Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 6:14 PM on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Community Video Portrait gives intimate look at Homer

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Hasan Elahi, left, watches a video with Alan Parks. Parks was one of the volunteer videographers for the Community Video Portrait.

How do you tell the story of a town? How do you present those stories in a compact space — a common space? For Homer's Community Video Portrait, Washington, D.C., artist Hasan Elahi facilitated an art project that looks urban in concept and small town in feel.

"This is the kind of art you see in a big city," said Kayla Spaan, one of the Homer videographers who participated in the project.

At Bunnell Street Arts Center, five pillars stand on the floor. On each pillar, six video screens show people being interviewed — talking heads telling of who they are, what they do and where they live. At an opening last Thursday, with the volume turned up on the screens and people listening to the stories, sound bounced around the room.

"I wanted the effect to be like a bar," Elahi said.

Enter a busy bar and you hear a cacophony of noise, he explained. Sit down on a stool and start talking to the person next to you and the din fades away.

One of five statewide projects, Homer's Community Video Portrait was part of Common Space, a program by the Alaska Design Forum. Each project explored the idea of common space — shared areas in a community.

"It's any public space we're in," said John Weir, director of the Alaska Design Forum. "The common space is about our combined history. Oral history is a common space we all share."

In Nome, artists and the town looked at the idea of shared food. In Fairbanks, people were invited to share memories on street side chalkboards of an abandoned building with a banner that read "looking for love again." In Juneau, artists carried around the Sho-Globe, an inflatable plastic bubble people could crawl inside. In Anchorage, people put on big yellow drapes in the Soft Pavilion, creating interactive art at Glen Alps or downtown.

In Homer, working with the Pratt Museum and Bunnell, the project invited people to check out Flip cameras — simple, easy to use videocameras — and interview other people. The idea was to get people of many generations, occupations and backgrounds. Some teams interviewed each other, like Billy Choate and Renn Tolman. Subjects ranged from small children to elders in their 80s. Some were new to Homer while others, like Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove, have been in the area for decades.

Elahi said he had hoped for 30 people to be involved in the project. He got 48 who wound up being filmed. Initially, only a handful checked out cameras, but the project seemed to hit a tipping point when Spaan did a series of interviews, Elahi said. After that, the project took on a life of its own.

"This is a very distributed authorship," he said. "Really, what's important is the context, the conversations that took place with everyone."

During his artist's residency last week, Elahi edited the videos down to about 15 to 20 minutes each. Just looking at the videos gave him an intimate perspective on Homer, Elahi said.

"This is really odd," he said at a talk last Thursday. "I've learned a lot about everyone, but we've never met. For the last week I've been staring at you on the computer screen."

As with social media like Facebook and Twitter, the use of technology to tell stories creates a closeness that already exists in a small town. The Community Video Project makes the town feel even smaller, Elahi said.

"You feel so intimate when you're being interviewed," Said Cecilia Worth, one of the video subjects.

Elahi, an art professor at the University of Maryland, comes from a conceptual art background. A world traveler who's seen many of the globe's airports, for one art piece he etched in glass a map of major world air terminals, so it seemed like the terminals were connected. For another piece he mapped U.S. armed interventions around the world since 1776, and then had Olympic sharpshooters shoot bullets at those locations marked on a piece of bullet-resistant plastic.

After being interviewed as a suspected terrorist when he returned to the U.S. after a trip abroad, Elahi made his own life an art project. To help clear his name, in an interview with FBI agents Elahi had to produce his calendar — with dates of classes he taught — to show he had not been plotting mischief on a specific date. That led to one problem.

"You can't be formally cleared of something you've never been charged with," Elahi said.

So he wouldn't be hassled on future airport visits, Elahi got the name of the FBI agent who had his case, and would tell him his itinerary and the airports he would visit. The agent in turn notified local authorities.

That gave Elahi an idea. What if he made his life an open secret — "hide in plain sight," he said — and posted every detail of what he did online? Intelligence agencies would know where he had been and could see he wasn't doing anything sinister. Through his website, www.trackingtransience.net, Elahi posts a Google map of his current location and a photo of that place. Last Thursday, that map showed an arrow pointing at Bunnell Street Arts Center and a view out of a window there. He puts up photos of bathrooms, grocery stores, meals he has on planes, phone receipts, bank statements and thousands of bits of trivial information.

That flood of information of his life mirrors an aspect of Homer's Community Video Portrait. Taken as a whole and the volume turned on loud, the 30 video screens seem a blur of information. Focus on one interview, one screen, and an intimate story emerges.

The Community Video Portrait remains on exhibit this week at Bunnell. The Pratt Museum, one of the cosponsors, is talking to the Alaska Design Forum about exhibiting the project this summer. The videos also may be put into a DVD collection or an e-book.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.