Arts interview

Mapping Vietnamese sidewalk life and street vending

Urban Studies Professor Annette Kim talks about Sidewalk City

6233 sidewalk
From left to right, Elizabeth L. Resor ’13 and Alexis B. Howland ’13 ran red tape through campus to the Wolk Gallery for the opening of Sidewalk City last week. The exhibit explores Vietnamese sidewalk life and street vending through a map.
Courtesy of MIT SLAB

Sidewalk City

Wolk Gallery, 7-338

Open Monday – Friday,
9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Through Friday, Nov. 15, 2013

Last Thursday you might have noticed a red-tape line running through campus. The line ran from Lobby 7 up to the third floor Wolk Gallery for the opening of Sidewalk City, a mini-exhibit by Urban Studies Professor Annette Kim and her group SLAB, the sidewalk laboratory. The Tech caught up with Professor Kim about the new exhibit.

The Tech: How did your interest in Vietnamese sidewalk life and street vending develop?

Annette Kim: I’ve been having an engagement with Vietnam for 15 years but during 1999–2000 I lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a year. There was something wonderful about being in the city and I couldn’t quite articulate what it was. And so the initial genesis of the project was to try to figure out what it was.

TT: What are your group’s overall research goals, and how does this project tie into those goals?

AK: One of the overarching goals of my group is to recognize and include the larger public when we think about and plan our cities. For example, lower-income people and immigrants are regularly excluded in our grand visioning of the city.

Since we often hold incorrect assumptions [about] who is in the city and what the spatial practices actually are, I use fieldwork and mapping to recover ubiquitous but overlooked phenomena. And through evocative visualizations that engage local institutions, I hope the visual narratives we create influence the social construction process about what are appropriate, legitimate, and aesthetic ways to be in the city.

We have used venues such as official proposals and presentations to city agencies and op-eds in the newspaper to promote a more inclusive and empirically grounded city-planning paradigm.

But, this exhibition in Wolk Gallery is also a research question in itself: How might art spaces in society play a special role in that reconstruction process? Can we bring a different segment of [the] population into the discourse? What happens with the special quality of interaction [with] art, more evocative than text and statistics?

So, that’s why did this really fun strategy at the opening reception: we parked [the] Momogoose food truck next to the Lobby 7 dome and had them give free Vietnamese spring rolls and then taped a red line that goes from the sidewalk, through the lobby, up the elevator, and into the gallery.

It was an amazingly successful experiment in public engagement. Even while we were putting down the line through Lobby 7 and onto the sidewalk, people started asking questions and following it. People would say, “I was going somewhere else, but I’ve got to see where this line leads!” Many people who came to the show had never been in the Wolk gallery. That’s part of what we wanted to do: to make art galleries more accessible.

The whole show is about sidewalk life so it would have been ridiculous to stay in a cloistered space. And we wanted to engage the whole person’s body and senses: that’s why we have tiny Vietnamese stools for people to squat on in the gallery as they watch the animated map play. The Boston Globe writeup also brought new people to campus to see the show. The MIT Museum curator told me he hasn’t seen such a turnout in 5 years.

TT: Who did the fieldwork?

AK: Yes, this project and my research group SLAB originally started with four amazing UROPs from different majors. They did intensive fieldwork during IAP in 2010 and surveyed and inputted the nearly 4000 observations of sidewalk life and interviewed 270 street vendors, with their Vietnamese partner. And since then we have been experimenting with alternative ways to map this data and analyze space. It’s been an exhilarating experience for both my students and me.

TT: How was the MIT community involved in the project?

AK: The Council for the Arts (CAMIT) was generous in providing funding for the projectors for our animations. The Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), and MIT Museum also provided funding and organizing. [I am] grateful for the team effort.

TT: What’s next for you and your research group?

AK: Now I’m mapping another overlooked space in the city — approximately 2 million people are living underground bomb-shelter apartments in Beijing. Again, a ubiquitous but overlooked phenomenon! It’s been fascinating to research and map subterranean urbanism.