I was in NYC last week and on Friday had the pleasure of meeting with Christopher Allen and Steve Holmgren at UnionDocs in Brooklyn to see the place and hear about the UnionDocs venture. UnionDocs is a non-profit housed in a former shop on Union Avenue, a busy high road in Willamsburg. Christopher Allen, who founded UnionDocs along with Jesse Shapins, Johanna Linsley, Paul Kiel, and Kara Oehler, explained how it had gradually evolved over nearly a decade through a number of twists and turns into its current incarnation with a mission, as the website puts it, “to present a broad range of innovative and thought-provoking non-fiction projects to the general public, while also cultivating specialized opportunities for learning, critical discourse, and creative collaboration for emerging media-makers, theorists, and curators.” And this is what UnionDocs does, with what seems to be terrific energy, rigour and ambition.
The UnionDocs space has three functions with lots of cross-fertilisation going on between them. It’s a micro-cinema/discussion space which Holmgren programmes, for new, noteworthy and classic non-fiction work, often shown with the film-maker/s present. (I had to fly home Saturday but wished I’d been able to stay for that night’s show – a screening of Tarnation with director, Jonathan Caouette, joined by the ambiguous co-star of that piece – his mum, Renee LeBlanc. Allen was going to be filming the event for Caouette to use in a new work.) Secondly, it’s a base for projects being created by the UnionDocs team. Finally, it’s the home for what I think is a unique initiative – a practice based programme in collaborative documentary for early career professionals.
UnionDocs was recently the subject of a MoMA event and you can read a review of the evening just published in this Brooklyn Rail article. This offers a good overview of UnionDocs story, and what the collaborative programme is about. You’ll get a sense from the article of the interesting cultural space that the UnionDocs guys occupy – thinking about documentary and the representation of the real, engaged in questions of aesthetics with a clear sense that this stuff matters in society, and bringing to the project, among other things, aspects of performance and considerable web savvy. Allen, the Executive Director, studied theatre for a while at Trinity College in Dublin, and became interested there in the collaborative aspects of performance, and Johanna Linsley another of the founders, is now studying performance in the UK.
Allen was also one of the creators of the hugely successful and influential Yellow Arrow participatory global public art project – which began in New York’s Lower East Side in 2004. As the website description says, “Combining stickers, mobile phones and an international community, Yellow Arrow transforms the urban landscape into a “deep map” that expresses the personal histories and hidden secrets that live within our everyday spaces.” It was an early foray into the emerging ‘geospatial web’ that turned out to be perfectly pitched to engage visual arts communities in North America and European cities in particular.
UnionDocs combination of public engagement and formal experimentation reminded me of Four Corners in Bethnal Green, one of the UK Film Workshops established with funding from Channel 4, where I worked as a programmer for a while in the early 80s. The comparison might be interesting to explore further sometime, but UnionDocs see it as important to differentiate what they are doing from an easy association with 70s alternative media practice. In particular, as Allen discussed in a recent panel at the Chashama Film Festival, he is interested in collaboration as shared authority rather than as consensus based decision making. ( I think he was right when he said in the same session that the term collaboration is now ‘used so frequently that is emptied of specific meaning’. And this is one of the strands of our conversation Friday that I’d like to return to.)
One of the projects emerging from the team behind Union Docs – producers Jesse Shapins and Kara Oehler – is a production with National Public Radio which looks at the reality of the high street in America today. “When politicians mention Main Street, they evoke one people and one place. But there are over 10,466 streets named Main in the United States.” Mapping Main Street is a terrific ongoing participatory project in audio, video and stills that definitely warrants a post of its own, and I’ll return to it very soon.
I spent an hour and a half with Allen and Holmgren talking about their work and mine, and realise writing this that I have lots more questions I wished I’d had time to ask – not least to get a better understanding of just how they make all this work financially. Happily we agreed that I’d return in the Autumn to show some work. I also mentioned my hope to stage a conference about collaborative creativity, and UnionDocs would definitely be on the programme. (If you are interested in such an event, or have ideas for who might be in it, do leave a comment or get in touch.)