To take a walk through downtown Durham with artists Sabri Reed and Andrew Barco is to see the city in multiple dimensions of time. By professional inclination, they do a lot of thinking about Durham’s urban future–the one with lofts, restaurants and culture all linked up by light rail–but right now, as we walk behind what they call the “We Want Oprah Parking Garage,” they’re looking at the past, which they see everywhere they look.
“See these scrape marks on the brick wall here?” Reed says as she fingers ancient horizontal gougings in the narrow alley. “We think these are lines from carriage wheels.” Barco chimes in. “This used to be the center of everyday life. It was the back corner of N.C. Mutual, the black-owned bank. This is where the stables were.”
Suddenly, with these well-noticed details, a vision of a very different, bustling Durham comes into focus. In the same alley, Barco and Reed point out the dozens of bricked-in windows and door openings. Once there was teeming activity here, and in this particular juncture, Barco adds, it was a racial crossroads, a nexus of black economic self-reliance in the Jim Crow era.
Most of us, when we walk through downtown, see only the nondescript remnants of a Southern factory town. Still, Durham’s urban core–which has been under revitalization for many, many years now–is increasingly the site of fraught relationships between the people who have the means to stimulate its economy and those who have the imagination to make it creative and interesting.
Buzzwords like “creative class” and “New Urbanism” tend to make Reed and Barco wince. Although there are areas in which the artists’ interests coincide with those who seek to develop neglected urban spaces, Barco detects in those catch phrases a hip-sounding justification for expensive and exclusionary residential development. Indeed, Barco and Reed are most concerned about the ordinary business of downtown living and the everyday people who may get shut out of the race to develop large lofts and juice bars.
Barco is curator of the Transom Gallery, located at 305 E. Chapel Hill St., and he’s been organizing monthly shows with guest curators in concordance with Durham’s monthly Culture Crawl. This Friday, May 19, Reed, as guest curator, will present The Urban Anthropology Project, a mixed-media, conceptualist collaboration involving 16 artists.
On the Transom Gallery Web site, the show’s mission reads like a manifesto: “Our aim is to assert the place of our dreams, our actions, the hypothetical, the fantastical, the personal, the historical, and the specific into the discourse of the public realm and the transformation of society.”
But to really get it, we need to learn what a spandrel is. My conversation with Reed begins with the definition: A spandrel is an archaic architectural term that refers to undefined space with no intended function.
One example is the negative space formed by the junction of two arches. Another comes courtesy of Stephen Jay Gould: The chin is a spandrel. Technically it has no function, being the central forward portion of the mandible. But it acquired a name and we began to think of it as a body part. It entered our language and our self-understanding: We learned to keep our chin up (after taking it on the chin).
Reed, who dresses in a version of Napoleon Dynamite chic with aviator-style lenses, is 19 years old. She graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts last spring and will enter the School of the Fine Arts Museum of Boston in the fall. Currently she’s taking a year away from formal schooling to pursue her projects in Durham.
Barco, who studied European intellectual history at Wesleyan University, enlisted Reed to curate the Transom Gallery’s upcoming show, and she decided to investigate downtown Durham as a collection of unconsidered spaces, as a metaphor for the hidden possibilities of the city.
In February, she put out a call to artists to develop aesthetic responses to selected sites around the city. MC Kenyatta (aka Solomon Burnett) will perform three raps he composed in consideration of a spot under the 1970s façade that was added to the N.C. Mutual building. Nearby, in another oddly-configured space, an installation by audio artist 3KiB will utilize live walkie-talkies to invoke the increasingly popular practice of public surveillance.
Reed, who speaks quickly and misses nothing, has a relentless sense of irony. We don’t just walk to sites, we pursue the “radical act of walking,” as she says with finger-quotes and a sardonic gleam. She explains that she created packets with a list of questions and directions for the artists. “It was kind of like the things you get in kindergarten, you know: ‘We’re going to the zoo, so find six animals with tails.’” Reed asked the artists for descriptions of the architectural features and their opinions on what the space lacks and what there’s too much of. Results will be on display in the Transom Gallery, along with some newly generated art objects.
We step from a nondescript patch of a pre-paved sidewalk to nowhere into another space that lies below the parking garage of the post office. Unlocking the gate, Reed says with a twinkle, “We’re now on federal property. Just so you know.” (For some reason, this makes me review the contents of my pockets.)
It turns out that this unpromising spit of land comes encumbered with its own tenacious federal regulations. This piece of nowhere–a-ha, a spandrel–is nothing but the dirt under the slab, with room to stand and walk, some trash on the ground and a feeder for feral cats. The artist responsible for this space, Reed tells me, decided to make a project of negotiating the federal bureaucracy for permission to clean up the place.
From the second-floor perspective of the Transom Gallery on Chapel Hill Street, Reed and Barco are surrounded by the reassuring signs of urban progress: New nightspots, coffee shops and lofts are emerging. But they’re concerned that urban renewal could be a new form of suburbanization, with an accompanying loss of freedom and identity.
With this kind of development, Barco says, “power dynamics come into play. A person with a $300,000 loft will have more power to persuade the city to put in video cameras, for example. We need to have multiple use of the space. I want to go downtown without looking over my shoulder.”
Barco has a day job at the Regulator Bookshop, but his work with the Transom Gallery allows him to engage directly with the future of his hometown. “The Durham I want to live in everyday I get to create once a month. It may be utopianism, but I am creating a taste of it a few hours a month.”
The Urban Anthropology Project will open on Friday, May 19, from 6-10 p.m. as part of Durham’s monthly Culture Crawl and continue through June 10. You can also visit the gallery by calling 599-7904 or e-mailing email@example.com. For more information, see www.transomgallery.com.