Daily Stream: Out of The Box with Jeanne Liotta

Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio curator

Apr 01, 2020

A young girl stands on a street corner behind a woman and looks to the left in a scene from Jeanne Liotta's video work Crosswalk

Stay in and watch the work scheduled for April in The Box—Jeanne Liotta's Crosswalk—and enjoy a bonus podcast from the Wex archives.

Jeanne Liotta, Crosswalk, 2010

19 mins., 35mm (transferred to video for online streaming)

Watch the film here through April 30, 2020.

Listen to a podcast with Liotta and Film/Video Associate Curator Chris Stults about the artist's work in the Wex Film/Video Studio.

Notes from Jennifer Lange:

It’s admittedly strange to be writing about Jeanne Liotta’s film Crosswalk in the midst of a global pandemic that has introduced the now-ubiquitous phrase “social distancing.” Crosswalk, made in 2010, quite pointedly celebrates human connection. The interactions documented in the film take the form of gatherings that activate and enliven public spaces—spaces in a densely populated, quintessential melting-pot neighborhood in New York City, no less. In a pre-COVID-19 world, one would discuss this work as a portrait of ritual, a slice of urban neighborhood life, or a focus on a particular culture facing the threat of gentrification. The film is all of those things, of course, but, in these strange and unprecedented times, Liotta’s experimental documentary is also a poetic reminder of what we humans once shared and have (temporarily) lost.

Crosswalk is set in New York’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood known colloquially by the Spanglish name Loisaida because of its robust Puerto Rican population. Before the wave of Latinx residents, the neighborhood was home to German, Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though culturally diverse, the neighborhood’s population had its Catholic faith in common. In the 1960s, St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church, which served a mix of the neighborhood’s Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican residents, began the tradition of public street processionals to reenact the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. The Stations of the Cross, which represent 14 significant moments leading up to Jesus’s death and entombment, are often read in place of traditional mass on Good Friday. In many cultures, the ceremonial reading of the Stations of Cross involves highly theatrical dramatic reenactments with participants playing the characters of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Mary, and Jesus’s disciples. Moving the ritual to the streets was a way to attract and better serve St. Brigid’s Puerto Rican community, whose culture included regular outdoor religious processionals. It was also a strategy to make the Catholic church more open and accessible to the community at large. 

An image of men and boys in a street procession from Jeanne Liotta's video work Crosswalk

Images courtesy of the artist

Liotta herself participated in this ritual as a documentarian, shooting footage over a period of years on Super 8-film, a medium that imbues her images with not only richness and texture, but also a timeless quality. Ancient stories and modern life collide on the bustling streets of the Lower East Side. Participants mingle in the frame with onlookers, their costumes so minimal that it’s often hard to distinguish one from the other. The one character who always stands out is Jesus, who carries a large, simple cross through the city streets. And while there are many Jesuses found in Crosswalk, who change with each year that Liotta shot, the streets that they travel remain relatively unchanged, year after year. This layering of time and narrative creates a dynamic composition within each frame. Liotta’s lens sometimes focuses on the smallest detail—dappled light on the sidewalk, the clasped hands of a participant or onlooker, a neighborhood landmark. In other instances, she takes us out of time and draws attention to the ritual itself—an effigy of Jesus carried through the streets, a priest dressed in traditional robes. Likewise, Liotta’s soundscape is as rich, diverse, and brimming with humanity as her images, blending chants and prayers from the processional with the sounds of police whistles, ice cream truck jingles, and music ranging from reggaeton to no wave. Crosswalk closes with a series of overhead shots of the city streets captured from the roof of Liotta’s building. An image of a clock tower marks the official ending time of the procession. 

With the gentrification of the Lower East Side (now dubbed East Village by enterprising real estate developers), Liotta was, between 2000 and 2010, documenting a neighborhood in transition. As rising rents drive out residents, what happens to their traditions? Rituals act as orienting events for humans, marking the passage of time and reinforcing a community’s bonds and sense of identity. We wonder what is lost when they are disrupted. On this Good Friday, April 10, 2020, the streets of Loisaida will be eerily empty, with no processions or parades or any of the public gatherings that mark the beginning of spring—just an urban landscape waiting for humanity to fill it with life.

About the filmmaker

Jeanne Liotta lives and works in New York and Denver, CO. Liotta is a faculty member of the Milton Avery Graduate School for the Arts at Bard College and is an associate professor of Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts and the associate director for graduate studies in the MFA in Film program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her 2007 16mm film Observando el cielo was ranked third for the best avant-garde films of the decade by Film at Lincoln Center’s Film Comment. It also won an Ammodo Tiger Short Competition award at the 2008 International Film Festival Rotterdam and was selected as one of Artforum’s best films of 2007. Liotta’s work has been presented at such venues as the Whitney Biennial; New York Film Festival; KunstFilmBiennale, Cologne, Germany; the Exploratorium in San Francisco; and Paris’s Centre Pompidou, among others.

Crosswalk was made with the support of the Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio.

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