Romanian artist Larisa David’s project presents a unique view of life and immigration in a historic Kansas City neighborhood
by Lucas Wetzel
One summer night in 2004, just months before my grandfather passed away, he took my brother and I on a driving tour of Strawberry Hill. We were headed to dinner at a riverboat casino in Missouri, but first he wanted to show us the Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood where he’d lived while working in the stockyards in the 1940s. The area was settled in the late 19th-century by immigrants from Eastern Europe, and today it is the home to a large Latino population, as well as younger people drawn to its historic character. Many of the original houses, brick buildings and ethnic churches are still standing.
I always wanted to learn more about my family’s history in Strawberry Hill — especially my Croatian great-grandfather, who ran a card house during Prohibition and had supposedly known Al Capone — but those stories are now forgotten or scattered among relatives. So I was excited to learn about “7 Views From The Hill,” an audio documentary project by Romanian artist Larisa David in which she conducted interviews with longtime residents of Strawberry Hill.
David visited the area in 2014 on a CEC ArtsLink program in partnership with the Charlotte Street Foundation. During her time here, she visited with people about their ties to the area, their family’s experiences with immigration, and how the neighborhood, and the country as a whole, have changed through the generations. Through the project’s examination of one particular community, Strawberry Hill becomes a stand-in for the larger immigrant experience in America.
David also recorded reenactments of relevant historical texts, including a patriotic language primer (read emphatically by Jessica Borusky) and a lengthy guide for healthy, sanitary living (read by David herself, whose accent makes it easy to imagine a new American citizen encountering these words and advice for the first time). The most striking reenactment is the dual monophonic of actual testimonies from the 1920 and 1921 U.S. congressional hearings on immigration. One channel broadcasts testimony against accepting new immigrants, while the other features arguments in favor of upholding America’s commitment to immigration. Listening to both at the same time is intense and disorienting, and the similarities to today’s immigration debates are uncanny.
In November 2014, David’s recordings were featured in an exhibit at Paragraph gallery, with each of the recordings playing in a loop on dangling sets of headphones. She launched an online version of her project last month at sevenviewsfromthehill a modular presentation of her research that mimics the intimate, no-frills experience of the galley exhibit. Last week, David discussed her project with Kawsmouth by email from Romania, where she continues to do artwork and research on a variety of subjects.
How did you choose Strawberry Hill as a subject for your project?
I arrived in Kansas City, in 2014, and from the beginning, my interest was to explore the history of the Eastern European immigrant who arrived in America and what happened to him or her there. Coming from Eastern Europe, together with my interest in the representation of the immigrant, especially related to the issues of integration and identity, drove me to do research about Strawberry Hill, a former enclave of Slavic identity. Before coming to the U.S., I started a dialogue with project manager Lyn E. Cook, who made it possible for me to get in touch with people that are in a way or another linked to the neighborhood.
How did you find the subjects, and what was the interview process like? Were people willing to talk with you right away, or did it take time to gain their trust?
All the people that I collaborated with in this project are first- and second-generation Americans, descendants of Eastern-European immigrants and almost all residents of Strawberry Hill. Everybody was open to talking with me from the start. The interviews were done always at the interviewee’s home, which made working with audio harder, but it was more comfortable for everybody. Being invited and having open and interesting conversations in these houses influenced the way this project developed and looked.
The interviews were based on questions that explore the neighborhood as a place that is synonymous with family history, the social dynamics surrounding the time of the second wave of immigration to America, and the Eastern-European identity, as well as how the neighborhood is changing today as a large community of Latino immigrants have emerged in Strawberry Hill and are changing the face of the Hill with their own businesses and culture.
In addition to the interviews, I invited a number of the residents to reenact a selection of texts that dealt with the condition of being an immigrant at the beginning of the last century from the points of view of the American institutions and of the individuals.
What in these conversations surprised you, and what impressed you the most?
I think one of the strangest realizations I had during these interviews was rather a personal one based on cultural differences, as I grew up surrounded by high fences; my mother always used to say that every house should be surrounded by high fences so nobody could see in — the total protection of the domestic space from the outside, fearing the outsider. Even where I live now, I barely know my neighbors, but in Strawberry Hill — and not only there — the fences are merely decorative.
As to my research, I soon discovered that eugenics, geopolitics and Western superiority have shaped the discourse on how the immigrant was represented in the collective discourse more than a century ago in the U.S. The Eastern European immigrant was seen as unfit to integrate in the society and incapable to assimilate the American lifestyle and culture. These, coupled with the fear of ideological baggage (Bolshevism) that the newcomers may bring from overseas, made it possible for harsh and discriminatory policies directed towards these immigrants.
There are many similarities between how the discourse was framed around the immigrant a century ago and now, making it obvious that it has not changed that much during the years. Reading different documents and books that dealt with the specific status of the Eastern European immigrant in America and the strategies employed by its institutions for how to assimilate the newcomers at the beginning of the last century, I decided to include in the project selected texts and documents that explore how propaganda was transmitted through institutions, along with the identity and behaviors the newcomers were encouraged to embrace to better integrate in the larger society. These selected texts were re-interpreted and performed in the re-enactments.
One of these texts that I included made a big impression on me, because it literally describes how a human looks — having two eyes, a nose and a mouth — which made me realize that the newcomers were seen as aliens coming from another planet rather than from another continent.
Why did you choose a more stripped-down, minimal website rather than one with photos, videos or artwork?
I wanted the website to echo the audio installation I created at Paragraph gallery in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. From the beginning, I decided to work with just audio, because I felt listening to these voices allowed a different position that seemed more direct between the viewer and the content. In the space of the gallery/website there were 7 houses outlined, each inhabited through the audio.
The idea with the outline of the houses, one right next to the other, is based on an account given by one of the residents in a text about the history of the Hill, where it says that since the houses were so small and close together, if a person leaned out of their window, they could touch the person next door in their house. Opposite the houses in the exhibition/website, there is a common space outlined.
Here the positions of the individuals are discussed, laws are made, assimilation techniques are developed and propagated, and resistance is met. As such, the space in its entirety relies on a dialogue between the individual voices and the collective voices of America.
Did you get to sample any interesting foods, music or traditions that were part of the Strawberry Hill neighborhood?
I had the chance to sample the art made in and about the neighborhood and the music. Music has been for these communities a tool against assimilation and a bridge between the two cultures. Many of the people I talked with from the neighborhood are still active in music bands. It’s a point of pride for them. Exactly for this reason, I invited one of the residents that I interviewed to sing and perform on a tamburitza, a traditional Croatian instrument, an American song.
Aside from the research on your project, what impressions did you have of Kansas City? What did you enjoy or not enjoy about your visit?
I think coming to a city as Kansas City, one can’t escape history, so this was an aspect that was important for me when visiting neighborhoods that were separated in the past by segregation, including former enclaves of different ethnicities, the West Bottoms, the suburbs or a less-populated downtown.
Also the city in many ways made me question my own understanding of how a city should look and work, since everything is expended on a horizontal axis — and most of Europe is not. This of course means needing a vehicle to navigate this ample space, which was at times hard for me since I have no driver’s license and only public transportation (that was difficult at times) or other people’s car and desire to take me places was possible. I had also walked a lot through the city, especially the downtown area which was close to me.
Unfortunately I didn’t spend as much time as I wished to explore the city, but what I appreciated here is the feeling of a city that is vibrant and growing. I had enjoyed knowing the artistic community in the city and meet some incredible artists who shared their practice with me and offered feedback to the project. Thanks to meeting a lot of wonderful people during my stay, I did not felt so much as a stranger and I had the chance to experiment some of the Kansas City lifestyle from American diners and marshmallows over the fire to art museums, haunted houses and authentic fajitas.
Are you working on, or do you plan to do more archival art or journalistic projects like “7 Views From The Hill”?
After I came from U.S., I continued working and finished a project named Delimitations, which was based on history textbooks that encompass the last 25 years of history taught to young pupils in schools in Romania. For me it was interesting to look how the scripts of identity and social dynamics had changed so much during the years. After the fall of Communism, the textbooks had to wait a while for a serious change and the powerful nationalistic tones remained present in these textbooks. Then, as a result of Romania joining the E.U., the textbooks become a bit more inclusive of others. So this project aimed to highlight how identities and representations are constructed, negotiated or contested and traces a history of the textbooks that show the magnification of the history of some and the omission of others.