Street-Level Video

Block Party

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, founder of Street-Level Video (S-L.V.), organized what was a spectacular collaboration, a one-day, video-installation block party called Tele-Vecindario: A Street-Level Video Project, sponsored by Sculpture Chicago. With a complicated coalition, whose very name—Video Neighbors’ Network—emphasizes its delicate, perhaps temporary nature, Manglano-Ovalle brought together more than fifty teenagers who live in Chicago’s largely Latino West Town neighborhood (where the artist has lived for the past two years) to learn video techniques with which to map their community and represent their culture.

Though this genre of community collaboration might seem to recast artists as facilitators and art-making as cultural therapy, this project was more than therapeutic. The artists stretched their own social and esthetic conditions of possibility with their deft orchestration and contextualization of the work. It was the sheer spectacle of 75 monitors installed on the high stoops of red-brick houses, arranged in empty lots, and stacked on milk cartons in the street, that made the block party so compelling.

With the street emptied of traffic on a late-summer evening, the façades of the buildings served as picturesque backdrops, and the musical mix of house and hip-hop reinforced the theatrical atmosphere. One strolled from installation to installation, patching together bits of dialogue and moments of imagery that proffered a kind of flickering electronic portrait of a neighborhood. Literally interrelated by yellow extension cords draped over window ledges, snaking down steps, the whole catalogue of images never completely added up but linked neighbors with each other and put a public face on private experience (domestic and urban). Building on the immediacy and specificity of the individual stories revealed in the tapes, S-L.V. dramatized collective identity.

Manglano-Ovalle and S-L.V. chose their issues pointedly, defining property in adolescent terms: “this is my stuff,” turf wars, drugs, jobs, sexism, cruising, housing, street fighters. Although urban conflicts with ethnic boundaries have been endlessly documented, the simplicity and urgency that energized these neighborhood narratives not only revealed a preoccupation with borders, generations, and isolation, but also hopes of reclamation and tolerance. None of the work was over-produced—a highly charged collection included straightforward commentary, the recitation of a poem about gang bashers, and a critique of television’s ethnic stereotyping. Consciously stressing the discursive slippage between “shooting” and “shooting,” the group produced a videotape called Drive-By, 1993, which described clashing factions in adjacent neighborhoods as they were filmed from a car.

This project foregrounded the cultural specificity and power of mapping: the chain-link fences protecting property were emblems of division and turf in the same way that the cords stood for connections. What was visualized on the videotapes was realized on and reflected back to the block. Analyzed on videotape, gang slogans, poses, and swaggers constitute highly developed visual and verbal codes—SOS, for example, translates as “smash on sight.” On the street, the block party was a frame for exuberant creativity, as four rival gangs had been organized to provide security, rap groups performed on an outdoor stage, and local graffiti artists composed a large-scale work on a wall of a three-story house.

Manglano-Ovalle strategically combined the mechanics of spectacle with the block party to reanimate the ritual of the evening stroll as a referent for this hybrid assemblage. With this gesture of switching on the lights, he illuminated his community; placing the videos outdoors in a collective social space gave this performance its carnival edge and its poignancy. Manglano-Ovalle and his partners remain critically aware of the dangers in commodifying ethnicity; at the same time their project’s success resides in its celebratory lack of cohesion and its imperative to reflect on and to represent its own debates.

Judith Russi Kirshner