jack greer's new film shows the downtown tribes of tompkins square park

'Circles in Tompkins Square' shows the intersection of cultures in the legendary green space.

by Alexandre Stipanovich
10 February 2017, 4:35pm

Documenting what's around us, right here, right now, might be harder than investigating communities at the other side of the globe. It requires pulling back the veil of numb indifference we wear to reach out to humanity. That's what Jack Greer (of the defunct Still House Group) has been doing in Tompkins Square Park. The artist has been hanging out at the legendary skater and dog lover spot for the past 11 years. His first feature-length documentary film encapsulates the life of this place where subcultures meet, coincide or collide. At times it seems that all of the tribes of New York — the hippie bums, the punks, the frat boys, the skateboarders, the troubadours, the professionals — coalesce in this 10.5-acre public park. The film has no narrative arc, and instead tells a story with a daydreamy feel, where strangers meet. For its launch, I catch up with Jack about the idea behind the film, and of course, the people in it.

Why did you choose Tompkins as a subject for your first film?
For years, I've been going to Tompkins for many different reasons: as a parent to a dog, as a citizen that lives within the neighborhood, as a skateboarder. I was witness to many things for many years. I had done roughly 11 years of research without the intention of making a film. I had a summer ahead of me. Bringing a camera with me to the park was something that was an extension of what I was already doing, which was bringing a cell phone with me to the park and capturing sort of day-in-the-life happenstance things. I wasn't going to make a serious film for Instagram. I knew that if I was going to embark on making a film, I was going to treat it in a different manner. Tompkins was the immediate access point for me to think about making a film, because it was the space in which I inhabit already.

Tell us about the opening of your movie.
The first words are "President Obama" and I thought that that was a way to very clearly and concisely acknowledge these are the times and this is where we're at. These are the months leading up to a very different, polarizing time in America.

Speaking of politics, the flag-burning episode during a punk concert is pretty wild. Surprised nobody ended up in flames.
Yes, but there are moments in history that are exceptional in their transition. Especially when the juxtaposition of competing forces is very noticeable, or comes to a head. I think that right now, there are several things overlapping at once, which is one of the reasons I felt as though this was the time to make this.

Were you looking for something specific while shooting?
I don't find myself searching for things that could be perceived as wild, extreme, unfortunate circumstances. To me, there's no hierarchy between someone eating a bagel directly to my right, and a person dealing with addiction on a bench 10 feet away. I really believe in the existence of all things. Not just humans, but animals, organisms, on an equal playing field when it comes to my creative impulse. Therefore, everything that's taking place in the park.

Maybe you've become desensitized.
Maybe. But I'm an inner-city kid, you know? I grew up in Los Angeles on Venice Boulevard, where I've been exposed to [a lot]. That's the world I know and understand. When it comes to spending time immersed in a city, I feel safe. I actually feel quite comforted by conversing with individuals that maybe might not even be that comfortable for other people to converse with. To me, it's safer to engage than to shy away from.

Also, you sense things. You're sensing what is about to happen.
I'm extremely perceptive, almost to a degree that causes me frustration sometimes, because I don't have the ability to sort of let things sort of glide by me. Sometimes I wish I could tune out, but I don't really have the ability to. When you spend a lot of time in a place such as Tompkins, you will realize that it's not that dissimilar to an apartment building in which there are residents. Beyond that, there are many people that continue to go back to this sort of Bermuda Triangle of energy, and as a result of that, I don't need to have the camera on all the time, because I start to recognize the same characters and some patterns.

How did you approach all the characters in the park?
To be honest, I don't care about getting answers. I want them just to be with me, and we'll let the world interpret and divulge. It's not my place to ask you to tell me about, "Why are you here right now?" "What is the life that you've endured?" No, just hang out. Through hanging out, we can really get somewhere.

If you could say Tompkins Square Park in one word, which one would it be?


Text Alexandre Stipanovich
Photography and stills courtesy Jack Greer

New York
Tompkins Square Park
Jack Greer
still house group