Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Oakland's Rockridge and East 14th neighborhoods are five miles and a world apart. Can a giant video-chat bring them together?
In Oakland, California, there is a tale of two cities.
To the north is the predominantly white neighborhood of Rockridge, with a median household income more than three times than Oakland's average. It's known for its 1920s cottages and bustling College Avenue cafes, bookstores, and shops.
To the southeast, in a neighborhood known as East 14th, more than 34 percent of the mostly black and Latino residents live below the poverty line. Sections of its main drag, International Avenue, are established areas of prostitution.
Rockridge and East 14th (also known as Lower San Antonio) are less than five miles apart. Yet there is little exchange between the communities.
But for seven nights in late January, the two neighborhoods were suddenly linked when two cross-town storefronts became gigantic video-chat portals. Using Skype, back-projection, and some well-secured audio equipment, artists Maya Gurantz and Ellen Sebastian Chang created "A Hole in Space": Rockridge residents could see a live feed of a block in East 14th by looking in the windows of a soon-to-open hardware shop. People in East 14th could stroll past the front of the Youth Employment Project for a real-time feed of that spot in Rockridge. Everyone could watch, hear, and talk to whoever was on the other side, from 5:30 to 11 p.m.
It was like putting a window in a wall dividing the disparate communities—one older, more diverse, and full of activist history; the other newer, whiter, and a bit eager to rewrite.
"We'd started talking about collaborating on a project about Oakland about nine years [ago]," says Chang. "The city started changing in a really accelerated way, and we both felt this sense of an abandonment of place as an influx of people move in and impose their own histories on the city. It's like that term 'Columbus-ing.' People of color are having their identities smudged out."
"A Hole in Space" arrived without any press prelude. The duo told no one, other than their location sponsors, about what they were doing. “It was about discovery and speaking through space across invisible lines,” they write in an email.
The project struck chords in both neighborhoods. "Every night I'd stumble across people engaged in conversation with someone on the screen," says Gurantz. "There was one night I came to Rockridge and there was a delivery guy waiting for his shift to end. He just quietly sat there for a while before he told me, 'That's East 14th, I grew up there.'
Gurantz describes a moment on the first night the project ran—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—when someone at Rockridge stood waiting for something to happen in East 14th. "Within 30 seconds of him getting bored and walking away, a Black Lives Matter rally marched past the screen," she says. "It was amazing." But she also notes that more mundane moments, like hearing the ambulances in Rockridge or a bit of traffic in East 14th, were chances for neighbors to connect to one another's worlds.
Not everyone's reactions were positive. In Rockridge, Gurantz and Chang received a number of bitterly phrased noise complaints. "One guy wrote us an email and said if we didn't lower the volume immediately he would shut our project down," Gurantz says. "He didn't try to have a conversation about it. It was extraordinary, the performance of entitlement."
Chang stresses how important it was for her and Gurantz that the installation didn't feel like a mode of surveillance—an especially sensitive issue in East 14th. "As low-income black people, we feel surveilled and scrutinized all the time," Chang says. "We had to be really careful about the location we picked in that neighborhood."
But even after choosing an established youth services organization, "One of the first thing one of the counselors at YEP asked was, 'Do we have a lawyer?'" remembers Gurantz. "Because anything caught on these cameras, if it's illegal, the OPD could subpoena the footage."
"There was not one single comment like that in Rockridge," says Chang. "None of that crossed their minds. But everybody in East Oakland, the first thing out of their mouths was, 'Are the police looking at this?'"
Another young woman in East 14th was concerned that the project might reveal the level of sex trafficking going on there. "She said it upset her," says Chang. "But I said, 'People need to know you are here, that YEP is here and that families are here, and that the people who walk through these streets every day have the same desires and goals as in Rockridge.'"
The artists say they’re discussing the possibility of re-creating the project elsewheres. Gurantz has thought about connecting Apple’s Mountain View campus to their Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, but says that Chang has doubts about the value of trying to engage with a corporate structure. “It has to be really precise, who we’re connecting," Gurantz says, "... because that’s where change in political power is going to come.”
Chang and Gurantz were inspired by the work of another pair of artists, a 1980s satellite-based installation between L.A.'s Century City and Manhattan's Lincoln Center (a remarkable feat, given the lack of freely available technology back then). Below, check out a video of the original "Hole in Space," by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz.
All photos courtesy of Ellen Sebastian Chang and Maya Gurantz.