This past March, I was asked to play former Red Hot Mama Tootsie Van Kelly for LaughFest 2012's Live from Grand Rapids opener. I searched in the MLive archives and called area TV stations, but I discovered nothing about this much-beloved performer who entertained locals, travelers, and even presidents.
It was a note on my Facebook that opened the floodgates. People shared stories, photos, and offered to make introductions. Since I was not making a bio-pic, I settled on their insights. Searching Civic Theatre’s closet provided a quick change from manly to womanly garb. I became Tootsie Van Kelly
Fast-forward six months: Viget.org
is emerging as another resource. If successful, this Grand Rapids wiki will provide our city with a viewpoint of people who know it best: you and me.
“Viget started in 2007 collaboratively between Michael Greene, Paul Wittenbraker, Trannie Carter and I,” says George Wietor of The Rapidian
and Issue Press
. “[It] was a way to document our community's collective knowledge about, well, ourselves.”
The original spark for Viget is uncertain, but Wietor is certain about its inception.
“We definitely noticed a problem with trying to fit local information in a global platform like Wikipedia,” says Wietor. “A goal of Viget is to simultaneously create an accurate representation of our past, present, and, where it gets a little hazy, our future. Imagining what Grand Rapids could be has always been a central value of the project.”
This is a point echoed by Grand Valley State University Professor of Art, Paul Wittenbraker
“How we act in this world is rooted in our imagination,” says Wittenbraker. The professor is a fan of transferable learning -- the ability to record or share knowledge of where one is at the moment, often embodying or recognizing that all of us have a base or viewpoint worth sharing from personal experience.
“It is important to document ideas that may not ever or have yet to come to be in our community,” says Wittenbraker. “Above all, we need to be open to the social imaginary and not just tied to the idea that our city’s wiki is about creating just another encyclopedic work.”
The importance of allowing the wiki to evolve in a creative way is central to the project.
Wittenbraker, ever the artist and dreamer, would love to see a mobile function linked to GPS that would suggest poetry about or inspired by location the user was near. Because a new generation (young and old) have adopted handhelds at rates far greater than laptops and desktops for the first time in history, the new twists on placemaking would be limitless.
When the project first launched, there were obvious problems because of the current state of technology. Despite the group’s impressive first stab at creating the wiki, it didn’t take off at the pace the creative team had envisioned.
Anyone who has started a blog or controls their own social media platforms knows how much time it takes to promote, monitor, and create content. So, Viget slowed to near zero growth.
Then, the civic-minded coders and designers at Friendly Code
came forward with a new user-friendly platform created by the founders of the DavisWiki
(the first successful city wiki based in Davis, CA) and a national group of programmers, the Code for America Brigade.
This newly invigorated Grand Rapids team joined the other 15 cities in the U.S. selected for funding by Code For America. This was just what Grand Rapids needed to re-launch Viget.
This fall, they began migrating miles of civic-focused data, primarily devoted to Grand Rapids’ arts and music scene. The efforts provided a cleaner, easier platform to interface.
“When we were selected to be a part of the 16 cities to get this level of support and attention, we knew we would be able to be ahead of the curve because of the amount of data people have been contributing since 2007,” says Friendly Code’s Jonathan Pichot. “And so to facilitate the next stages of content and our site, we are asking people to join our Facebook page
. You can learn about MeetUps happening around town for coders, writers, or anyone who is interested in working on or learning more about the project.”
The first meetings I was invited to attend consisted of one at Civic Studio’s Westside OFF SHOP, an "inconvenience store," and one this past Tuesday at The Harmony Brewing Company in Eastown.
“We know that there will be challenges as we create this site, including a host of items from moderation, funding after our grant runs out next year, as well as checking egos often embedded in entries,” says Pichot. “The point I really want people to know is we are open to many possibilities here, whether you want to write about art, music, gardening, or even beer.”
Pichot is quick to make that last point, which is timely as The Grand Rapids Public Museum wraps its fall exhibition, “Thank You Beer” and we celebrate the opening of the Midwest’s first USDA approved organic brewery, The Grand Rapids Brewing Company, in the heart of downtown.
The Viget team needs people to share stories which have not been recorded about our city’s history. Gordon Olson, former historian for the City of Grand Rapids, and I recently agreed upon the need as we discussed my interest in our city’s cultural black holes -- like the one that swallowed a lot of our ‘80s history, cultural markers, and artifacts.
The best part about preserving our stories and history is what happens on the other side. I was pleasantly reminded of this listening to the new release by Everything But The Girl’s Tracy Thorn singing on the track "Joy." "Because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark / That's why.... Joy."
I hope you see the beauty in this spark. Viget, from the Latin word for live (verb). And those who have lived (or dreamed) should give. Be The Verb!
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