The street seems quiet in the morning. It doesn’t look like the one shown in the sensational crime story from yesterday’s local six-o-clock news. Nothing is out of the ordinary — it doesn’t look like a headline could be plucked from anything in my immediate vicinity. We walk in a group, the eight of us, to observe the streets of Sherman Park’s Center Peace neighborhood. We look for the houses we will be entering and the measuring for the next few weeks. Our act of gathering here, has already placed us in a different frame of mind. We walk to observe with purpose, openly. We are not alone. We are noticed. People see us from their porches, kids are distracted from their play. In this instant, something has changed in the minds of our observers, in our minds as well. The dynamic has altered irreversibly, in the subtle, undramatic way that ordinary events occur, but the effects — the altering of time and experience — are permanent. Presence and observation, of objects or people, is the driving force of perception, of experience.
A day later, while measuring a house, we touch every inch of every wall on the main floor of the building. While observing within this tactile and architectonic context, we are transported back to the mind of the creator, of the developer or builder from the early 1920s. We contemplate on the first residents of this house. We consider its original function and purpose. Jane Bennett argues in her book Vibrant Matter that objects have life because they are able to influence their surroundings, to cause change in their observers. Already in approaching these houses in such a way, our minds have been influenced and transported to a fictional, plausible moment from a past that is encoded in the walls of the house.
Perhaps more clearly and quickly than if it were written on the walls themselves, an image comes to my mind — of a former tenant cooking dinner for guests who sit and chat in the living room. This apparition is not a conscious one, as I do not dwell on it, or choose to summon it. Rather the idea comes at once as I float though the kitchen through the present, as the homeowner explains how she removed the kitchen door because she was sick of constantly opening it. At this instance, my imagination gives voice to the past. Through the conglomerate effects of this scene, the kitchen with its walls and stove and spice cabinet, refrigerator and open pantry that smells of flour and stale sugar, the objects speak their history to me. Yet it is inherently subjective.
All of these ways in which an object can gain value beyond its prescribed functional appraisal are based on the ability of the observer to imagine a story, to view the object but think beyond its immediate presence, to a past event. Either way, it is up to the observer to give it value, to empathize with its history, and decide what it means. It is a personal experience and personal decision.
Each house is, in essence, an object that plays a specific role. The house is the container that holds the movement to the eye as well as the feet of its residents. Its contents, people, furniture, hardware, electrical wiring, adhere to it like liquid in a cup. Its walls are protective and ornamental. Its floors are stage-sets for an unfolding household drama involving pets, objects, and hurried people.
In conducting field work, we too have become authors of a different sort. We attend to houses and we research its neighborhood. We open our senses. In telling many stories, we propose new perspectives. We care, through time and contemplation. As we enter these scenes, private rooms or public streets, we too are altered and inspired. The power of the object is not to give an emotion directly to us, but to evoke an existing idea that resides within us, to recall the fabrics of a thousand personal truths that resound in the mind, and empower us to unconsciously weave them into a story; an image that is very real even if it only exists in the observer’s mind. These houses have made this clear.
Sponsors: Wisconsin Humanities Council, David and Julia Uihlein Charitable Trust, Wisconsin Preservation Trust, Matthew Bohlman and the Finney Incubator Project, Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures, Randforce Associates Inc., American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Office of Undergraduate Research, UWM Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Sherman Park Community Association, Washington Park Partners of United Methodist Children’s Services; Ben Barbera and the staff at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Tricklebee Cafe, Community Baptist Church of Greater Milwaukee, Men's Breakfast Group, Dominic Inouye, ZIP MKE, Midtown Partners, Southeast Asian Educational Development of Wisconsin, Inc.,
Cast of Characters
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, The perception of beauty is a moral test. This choice of perception — what we see, what we want to see, and what we are capable of seeing — is at the heart of the Picturing Milwaukee project. We are in this endeavor together — students, scholars, residents and non-residents — to learn to see the world from a different perspective. At the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures field school our perception of beauty is an aesthetic one, where the familiar becomes unfamiliar, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Our quest for perceiving beauty challenges taken-for-granted ideas and restores a sense of beauty in our everyday world, that we have somehow learnt to forget. As we collect stories of ordinary people and everyday places, we meet incredible human beings. As we live our lives on the sidewalks of Sherman Park, albeit for a few transient days, the transformation that takes place in each of us is enormous. What we learn remains with us for the rest of our lives. This knowledge will be our beacon, our moral compass as we live our lives, take decisions, elect governments, and sustain our worlds.