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Once Upon a Time in the Bronx, 2012

Once Upon a Time in the Bronx was commissioned by the arts nonprofit No Longer Empty in 2012 for an exhibition entitled This Side of Paradise. The project centered on working with a group of young women to create a storytelling, photographically illustrated card game to compare how the Bronx is depicted in the media versus their own experience. The project was sited in a Bronx neighborhood populated by recent immigrants and popularly characterized as being an economically depressed area known for poor education, environmental discrimination and endemic violence.

We began with workshops to analyze a pre-existing card game called Once Upon a Time, featuring European characters from medieval fairy tales. Rather than blonde princesses, we discussed representation of neighborhood teachers, new immigrants and even President Obama, and how redesigning the game’s structure could better reflect their reality. Based on this, I photographed images for characters, locations, events, and story endings concerning life in the Bronx as told through the lens of magic realism. The game is a generative story engine, and the deck itself is a portrait of the perception and representation of place.

Game play facilitated conversation about issues that might otherwise be difficult to discuss. During play tests, the girls disclosed stories concerning domestic violence, so I worked with them to develop a participatory performance for NLE’s exhibition, where audience members joined actors on stage to work through issues related to domestic abuse. I filmed two sets of silent “screen tests,” once with the girls sitting in character and once as themselves, which used to create a split screen video accompanied by a sound track of their meditations on the role of violence in their lives.

The gallery installation of the project featured the dual channel video, screen prints adapted from individual photographic game cards as well as the game itself, which could be played on site. The Village Voice published an article about the development of the participatory theater work, which was performed during the run of the Paradise exhibition. The project later shown at a second NLE exhibition entitled Bring in the Reality. At the girl’s request, I also gave 50 decks to area schools as a tool for discussion.