Closer: A Journey with Charles is a multi-format, multi-year transmedia documentary project.
Closer seeks to provoke introspection about one’s proximity to marginalized individuals and to question assumptions about people from these communities while creating a complex portrait of a man named Charles as he transitions out of homelessness.
Note: the above documentation is from the debut install of the project. This version required two forms of interactivity to achieve clarity: moving closer to projected image would result in a clear audio, but the participant had to pick up coins from the floor and insert them into the box to trigger 30 seconds of clear image.
In subsequent installs I eliminated the coin sensor and programmed the piece so that moving closer or further away from the projected image would alter the image and sound simulaneously and uniformly maintaining the fundamental logic: "distance = distortion" and "closeness = clarity."
My reasons for simplifying the project were both practical and conceptual. The debut install required a truckload of material that would be extremely laborious for installing in cross country venues. Rather than shipping materials from Philadelphia, when I arrived in a new city for set up I would scavenge for supplies in dumpsters and empty lots to bring to the gallery space, thus mirroring the resourcefulness the Charles exhibited while living on the streets. Conceptually I wanted to move away from the idea of a financial transaction (donation = clarity) and focus exclusively on the idea of proximity.
Charles is a celebrity in Philadelphia. He has been featured on the news and has panhandled at the same intersection for close to 10 years. Everyone knows about the "wild looking dude by the train tracks near the Walmart and Home Depot." I first spoke Charles in 2008. I was riding my bike around the city shooting photos. I ended up near Charles and worked up the nerve to approach him. I admit, I assumed a lot of things about him. He would often be seen lying in piles of garbage. I was surprised by his intelligence and wit and really enjoyed speaking to him. I was in graduate school and began to document his life and relationship to another homeless man for a project using photos, video and 16mm film. Out of this material came three pieces: a traditional documentary Charles and Guy, a zine with the same name and this interactive installation Closer: A Moment with Charles.
Different mediums communicate different things. The documentary deals with the specific and provides a portrait of a symbiotic relationship between two men with compatible skills: Charles is charismatic and elicits sympathy, but weak whereas Guy is stand-offish and gruff, but physically strong and mobile and can protect Charles from threats and run errands for the both of them.
Closer deals with the big picture, but the message is lost without interaction. It is more general and more conceptual. It explores issues regarding proximity to marginalized populations. It utilizes a system where distance is manifested as distortion and ignorance, but closeness is rewarded with a deeper, more nuanced understanding and the potential for empathy.
Many people will ignore this installation. They don't know how to take it. It is not immediately accessible. It makes them uncomfortable. It isn't worth their time to invest when there are other things to do or see. This mirrors the lived experience of marginalized populations or even humanity in general (we pay no mind to the majority of the people we encounter). I have been told that this piece is too content heavy and I should focus on the technology and use a less polarizing subject matter. I completely disagree. Charles' story is valuable and that his experience is significant. I wanted to share this experience in this way because I hope to mirror my own personal journey from distortion to understanding and respect for this man.
Physical interactivity provides an opportunity to provoke something unique, something different from the traditional pieces. Perhaps an opportunity for introspection? Risk awkwardness. Move close and stay there. What do you learn about yourself?
Closer: A Moment with Charles, © 2009/2012, installation
reCLOSE: A Journey with Charles, © 2013, installation / website
reCLOSE is a proximity narrative that explores marginalization, transition, memory, and longing through the story of Charles Levy. In order for the piece to progress the participant must move closer to the projected image in incremental steps.
As the participant moves closer the narrative becomes more detailed and more intimate.
Chapter 1: "Ghosts" TRT 12:15
Chapter 2: "Dissonance" TRT 2:27
Chapter 3: "Threshold" TRT 2:56
Chapter 4: "Damon and Pythias" TRT 3:39
In order to view an entire chapter the participants must collaboratively stand within a certain threshold and wait for the video loop to play through. If the participant moves outside of that threshold the current chapter will terminate and a new chapter will begin.
reCLOSE is a companion piece to "Closer: A Moment with Charles." As the previous piece worked on a more conceptual level, here I attempt to focus on a specific narrative bring Charles' story to the forefront, while reserving the most poignant details for the engaged and patient participant.
Please spend some time in Charles' world. You are welcome to take a booklet.