#alleyshrimp: A whimsical Milwaukee hashtag becomes a Gallery Night exhibit
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If you’re in Milwaukee and on Instagram, you may have noticed it mixed in with the pictures of food, dogs, clouds, and babies, babies, BABIES. If you favor Twitter, it’s been nondescript among the R.I.P.s, music debates, shameless self-promotion, and Scott Walker rants.
It’s “street meat.” It’s “stoplight Elmo.” It’s “curb exercise ball.” It’s #alleyshrimp.
More than a simple hashtag, #alleyshrimp has become a Basho-like way of looking at the world for many Milwaukeeans as they walk to work or wait for the bus. Self-described as “photos of things where they don’t belong,” this never-trending topic has grown from a close-knit group of colleagues in the Third Ward to include dozens of unconnected and international street photographers. Images are rarely presented with comment or context; it’s up to the viewer to imagine the story behind each.
And now it’s a Gallery Night exhibit, though it doesn’t profess to be an “art show” (citing, among other things, the low-res mobile format of the photos). Organizers and originators Bridget Butch, Jason Reimer, and Gretchen Thomas have chosen their favorites among the 900-plus hashtagged photos posted by 80-90 contributors over the past two years. The A.V. Club caught up with Thomas to find out about the event, why it’s called #alleyshrimp, and how the hell this stuff isn’t just litter.
The A.V. Club: How did #alleyshrimp start?
Gretchen Thomas: #alleyshrimp started by accident. Back in April 2010, our friend Jim Warchol spotted some cocktail shrimp in the alley behind our office. As any reasonable person would, he photographed it and tweeted it immediately, with the comment, “Mmm…Alley shrimp…” A few of us thought that was pretty strange and gross and funny, so we started looking for other strange, out-of-place things to tweet, adding the hashtag #alleyshrimp. Mostly, we were just trying to make each other laugh.
AVC: Why do you think it’s picked up so much momentum?
GT: Honestly, it just seems lots of people like dumb things that are funny. Especially if it’s easy to do, and it makes people laugh. But also, there’s something strangely habit-forming about #alleyshrimp. Once you start looking for things where they don’t belong, you can’t really stop. You begin to notice things around you more, and it becomes a bit of a scavenger hunt. I’ve heard of people hanging over fences or dodging vehicles in pursuit of a good #alleyshrimp shot. Remember, though: a central tenet of #alleyshrimp is SAFETY FIRST!
AVC: What’s the difference between #alleyshrimp and straight-up #litter?
GT: It’s a fine line, but the distinguishing characteristic is context. A skilled #alleyshrimp shooter will ask: does this item belong here? A broken chair next to a dumpster belongs there because that is where trash belongs. But a broken chair on top of a car? THAT would be a fine #alleyshrimp.
AVC: How important has Instagram been in facilitating #alleyshrimp?
GT: Instagram has been instrumental. It’s so fun to use anyway, but it’s been the perfect way to make #alleyshrimp really interesting. Because of all the editing features, people can tinker with their #alleyshrimp’s composition, focus, and color—sometimes making them really beautiful. Which of course adds to the lovely absurdity of it all.
AVC: How did you select the pictures for the show?
GT: We tried to be as egalitarian as possible—grabbing one photo from each person who submitted up until a particular date. We looked at each image in terms of how well it fit the overall theme, its entertainment value, and its aesthetic(ish) merit. Entertainment value usually trumped artistic merit, but every once in awhile, a particularly striking photo had to go into the show over a funnier one.
We hope the show will be a really fun, under-the-radar sort of experience that people will be glad they checked out. We haven’t really publicized it. We hope that, like #alleyshrimp itself, it will succeed because people hear about it from other people.
(The #alleyshrimp exhibit takes place this Friday, July 27, appropriately on the sidewalk outside Jackalope Lounj, from 5-9 p.m., and features live music by Black Eagle Child and Old Man Malcolm.)