Dec 12

We are all migrating together: Laura Deutch and Shira Walinsky talk about 47 Stories

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

Ever wondered about the stories of your fellow passengers? Laura Deutch and Shira Walinsky did, and their curiosity sparked a beautiful project: 47 Stories, set on and in a 47 bus. Read on to hear more from Laura and Shira about the project, their inspiration, and the things they learned in transit.

Carly: What sparked the idea for 47 Stories?

Shira: Several years ago, I wanted to create a project wrapping a bus inside and out with textiles from the Karen community. The bus is a great metaphor for migration and journey, and a great space to contemplate and reflect. We live in a city where sometimes neighborhoods become enclosed in their own barriers, and Laura and I liked the idea that this could mean many types of barriers: physical, psychological, and emotional.

Laura: The idea emerged out of several projects and goals we had in the works. We had started to develop a timeline of immigrant histories and events that we began on World Refugee Day. We were interested in bringing the history of immigration that is embedded in Philadelphia, and particularly South Philadelphia to a larger audience, and for community members to understand they are part of a large history that has formed the foundation of this city, and for other community members to understand and learn about the events and policies throughout the world that force people to migrate.

We had wanted to develop these stories through photos, writings, and exhibitions that might travel through different spaces in South Philly. During our residency we were interested in taking opportunities to bring new people into the Southeast by Southeast space, and were continuing to seek ways to bring attention to the work happening in South Philly and the vibrant cultural assets that make the community so valuable. When we started thinking about how to present this work, we considered bus stops: Shira had been thinking about doing a bus wrap, and I was interested in the bus as an installation space, so it made sense to combine our interests into a single project. Also, the 47 is an amazing bus because of all the diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities it connects, and yet, many people never go further than their intended destination.  It’s a shame, because it’s an opportunity to really experience something different–not only seeing another neighborhood or an interesting landmark, but to get to know people from different countries that have made Philadelphia their home.

"...it’s an opportunity to really experience something different–not only seeing another neighborhood or an interesting landmark, but to get to know people from different countries that have made Philadelphia their home."

- Laura Deutch

Carly: How do you think about weaving all of these narratives into an over-arcing story?

Shira: Many projects that I have worked on involve weaving together the personal and collective story. I am always compelled by personal stories, and the first step I take is to interview community members about their lives and experiences.

Laura: The bus as a framing device made it easy to connect the stories we were hearing since they all related geographically to the route, but also connected in terms of theme and experience. When I was recording and editing the audio pieces for example, I was really trying to make these connections apparent by weaving together sound bites that were making similar points, that individually would not be as powerful as when heard together.

Carly: Were there any stories that surprised you? How so?

Shira: There were many inspiring stories along the route, such as the bus driver who helped a blind man get to his stop, the youth who gave their seats to older people. There were stories of people who lived in rural areas who had not traveled on Septa and felt worried about where to put their fare. The cross of lives, cultures, languages, and experiences in public space is itself an inspiring story.

Laura: I think when people shared their first experiences riding the bus, that was most surprising. Coming from Mexico City, you can hop on and off the bus at any point, but here there are particular stops and ways to signal to the driver when you want to get off. The payment system is also confusing for first time riders, particularly those coming from another country. One rider told me he routinely overpaid because he didn’t know how much it cost and wanted to avoid problems by underpaying or having correct change.

There is also a spot along the route that I was always curious about near 5th and Westmoreland–it looked like a home gallery with robots made out of recycled metal parts in the window and sometimes out in the street. Through this project, I tracked down the artist, interviewed him and learned more about his work as a mechanic, and how he accidently got into creating these sculptures and the positive impact his art has had on the community. By telling others about this experience, I learned that other people had noticed the robots too, but never knew their origin or who was behind creating them.

47 Stories © 2016 Mural Arts Philadelphia / Laura Deutch and Shira Walinsky. Photo by Shira Walinsky.

Carly: Did you have a prediction about the outcome of this project, and was that prediction met? Or did you end up discovering something completely new and different?

Shira: I was happy to be able to interact through interviews and workshops with people along the line. I did not predict the outcome of the election, but I think the message of 47 bus, that we live in a richly diverse city and that this a great thing that we migrate together, resonates more. I was very upset about the anti-immigrant rhetoric during the precursor to the election and feel we need visuals in public space and online to state our values. The phrase “We All Migrate Together,” a quote from the bus driver, was really important.  

I also discovered some of Olney during research for this project that I hadn’t known about: Colombian bakeries, African hair braiding shops, and more. I discovered many great things happening at organizations such as Taller Puertorriqueño and the 5th Street Revitalization Project. During interviews in North Philadelphia, I heard women talk about perceptions people have about North Philly versus the reality of life there. I hope more people take the time to see the city, to learn about communities beyond their own.

Laura: And a big hope of this project was to actually bring people from the north and south ends of the route together to meet each other, and explore something outside of their neighborhood.

Another outcome that confirmed our ideas was that many riders already recognize and value the diversity of people on the bus and spoke about the unique community that is formed on the bus where people help each other out, perhaps more than usual. It may even be a special case of the 47 bus, as the driver told us that the community formed was not the case on all buses. I think it reflects in a small way a positive microcosm of the ways in which different groups, sometimes without a common language, are strengthened by this sense of ‘we’re in it together’ – and people look out for each other.

47 Stories © 2016 Mural Arts Philadelphia / Laura Deutch and Shira Walinsky. Photo by Shira Walinsky.

Carly: Tell me a little bit about your artistic partnership. And do you have advice for artists looking to collaborate with others?

Shira: I thought the collaboration with Laura was great! We had some similar goals for the project and this helped us collaborate well, and we each brought a slightly different skill set to the project which also enhanced a collaboration. I think good communication, being honest about what you really feel will be impactful to a project is helpful.

Laura: It has been a great collaboration! Shira and I each bring different strengths and I think the advice I’d give to others would be to play to your strengths when collaborating. Shira is a strong visual artist, and I enjoy interviewing people, doing outreach, and gathering big ideas into visual concepts. We shared design ideas for the wrap as it developed, and then worked together to refine the exterior and interior designs so they would seem unified and the message would be woven throughout and visually the elements would be connected. It’s most important to be on the same page about the message, and once that’s articulated, the design choices fall in place as a response to that. Audience was also a big consideration for this project–we had to consider the people that would only quickly see it in passing, and so the exterior had to be bold and clear, while the inside needed to reflect the multiple languages of riders and be something simple that riders could ponder. I worked on creating a ‘bus schedule’ that includes an alternate bus map, highlighting places of interest to riders and organizations we worked with, as well as some longer quotes from interviews, and the handdrawn route map that Shira designed.

Carly: Is there anything you’d like to add about this project, or about your next artistic steps?

Shira: I am really glad this project happened. I hope people take the 47 and experience the diverse rich route that it is–and step outside of a comfort zone and see the city. I will continue to work on the project Southeast by Southeast and hope to continue to build on the connections we have made on the project.

Laura: I think there is a lot of potential to expand the concepts behind this project–and work on different bus routes to draw out local histories, stories, and resources for riders. It would be great to have the opportunity to more fully realize this project and do programming around it to highlight the knowledge of community partners, and give people an alternative tour of the city.

Lastly, I think this project was created as much for bus riders as it was for people who don’t take the bus, to encourage people to get to know their city, especially the parts that are not part of their daily routine, to step outside of their comfort zone and experience something new.

Carly: Thank you both so much!

If you’d like to learn more about the project, join us to dedicate 47 Stories on Tuesday, December 13.

Last updated: Dec 13, 2016

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