Rockridge, a neighborhood in Oakland, California, is the kind of place where the corner market sells truffle salt and $25 jars of mustard. The average home sells for just under $1 million.
About five miles away, just east of Lake Merritt, the neighborhood of San Antonio looks like it’s part of a different city. Less than half of residents have a high school education, and the median income is less than a third of households in Rockridge. The neighborhood has almost three times as much crime.
It’s safe to say that some Rockridge residents never go to San Antonio, and vice versa. But for a week in January, the neighborhoods were linked. Two video screens, mounted on a hardware store in Rockridge and a nonprofit in San Antonio, played real-time footage of each street, so residents could get a glimpse of each other’s lives and even talk to someone new.
“I think there’s something very profound about having to acknowledge our shared responsibility to each other, just even in a very blunt political sense,” says artist Maya Gurantz, who created the project with Ellen Sebastian Chang. “These two neighborhoods share a mayor, share a division of the same pot of resources, share a tax base, a very concrete thing.”
The project was inspired by a 1980 artwork called Hole in Space that temporarily connected Los Angeles and New York for video chat, 23 years before Skype existed. At that time, the novelty was connecting people on two coasts. Now, it’s obviously easy to talk across distances–but the artists point out that we’re probably less likely to talk to our neighbors in real life.
“I can sit here and be on FaceTime to my family in Israel,” Gurantz says. “But I feel like we are so entrenched in our networks that we don’t see our communities. I think the intense socioeconomic segregation and our inability to just see each other–see the people who are in the neighborhood next door–I think that was something that was really provocative to us.”
When the first Hole in Space was installed in 1980, the people who happened to wander by were awestruck by the technology. “There was still that sort of naïve optimism about the future and technology,” says Chang. This time around, things were different. Neighbors in East Oakland were concerned about surveillance, and asked if the footage would be shown to the police. Some neighbors in Rockridge complained about the noise.
“Those conversations, or the the ways this piece triggered these real-life adjustments, were such an important part of the piece,” Gurantz says. “It’s funny, because we set up this digital interaction, but some of the incredible moments were what happened in the process of putting up an art piece like this.”
Now, the artists are working on editing down the 70 hours of footage into a piece that they’ll show at the Great Wall of Oakland, a gallery in the city’s downtown. They’re also planning to repeat the experiment to connect more neighborhoods.
“I feel like it was the right moment for this piece, and I hope the conversation is going to keep going,” says Gurantz.