsylvania state seal goes on real historical markers. So next week, we’ll take some photos and add them to the tops of the markers, and prepare for the exhibit on June 2 and 3.

Workshop #4: Lights, Camera, Stop Action

A week later, our installation was still standing.

The “Nanny Goat Market” had been battered by the rain, but was otherwise intact.

“Master Street School” was a little worse-for-wear. The “freedom” sign was missing, as was the cardboard part of the historic marker.

But the interesting thing was that it did not seem to be an act of vandalism: there were no traces of the signs in the street, and whoever took the marker had not ripped it off its post. They had carefully popped the staples out —- which would have needed some sort of tool. Someone took it home as a street art souvenir?

We spent the first part of our fourth workshop brainstorming for the upcoming exhibit, discussing  what elements to include and what the look and feel should be. We got excited about the idea of reinstalling the outdoor installation on chain link fence inside, accompanied by photographs of it outside. We talked about retaining the “handmade/DIY” feeling of the process in the exhibit, and discussed ways we could do that while still giving the proper weight to the photographs. A “house of voices” began to take shape: a structure built of signs that would house the Kensington Riots Project movie.

We then moved on to “storyboarding” the movie. We looked at some of the original source woodcuts that are in the collections of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which were published as illustrations in one of the first books about the Riots. Our goal was to shoot a stop motion (also known as “stop action”) video that would juxtapose the woodcuts with the way the sites look today. We would do this using a still camera set to shoot on 6 to 8 frames per second. Silent movie-style “intertitles” would provide context.

Looking at this woodcut, the question was, “What would you write on an intertitle if you wanted to explain what happened on this site?”

Mohammad’s answer was, “’Conflagration.’ What it says on the woodcut.”

An answer both literal and non-literal simultaneously —- and especially interesting since none of us knew exactly what “conflagration” means. We looked it up online:

A conflagration is an uncontrolled burning that threatens human life, animal life, health, or property. A conflagration can be accidentally begun, naturally caused, or intentionally created (arson).     

On index cards, we sketched out a rough storyboard of different ways we could move from historic image to intertitle to live action on the street. We then made a giant sign with the definition of “conflagration” written out on it, and went down to American Street to shoot.

See below for an unedited sneak preview…

Workshop #3: Marking place

On May 6, 1844, the Kensington Riots broke out at the corner of American and Master Streets.

On May 5, 2012, we marked this event by installing historic markers and poetry at the site.

Our third workshop began with a talk about context. The previous week we had created three poems inspired by the Riots, with the intention of installing at least one of them outside where the Riots took place. But without any signage or additional information, how would people interpret them? Did we need to rewrite them? Add an explanation? How do artists and historians provide context for their work? How much context is enough? How much context is too much?

We realized as we spoke that we already had prepared context for the poems: the historical markers from the first workshop. Markers + poems + a sign providing the project name and its website = context. And perhaps the right amount, since the markers do not tell the whole story, leaving people to wonder and perhaps explore more.

We chose three markers, got our gear together, and went out to do our first full-on “art action” of the project. Dr. Joseph Lennon of the Irish Studies Program at Villanova University met up with us on-site to lend a hand.

At the site of the Master Street School, we installed the marker titled “Freedom of Religion,” along with two of the poems.

The poem written by Eman and Noor included a partial translation into Arabic: "Believe in yourself."

Zahraa and Frank’s poem was paired with Eman and Noor’s.

Around the corner on American Street, we installed two markers titled “Nanny Goat Market.” One presented the Irish immigrant point of view; the other presented the Nativist side of the story. Jibreal and Mohammad’s poem was placed between the two markers.

Jibreal helped document the process.

Across from the installation, running down the middle of American Street, was the location of the Nanny Goat Market, where the Riots broke out. 

After we finished the installation, we went to the Crane Building to look at the galleries there and to get some ideas about what the project’s exhibit might look like. Then we settled into a corner to have lunch and to develop questions for the oral histories we will be doing.

This was also, in part, a conversation about context. Maria showed the group her book My North Philly, an oral history project she conducted with the Mural Arts Program. The interviews in that book focused on the connection people had to their neighborhood, and so the questions she asked reflected that. 

If we are going to create oral histories that are connected to the historical event we are exploring, what would the topic for the interviews be? 

Answers came pouring out: "Immigration." "Belonging." "Religion."

And examples of questions followed:

"Do you like that you immigrated?"

"What are the differences between the two countries you come from or belong to?

"Do you identify with where your family or ancestors come from?  In what ways?

"Where do you ‘belong’? What does ‘belonging’ mean to you?

"Has something ‘historical’ happened in your lifetime? Explain…

"Do you think that your religion or your culture has kept you from the ‘outside world’"? 

"Do you feel that your community mixes religion and tradition together?"

Do you feel that you have ever been stereotyped?  If yes, then explain…”

A lot of things to think about, and a lot to delve into when we do the oral histories.

On our way out, we saw that people were already stopping to take a look at what we had installed.

Workshop #2: Poetry writ large and small

Maria, Eman, Jibreal, Noor, Zahraa, and Mohammad —- along with second time special guest poet Frank Sherlock —- started out on their feet with the theatre game Zip, Zap, Zop. It was a good way to get everyone energized on a Saturday morning, and to communicate that even though we were talking about history, this was not a history class.

But once energized, we did need to review the story of the Riots. Looking at the photos from the scavenger hunt, we walked through the main events and talked about some of the conflicting perspectives in the two stories. A word that had been used in the story that was unfamiliar was “nativist,” so we discussed that term, and what it has meant throughout American history.

Then Maria showed the group the photo from last week of a man taking photographs of their historic markers. Everyone was excited by the idea that their work had caught someone’s attention and made them stop and look. Was the man looking at history? Was he looking at art?

What do we think art is? Answers to that question included “pictures,” “a way of life,” “wierd,” “a way of looking at the world,” “it makes you think a lot,” “based on your interpretation —- both the viewer and the artist,” “interacting,” and “part of history.”

Maria brought up the work of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who has said that art is a story expressed in an unexpected way. The group was really intrigued by this photo of Ai’s work in response to the Sichuan earthquake.

By using everyday objects and powerful words displayed in an unexpected way, Ai told an incredible story. Were there ways we could do that in Kensington? Had we already done that —- just a little —- last week?

Poetry was our medium of the day. Frank read a poem called “The Ballad of Joe Tayoun” from his Neighbor Ballads series and then we brainstormed on another question: “What is poetry?”

Answers included “emotion,” “figurative language,” “short but has a big meaning,” “way to express yourself,” “inspiration,” and “love.”

Then we started playing with refrigerator magnet poetry, spread out on a table rather than on a fridge. This proved to be a great tool to get the writing going. Using existing words made it easy for those who didn’t consider themselves poets to dive right in. It also made it easier for Zahraa, an Iraqi refugee who is still learning English, to participate in the collaboration.

We composed a poem with the magnets:

bitter garden shadows whisper elaborate red roses

lanquid life like summer days

                                              beauty by the lake

And then transferred the words onto cardboard “magnets” and took some photos.

Now that we knew we could write a stream-of-consciousness poem, we turned to a more difficult task: writing a poem on a specific topic. We brainstormed words about the Riots (“acceptance,” “fire,” “rumours,” “brotherhood,” “gunshots,” “respect,” “religion,” “freedom,” “bitter,” “America”…), wrote them on index cards so that they could be added into the pile of magnets, and split into small groups.

Once the groups had composed their poems using the index cards and magnets, we started writing them on the cardboard signs.

Zahraa started translating the poems into Arabic.

We wrote three poems…

…and then took them out to where the Riots happened.