Once Upon a Time in the Bronx, 2012

In response to a commission to create a portrait of the Mid-Bronx for No Longer Empty’s exhibition This Side of Paradise, Crean reinterpreted the mandate by designing a mechanism through which the neighborhood could produce a portrait of itself. The Once Upon a Time in the Bronx project began with a story-telling, graphic card game which facilitates the community to tell its own stories in its own way.

The Bronx neighborhood where the project was sited is populated by recent immigrants and popularly characterized as being an economically depressed area known for poor education, environmental discrimination and endemic violence. Crean developed the project with teenagers from the BronxWorks community center located across from the exhibition site on the Grand Concourse.

The process began with media analysis, to question what types of stories were typically told about the Bronx, and by whom. Students felt that the majority of portrayals of their neighborhood were one-sided, sensational stories concerning violence, promoted by the news media for headlines and profit.

In an effort to facilitate re-presenting these situations, the group used the classic storytelling game Once Upon a Time, whose object is to tell collaborative stories, as a model. The original deck features European characters from medieval fairy tales, but the group redesigned the characters, locations, events, objects, descriptions and endings to depict life in the Bronx as told through the lens of magic realism.

The group carefully considered how to address representation in the game. Rather than blonde princesses, they discussed how to depict neighborhood teachers, drug addicts, new immigrants and even President Obama. They also wrestled with visualizing abstract concepts such as love or magic spells through photography. The group chose familiar neighborhood landmarks, characters and objects which Crean photographed, enhanced, and recontextualized into a 165 card deck produced with graphic designer Burak Nehbit.

Working with the cards has, under the pretext of play, facilitated conversation about issues that might otherwise be difficult to discuss. Several of the resulting stories were used to create other more experimental works: a modular screen print series where viewers could rearrange wall mounted prints based compositions from the card deck to convey their own micro-fictions; an interactive Forum Theater play produced with Katy Rubin, where audience members joined actors on stage to work through issues related to domestic violence; and a video installation portraying silent screen tests of the two main characters in the Forum, accompanied by a sound track of their own meditations on the role of violence in their lives.

The gallery installation of the project featured the screen prints adapted from Crean’s photography for the game, as well as the card deck itself, which could be played on site. The Village Voice published an article about the development of the Forum theater work, which was performed during the run of the exhibition.