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Nov 2004 / the ordinary eye :: email this story to a friend

Holding Justice in Our Hands
Text by Bob Hansman
Photos by Gen Obata

(Editor's Note: Earlier this year, internationally known projection artist Krzysztof Wodiczko came to town to present "The St. Louis Projection," a video project with themes of the shattering effects of violence and the healing role of public discourse. Though there was some controversy when the event had to be moved at the last minute from its original location, the Old Court House, to a new home at the Central Library, the event still went off on schedule. The taped testimonies included two mothers who lost their sons to violence, one woman who lost her father and brother to violence, a boy who lost his brother to violence, a retired police officer who dealt with youth violence on the job and whose own son was subsequently a victim, an emergency room nurse at Children's Hospital, and two prisoners currently serving time for murder. A number of the people have responded in remarkably constructive ways to what happened in their lives: one of the mothers began a prison outreach program, the woman who lost her father and brother began a gang outreach program, and the nurse began an injury prevention program. We asked Gen Obata to share his photographs of the event and Bob Hansman to write about organizing it.)

My role...

My role involved helping to identify the content and the people who would testify — actually, in a way, the reverse: people who would testify, and thus the content. We knew fairly early on that victims of violence would be at least part of the mix, simply because that issue seemed so urgent. When we realized that the projection date coincided with Victims Rights Week, that just made the choice all the more clear and appropriate. So I did the legwork to contact people, and contact people who would contact people, all down the chain, until we had enough people, and a certain range, to discuss the issue in some depth. So I guess you could say I coordinated the interviews, the social angle of the piece. I helped set up the tapings, select and edit and sequence the taped segments, and the night of the projections Krzysztof and I were running around like madmen on our cell phones trying to coordinate what was happening inside the library and outside, the live and the pre-recorded testimonies.

How I felt the evening went compared to what we planned...

Pretty well, actually. As far as the wedding of message to architecture, sure, some poignancy was lost, but another kind was gained, by the transfer itself as much as the place where we landed. A court house and a library both represent the people, but in very different ways; ironically, in some ways, democracy exists more in a library than in a court house, but that is precisely why the court house NEEDED to speak more than the library, which already does.

That issue aside (if one can set such a major issue aside), the projection fit the library well. And more people probably saw it "by accident" than would have at the river side of the Old Court House. Reactions? Mostly good. But we expected good reactions from the kind of people we expected to be there...a problem in itself. There was some incredible misinformation floating around; one family showed up in a big van, popcorn and all, wanting to know where "the movie" was showing. This idea that it was a movie — and, by extension, a passive thing to view rather than something to participate in — was a tough hurdle to get over with the people who DID show up. You had a couple of hundred people all waiting for somebody else to provide them something to watch. And some people left after the pre-recorded part ran one full cycle, figuring they'd seen everything. Getting people to participate (democracy, remember?) is like pulling teeth. My favorite reaction came the third night from four homeless men; they said they had been there every night, thought it was terrific, asked if we had thought of taking it to other parts of town. Actually, we had; one night when we were looking for a new venue, Krzysztof and I wound up at the water tower up on Blair, standing there in the dark in the rain, wondering if we could do it there. Things like this always are vexed with the "preaching to the choir" problem, and it's created by location, by population, by publicity. You want to have it where people will see it, you want to have if where it will do some good (maybe not the same place), where the people who are involved in this kind of thing might hear and see it, but you also don't want to come invading someone else's neighborhood unannounced and uninvited. There was something about the public realm, too, that was always a part of the piece.

The difference it made? Well, due to the controversy surrounding its location, the difference it made probably had as much to do with the debate over Philistines and artists and free speech and appropriate speech and rules and regulations and all that; in some ways, the content that generated the debate got a bit overshadowed. I think it made St. Louis look stupid, in one more fleeting way — which was not the intention at all. And, like most things, the impact was probably, for most people, short-lived. The more lasting reactions will probably be deeper and harder to pinpoint; it certainly didn't reduce the murder rate or anything like that. The responses will probably be more about how people view St. Louis institutions and politics — but I bet most people's minds weren't changed one way or the other. The victims who testified found a certain parallel in that to their own marginalization whenever they have tried to speak publicly — and have gotten accused of being inappropriate, discomfiting. But, again, those who saw it were moved by the content. I am a cynic, apparently — or, as Mark Twain protested about being labeled a pessimist, "an optimist...who did not arrive." I sometimes wonder if ANYTHING makes any difference at all, much less the difference one intended to make. But you keep trying, trusting that the differences are subtle, and delayed, and often out of your sight.

Perhaps if we could do it more often, and more places; if it were the beginning of a conversation or mobilization.... By the third night, a kind of momentum was building among the audience. The testifiers were giving out, but the public was starting to get the idea a little bit. But it might have to be of wider breadth and longer duration to dent the issue we want to dent the way we want to dent it. The city's official response seemed to be one of impatient tolerance, knowing it would go away soon and be replaced by hundreds of greater and lesser distractions. And maybe that's all anything is; maybe that's the best we can hope for in this world.

But I still think we should continue doing these things as often as possible, as acts of faith that, even though we can't be sure exactly how or how much, we ARE making some kind of constructive difference.


Bob Hansmann teaches architecture at Washington University; Gen Obata makes bluegrass music and art of his sassy cat, Lilly.

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