What’s your name, where are you from, and where are you based?
My name is Sam Holleran, and I’m from Colorado and based in New York City.
Give me a brief overview of what you’re doing here at SPACE.
I’m working on a project that looks for creative solutions to the liminal space under highway bridges in a low-income community in Stamford, Connecticut. The project is just kicking off, so I came to SPACE to plan out what the framework of the project will be. I’m not even at the point yet where I’m looking at what things will visually appear as—the participation aspects and other elements are things that I’m making use of my stay here to plan my time with neighborhood residents— to make sure that we can create a project that is interesting and representative.
How did the project start?
My mom was from Stamford, and my uncle and grandma were still living there recently, so I’ve been coming up for years to visit. Through my uncle, I started to look at this neighborhood (the East Side). I really wanted to do a project that used community-engaged art but outside of the neighborhoods that artists often look at. I think a lot of times artists will look into neighborhoods that are right outside their door. So, they’ll get a studio in a neighborhood, often times a changing neighborhood, in or around a major creative hub like New York City. They’ll walk out the front door and say, “I want to do a project that engages this neighborhood.” But I wanted the challenge of working in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of young creatives—that is seen as more of a passing through area. It’s car-centric and it’s urban, but it’s on the urban periphery, and it doesn’t have as strong as sense of community as maybe somewhere in the five boroughs of New York. So, there are some challenges, and I am excited about those challenges.
Can you elaborate more on what those challenges have been? Or that you can see so far?
Well, some of them are physical and topological. I mean, this is an area that has a lot of people who are walking to their homes nearby—public housing and multifamily homes. People walk to work in stripmall-like shopping centers, or to other parts of the city. There’s limited public transit, so this really is a place where people and cars are butting up against each other. People are walking under the infrastructure that serves cars. Often times, those cars are going to more affluent neighborhoods.
There’s a potential in the space and there’s a lot of possibility for transformation, especially through a visual or creative project that could help to make a center for the community, that could help to cordon off space that people could use for other things—whether it’s a community garden or just a place to hang out. There’s potential there, but right now, it’s a rough-looking space. It needs polishing, but it also needs polishing that’s sensitive to the needs of community members and isn’t just something dropped down on them. Also, the community itself needs to be defined. Who are the actual users? Are they people who work in the neighborhood? Are they people who live there? Are they people who would aspire to live there? There are a lot of different, overlapping constituencies.
How have you been using your time at SPACE?
I have been thinking about… well, I’ve been looking at other people’s projects, which are really inspiring and fascinating. I think that right now, I’m trying to look at the meta picture of what it will take to do a project in this area, and what some examples of best practice are. What sort of framework can I put around [this project] to engage people? How long it would take to set something up? I’m already doing a mural in the area, so that has a potential to start. So, looking at the steps it would take to build a long-lasting relationship with the place. It’s a place I don’t live, so I want to be cognizant of that fact and also I want to think about how much time I ask of people. I have all the time in the world for this project, but I want to make sure I develop it in steps that make sense and take advantage of some of the opportunities that exist in this part of the city, which is rapidly changing. It’s gentrifying. I don’t like to use that word much, but the neighborhood is changing.
What was your first impression when you arrived on the farm?
Oh, it’s beautiful! I mean, it’s… I’m trying to avoid puns, but it’s very spacious. It’s the kind of place where you get what you need to think about creative solutions. There’s a great community of people here this weekend who are looking at both the solutions side, the organizing side and the movement-building side of the solutions to our most pressing problems in society and communities around the country, and there’s also the creative side. I think it does a good job of combining both of those, getting a good amalgam of people who are looking at both artistic ways to engage with movements. I think the space itself, to be removed from where you’re living, to be removed from your normal day-to-day, and to have this really awesome natural surroundings, and it’s really beneficial to be able to just walk over and have lunch. There are a lot distractions that I experience in everyday life, whether it’s necessary distractions like having a day job or whether it’s distractions I create for myself, and those seem to melt away here. That’s really awesome.
I have another question about your work. How does this project compare to other work that you’ve done?
Um, it’s totally different from some of the other projects I’ve done. A lot of the projects I’ve done in the past have been about using graphic design, about straight up visual culture—using really tactile forms of visual culture like printmaking and books and zines and pamphlets and things like that. They’re mostly two-dimensional and they are tactile in the sense that you can hold them in your hand, but they’re not engaging with an actual physical space. So, this is the first time that I’m going to try to do a project that has this big spatial element to it, and I’m excited and also a little bit nervous thinking about what it takes in this day and age to activate a space, especially when it’s controlled by overlapping jurisdictions of authority. There are all sorts of different concerns, ranging from the really banal like litter to people’s heightened awareness of bridges and terrorism. That’s going to be really interesting and challenging, but I’m also excited to get in there and engage with the bureaucracy.
No one has ever said that, I don’t think.
But you have to!
No, you totally do!
If artists and activists aren’t going to do it, surely others will and we’ll have to live in the world that they made. It’s important.
So, what do you think has led you to make this shift for this project?
Mmm… [pause] I am really interested in community-engaged art. I’m really interested in how this field can expand and what I can contribute to it. I’m really aware of the privilege I have to engage in art as a profession, as a thing that I do, as a college-educated upper-middle class white male. That’s something that I am aware of. I would like to expand it to areas outside of my comfort zone. Even though I have deep family roots in Stamford, I really want the challenge of not having something in the area I live in, in this sort of different space. I feel like the spaces at the edge of cities are kind of overlooked now. There’s focus on rural areas and there’s a lot of focus on central, urban areas. I think that more and more interesting conversations are going on in these in-between spaces [of the urban periphery]. These tectonic plates are also pushing up against each other in sometimes disturbing ways and sometimes interesting ways.
Sometimes both simultaneously.
After you leave here, what is next for the project and for you?
For the project, I am working with some community partners. I want to solicit more people to be involved, but I also want to make sure I come to them with a concrete ask. I don’t want to have some big, “Let’s participate in something!” because people are busy. They’re living their lives. They’re struggling to put food on the table. So, right now I’m thinking about the larger framing and how I can present it to people who aren’t familiar with co-created projects that will make artistic sense, that will resonate with them and get them excited to be involved with something. Part of it is coming up with visual directions that are exciting, and part of it is thinking about resources and possibilities we could take advantage of to make sure this is a thing that leads to something tactile and concrete and won’t just be an imaginary exercise in creative thinking but will actually deposit a useful commodity in this community. That could be a variety of things, but it should be in some way useful or enlivening.
If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
Oh my god, this is great! I used to ask a similar interview question when I was interviewing people… a real non-sequitur question, but the farm animal one is great too. I feel like it’s a secret Rorschach test to see what kind of person I am, though.
It’s a question that people take longer to answer than any other question I ask.
Well, farm animal is particularly hard because I don’t know that many… I mean, I’m looking at them now and the ducks are really cute. Um, and the sheep were really cute. Bees are super fascinating. I’m just stalling now.
But it’s which one would you be, not which one you necessarily like the most.
On Ryder Farm or on any farm in the world?
Any farm. Like, which farm animal embodies you?
Oh my god.
I know. I still haven’t figured out my own answer to this question.
Well, growing up in Colorado, I used to drive by these bison farms and I don’t think that I would necessarily be a bison, but being reincarnated as one would be great. They have this connection to this mythic past, and they’re really big…
[laughing] This is appealing?
Yeah! They’re big enough that they have their own ecosystem. They don’t have to worry about any other animals disturbing them. Um, they’re a little bit disgusting, drooling all over the place and stuff. Bison definitely have this amazing appeal and their lives are sort of delightfully slow and methodical.
A lot of people seem to like the animals who are like, the slow animals, like the cows and sheep. I think because it’s so different from the lives we lead as artists, especially, which are all hustle hustle. And it’s like, “Oh, if I could only be a cow in the middle of a field eating grass. That sounds like the life.”
It’s the equivalent of doing some kind of crazy time-based artwork where it’s making the sand mandalas or something, but in the case of the bison, you’re “making mandalas” is a field that you eat every inch of until it’s completely level.
That’s probably what they’re thinking about. “Slowly, but surely…”
I think I’d be interested to know if they have any eating patterns, but I don’t think they’re that smart…
Interviewed by Arden Armbruster.