As out of home ad spending began its slow recovery in early January
The Westfield World Trade Center sought to turn space typically devoted to marketing messages into one that reflects upon the area’s centuries-long connection to the Black community.
As out of home ad spending began its slow recovery in early January, the Westfield World Trade Center sought to turn space typically devoted to marketing messages into one that reflects upon the area’s centuries-long connection to the Black community.
The real estate company partnered with Black Gotham Experience (BGX) to create a digital installation examining the connections between the office complex’s location and 17th century Black land ownership. Titled Land of the Blacks, the exhibit began running on walls within the site’s Oculus transit hub and shopping mall’s 22 screens on February 26.
Those displays are ordinarily reserved for ads. But if there’s anything that diminishes the value of an OOH space, it’s the absence of any content. By mixing BGX’s contemporary art and history on its screens, WWTC sought to express its values by honoring the distinct history of the area it serves.
Specifically, the LoB series tells the story of Black land ownership in New Netherland between 1643 and 1663—the year before the Dutch surrendered Manhattan to the British.
That story is told through graphics, maps and photography illustrating the 28 different land grants that formed one of North America’s first Black communities, one that predates New York City.
Matching missions of art, real estate and history
The pieces, shown in a 2-minute loop with each image appearing for 10 seconds at a time, are on two floors spread out on the edges of Oculus North and South. Initially conceived to honor February’s Black History Month, it will remain in the Oculus until March 31.
BGX faced multiple pandemic-related challenges to creating the digital exhibition. First, land grants of any era, let alone ones from four centuries ago, don’t typically serve as the basis for captivating visuals. Secondly, they were working with a team of creative
The group’s mission is based on creating what Ware described as “media at the intersection of scholarship and aesthetics that illustrates the impact of the African Diaspora missing from collective consciousness as well as the public square.”
The LoB concept was inspired by a unanimous board resolution taken on Nov. 19 by the local community board, which officially acknowledge the over 20 sites related to Black landownership in the district dating back 400 years.
A rapid turnaround
From there, how to tell that story —and solutions to the limitations of creating in a pandemic—were discussed in early January among Ware and his frequent collaborator, Adrian Franks, who is an artist as well as an independent creative advertising director, with WWTC marketing director Julie Cameron. Ware and Franks had just come off a podcast they produced called The Stages, where they shared the joys and issues of Black fatherhood, when they got the call from WWTC.
BGX added work by artist Pope Phoenix and photographer, videographer Eurila Cave, who served as producer of the installation. Designer Ron Croudy built the landing page to extend the exhibition online.
“The idea of doing an exhibition was not something that WWTC necessarily suggested,” Ware said. “Initially, they wanted to host two talks I was giving about Black history tied to the nearby area. One was called Fighting Dark, about the 1863 riots in New York City—which is often called The Draft Riot, but was actually a racist massacre that happened over three days.”
The other BGX talk was on the Caesar’s Rebellion, which is sometimes called the New York Conspiracy or Great Negro Plot of 1741 that took place in British New York. The conspirators met at John Hughson’s house that would have been a block from the Oculus.
An important audience is found
The guidelines for the installation called for images to show for 10-seconds on each screen during two-minute loop. Ware, who is also a fine art photographer, reached out to Franks to help him map out the kinds of images they would need.
“As we talked more about it, and understood what the actual canvas was going to be, we realized we could bring the vectors back that we created with the original design language around the BGX talks,” Franks said. “I quickly realized we couldn’t use the original set of designers. But we saw this was a chance to bring in some new talent.”
In addition to filling the Oculus screens with fresh design of old maps and land grants, the team also incorporated images of the creatives’ relatives to bring home the humanity of these historic events and references and to demonstrate the passage of history.
“It’s one thing to tell stories, because when it comes down to out of home, the first thing you’ve got to do is grab attention—and you don’t even have a whole second to inspire someone passing to stop,” Franks said. “I knew that all of us having distinctive styles works pretty well individually, when it comes down to some of the smallest screens at the Oculus. The bigger challenge was trying to stitch all of those things together in a manner that made sense and felt cohesive to the footfall—foot-traffic to the location—which we called ‘the Wu-Wall,’” in reference to the expansive canvas that could hold the large number of members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
The lack of footfall wasn’t much of a concern to Ware.
“There are those glass half-full people, glass half-empty people; I’m a whole third type: the ‘I’ve got a glass kind of cat.’ I’m not even calculating how many people pull up versus ‘normal times,’” Ware said. “Every day, we get a chance to advance these stories. It might be one o’clock in the morning and the place is clear, and the only person scrubbing the floors might see it. That person that’s scrubbing the floors is going to see the biggest physical acknowledgement of Black people being landowners. And that is meaningful.”