Local Projects

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When Jake Barton, the 34-year-oldprincipal of the interactive design firm Local Projects, thinks aboutwhat an exhibition can do, he often considers the District Six Museum inCape Town, South Africa. The museum documents the forced removal of morethan 60,000 residents from a mixed-race neighborhood declared awhites-only zone in 1966, and tells the stories of those displaced. Inthe early ’90s, when reclaiming that land was still not an option,the museum kept the issue in the public eye through exhibitions anddebate; subsequently, the museum’s sister organization helpedresidents apply to have their land returned. Transforming and healing acommunity through inclusive storytelling is, in Barton’s eyes, themandate for museums of the 21st century. These days, he has ample reasonto meditate on it: In April, he and his seven-person firm received thecommission to codesign the permanent exhibition for the World TradeCenter Memorial Museum.

By choosing Local Projects, thememorial’s directors cast their lot with a new kind of museum thatprizes interactivity over top-down presentation. Local Projects insistson a plurality of voices—the exhibitions it creates function as akind of conversation rather than as repositories of authoritative fact.“Museums are starting to evolve into agents of socialchange,” Barton says. “That’s being reflected in thenumbers of people who are going to museums and the ways museums arefunctioning as spaces for community dialogue. We [are] trying to makediverse people visible to each other through a storytellingspace.” Local Projects designs high-tech, interactiveinstallations and exhibits that connect experience to location forclients both nonprofit and commercial. With the World Trade Centercommission, Local Projects, itself founded mere months before September11, will have an unprecedented opportunity to bring its philosophy to avast audience of potential supporters as well as critics.

LocalProjects’ offices are in New York’s garment district, tuckedbetween fabric stores overflowing with buttons, dress patterns, andcheckered vinyl. The neighborhood is an apt metaphor for LocalProjects’ work, which so often turns on making sense of disparatescraps. Barton, who worked for Ralph Appelbaum Associates for sevenyears, is self-possessed, articulate, relaxed—a kind of hipPoindexter. It’s easy to imagine him walking the halls of New YorkUniversity, where he teaches in the Interactive TelecommunicationsProgram (ITP). In his own college years at Northwestern University, hemajored in performance studies, which he describes as “takingsomething that’s in one format and turning it into somethingelse.” He adds, “That impulse to adapt something … that youshare 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, ahardware designer and animator; Ekene Ijeoma, a programmer, artist, anddesigner; and Renda Morton, an interface designer. An influx of work hasrequired expansion, and the group now includes an office and projectmanager, Regina Kwon; a senior graphic designer, Katie Lee; a filmmaker,Ariel Efron; and Ian Curry, an interaction designer. Curry, who metBarton when he studied under him at NYU’s ITP, says, “Thetraditional calculus is that you have to do a lot of work that youdon’t necessarily love in order to keep the lights on while you dobits and pieces of great stuff. Local Projects seems to be exempt fromthat somehow. To me, at least, pretty much everything they do isinteresting.”

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

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

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

Turning viewers into contributorsis a feat Local Projects has refined with an endlessly inventive use oftechnology. Last year, when the New-York Historical Society commissionedthe firm to create three media pieces for its exhibition “New YorkDivided: Slavery and the Civil War,” Sterling Ely came up with away to make visitors feel they were present at the black convention of1834, during which attendees debated issues pertinent to their future. Afilm re-creation depicting African-American New Yorkers voting at theconvention is paired with an infrared camera ringed by IR LEDs aroundits lens. By lifting a paddle lined with infrared-sensitive material,museum visitors can
register their vote; the infrared light hits theraised paddles, and the light reflects directly back to the camera.“With a bit of additional hardware/software magic,” explainsEly, “we were able to turn that into a method for counting howmany paddles were being held up, and display the votes onscreen in realtime.”

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

Even such apurely pleasurable invention incorporates Barton’s ideas ofconnection and the importance of place: The ocean theme refers to thefact that Battery Park once was home to the New York Aquarium. This kindof conceptual integrity exemplifies Barton’s concern for the wayNew York’s history, and its future, are expressed in the builtenvironment. Fittingly, considering his involvement in the September 11memorial, Barton understands that public works cannot be simply viewedas panaceas or as destructive forces. The Public Information Exchange(PIE), an online forum commissioned by New York’s Center forArchitecture 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 explanationsof their proposals. Opposite, visitors post comments. In essence,it’s a public electronic charrette.

While PIE gives communitymembers say over their space, Local Projects’ galleryinstallations for the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA) helpinterpret a neighborhood’s history. The museum’s newbuilding, slated to open in March at the northern edge of NewYork’s Chinatown, features a Maya Lin–designed interior. Theexhibition areas, arranged chronologically from an 1840 starting point,contain screens that run like a digitized ribbon throughout thegalleries, charting exchange between the United States and China over167 years. According to Burak Arikan, who is designing theproject’s software, the screens “show a single continuousimage.” MoCA’s curators will eventually be able to entercurrent data about trade between China and the U.S., making the displayan up-to-the-minute instrument for tracking the exchange of materials,goods, and ideas between the two countries. The winding screensculminate in the last exhibition room, “China/Now,” situatedbehind a storefront window like that of many small shops in Chinatown.In a very physical way, the design will demonstrate history spillinginto the present.

At few locations in the United States do past andpresent converge so powerfully as at the former site of the World TradeCenter. Alice Greenwald, director of the Memorial Museum, says thatLocal Projects and exhibition design firm Thinc Design were chosen forthe weighty job of developing the museum’s exhibitions becausethey were remarkably in sync with the panel’s own vision: that,through the use of digital media, visitors would become stakeholders inthe story the museum will tell. “September 11 is the mostdocumented event in history,” Greenwald says. Since thatdocumentation initially unfolded in real time via digital technology,it’s only appropriate, she believes, that the same media be usedto integrate what she calls “visitors’ narratives.”Barton agrees. “We realized that the whole DNA of the project wasabout the overlap of physical space with media space,” heobserves. “People experienced the event live over the web and overbroadcasts and radio, but then there was the replaying and thecommenting. 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 thedigital and narrative experience, Hennes is considering how tofacilitate the relationship between the museum’s spaces and thecommunity (virtual and real-world).

In spring 2007, the MemorialMuseum team was still in a pre-design phase, gauging the museum’scollection and deciding which pieces to highlight. They made a visit inMay to Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where manyartifacts from the September 11 attacks have been warehoused. Hennesrecalls that one official in charge of the objects had a “very aptdescription [of the hangar]: Everything here is ugly and everything hereis beautiful.” Barton and Hennes’s approach to theexhibition design is apolitical—neither of them advocates aparticular view of the events of September 11—yet they both talkabout exhibitions having “social value” and “creatingcommunity,” and plan to provide an unbiased, multifaceted recordof the events through people’s stories. They face an implicitchallenge, though: telling the stories of the terrorists. Greenwald saysthe museum is “committed to not white-washing” the story;that will test the team’s democratic approach and could lay themopen to criticism should they be perceived as giving equal (or any) timeto the attackers.

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