In the fall semester of 2000, students worked collaboratively with white photographer Jimmy Heath to design and build a device to interpret his art. A resident of Over-the-Rhine who works for the Great Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, Jimmy is the “official” photographer of the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement, seeing his art as a “living visual document of the people and life in Over-the-Rhine and the struggle they face.”
Jimmy’s powerful compositions in black and white ennoble his subjects with a dignity that is difficult to sustain under the hegemonic representations that deny their humanity. In an environment where the circulation of meaning about the inner city is so badly skewed, there is little opportunity for the People’s Movement to construct meanings that gain purchase within that dominant perception. When hegemony works to its maximum effect, the poor cannot even see their own culture because they are locked into the language of dominant groups. Internalizing their own oppression, they in turn blame themselves for their suffering. Enacting the Movement’s motto that “the first step out of oppression is expression,” Jimmy;s photography helps people to discover their agency and recognize that the world is also theirs because of the many ways in which they act to transform it.
Jimmy urged the students to push the boundaries of his own aesthetic practice in order to generate new forms of interpretation. Hence, the students did not simply build a backdrop for the images. Utilizing the procedures for collage (adding text and other materials) and montage (weaving, combining, and altering Jimmy’s photographs), students sought to raise questions about the many issues facing the neighborhood with a specific focus on gentrification and the related issues of housing abandonment and homelessness.
This effort to manipulate Jimmy’s photography to confront social issues took place on three sites in successive fashion. The first site was considered safe turf, occupying the sidewalk and the storefront of The Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine. Located on Vine Street, the major north-south thoroughfare of Over-the-Rhine that many speculate will be the beach head for the next round of gentrification, the area is populated mostly by community residents. The images used here depicted positive feelings about community as one with a coherent identity on the verge of destruction: scenes of children playing, community gardens, celebrations of Christmas, and people rehabbing buildings. After the first week, the photographs were in the same condition as when installed.
The second site was Main Street, Over-the-Rhine’s most gentrified street and home to Cincinnati’s newest hotspot for entertainment. Microbreweries, coffeehouses, bars, art galleries, and upstart enterprises now line much of Main Street, which the People’s Movement considers contested terrain. Installations displayed here raised questions about the relationship of gentrification to the disruption of poor peoples’ lives; quotations by City Council members and local proprietors that dismiss the perils of gentrification were overlaid on images of the homeless huddled around a fire for warmth.
Knowing the nature of Main Street and realizing their installation would likely be interpreted as transgressive, students erected the installation in fifteen minutes and departed the site. In less than thirty minutes, tow police cruisers were on the scene, lights flashing. In less than an hour, the entire installation was torn down, with most parts hauled away in the trunks of cruisers.
The third site was at Miami University, the on the heavily traveled front entrance plaza to the Shriver Student Center. Here, the students challenged their peers with ethical questions about their future roles as urban professionals and possible “gentrifiers” in neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine. Typically, Miami Students would describe Over-the-Rhine as a dark, dangerous ghetto with one bright spot- the Main Street entertainment district. Seeking to counter that view, the students of the studio brought Over-the-Rhine to Miami’s campus drawing direct links between their peers’ future success and the neighborhood’s desperate conditions. Five sandwich panels comprised the installation at Miami University. By the end of the week, only four remained.