Exploring the City’s Changes in Cardboard

With virtual reality, an interactive art installation helps viewers understand the effects of gentrification

Jessica Herrmann (left) experienced the virtual reality films directed by Kiira Benzing

Jessica Herrmann (left) experienced the virtual reality films directed by Kiira Benzing

By Yuqing Zhu

In Cardboard City, real estate developers no longer enjoy privileges. Anyone can design and build houses here.

Hilda O’Connell, 82, stops in front of the city’s tallest building. She is told that the building can talk, if she puts on the headphones. She also uses a smartphone to scan pictures attached to it to find out a little more. New to the city, O’Connell decides to follow the instructions.

She scans a large picture in the middle of the building. A video pops up on the phone she’s holding, with the title, “Part III Moving Out.” O’Connell then hears a voice, in a monotone, which explains that artists, unable to pay the rents, have to pack up and leave their studios where they have been working for years.

The building in Cardboard City that O’Connell is learning about is, in fact, only six-feet tall—and it is literally made of cardboard.

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Hilda O’Connell watches a pop-up video in front of the cardboard building

Cardboard City is an interactive art piece designed by artist Kiira Benzing. On the first weekend of October, she brought her installation to the 54th New York Film Festival in Manhattan. “Cardboard City” had three parts: virtual reality films, a narrative where digital videos were overlaid with the real world in front of the audience,a technique known as augmented reality,  and cardboard buildings created by the audience.

Specifically, Benzing’s three-part project told a story of over 300 artists forced out of studio buildings last October in Gowanus, Brooklyn because of rising rents. She hoped that the immersive and intimate experience would raise public awareness of the effects of gentrification on the community. Benzing included artists’ own voices in the pop-up videos, so that the audience could hear the stories directly from those suffered.

“I feel I’m an activist in my own way by telling stories about these artists,” said Benzing, standing next to the cardboard building where O’Connell was. “[The audience] can choose where they enter the story.”

For participants, the experience seemed like an adventure of storytelling. They didn’t know which part of the story they entered until they scanned the picture. How the story unfolded for them depended on the part of the picture they chose to explore. They might start with “Part III Moving Out” or “Part I Moving In.”  Then participants had to make sense of the story by discovering and connecting the scattered pieces on the cardboard building, almost like putting pieces of a puzzle together.

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A girl scanning a picture on the cardboard building at the Gowanus studios

Watching these videos about the Brooklyn-based artists, O’Connell related their stories to her own experience as a lifelong artist, who moved to SoHo in 1975.

“I bought my studio for $17,000 dollars. It probably worth  $2 million today,” said O’Connell, who considers herself fortunate, because she owns her studio and won’t be kicked out. It used to be that one had to be an artist to live in SoHo, she said, but “it’s not true now.”

Same thing happened in Gowanus, said Benzing. Real estate developers bought up the studio buildings, said the artists featured in the pop up videos, and as a result, they  could no longer afford the housing. Benzing hopes that her project gave the artists’ community a voice, and that artists would not be forced out of other neighborhoods by rising rents again.

“As we’re making progress, we must make sure that we’re also preserving spaces for what gives us diversity in the city,” said Benzing. “[We need to] make sure we have a space and community for artists who do their work.”

Gentrification did not just happen in Brooklyn, but also in Paris, said Alyssa Landry who lives in France but came to New York to support Benzing during the installation. A freelance show writer and director, Landry helped program the pop-up videos.

“If you want to create augmented reality yourself, it’s very easy. No coding,” said Landry and showed how the mobile app, Aurasma, worked to create the pop-up videos. “The hardest thing is about what’s the story you’re going to tell.”

Landry said she and Benzing talked via Skype while working on the project. She believed that gentrification was a universal issue.

“I was walking in my town. There’s a crane in the middle of my town,” said Landry, who lives in  suburban Paris where she can still afford the rent. “I saw a sign there saying, ‘Coming Soon in 2018.’”

Another part of “Cardboard City” showed two 360-degree documentary-style films Benzing directed in the past year. Both films feature stop motion animator Danielle Ash, who left her studio in Gowanus last November. With the virtual reality headsets on, the audience could see Ash packing up in her studio.

“I felt I was not in New York anymore,” said Jessica Herrmann, a college graduate, who experienced the virtual reality part last Saturday afternoon.

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Cardboard buildings created by the audience

Sitting on a swivel chair and watching the virtual reality shorts, Hermann looked up and down, back and forth, spinning around in her chair. Ash’s indoor studio in the virtual reality films looked like a cardboard city as well. On one of the tables stood three one-foot buildings, and paper characters chatted inside a bakery. A street light with the words, “No Parking Anytime,” shone on the street outside the bakery, where no one was passing by. Beneath the table, a cardboard subway train ran through. When Hermann stared at a bright lit object for several seconds, the camera zoomed in, and she saw a clip of Ash’s stop motion animation.

The shorts provided an immersive experience making the audience feel like they were inside Ash’s studio. When the headsets came off, they went from the virtual reality back to the reality, where Ash’s studio in Gowanus no longer exists.

But Benzing wanted to go beyond the frustration and get participants to think about solutions to the issue of gentrification.

Benzing provided cardboard, color pens, and glue for the audience, encouraging them to create an ideal cityscape. At the same time, they handed out questions to the audience, asking them about their ideal neighborhood. The audience wrote down answers and put them inside the pocket-size windows in the six-foot cardboard building. The team will record the answers and turn the ideas  into 3D models on a mobile app. The artist plans to make another virtual reality film that would allow the audience to revisit what they built with their hands and listen to their reflections about their dream city.

“We can bring people to dialogues about the city that they want to live in,” said Benzing. “I’m still looking for stories. I want us to grow.”

She added, “I think of it as a living archive or a living document.”

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