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City of Asylum app shines light on North Side

| Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, 9:02 p.m.
Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh creators Roberto Rodriguez and Susie Ibarra in lower Manhattan.
Tony Cenicola
Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh creators Roberto Rodriguez and Susie Ibarra in lower Manhattan.
An image of the app Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh which will launch Aug. 7.
An image of the app Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh which will launch Aug. 7.

It is a piece of art about Pittsburgh that will “grow, change and morph,” says co-creator Roberto Rodriguez.

It is art that can be difficult to define but could be called “creative place-making,” adds the other creator, Susie Ibarra.

It is an app that will explore seven sites on the North Side in poetry, photography and music. The effort is to “look at all we're trying to do in our community,” adds Henry Reese, the founder and executive director of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, who commissioned the work.

The app is called Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh and will launch Aug. 7 in the first of three days of tours through the area it represents.

Right now, Ibarra and Rodriguez, who also have created a similar app for lower Manhattan, are in town to make sure their new product works. They will lead the subsequent tours that, like the app itself, will change a little in shape and direction.

The app is part of the 10th anniversary of City of Asylum's work providing sanctuary to politically persecuted writers. It will be downloadable on Android and Apple devices.

The local City of Asylum program has been a little different here than at other City of Asylum sites in this country or around the world, so the North Side-related app fits the work, Reese says.

The City of Asylum mission is aimed at helping politically persecuted writers find freedom and establish new lives in a free society. Often the work is connected with universities, Reese says, but here it is built around the North Side community, where the writers are surrounded by neighbors rather the academic colleagues.

Because of the work of City of Asylum, Reese is in touch with any number of poets. When he heard about the Digital Sanctuaries work from poet Yusef Komunyakaa, he thought it could be a way of blending the writing City of Asylum fosters with the neighborhood in which it lives.

“We went up to New York to take a look at it and really liked it,” he says.

The app will combine the music of Ibarra and Rodriguez, images of the sites, and the poetry of such authors as Pittsburgh's Willa Cather, Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborsa and India's Salman Rushdie.

Readings generally are done by the authors or their translators, but some are presented by poets Russell Banks and Terrance Hayes. Ibarra and Rodriguez have turned several pieces into works for choirs.

The app will lead participants to seven central North Side sites: the Alphabet City Reading Garden, the Sampsonia Way headquarters of City of Asylum, the nearby Widow's Home, the Olde Allegheny Community Gardens, the George Ferris Home, the National Aviary and Allegheny Traditional Academy, the site of the forthcoming Alphabet City performance area.

Ibarra and Rodriguez say the music can be remixed on smartphones, creating an interactive experience for the listener.

Reese says the purpose of the app is to allow listeners to see the sites and see what is happening in the neighborhood.

The Widow's Home, for instance, was built as an orphanage around 1830, he says. It was turned into a home for widows after the Civil War, and now is Urban Redevelopment Authority-supported housing.

Percussionists Ibarra and Rodriguez are not strangers to this type of innovative idea. She is a native of the Philippines who grew up in California and has written music and theater works that blend jazz, classical and folk music. One of those works was premiered at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Rodriguez was born in Cuba but grew up in Miami and has written works that use Afro-Cuban sounds along with Eastern European klezmer music. He works with such composers as the forward-looking John Zorn and is known for his Cuban Jewish All Star Bands.

Ibarra says they put together their first Digital Sanctuaries project in 2013 for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MAP Fund and New Music USA. The latter two are efforts that advance music used in cultural and artistic ways.

The two percussionists put the artistic side of the works together but used cyber-minded colleagues to do the technical work. Indian Shankari Murali did the New York work while computer scientist Rommel Feria from the University of the Philippines is doing the Pittsburgh app.

“We are not creating the technology, but finding a way to use the technology,” Ibarra says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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