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.