Felicific Calculus (2021)

Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY by Eric Kunsman
Family Dollar Store, 1340 Lyell Ave, Rochester, NY

An Exhibit by Eric Kunsman

Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY

“Felicific Calculus: a method of determining the rightness of an action by balancing the probable pleasures and pains that it would produce.”
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In the later 18th century, as the U.S. and French Revolutions captured the attention of Europe, reformer and Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) proposed an algorithm to help determine the moral rightness of an action by balancing the probable pleasures and pains that it would produce. In the 1940s, social reformers revisited Bentham’s algorithm, naming it the Felicific Calculus.

Payphones?

In 2017, I relocated my studio to a different part of Rochester, NY. Colleagues immediately questioned my choice of locations, making comments along the lines of: “…that area is a war zone…” My experience with the new neighborhood was consistently positive, so I pushed back, asking why they thought this neighborhood was especially dangerous.

People focused on the visuals of the neighborhood when they were explaining their reactions. Most cues mentioned were to be expected: abandoned buildings, run-down corner stores, piles of garbage, people loitering. A number of people, however, noted a factor that caught me by surprise: the number of payphones still in the neighborhood. Their opinion was that these days only criminals use payphones.

These types of knee-jerk judgments poked the bear. I started researching their observations, camera in hand. There was an unusually high number of payphones in that neighborhood, and as I began photographing, observing, and testing them, I was surprised to find that the vast majority of these phones still worked.

Read the full artist’s statement below.

Exhibit Location

CEPA Gallery
FLUX Gallery, FOCUS Gallery and UNDERGROUND Gallery
617 Main Street
Buffalo, NY 14203

Exhibit Dates

Saturday, April 24, 2021
through
Saturday, June 5, 2021

Admission
Free to the public

Exhibit Times

Wednesday, Friday, Saturday
12:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
Thursday
4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.

About the Artist

Artist Statement for Felicific Calculus

Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY

By Eric T. Kunsman

“Felicific Calculus: a method of determining the rightness of an action by balancing the probable pleasures and pains that it would produce.”
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In the later 18th century, as the U.S. and French Revolutions captured the attention of Europe, reformer, and Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) proposed an algorithm to help determine the moral rightness of an action by balancing the probable pleasures and pains that it would produce. In the 1940s, social reformers revisited Bentham’s algorithm, naming it the Felicific Calculus.

Payphones?

In 2017, I relocated my studio to a different part of Rochester, NY. Colleagues immediately questioned my choice of locations, making comments along the lines of: “…that area is a war zone…” My experience with the new neighborhood was consistently positive, so I pushed back, asking why they thought this neighborhood was especially dangerous.

People focused on the visuals of the neighborhood when they were explaining their reactions. Most cues mentioned were to be expected: abandoned buildings, run-down corner stores, piles of garbage, people loitering. A number of people, however, noted a factor that caught me by surprise: the number of payphones still in the neighborhood. Their opinion was that these days only criminals use payphones.

These types of knee-jerk judgments poked the bear. I started researching their observations, camera in hand. There was an unusually high number of payphones in that neighborhood, and as I began photographing, observing and testing them, I was surprised to find that the vast majority of these phones still worked. I started mapping the location of phones, then overlaid them with census maps showing economic status, ethnicity, age and sex, and the city’s crime map. The maps supported the story documented in the photographs: they demonstrated a direct correlation between the poverty level of a neighborhood and the location of the phones. Areas with the most payphones coincided with Rochester neighborhoods where the average family incomes are less than $20,000 annually. And although the crime maps showed small pockets of crime in the poorest communities, there was no direct correlation between the location of payphones and incidents of crime. (A December 2013 article in Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle investigating the decline of the city’s 3,055 public phones reported how they served as a lifeline for many individuals in these communities.)

Researching further, I learned that the working payphones in the Greater Rochester communities reflected an unusually altruistic “felicific calculus” on the part of Frontier Communications, the local telecommunications provider. Aware of the poverty in some areas of the city, the company chose to leave and maintain public phones in the areas where they are most needed (the phones, on average, were used once every four days). This choice by Frontier is not the typical profit-driven decision usually seen in corporate America, but appears to be one based on actual community service.

When they learned about this project, Frontier Communications provided a list of their 1,455 payphones remaining in the Greater Rochester, NY region as of 2018. I am currently photographing each of these locations—whether the payphone is there or not. At the same time, I am documenting which of the phones still work and mapping those sites.

The payphone location maps that I create will also serve as transparent overlays placed on top of maps featuring census data, crime maps, and other socioeconomic data. The overlay maps will have the legend for the base map covered with a full black box. When a viewer lifts the transparent map of payphone locations, it will reveal the legend for the information those individuals were observing. The lack of prior knowledge will ensure the viewers observe the maps without a biased visualization that the legend would have provided. The interaction of forcing the individuals to lift the transparency of the payphone maps will cause user engagement throughout the gallery where the various maps will be located.

Beginning in November 2020, I will start leaving a postcard on all the phones with working dial tones. The postcard will invite payphone users to participate in a short, audio-only interview about their use of the phone. (A $10 one-time payment in the form of a calling card will be provided for their time.) Stories shared (anonymously) by individuals using these phones as a life-line will be archived and incorporated into an expanded Felicific Calculus exhibit as an interactive component. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to pick up the receiver of a payphone on display (alongside the photographs) and hear a first-hand account from individuals who depend on the Rochester payphones. I am currently collecting payphones to modify the functionality for the playback of the audio.

Kodak has provided a large amount of the film being used towards capturing this series. The choice to photograph using film, rather than digital technology for this project, carries a particular weight for me. After all, the demise of manufacturing giants like Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, and many other blue collar industries played such a critical role in the current socioeconomic struggles of the greater Rochester, NY region.

Bigger Picture

The pace of technological change has accelerated rapidly in recent years, too often outpacing the ability of the current social structure and policymakers to assure equal access of new technology to socially and economically vulnerable citizens. It seems that as the divide between those who can afford to stay up-to date with the latest technology and those who cannot grow even more extensive, causing unconscious biases to come into play. Judgments seem to be formed more quickly about people who cannot access contemporary technologies in their daily lives, and who continue to depend on technologies that just a decade or so ago were “normal.” Those unacknowledged biases sometimes lead to mislabeling of a neighborhood or community in ways that further impede that community’s progress. In addition, it may potentially lead to dangerous situations if employed by policymakers.

Through Felicific Calculus, I hope to challenge negative preconceptions that lead some people to conflate poverty with crime unfairly. Through the use of my images and the map overlays. I will be creating a juxtaposition expecting that relationship to engage viewers to examine their gut perceptions of social markers, like payphones, and explore the gaps between their prejudgments and the reality of the situation. Though relics to most of us, payphones remain important for residents trapped in lower economic circumstances.

To date, I have photographed 723 of the 1,455 payphones in the Greater Rochester, NY region. I feel a sense of urgency to complete this project and raise the public awareness of the importance of these payphones to the more impoverished communities in Rochester before the 2022 payback deadline for Frontier Communications debt of 10.5 million dollars.

Felicific Calculus will be presented as a multi-faceted body of work with the photographs, interactive maps, and payphones with voice recordings. CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, NY, has committed to hosting Felicific Calculus in 2021 in all three galleries from April through June. The Warhol Foundations has provided a modest amount of funding towards the exhibition and a publication created for the show. The exhibition will contain the photographs and supporting elements I have made until the month before the show. Alison Nordstrom will be writing the introduction for the publication created for this exhibition.

CEPA has also committed to including a related community engagement project where we will encourage an empathetic experience for the visitors. Viewers of the exhibition will be invited to photograph the payphones throughout the Buffalo community. Participants will then submit files to CEPA along with the names of the cross-streets that serve as the location of the payphone. We will then print the submitted files and place them in the lower gallery along with some of my images not included in the upper floors at a size of 8″ x 10″. A closing discussion will focus on the results from the Buffalo photographic survey along with maps I will create. The maps will contain the geographic payphone location data overlayed on top of census data for Buffalo, NY, to illustrate the payphones use as a social marker. (Learn more about this artist opportunity.)

Videotaping of a social documentary on the project and premise of the work has already begun. It will be used as part of a campaign to bring awareness to the broader issues of inequity, and social biases raised in Felicific Calculus. This documentary will serve as my artist statement for future exhibitions, lectures, and public awareness and will be ADA compliant.

Plans have already been set in place for another aspect of the project, which serves as a public campaign. The installation of multiple outdoor banners throughout Rochester, NY, on construction fences, industry fencing, and Kodak Park’s fencing will provide the awareness to those that would not visit a traditional gallery. We will determine when the appropriate time is to install the fence installation after COVID is under control. The fence installation will contain my photographs and the maps side-by-side to demonstrate the socioeconomics involved in this project. Viewers will be directed to the Felicific Calculus dedicated website RochesterPayphones.com to view more photographs, hear the voice recordings, watch the documentary, and understand how these payphones genuinely act as a life-line.

I believe that the public awareness of the lifelines that are disappearing nationwide is just as important, if not more, than the gallery shows. I have already had this work featured as the cover story and a six-page spread by the City Newspaper located in Rochester, NY, and have plans for a fundraiser for our local PBS station with a lecture on this body of work. Once I complete this project on the Rochester, NY payphones, I plan on bringing awareness to other cities that still have individuals relying on payphones, both through exhibiting my work and photographing payphones in other locations.

Like W. Eugene Smith and so many of the great photojournalists of our times, I don’t believe that art, alone, is powerful enough to make a change—but I do believe it can bring an essential spark of awareness to inequities and larger truths in our immediate world.

About Eric T. Kunsman

About Eric Kunsman

I was supposed to be a steelworker—or a roofer in my father’s business. Born in Bethlehem, PA, in the mid-1970s, the oldest son in a hard-working blue-collar family, this was a given. But from an early age, I was obsessed with visual arts in every form and knew that I was going to lead the life of a creative. I remember picking up my first camera when I was about eight years old. It was a plastic Ansco Camera that I used avidly, mostly on school trips, until I ran out of film. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I started photographing again. By then, the death of Bethlehem Steel was national news, and my hometown was being invaded by photographers trying to document the closing of the mills. It was during this time that a teacher introduced us to Walker Evans’ 1935 photos of Bethlehem taken for the Farm Security Administration. Between the power of Evans’ work and the public fascination with the visuals of the mills, something clicked for me. The death of the steel mills, ironically, made it easier to consider a life other than roofing or steel, but it was my studies with Lou Draper—who was to become my most influential mentor, that helped give that life form.

Lou headed up the photography department at Mercer County Community College. He was a self-taught photographer from Richmond who had honed his craft as a street photographer in Harlem during the Civil Rights movement. He was also a founding member of the Kamoinge collective. Lou’s years working as an assistant to W. Eugene Smith helped refine his image-making process—from click to final rinse. He absorbed the lessons about paying meticulous attention to the details in the craft of photography in realizing your vision, and passed them on to me. Smith’s influence was also apparent in Lou’s emphasis on moving viewers through the frame, and the meaning provided in a body of work with thoughtful sequencing. Of equal importance: Lou treated all his students and me as valued equals while we worked in the darkroom together. That lesson—that we are all, teacher or student, part of a community of creatives who can learn from one another—has shaped me as an instructor and a photographer.

“Negatives are the notebooks, the jottings, the false starts, the whims, the poor drafts, and the good draft but never the completed version of the work… The print and a proper one is the only completed photograph, whether it is specifically shaded for reproduction, or for a museum wall.”
—W. Eugene Smith

In 1996, after completing my Associate’s degree at Mercer, I transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology. Every breath I took from that moment on was about photography. I found the atmosphere electric. By 2000, I had earned both a BFA in Fine Art Photography and BS in Biomedical Photography. My undergraduate experience culminated with a Southwest Photography Workshop offered by RIT. There, working with a large-format camera, I created the first body of work that I felt was uniquely my own. I spent three weeks photographing throughout the four-corners area of the US and sent a small portfolio of that series to Lou Draper as a thank you for his mentorship.

At the same time, I was concerned that the transition to digital cameras was having an adverse effect on photographers and their ability to print their images. I enrolled in RIT’s graduate program, receiving my MS in Electronic Publishing. In that program, I focused strictly on inkjet printing and was awarded the Harold W. Gegenheimer Research Fellowship, along with being sponsored by Epson America for my technical work and thesis “High-Density Monochromatic Printing.”

I was already offering weekend faculty workshops, sharing the digital printing techniques I’d been refining; and, upon graduation, was offered an adjunct position at RIT’s School of Photographic Arts & Sciences. Shortly after starting that position, I was offered a two-person show at Mercer County Community College, on Lou Draper’s recommendation. Lou was a proud “dad” during that exhibit—insisting that the entire fine arts department come out to see the exhibition and hear my gallery talk. Three months later, he passed away. Shortly afterward, I received a call from the college’s dean asking if I’d put my name in for consideration to take over Lou’s department. Despite being a competitive field of candidates, I was offered the job, and my wife and I moved to New Jersey.

During the three years I ran the photography department at Mercer; I was able to significantly expand photographic offerings at the college while more than doubling enrollment. At the same time, I completed an MFA at the University of the Arts in Book Arts & Printmaking, where I explored more aspects of craft in photography. The juxtaposition of these two experiences led to one of my first significant bodies of work titled Thou Art… Will Give…. As a professor at Mercer, I’d arranged private access field trips to the Eastern State Penitentiary for my students. Still, I had no personal interest in photographing what David Graham referred to as “…another ruin with too many tripod holes….” However, shortly after one of those trips, I went as a student myself, with my MFA professor Heidi Kyle when she brought her class on a trip to the American Philosophical Society. There I discovered the Warden’s Logbooks from Eastern State. Inspired by the Warden’s first-person observations, I ultimately spent 362 days and evenings photographing at the Penitentiary over a three-year span.

That body of work was finally completed in 2014. To date, Thou Art… Will Give… has been featured in eighteen solo exhibitions and countless group exhibitions. For 2020-2021, solo shows of Thou Art… Will Give… have already been scheduled at the Gallery Route One, California; North Central College, Illinois; Rhode Island Center for Photography, Rhode Island; HOTE Gallery, California; Drury University, Missouri; Gallery 120, South Carolina; Foundry Art Center, Missouri; and Nazareth College, New York. Thou Art… Will Give… was featured as the cover article of LensWork #143 in July/August 2019 and won the Gold Award from the Association of Photography (UK) in the Open Series 2019. Brooks Jensen, the editor at LensWork, commented, “We have had over 100 portfolio submissions from Eastern State Penitentiary, and yours will be the first we publish in LensWork.”

In 2005, my wife and I decided to return to Rochester so she could complete obligations related to her own master’s degree with the Rochester City School District. I took the opportunity to make an entrepreneurial leap and opened Booksmart Studio, specializing in fine editioned books and exhibition quality prints. Here I combined my passions for craft, artisanal focus, and fine arts photography into one studio. Through the studio, I was able to realize some of my earlier artistic visions, including the publication of a limited-edition oversized portfolio of my panoramic landscapes, Peripheral Vision: Panoramic Photographs of the US Southwest Region (2005). It’s also afforded me the opportunity to work with artists including Ron Jude, Bill McDowell, Douglas Menuez, Adam Ryan, Greg Davis, along with companies and organizations such as Canson Infinity, Innova Art Paper, Magnum Photography, and the Eastman Museum. My left brain and right brain were able to work together in developing this studio, and with a small team, I was able to build a unique creative environment (which also housed two galleries) in a complex of 13,000 square feet. Today, Booksmart Studio still allows me to produce my work and get it out into the world.

Since 2005, I’ve continued teaching graduate and undergraduate courses as an adjunct for the School of Photographic Arts & Sciences (SPAS) at RIT. In 2012, I made the decision to return to a full-time teaching position at the Rochester Institute of Technology for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, supporting deaf students enrolled in photography courses. I continue in that role, while also continuing to work as an adjunct for SPAS. There’s a Walker Evans quote that closely approximates my artistic approach:

“I work rather blindly. I have a theory that seems to work with me that some of the best things you ever do sort of come through you. You don’t know where you get the impetus and response to what’s before your eyes.”
—Walker Evans

As a photographer, I do not plan my next subject or project; I do stay open to inspiration, and I allow myself to be inspired. Life influences point me to a path leading to each new project I pursue, similar to Monet, I work (sometimes obsessively) on that project until it is complete. Since early in the 21st century, I’ve noticed that my photographic focus is increasingly influenced by my reactions to various social, governmental, and technological issues impacting the communities I interact with on a daily basis. My proposed project for this Fellowship, Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY, originated from such a reaction.

Felicific Calculus is already gaining significant recognition. It is scheduled to be exhibited at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, NY, from April to June of 2021, as a work in progress. The project has received a Warhol Foundation grant, which will monetarily support the CEPA exhibition and a publication. This project was awarded a fellowship from the Midwest Center for Photography in 2018. It has also garnered a spot as a Critical Mass Finalist in 2019 and 2020, along with making the second round of the Creative Capital Award for 2019. In the past year or two, this body of work has begun to generate increased appreciation even though the project is still in its infancy. Featured articles, along with interviews, were recently published in Black & White Magazine, Analog Forever Magazine, Catalyst Interview, Texas Photo Society, Chaleur Magazine, and City Newspaper. Other printed publications include Dodho Magazine #7, All About Photo #12, Dek Unu Magazine, and Friends of the Artist.

This photographic series has been featured in many group exhibitions, including The Rust Belt Biennial (2019), The Best of the Photo Review 2018 and 2020, Contemporary Photography 2008-2018 at SITE: BROOKLYN, Honored at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, and 2017 International Juried Exhibition at Center for Photographic Art. It was also awarded a solo exhibition at Gallery 19 in Chicago titled Lifelines Throughout the United States. In 2019, I was named as one of the Top 10 B&W photographers of 2018 by BWGallerist. As of 2019, I am represented by HOTE Gallery in Los Angeles, CA, and Malamegi Design Da Parete in Italy.

Section
Empty section. Edit page to add content here.

Images for Felicific Calculus

Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY by Eric Kunsman
State Street, Rochester, NY
Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY by Eric Kunsman
Genesee Brewery Building 6, Rochester, NY
Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY by Eric Kunsman
East Main Street, Rochester, NY
Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY by Eric Kunsman
Stoneys Plaza, Henrietta, NY
Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY by Eric Kunsman
1404 Norton Street, Rochester, NY
Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY by Eric Kunsman
Freebird Cycles, Lyell Ave, Rochester, NY

Sponsors for Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY

Andy Warhol Foundation Logo
Joy of Giving Something Logo
Kodak Logo
Park Avenue Picture Framing Logo
Frontier Communications Logo
Erie County Logo