Legacy Russell Types Out Stories of the Old Neighborhood in Tompkins Square Park


Legacy Russell was sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park next to the playground. On a table in front of her sat a pink candle, a typewriter, and pages of typed notes. A man wearing a purple polo shirt stopped in front of her and asked what she was doing. She explained she was an artist working on a project in which she “collects memories about this neighborhood.”

“I’ve never lived in this neighborhood so I guess I don’t qualify,” he shrugged.

“That’s okay,” she responded. “It’s about the neighborhood, not if you’ve lived here; you don’t have to bring a proof of address.”

“So you’re doing it right now?”

“Yeah, would you like to share a memory?”

The man then launched into a story about how he used to go around “smoking out all the parks I could find,” including Tompkins. Russell’s fingers came down on the typewriter keys. He finished his tale, adding that he is now sober, and left.

Russell has been typing out people’s stories in locations around the East Village and the Lower East Side for two months now as part of her project, Open Ceremony, with public arts presenter Trust Art. We had read about her work Thursday morning on EV Grieve and ventured east to pay her a visit later that day.

Open Ceremony will be a year-long undertaking, she explained, characterized by four, what she calls, “rites.” She explained she is interested in the concepts of habits and rituals in her work. This transcription of stories is the first “rite,” deemed “Rite of Remembrance: Memory Transcription.”

“Like a religious rite,” she told us as we sat on the bench next to her. “The purpose of using this language is to call into reference the use of continued action and repeated action within public space. How do we redefine ceremony, the act of remembrance and ritual within a particular space, when it’s tied to a particular geography and site?”

When someone comes to her wishing to share a memory — she said she has talked to hundreds of people — she lights the candle she has set out for the day. Sometimes a visitor will ask to light the candle, which is sold in bodegas, himself.

Russell will continue listening to people’s stories through August, and the second rite — of which she did not want to reveal many details other than it will be an “opportunity for many people to converge in one place on a regular basis” — will start the second week of September. The stories she has typed out this summer will be on display as an exhibition sometime in late 2011 or early 2012. They’ll also be uploaded online, but for now she is retelling some of them on a Twitter account.

In October a group exhibition she is organizing called “American Idolatry” will go up at Brooklyn’s The Invisible Dog Art Center. Though it is not directly a part of Open Ceremony, it is thematically similar.

Russell, a 24-year-old who also works as an independent curator, grew up on 8th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, at the home where her parents still live. She had a short stint in Brooklyn after attending Macalester College in Minnesota, but is now living back in the neighborhood at 3rd Street and Avenue D.

“In being here and witnessing these changes, [I] have felt there’s been a real need to interact with people and talk to them about it,” she explained.

Toward the end of our conversation a man with a mohawk approached to ask her about her project. She gave him her speech. He grilled her about how long she has been in the neighborhood, saying that his family has been here since 1940.

“Because you know some people’s ideas of what the old Lower East Side is different from other people’s,” he said.

“Oh, no no no,” she jumped in. “My parents have been living here for almost 40 years now. I think it’s been a really interesting experience, and I’m that next generation.”