Wing Young Huie

So what if you merged the individual artistic process (perceived as subjective, qualitative, serendipitous, playful, emotional, and intuitive), with the urban planning process (perceived as bureaucratic, political, technical, quantitative, and driven by engineering specificity)? As in all stereotypes there is just enough truth to make it a lie.

In the end, the goal of an artist (this artist at least) is to create something that confronts, informs, and celebrates the complex realities of the world around us. The ideal city would hopefully do the same, reflecting its total citizenry. A gargantuan task indeed when considering the dizzying varieties of culture co-existing in a large urban region.

As artists both Ashley and I collect points of view and translate those voices into a collective photographic or theatrical language. What we have done this past year was to employ our artistic process as a way to facilitate community engagement that would inform the city making process. For the most part we asked questions and documented people’s answers in various ways. Here are the questions with which we started: What do the people want? What are the questions to be asked? How are they asked? Who gets to ask them? Who gets to answer them? What happens to the answers? Would the answers impact the city planning process?

Part of our idea was to reinvent and invigorate the typical community meeting and clipboard survey process. I talked to a director of a non-profit who had been to over 90 community meetings in the last year and called it a mind-numbing experience. “I know what everyone in the room is going to say and the loudest voices always say the same thing,” he said.

“Who comes to community meetings anyway?” said another. “Only people with time on their hands or the biggest gripes. We need to get those to the table who feel they aren’t ever heard. Not just those with wherewithal or home-owners.”

Another was skeptical that meetings did any good. “The city comes in and asks people what they think. Viewpoints get put on Post-It notes. Then nobody knows what happens to those notes.” Many talked about how difficult it is to get people to fill out surveys or to sign up their contact info.

We spoke with hundreds of people in the North Minneapolis area about the city making process, and as you can see in the chalkboard statements exhibited in this paper, there is a wide array of viewpoints expressed. But a constant thread throughout our interactions was an underlying distrust and cynicism—that people feel ignored by the “city” and that their opinions don’t really matter.

What we did was not systematic, rather a scattershot approach that would hopefully inform the city making process. When we subjectively quantified the answers into various data formats, we wondered if what we collected was much different from what a typical survey would reveal.

And so we are left with even more questions. How can an artistic process be translated into useable data? Who decides what is useful? Is data emotional? Perceptional? Perhaps the process in which the answers are obtained, and putting a face to those answers, is as important as the answers themselves.

Wing Young Huie is a photographer who lives and works in Minneapolis

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