What is the relationship between language, art, politics, and place in your work?
I guess the best way to describe that relationship is integrated. Integral? I’m still trying to figure that one out. I don’t think I separate language of written word from visual representation. Both have a language and are in dialogue with one another. I think story is the key undercurrent to my work. I’m deeply interested in overlapping narratives that exist in communities, which is reflected in my use of overlapping forms in prose, poetry, and photography. The identity of place is a big part of my process, and is informed by my previous professional experience in urban planning and community development. In that work, the narratives that place or places carry were key to understanding the language, the collected memories of communities throughout the city. You cannot transform a neighborhood into your image, ignorant of the legacy a building or park carries with it in the imagination of the long-time residents of a community. And certainly, by extension, you can’t build or create new spaces ignorant of the social fabric and identity the community has embraced after years of change. Perhaps that’s where politics enters? Maybe.
Are publications and various media outlets part of your art form? How do these outlets differ from performance?
I’m one of the co-founders and editors of an online literary journal called Union Station. It’s strictly an online medium – no accompanying printed matter as of yet. When we created Union Station two years ago we were responding to a void that occurred in the literary world, a journal that presents a pluralist representation of writers in America. We wanted a forum to engage these narratives. Union Station is premised on the idea that every city (town) in America (and globally) has a Union Station, a main hub of activity and interconnectedness that by the happenstance of place, whole worlds of people connect and collide, and like a Venn diagram, in that overlap comes the story, the poem, the photograph…
I think the digital world can be performative too. We’re seeing a great deal of innovation and some back to the future elements (the GIF is dead! long live the GIF!). In the absence of live performance, we’re able to connect to a wider audience through internets, to capture or isolate moments in performance. I’m hoping to refine that idea some and play with the form of digital storytelling.
Live performance lends itself a different lens of discovery that’s so immediate between you and the audience. I don’t do enough of it. Last summer at a performance I did at The Kitchen to a majority Croatian-New Yorker audience, I really got the sense and feel of that wall break in an intensely shared moment of collective memory about American identity and otherness.
How important is community engagement in your work and how does it influence your art? What type of engagement or cultural exchange with the city itself do you practice?
I think community engagement with some of my projects is extremely important. I’m a photographer and co-curator of a public art experiment called PUP (Poets in Unexpected Places), where a group of poets, about 8 to 12 of us, go out on subway cars, the Staten Island Ferry, a laundromat, a public park and perform poetry in kind of a spontaneous/flash mob way. Poets literally pop-up and offer poems to an unsuspecting public, and in the words of Laurie Anderson, “snap them out of their art trances.” The surprise is that we find that people are often charmed, hungry, and eager to hear more poems. We’ve had poets of various ages, gender, and ethnicities appear with us over the past three years. We encourage interaction with the audience. There’s no false wall that sanctioned performance space mandates.
Additionally, a chunk of my work is collaborative, so I rely on my artistic community to act as collaborators, even ‘actors’ in the new photo work I’m developing as part of a newer project.
Any funny or interesting stories about a project?
As we were crossing the Manhattan Bridge on the Q train, during one of our PUP appearances, a group of women were so taken in and moved by the experience, that one of them jumped up and began singing and dancing. She was dressed traditionally, in a sari and didn’t speak English. The beautiful moment of discovery and connection is that it didn’t matter the language she spoke, but her heart connected to the words offered on the train in that moment. The largest lesson is that people connect in a language across culture and community in the lovely urban coincidence riding on the Q Train to disparate locations.
Can you describe the reciprocity in storytelling between you, your work, and the city?
I’m a creature of the city. Asphalt and blood. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s the source of a great deal of creative inspiration for me and probably the real driving force behind my earlier career in community development. Cities demand intersectional narratives to be fully realized in art. New York is the city where Basquiat agitated to crown black men kings, Ayn Rand found her fountainhead, and Joan Didion couldn’t stop herself from coming back. As an international city, more than any other place in America we witness the manifestation of a more perfect union (with her warts and all) by the shared common dream of living in this ridiculous crowded and expensive place because it’s in our blood. How could I not be interested in these stories and where we overlap? The typography of the city is so necessary to showing the world how and why we connect. I think the biggest takeaway for me in developing these stories written or visual is engagement. The city works as metaphor and talisman in the prose, and as witness in the photographs.
Syreeta McFadden is one of the founding editors of the online literary journal, Union Station. A former urban planner and housing development specialist, she holds degrees from Columbia University in the City of New York and Sarah Lawrence College, NY. Her writing has appeared in the The New York Times, Feministing, The Huffington Post, Salon and others. She has been a featured reader at various New York area readings series and her photographic work has been featured in local galleries and online. McFadden is an adjunct professor of English and Literature and is currently working on collections of short stories and essays.