In a Michigan minute

Author: Tom Tiberio '05

Graphic design graduate student Mark Cook wanted to document life in the Saint Joseph/Benton Harbor area of Michigan as best he could.

He set aside a minute.

On March 26, 30 graduate and undergraduate students armed with cameras, audio recorders and notebooks set out to help Cook capture ordinary life in the twin cities, located on Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Saint Joseph River, about 35 miles north of campus. They did so by training their eyes and recording equipment on various locations for 60 seconds, from 3:26 to 3:27 in the afternoon. Cook then assembled the images into a kind of computerized slide show. The production mingled photographs with text from students and others in the community who agreed to write down what they were thinking about and doing at the designated minute.

The art student describes his project as a “social documentary” on the cities, which are divided not only by a river but along economic and racial lines. Saint Joseph, on the south bank, offers the impression of quaint Northeastern sea town. The majority of its 9,000 residents are middle- to upper-class. Benton Harbor is overwhelmingly black and economically depressed.

Cook grew up in Niles, Michigan, just north of South Bend, and says he had been contemplating doing some sort of a documentary on the Saint Joe/Benton Harbor area for years. His interest peaked after riots erupted in Benton Harbor in June 2003 following the death of a black motorcyclist who was being chased by police.

Cook presented the documentary to faculty by projecting it from the ceiling onto the surface of a shallow wooden box filled with black latex paint. The liquid surface made the images and text appear to float as they scrolled slowly from one end of the container to the other. Cook says he chose the black paint to suggest the river, the one element the towns share and also the one that physically divides them.

He says he plans to display the materials in public libraries and schools in the area as a tool for instructor-led dialogue. He hoped to complete the project by mid-summer.