New 'Art at Watson' installation, 'Seeing Silicon Valley'

The Watson Institute spoke to Mary Beth Meehan, whose "Seeing Silicon Valley" exhibition opens at Watson.

Eight massive vinyl banners depicting striking images of Silicon Valley workers and residents have been installed on the exterior walls of the Watson Institute’s main building, facing Starr Plaza, at 111 Thayer Street. In addition, four-feet-high prints of other people of Silicon Valley are being installed inside Stephen Robert ’62 Hall at 280 Brook Street. All of these images will be on display from October 13, 2021, through May 31, 2023. The images come from Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America, a book collaboration between Mary Beth Meehan, an acclaimed photographer and writer, and Fred Turner ’84, Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford University.

Meehan’s large-scale installations, which engage communities in civic dialogue around issues of identity, access, visibility, inclusion, and social equity, include “SeenUnseen,” about Providence; “City of Champions,” about Brockton, MA; and “Seeing Newnan,” about Newnan, GA.

The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Watson Institute, the Brown Arts Initiative, and the Brown Public Art Working Group.

Tell us about your two-week residency at Brown, and describe the experiences of interviewing several dozen individuals in Silicon Valley. Why have you chosen to bring these stories to light with such dramatically large images? 

I’ll be delivering a talk titled “The Real Silicon Valley: Why It Matters to See Beyond the Myth,” with my colleague, Fred Turner, on October 14. I’m eager to share our perspectives and experiences at our talk. I learned so much from our collaboration. And I’m thrilled that our book is already in a second printing!

I’ll also be talking to undergrads at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and in a class titled Belonging and Displacement. I’ll give a talk at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and will speak to master’s students at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. I look forward to some lively exchanges. 

There was no template for this work in Silicon Valley. There’s been a lot written about Mark Zuckerberg and about homelessness in the Bay area, but the sense of what it’s like to be a worker in the middle who doesn’t make it into the news hasn’t been part of Silicon Valley’s dominant narrative. I spent a great deal of time there, doing extensive research and talking with and getting to know people. 

The dozens of individuals I photographed and interviewed are ordinary people talking about their lives in this moment. They included a pharmaceutical engineer from India, who struggles to earn enough to afford his family a home, and an auto worker whose six-figure income as a unionized employee was slashed when he got hired at Tesla for $18 an hour. He saw workers there working long shifts and getting hurt on the job. When he tried to help them form a union, Tesla fired him.

I began making huge prints of my photographs in 2011, when I was working in my hometown of Brockton, MA. I was trying to explore the ways in which people could not accurately see one another, across differences of ethnicity, culture, and race. I wanted to grab people’s attention – to really prompt them to consider the people around them. I hope that the installation inspires people at Watson to think about the human beings behind our technology in new ways.

You are an accomplished writer and photographer. How do you marry the power of words with the power of images to express your views?

My first love was language; I majored in English and fine arts in college, and earned a master’s degree in photojournalism. When I started taking pictures, I realized that a photograph documents a single moment or slice of time, and the words put everything in context. I use photography to push against the ways in which we don’t see one another correctly… and the words help that process. If I am going to make a portrait of someone in Silicon Valley, the words I write exist as the record [of that person’s story].

The dominant narratives of places, including Silicon Valley, are so inaccurate and skewed. They omit and distort the experiences of so many. My goal is to push against those damaging narratives. People deserve to be portrayed accurately. I try to achieve a balance between the way someone’s life has been sculpted by history and who that person is as an individual. Everyone’s path has been impacted by the forces of history, by migration, by economics, by race, and so much more, but they are still individuals.

What surprised you about your time in Silicon Valley?

I had no idea what I was going to find there. I knew about homelessness in the Bay area, but I was shocked to absorb how unhealthy it feels to live in Silicon Valley. It felt like a place where people have built walls, aren’t interacting with one another, and can’t see their interconnectedness. It reminded me of being in the developing world, where there’s so much wealth and so much suffering living side-by-side in a very small area. My colleague on this book, Fred Turner, cites a stunning example of such inequity: Silicon Valley is home to more than 70 billionaires, but last year during Covid-19, one in five Silicon Valley families was food insecure. How is that possible?

Why is the Watson Institute the ideal venue for this exhibit?

When we look closely at Silicon Valley’s economy, we can see that it is not functioning well for everyone. In fact, it’s as though the end game of American capitalism and the economic disparities are writ large there. I brought my disciplines – writing and photography – to these issues, and I hope that the students and faculty at the Watson Institute will apply their expertise to address some of these problems.

Watson’s former Associate Director Steven Bloomfield and Communications Specialist Sarah Baldwin have worked for years to bring this installation here. I’m grateful to them and excited to see what the students will want to explore during my brief residency here.