When New Yorkers seek an island of calm within the city, they usually think of finding a patch of grass in a park, not making a beeline to the streets of Jackson Heights. But stillspotting, a series of programs sponsored by the Guggenheim, promises pools of respite in the most unusual places.
Selected artists and architects are paired with each of New York five boroughs and asked to create “spots” of stillness–what that might mean seems to be completely at their discretion. Last June artist Pedro Reyes’ Sanitorium project in Brooklyn offered visitors a selection of “urban therapies”; in September the architects of Snoehetta teamed up with Estonian composer Arvo Part to create To a Great City, a series of installations deploying weather balloons accompanied by Part’s music in a handful of spaces around Manhattan. Now, the architecture firm SO-IL is defining stillness through time, specifically the time it takes for a writer to read a short story.
For Transhistoria, SO-IL explored one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, Jackson Heights, Queens; the firm was particularly curious about how neiborhood residents, many of whom are foreign-born, achieve a sense of home. To answer that question, SO-IL invited a group of ten Queens-based writers to tell their own stories of “migration, displacement, and finding familiarity and identity in a new place.” Each writer is matched with one of six Jackson Heights locations that range from apartments to sidewalks to rooftops. Visitors can buy tickets for a four-story self-guided tour that lasts about two hours. During the reading, each story location becomes a temporary stillspot (stools provided).
SO-IL founder Jing Liu said that she and partner Florian Idenburg hand-picked the group of authors and worked with them to shape their pieces; the eclectic bunch includes Fr. William Alan Briceland, chaplain at Elmhurst Hospital, and Ishle Yi Park, poet laureate for the borough of Queens. At a preview event earlier this week, listeners heard a sampling of “transhistories,” like “You Say Samosa, I Say Samoosa,” by Premilla Nadasen, a writer of Indian descent who was born in South Africa and ended up in Queens but has never lived in India. That evening the background noise of the soiree competed with any sense of stillness; writers will have to be in full voice to create stillspots on a busy weekend in Jackson Heights.
Yet exactly that challenge–as well as unpredictable weather and attendance numbers–is what makes this edition of stillspotting an exciting experiment. Stillspotting organizer David van der Leer, the Guggenheim’s assistant curator of architecture and urban studies–who is also behind the museum’s other out-of-body project, the BMW Guggenheim Lab–said that previous editions have taught him that stillspot seekers are out in force on weekends. Transhistoria is spaced out over four Saturdays and Sundays (April 14–15, 21–22, 28–29, and May 5–6, 11am–7pm).