Local Projects

When Jake Barton, the 34-year-old
principal of the interactive design firm Local Projects, thinks about
what an exhibition can do, he often considers the District Six Museum in
Cape Town, South Africa. The museum documents the forced removal of more
than 60,000 residents from a mixed-race neighborhood declared a
whites-only zone in 1966, and tells the stories of those displaced. In
the early ’90s, when reclaiming that land was still not an option,
the museum kept the issue in the public eye through exhibitions and
debate; subsequently, the museum’s sister organization helped
residents apply to have their land returned. Transforming and healing a
community through inclusive storytelling is, in Barton’s eyes, the
mandate for museums of the 21st century. These days, he has ample reason
to meditate on it: In April, he and his seven-person firm received the
commission to codesign the permanent exhibition for the World Trade
Center Memorial Museum.

By choosing Local Projects, the
memorial’s directors cast their lot with a new kind of museum that
prizes interactivity over top-down presentation. Local Projects insists
on a plurality of voices—the exhibitions it creates function as a
kind of conversation rather than as repositories of authoritative fact.
“Museums are starting to evolve into agents of social
change,” Barton says. “That’s being reflected in the
numbers of people who are going to museums and the ways museums are
functioning as spaces for community dialogue. We [are] trying to make
diverse people visible to each other through a storytelling
space.” Local Projects designs high-tech, interactive
installations and exhibits that connect experience to location for
clients both nonprofit and commercial. With the World Trade Center
commission, Local Projects, itself founded mere months before September
11, will have an unprecedented opportunity to bring its philosophy to a
vast audience of potential supporters as well as critics.

Local
Projects’ offices are in New York’s garment district, tucked
between fabric stores overflowing with buttons, dress patterns, and
checkered vinyl. The neighborhood is an apt metaphor for Local
Projects’ work, which so often turns on making sense of disparate
scraps. Barton, who worked for Ralph Appelbaum Associates for seven
years, is self-possessed, articulate, relaxed—a kind of hip
Poindexter. It’s easy to imagine him walking the halls of New York
University, where he teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications
Program (ITP). In his own college years at Northwestern University, he
majored in performance studies, which he describes as “taking
something that’s in one format and turning it into something
else.” He adds, “That impulse to adapt something … that you
share in a physical space is essentially what I got addicted to.”

Until this June, Local Projects was a five-man team: Barton,
principal; Burak Arikan, an artist and designer; Sterling Ely, a
hardware designer and animator; Ekene Ijeoma, a programmer, artist, and
designer; and Renda Morton, an interface designer. An influx of work has
required expansion, and the group now includes an office and project
manager, Regina Kwon; a senior graphic designer, Katie Lee; a filmmaker,
Ariel Efron; and Ian Curry, an interaction designer. Curry, who met
Barton when he studied under him at NYU’s ITP, says, “The
traditional calculus is that you have to do a lot of work that you
don’t necessarily love in order to keep the lights on while you do
bits and pieces of great stuff. Local Projects seems to be exempt from
that somehow. To me, at least, pretty much everything they do is
interesting.”

The firm’s first job came in July 2001, when
Barton collaborated with graphic designer Nancy Nowacek to create Memory
Maps, part of an exhibition about New York in the Smithsonian’s
Folklife Festival. The two produced a fluorescent mesh structure meant
to evoke a subway car, with huge maps of the city pinned inside.
Participants could write stories on vellum and attach them to the map at
the places where the events had occurred. More than 2,000 people added
their tales, blanketing the city’s neighborhoods. “What we
didn’t anticipate was that people would actually talk to each
other through the exhibition,” says Barton. “I overheard
someone saying, ‘Oh, you went to Midwood High School. I went
there, but probably 30 years before you did.’ In a way, we made a
very un-New York space: a safe place for visitors to just talk to each
other. And that was a total revelation.”

That revelation, and
Memory Maps itself, led to Barton’s 2002 commission for what is
probably Local Projects’ best-known work: the StoryCorps booth, a
mobile studio where anyone can record a narrative of personal history;
the recording is then archived by the Library of Congress. The exterior
is made up of a three-LCD-panel motion graphics loop, and speakers
embedded in the walls allow passersby to hear a sampling of the stories.

The booths proved so popular that many commercial concerns wanted
their own versions. When J. Walter Thompson ran a publicity campaign for
JetBlue, the agency thought a story booth would fit the image of the
airline as Everyman favorite. “We had lots of companies approach
us, including car companies and tissue companies,” recalls Barton.
But JetBlue “produced a huge stack of crazy-people letters that
made us truly feel there were people who passionately wanted to share
their JetBlue stories.” The booth, created with MESH Architectures
and MASdesign, became the focal point of the campaign, recording
customer stories around the country.

Turning viewers into contributors
is a feat Local Projects has refined with an endlessly inventive use of
technology. Last year, when the New-York Historical Society commissioned
the firm to create three media pieces for its exhibition “New York
Divided: Slavery and the Civil War,” Sterling Ely came up with a
way to make visitors feel they were present at the black convention of
1834, during which attendees debated issues pertinent to their future. A
film re-creation depicting African-American New Yorkers voting at the
convention is paired with an infrared camera ringed by IR LEDs around
its lens. By lifting a paddle lined with infrared-sensitive material,
museum visitors can register their vote; the infrared light hits the
raised paddles, and the light reflects directly back to the camera.
“With a bit of additional hardware/software magic,” explains
Ely, “we were able to turn that into a method for counting how
many paddles were being held up, and display the votes onscreen in real
time.”

This kind of participatory drama and technological
wizardry emerges again in Local Projects’ work for a new carousel
in downtown New York’s Battery Park. A collaboration with the
architecture firm Weisz + Yoes, the SeaGlass merry-go-round, tentatively
slated to open in 2009, will feature sea creatures whirling under an
inverted nautilus made of “smart glass,” which dims when
electronically charged. The center axis holds a 7,000-watt Xenon bulb
and will rise as the ride begins; cutout images of underwater life will
be projected inside the canopy. Riders, starting at the water’s
surface, will be plunged into a virtual deep-sea voyage.

Even such a
purely pleasurable invention incorporates Barton’s ideas of
connection and the importance of place: The ocean theme refers to the
fact that Battery Park once was home to the New York Aquarium. This kind
of conceptual integrity exemplifies Barton’s concern for the way
New York’s history, and its future, are expressed in the built
environment. Fittingly, considering his involvement in the September 11
memorial, Barton understands that public works cannot be simply viewed
as panaceas or as destructive forces. The Public Information Exchange
(PIE), an online forum commissioned by New York’s Center for
Architecture last year, tackles such issues through what Barton calls
“MySpace for architecture.” On one side of the PIE web page,
architects working on public projects post renderings and explanations
of their proposals. Opposite, visitors post comments. In essence,
it’s a public electronic charrette.

While PIE gives community
members say over their space, Local Projects’ gallery
installations for the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA) help
interpret a neighborhood’s history. The museum’s new
building, slated to open in March at the northern edge of New
York’s Chinatown, features a Maya Lin–designed interior. The
exhibition areas, arranged chronologically from an 1840 starting point,
contain screens that run like a digitized ribbon throughout the
galleries, charting exchange between the United States and China over
167 years. According to Burak Arikan, who is designing the
project’s software, the screens “show a single continuous
image.” MoCA’s curators will eventually be able to enter
current data about trade between China and the U.S., making the display
an up-to-the-minute instrument for tracking the exchange of materials,
goods, and ideas between the two countries. The winding screens
culminate in the last exhibition room, “China/Now,” situated
behind a storefront window like that of many small shops in Chinatown.
In a very physical way, the design will demonstrate history spilling
into the present.

At few locations in the United States do past and
present converge so powerfully as at the former site of the World Trade
Center. Alice Greenwald, director of the Memorial Museum, says that
Local Projects and exhibition design firm Thinc Design were chosen for
the weighty job of developing the museum’s exhibitions because
they were remarkably in sync with the panel’s own vision: that,
through the use of digital media, visitors would become stakeholders in
the story the museum will tell. “September 11 is the most
documented event in history,” Greenwald says. Since that
documentation initially unfolded in real time via digital technology,
it’s only appropriate, she believes, that the same media be used
to integrate what she calls “visitors’ narratives.”
Barton agrees. “We realized that the whole DNA of the project was
about the overlap of physical space with media space,” he
observes. “People experienced the event live over the web and over
broadcasts and radio, but then there was the replaying and the
commenting. It was really a watershed of the internet itself.”

Barton and Tom Hennes, the founder and creative director of Thinc,
see their two firms as complementary. While Local Projects has the
digital and narrative experience, Hennes is considering how to
facilitate the relationship between the museum’s spaces and the
community (virtual and real-world).

In spring 2007, the Memorial
Museum team was still in a pre-design phase, gauging the museum’s
collection and deciding which pieces to highlight. They made a visit in
May to Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where many
artifacts from the September 11 attacks have been warehoused. Hennes
recalls that one official in charge of the objects had a “very apt
description [of the hangar]: Everything here is ugly and everything here
is beautiful.” Barton and Hennes’s approach to the
exhibition design is apolitical—neither of them advocates a
particular view of the events of September 11—yet they both talk
about exhibitions having “social value” and “creating
community,” and plan to provide an unbiased, multifaceted record
of the events through people’s stories. They face an implicit
challenge, though: telling the stories of the terrorists. Greenwald says
the museum is “committed to not white-washing” the story;
that will test the team’s democratic approach and could lay them
open to criticism should they be perceived as giving equal (or any) time
to the attackers.

But Barton, as always, places complete confidence
in the conciliatory power of link-ing personal narratives and location:
“I think the key is the desire to tell a story. We’re really
trying to make our work continue to adhere to the principle that people
need to share.”


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