This project has been made possible by a grant from the Creative Arts Council of Brown University.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Alternate realities

Last week I discovered that the Arcade is, in fact, still open. We were on the Weybosset portico experimenting with some material last Wednesday (19.10.11) when two women walked purposefully up the steps towards us. After a moment of wondering if their purposefulness was directed at us, I realised that they were heading into the Arcade. Or at least trying to. They were visiting Providence (we did not ask where they were from, but English was not their first language- a guess, probably inaccurate, on my part would be that they were from eastern Europe) and had come to the Arcade because it was recommended in their guidebook as a place to shop. They were quite surprised to hear us say that had been closed for a few years, and asked where else in Providence they could go to shop. So, somewhat incoherently, I gave them directions to Westminster Street and also the mall.

This occurrence left a resonance. It was a moment where the past identity of the Arcade as a vibrant shopping location (whether in reality or in utopic visions of the city), and a site touted in guidebooks for visitors to Providence was brought into the present, where identity of the Arcade is as an empty and derelict place. It was not so much an overlapping of identities as a collision; incongrous and seemingly incompatible, the past and present identities of the site reverberated through and against one another. This collision highlights the tensions that exist between pasts and presents, beween projected identities and realities of a site, and in this case this tension resulted in disillusionment for these two women. (Perhaps this disparity between the promised and delivered experience of the Arcade was also felt by some visitors when the Arcade was still open). But it is in this moment of collision, of conflicting realities, that a questioning of these realities is allowed. In this moment, the seemingly stable temporal sequence of the Arcade's history broke apart into fragments of uncertainty, fragments of possibility: as the women walked with such purpose up to the doors of the Arcade (they were almost ready to reach out and grab the door handle before I could say something), I believed for a split second that they were going in, that the Arcade could, in fact, be open- we just hadn't noticed. In that second another reality seemed possible.

Possible for me, that is, because it was a reality for the women, for whom the Arcade existed as an open, functioning shopping location- until we shifted that reality by saying it was not. What if I had told them that it had, unfortunately, merely closed early that day? Would that have preserved the existence of an open Arcade in their imaginations? Maybe. But it is possible that there are still people out there with a guidebook of Providence from pre-2008, where the Arcade is featured as a centerpiece of the city. If so, the open Arcade is a present reality, existing in those individuals' imaginations. And it is a reality that exists alongside and in dialogue with the closed Arcade that I know; these realities are not incompatible. However, sometimes they do collide. And in the space of that collision we are privy to an intersection of realities that reveals something of the complexities of a place's existences and identities, which reach far beyond what we can fully understand, organise, or control. And yet we still try to do just that.

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