Michael Premo: the idea of home

Michael Pre­mo is com­mit­ted to artis­tic and activist work in NYC. He is the co-direc­tor of the par­tic­i­pa­to­ry doc­u­men­tary project, Sandy Sto­ry­line, a com­mu­ni­ty-gen­er­at­ed col­lec­tion of sto­ries about the impact of Hur­ri­cane Sandy on the five bor­oughs of New York City. Michael is also the founder of the doc­u­men­tary sto­ry­telling project Hous­ing is a Human Right that con­nects diverse com­mu­ni­ties around the shared expe­ri­ence of obtain­ing or main­tain­ing a home. He was a cen­tral fig­ure in Occu­py Wall Street and one of the cre­ators of Occu­py Sandy. 

Michael spoke to City Atlas about the pow­er of shar­ing sto­ries, the future of New York as a water­front city and place for artists, and the impor­tance of home.

Could you tell us about your career? You’re a pho­tog­ra­pher, a the­ater-mak­er, an activist. 

I don’t see any dif­fer­ence between the cre­ative work and some of the activist work. I have a back­ground in the­ater and it was through the­ater that I became kind of obsessed with sto­ries, and came to under­stand sto­ries. That was par­al­lel to my polit­i­cal involve­ment, just being involved with issues in my com­mu­ni­ty as an engaged indi­vid­u­al who saw that there was a bet­ter poten­tial. Then through the work of mak­ing the­ater, as well as the activism, I got involved in pho­tog­ra­phy, became a pho­to­jour­nal­ist, and have become increas­ing­ly inter­est­ed in large, col­lab­o­ra­tive par­tic­i­pa­to­ry cre­ation.

How did your involve­ment with Occu­py Wall Street influ­ence your work fol­low­ing Sandy? 

We had the­se exist­ing net­works and a com­mu­ni­ty we could instant­ly acti­vate to fig­ure out how to best meet the needs of our com­mu­ni­ty that was in cri­sis fol­low­ing the storm. When Hur­ri­cane Sandy hit, we start­ed Occu­py Sandy. What we were doing was oper­a­tional­iz­ing philo­soph­i­cal val­ues and ideas that were explored and put into prac­tice a year ear­lier with Occu­py Wall Street. We were able to acti­vate this net­work of folks who were already engaged in the com­mu­ni­ty prac­tice and very quick­ly cre­ate a struc­ture that was open, col­lab­o­ra­tive, and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, at a scale where we could mobi­lize hun­dreds and thou­sands of peo­ple very quick­ly and very effec­tive­ly.

Par­al­lel to that effort, we start­ed Sandy Sto­ry­line. We start­ed that because we knew that just as peo­ple need their imme­di­ate relief efforts met, in the long-term, the social infra­struc­ture is as impor­tant as the phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture. Sandy Sto­ry­line is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple to be able to express how they’re affect­ed by the storm, in a way that’s par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and col­lab­o­ra­tive and inclu­sive of many of the dif­fer­ent peo­ple who were affect­ed and all the dif­fer­ent ways that they were affect­ed. 

As one of the two direc­tors of the Sandy Sto­ry­line, how did you first cre­ate that project? 

Very ear­ly on we had the­se reg­u­lar week­ly open meet­ings where we invit­ed peo­ple to par­tic­i­pate in the co-design of the project. That meant every­thing from the mechan­ics to the type of con­tent we were solic­it­ing. We rec­og­nized that there were sto­ries out there in the com­mu­ni­ty that weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent­ed in the plat­form yet.

So for you per­son­al­ly, what is the most impres­sive Sandy Sto­ry?

Oh wow. That’s real­ly, real­ly hard to answer. I can say it as a cat­e­go­ry. In this age of Inter­net and instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion cul­ture that we live in, we invit­ed peo­ple to share how­ev­er they want­ed to share, but in how we talked about the project we priv­i­leged pho­to, videos, and audio sto­ries, the sort of mul­ti­me­dia we thought peo­ple would more wide­ly embrace. But some of the sto­ries that real­ly impressed us are the writ­ten sto­ries. The writ­ten sto­ries have real­ly blown us away. There’s mul­ti­ple writ­ten sto­ries that peo­ple have sent in where peo­ple start off by say­ing some­thing to the effect of, “You know, it took me a while to think about how to begin this, but I need­ed to sit down and write this, and this is my sto­ry.” There’s that kind of deep sigh that peo­ple express when writ­ing a sto­ry. The writ­ten sto­ries are just real­ly inter­est­ing and beau­ti­ful and deeply reflec­tive. I think this is an exam­ple of what we’ve come to under­stand of the cathar­sis of shar­ing your sto­ry. It’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring emo­tion­al clar­i­ty or intel­lec­tu­al clar­i­ty to emo­tion­al­ly trau­mat­ic sit­u­a­tions.

You have report­ed so many sto­ries from Sandy vic­tims. In what aspects do you think New York City wasn’t doing enough to be sus­tain­able before Sandy? Sus­tain­able for peo­ple to live and in terms of envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty?

That’s a big ques­tion. In a lot of ways I think. So it’s inter­est­ing, the flood maps of New York some­what par­al­lel the land­fill where land in New York has been cre­at­ed over the last two hun­dred years. I think in the plan for dis­as­ter respon­se, the city and the gov­ern­ment and the big NGOs, like the Red Cross, didn’t take into account how to respond to a ver­ti­cal city, a city where there are a lot peo­ple who live in the­se tall build­ings, espe­cial­ly didn’t take into account the elder­ly and dis­abled peo­ple who were stuck up in the­se build­ings. The city was woe­ful­ly unpre­pared in that aspect. I think New York has this extreme chal­lenge that we don’t think of our­selves as a water­front city as much as oth­er water­front places do. And the storm com­plete­ly showed how vul­ner­a­ble we are to the ele­ments.

Sandy Sto­ry­line won the inau­gu­ral trans­me­dia award from the 2013 Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val. How do you think trans­me­dia will reshape the sto­ry­telling land­scape?

Sandy Sto­ry­line is demon­strat­ing that it’s pos­si­ble to cre­ate rich, inves­tiga­tive mate­ri­al through a process that is par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and open. We resist the work as crowd-sourcing. There is cura­tion. There is an edi­to­ri­al lens through the work that we do. We’re help­ing to orga­nize all of the infor­ma­tion that’s con­tribut­ed. When I was a kid, the thing was all about spend­ing a lot of mon­ey, like $200, on the­se fly sneak­ers. Now in 2014, it’s sim­i­lar for cell­phones and this tech­nol­o­gy. So even in low-income com­mu­ni­ties where pre­vi­ous­ly you might not have had access to devices that could take real­ly rich, engag­ing media, now the­se tools are increas­ing­ly avail­able across the social spec­trum. So more and more peo­ple have the abil­i­ty to tell their sto­ries in high­er qual­i­ty media con­tent. That pro­vides this real­ly rich oppor­tu­ni­ty to diver­si­fy the ideas that play in the media land­scape by find­ing smart par­tic­i­pa­to­ry ways to solic­it that con­tent, as well as to sift through it to give it the edi­to­ri­al con­text that’s nec­es­sary for peo­ple to under­stand and digest all this infor­ma­tion. 

Sandy Sto­ry­line is an ongo­ing project. In the post-Sandy era, how do you plan to bring the project back to the mass media and how do you get peo­ple to care about it now? 

That’s a big chal­lenge, how do peo­ple care about things after a storm? We’re devel­op­ing part­ner­ships with oth­er media out­lets that will syn­di­cate the con­tent out to those chan­nels. We’re devel­op­ing a part­ner­ship with peo­ple in New Orleans that will go live hope­ful­ly in the fall, which is this com­par­a­tive time­line that places Katri­na sto­ries in con­text with Sandy sto­ries so that we can have that con­text to under­stand what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, how sim­i­lar mis­takes were made once again, how may­be they weren’t made in cer­tain areas. That will be impor­tant, not only for the moment and the long-term recov­ery of this par­tic­u­lar area, but hope­ful­ly, for the long-term urban pol­i­cy and plan­ning per­spec­tive, to under­stand how the­se events are stack­ing up again­st each oth­er as time goes on. We’re look­ing to impact the cur­rent con­ver­sa­tion, but we also have our eyes set far­ther in the future to impact urban plan­ning and pol­i­cy around how we respond to dis­as­ters in an era of cli­mate change and increas­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty.

You are now work­ing on the Hous­ing is A Human Rights Project, have you looked into the issue of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in NYC?

Hous­ing Is A Human Right is a project that aims to con­nect diverse com­mu­ni­ties around hous­ing, land, and the dig­ni­ty of a place to call home. While gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is cer­tain­ly one piece of that, we’re try­ing to have a much more dynam­ic and nuanced look at what we per­ceive as a uni­ver­sal human aspi­ra­tion to have some type of home. Even peo­ple that are nomadic or don’t want what you or I might think of as a typ­i­cal home still have, even in their rejec­tion of the idea of home, some con­cept of the idea of home. So that project is explor­ing this idea of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion through how peo­ple are try­ing to hold onto a home, espe­cial­ly among affect­ed com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly among com­mu­ni­ties that have been eco­nom­i­cal­ly and racial­ly mar­gin­al­ized from main­stream eco­nom­ic sys­tems. How are they hold­ing on? How are they try­ing to main­tain their home?

Speak­ing from your per­son­al expe­ri­ence as an artist in NYC, do you think the city is a sus­tain­able one for artists? 

No, not at all. The irony is that one of the many things that makes New York, in my biased opin­ion, one of the great­est cities on earth was its cre­ative com­mu­ni­ty. The cre­ative com­mu­ni­ty was able to sur­vive in New York in many ways because there was an abun­dance of space and resources and art, because of that artists had time to cre­ate. There was greater access to space to cre­ate in and meet oth­er artists. Now, that’s being replaced. Now we have kids com­ing out of art school with a hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars in debt, for a pro­fes­sion that’s not going to make a lot of mon­ey, except for a very small seg­ment of artists mak­ing prod­ucts. So, I don’t think New York is sus­tain­able. I don’t think New York is doing what’s nec­es­sary to be able to sus­tain a cre­ative ecosys­tem because in large part the city has not done enough to appre­ci­ate indige­nous cre­ative activ­i­ty that hap­pens in the­se com­mu­ni­ties, that’s always hap­pened in the­se com­mu­ni­ties. It’s always a focus on some out­sider from some­where else, or some sort of art school par­a­digm, where­as cul­tur­al expres­sion is a unique human activ­i­ty that is as old as lan­guage itself per­haps. I think the city needs to reeval­u­ate its poli­cies towards rec­og­niz­ing that nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring cul­ture.

Do you think New York City could be replaced by oth­er cities in the com­ing years? 

As a cen­ter of cul­ture? I think there are oth­er cities in the world already, I mean, Berlin is one in the last decade that has a art scene that rivals New York cer­tain­ly, some peo­ple say it’s far stronger. I think as long as artists strug­gle to eat and live in New York, there’s gonna be oth­er cities where it’s more afford­able where peo­ple are gonna be forced to move.

So what’s the future for New York? 

I think there will always be an art scene in New York for the fore­see­able future, but I think the vibran­cy of that art scene is in jeop­ardy because New York is increas­ing­ly becom­ing, has already become, unsus­tain­able.

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About Jingwen Tong

Jingwen (Clare) Tong joined the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford with a B.A. in English Language and Literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University. When she was a visiting student at Barnard College of Columbia University in 2014, she worked for City Atlas as a reporter, featuring the New Yorkers' contributions of leading a sustainable city. Following her return to Beijing, Ms. Tong set up Beijing City Atlas, a parallel environmental online publication which focuses on educating the Chinese public by delivering bilingual articles about energy efficiency and sustainable development. In the future, Ms. Tong aspires to build on her MPP experience at Oxford to create a transnational network for a more sustainable China, in terms of both the environment and gender equality.