Rachel baffled a group of teenage boys in the Air Force cadet program by turning the tables on military procedure and facilitating a discussion about their concerns, including a serious discussion about video game addiction. Cherise explored why her childhood friends were drifting apart in college. Jacob organized his fellow baseball players and successfully lobbied their coach for more reasonable practice hours. Aydi organized and facilitated weekly discussions and a journaling initiative with her family to shore up their wounded and strained relationships with one another precipitated by the stress of dealing with her troubled brother.
The students in my special topics class were asked to facilitate a co-productive process with a group of their choosing over the course of the quarter, to meet in person with a group of people bound by a community or concern in which students themselves were already deeply engaged and embedded (so as to speed up the long and necessary process of building trust). They could not plan ahead - they could not have a determining vision or expectation for what concern the group would identify and what social action they might want to take. They had to be open to what they did not know. They had to understand that they understood very little, that they communities they were working with were the determinants and owners of their own collective concerns, and that the students were part of that effort but did not rise above it.
In a way, this was teaching students to trust people — to trust the people. These students have been held up as elite their whole lives, despite their varied socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, having achieved within a system of prescriptive values. They begin to see themselves as having a special ability to give back, to lift up those who struggle to achieve within our society. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere warns against this “false generosity,” for to extend a hand to the poor and less than necessitates that the injustice of that relationship is perpetuated systemically. We are all of us “adapted to the structures of domination,” and we cannot change an unjust system through collective social actions without critically recognizing its causes. Although these students were not all engaged with issues of social justice or oppressed groups, their struggles to understand real situations in the world were authentic. Their immersion in the real, in wiping away pre-conceived notions (what Friere might call sectarianism, or suffering from “an absence of doubt,” stuck in a false certainty of their own making), was a paradigm shift of the highest magnitude. This struggle lays the ground for critical thought around “contradictions” in social and economic realities, and makes possible future efforts to create new situations.
The students were, for the most part, not easily or comfortably able to efface their own expectations and plans for their projects, at least not at first. I found it interesting that so many of them were art or design students, and perhaps the popular education process was so difficult as a result of their typical schooling. They are expert in manipulating situations to realize their own visions, and rewarded for their individual, original ideas and achievements. They are expected to weather critique from experts and peers, to strive for a more perfect realization of their ideas. The kind of popular education Friere espouses, on the other hand, is about trusting that the group holds the knowledge within themselves. It’s about empowering a group as the holders of both vision and its implementation. This represented such a big leap that after that first workshop with Ultra-red, Dont Rhine was worried about them. He was concerned that they didn’t get it, that they earnestly wanted to help their communities but had no idea what it meant to be in true communion with a people. This is a big problem, he said, and the reason Ultra-red began their project School of Echoes.
In many ways, Dont was right. The process proved to be quite frustrating for some students, and they bucked against it. They had trouble reaching their identified communities, they resorted to texting in an effort to communicate, they learned lessons about the difficulty of connection. It became clear how distant their communities were from one another. They were anxious about the twists and turns the projects took, by what they could not predict or expect. But in the process of opening up to the unknown, of experimenting with how to facilitate trust and a co-productive atmosphere, they all glimpsed a little of the emancipatory power of emergent organizing. They experienced small victories - a realization of the divides that exist between people, an understanding of the deep frustrations perpetuated by unfair systems, even some small shifts in behavior or newly instituted processes designed to forge deeper connections. It is a traumatic process, this rise of conscientização, as both Friere and bell hooks recognize sympathetically. One can never go back — one must always continue to see the world critically. This is an important boundary every great artist, educator, and revolutionary must cross.
I’ve taught classes organized around the idea of “social practice,” but to me this has become an increasingly limited and abstract way to package a university course. “Social practice” is revealing itself, at least to me, to be a term with decreasing utility, as it encompasses as broad a mass of ways of working and self-defined practitioners as there are artists, or musicians, or teachers. This is not a bad or good thing, but has forced me to re-imagine the concepts embedded in this practice that compel me — concepts that span many disciplines and are perhaps indicative of broader shifts in society rather than limited to art practice. I don’t have any resolution to these hunches just yet, but began to experiment with different methods of investigating such concepts, specifically a strategy I will call co-production, in a class context.
- Ultra-red with Year 9 students at the St Marylebone C. E. School RE:ASSEMBLY: Civis Sum 2009 Photography: Mark Blower
Co-production is a term that arises from public service, coined in the 1970s by a University of Indiana professor who used it to explain why crime rates went up when beat police officers started using patrol cars; in a nutshell, the police needed the community just as much as the community needed the police to fight crime. [See New Economics Foundation] I extend the term beyond such a pat example to describe mutual dependence, and a group process of self-education that leads to a co-produced social action. The mutual need of each fellow in a group to the other in the pursuit of social practice (or more precisely, social action via an art process), including the catalytic artist, is a quality in some projects that interests me, especially because of the way it reflects strategies of radical pedagogy.
In part to explore this epistemological relationship, I co-conceptualized and co-taught a tactics and strategies class in winter quarter that explored two sides of the same coin — pedagogical techniques in artwork (conversational, facilitative, inquiry-based), and artistic techniques in educational settings (creative thinking processes, critique, problem-solving) that are like opposing sides of the same structure.
I am a believer in theory, and critical thought, but for this class that allegiance had to be balanced in a context of doing. I became interested in a class that focused on processes, especially those that facilitated the emergence of group content. The content was important only insofar as it was relevant to the enactors of the process, and in fact was drawn from the lives of the students in familial, domestic, academic, and extracurricular realms.
We began by inviting the sound art collective Ultra-red to facilitate a popular education process with the group, something they had developed over the years influenced by radical pedagogues like Paolo Friere and activists like Grace Lee Boggs. Like these theorists, Ultra-red sees education and attendant facilitative strategies as activist means to combat oppression and promote self-actualization of marginalized groups. The collective encompasses a fluid group of organizers, planners, artists and activists, as well as a number of partnered groups from around the globe, in Germany, Holland, London, Los Angeles, and New York. What binds their work is the commitment to the popular education process as a means to discover a path towards social action and, ultimately, social justice. Alongside and sometimes embedded in this process is the making of an artwork. Two long-time LA-based members, Dont Rhine and Leonardo Vilchis (of Union de Vecinos), led the students through a very shortened and introductory version of their longer facilitative strategies, including having the students each come up with issues of concern to their communities, explaining, categorizing, and analyzing what came out of the discussion. This was at times a bit excruciating and frustrating, but as we stumbled inarticulately through the things that mattered to us, the elastic contrasts and overlaps between our contexts and ages and experiences and identities began to emerge. A shared understanding and trust was formed in a single class session.
I was hard-pressed to identify how or why this had occurred, but as Dont and Leonardo described how they had continued this facilitation over the course of years in different communities and around different issues, it became clear that this method was one of a profound upheaval of classroom hierarchy. The facilitators, and indeed the whole class, must trust and believe in the expertise of their fellows to describe the issues of their ascribed community. This deep listening, acknowledgement, and discussion allowed for the emergence of shared concerns (like job precarity, debt, and emotional fulfillment) despite gaps in ages, genders, experiences, and ethnicities. This is not to say that this was all about affirmation and positivity, but rather a momentary shift in power and context that opened us up to one another.
To sustain this, and to sustain it in the context of working with oppressed peoples, is precisely how popular education developed. Rather than social action, Friere talks about revolution in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and he warns about how leaders of such liberatory efforts must be aware of their own assumptions predicated by a system of oppression, including “a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know.” This is an easy thing to point out but a difficult one to enact. Friere speaks of leaders that most passionately and sincerely want to change the unjust, but “because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them,” especially not with the task of breaking away from an oppressive order.
At the moment when the authority of the classroom was broken down, and the students were entrusted with the determination of the content and focus, they affirmed their own passions for correcting injustice (indeed, why else would they sign up for a class called Socially-engaged Pedagogy.) And, as Friere describes, revealed that they, for the most part, believed that they should be “the executors of the transformation.” This was often couched in language like “I got out, so I want to give back to the community,” or “I saw firsthand the power of ______ in my life, and I want to give that to others.” Friere calls this a “type of generosity as malefic as the oppressors” because it marks the bearer as one who possesses special knowledge and ability, and implies deficit in the people who must be “helped.”
Many social practice artists have this attitude as well, especially those new to the field due to its recent trendiness. And the engagement of people in order to gift them some participatory experience is fine for a lot of artwork, but not so fine when such work professes to effect social change with oppressed peoples. Similarly with education; to be the purveyor of content is fine, but to be ”in communion,” as Friere puts it, with oppressed peoples and to fail to empower them to question and think critically, is not so fine either.
This was the beginning of a quarter of presented co-productive strategies, like Ultra-red’s popular education process, that students would implement with a group of their choice. The deal was that they would get as far as they could within the space of the quarter, and that they would engage deeply and seriously, choosing a group or a cause that was already important to them, and a situation they were already embedded within. This was a pretty ambitious prospect, and I had no idea how it would turn out.
Next post: how it turned out.
At a recent conference about socially-engaged art, Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk seemed uncomfortable presenting about her ongoing work with residents in Anfield, UK called 2Up 2Down: Homebaked, despite having done so dozens of times. In a way, she was faced with an impossible task — how to help us to understand the complicated breadth of what she was engaged in? After all, her presentation (bolstered by internet searches) was probably the only way that most of us there would experience the work, as an arbitrary and mediated snapshot. Her passion and her ability to tell a compelling story with nuance and detail still flattens the work. Such work is an ever-shifting series of tenuous relationships, and its coalescence through encapsulating narratives is the false echo of an effort that one person alone (even one deeply embedded) can never truly grasp. Such work breathes.
The newspaper and magazine articles I later found, in the local Liverpool Echo, the Guardian, Frieze Magazine and the New York Times, were even more frozen in time than Jeanne’s passionate talk, especially because many of them were reviews of the just-opened Liverpool Biennial, the international art exhibition Homebaked was associated with. The reviews of the biennial itself were mixed, but nearly all were glowing about the work in Anfield, and every single one mentioned van Heeswijk and her project out of the many works represented in the exhibition platform. The positive descriptions focus on the deleterious effect of the Housing Market Renewal program in Liverpool, a slash-and-burn form of urban regeneration in which large tracts of housing were scheduled for demolition and rebuilding in various working class neighborhoods. The neighborhood of Anfield, poor but attractive due to its proximity to the football stadium, fell victim to this excision in 1998. Many residents moved out, sold, and boarded up their houses, but because of the financial crisis and changes in leadership, the area never got rebuilt or even fully demolished. The remaining residents now live amidst the abandoned and blighted remains of a neighborhood in permanent limbo, the cornerstone of which was the former Mitchell’s Bakery. Commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial to create a project “with lasting impact,” artist Jeanne van Heeswijk began working with a group of teens (common pattern in such projects, perhaps because teens are such powerful forces for advocacy in a community—they effectively motivate participation in both young and old and refuse to be ignored) to take over the bakery as a meeting space and create a community-owned Land Trust. The plan gained partners and additional neighborhood participants and has slowly progressed, coalescing into an “alternative to the existing situation,” as van Heeswijk puts it. “I’m talking about small-scale developments with more manageable footprints which are easier for the community to understand what will happen.” The newspaper articles are aspirational, painting Anfield as a victim of runaway greed and governmental overreach that was given a “glimmer of hope” by the Homebaked project. The residents caught in the middle become symbols for the precarity of our times, casualties in a housing war. Jeanne van Heeswijk is oft-quoted as saying, “Housing is the battlefield of our time, and the house its monument.”
Homebaked is a great story. The metaphors abound (“we will rise,” and “brick by brick, loaf by loaf, we build ourselves,”), eliciting domestic nostalgia, strategies of cooking and food as social lubricant and cooperative effort. The issue it addresses is very timely, and the people involved are creative, articulate and empowered by the artist. In fact, its story became so popular, so resonant in the media, had “such legs” as they say, that the Anfield Home Tours that were part of the Liverpool Biennial exploded. These “heritage” tours, conducted by and with Anfield residents, were laborious and intense. They were also meaningful, poetic, and symbolically powerful, but drew time and effort away from what was considered the actual work –getting the bakery up and running and lobbying for it (and the houses around it) to be sold to the communal Land Trust. Jeanne van Heeswijk lamented this. She worried over how cute the branding was, how immediately accessible the references and the narratives were. She fretted about the very pressing work at hand, and the very real possibility that everything the community had been working towards could still be demolished. She worried that the tidy media characterizations of Homebaked would overshadow the messy chaos and systemic imbalances the project had to navigate every day.
Addressing his own attempt to encapsulate these practices into an exhibition format, Nato Thompson begins his essay in the Living as Form catalogue by describing poetic projects that gain a lot of media traction, their concise and reverberating explications that move us. He asks, are these projects geared for the media? “Each project flourished among news outlets as these artists created a new spin around old stories,” he writes. This is characteristic of the media society we live in, where the political, poetic, and functional merge, where life and virtuality and art are entertwined. But most of all, a society where politics and media are deeply intertwined and feed off one another. Becoming media saavy is a necessity for nearly everyone, and it is very difficult to give up control of the symbolic media narrative in favor of the actual on-the-ground work, because it is not so clear that one does not determine the other. A member of the collective Ultrared, who also work with communities on complicated issues of housing and services, underscored the porosity of these borders “People will describe their world the way the media describes it. But then as the conversations continue, the story changes.” It becomes more grounded, more realistic. It opens new possibilities. This observation makes clear the necessity of media understanding, literacy, and manipulation in these projects, because the media narrative determines the way people see themselves. A symbolic counterattack on prevailing narratives, carefully calibrated through self-branding and actualization, can shift understandings and pave the way for progress, as surely as baking bread or laying down brick. Ultrared also said of socially-engaged work, “It’s not just changing our perception of our world, it’s changing the world we perceive.” In fact it must do both: change perception, and the world, for one follows the other.
Jason DeCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution.
“Did you hear about this underwater sculptor?” my husband asks me the other day. It is rare that contemporary art makes it on his radar, even in his rapacious daily Reddit investigations, so I was intrigued. He had come across a story about it on a blog called “Messy Nessy Chic.” The author starts: “If this doesn’t give a much needed boost to tourism in Mexico, I don’t know what will.” The post describes the work of artist Jason DeCaires Taylor, who installs life-size cast concrete human figures on the sea bed (mostly in the Caribbean) that act as slowly evolving artificial reefs. His latest work involves 403 figures spanning 420 meters. There are lots of high res shots of marine life obscuring sculpted faces, a spangle of anemone spewing from the pates of anguished frozen fishermen, a barracuda circling a child’s head. Women in bikinis blowing kisses, the artist himself, muscular, in a wetsuit. Arms crossed on a boat.
The mediation of art has been a fact of our world for a long time, ever since Walter Benjamin wrote about art’s technological reproducibility starting with the invention of lithography. Beyond physical replication, though, the facility with which artists and artworks manipulate, utilize and are defined via their mediation has merely become reflective of the ways we all exist now, through narratives we create and that exist entirely through the refracted shares and likes of a viral feedback loop. Art that claims to have some social or political efficacy (or a pretty straightforward environmental utility, in the case of DeCaires Taylor) can make a good story, and mediated narratives can be an effective means to distribute the symbolic power of a work that may not otherwise reach anyone.
I don’t know enough about coral reefs and ocean ecology to know how effectively these underwater sculptures are mitigating habitat loss. My hunch is not very much. These sculptures are less a solution than a poetic concept that changes our perception of the world, as is the traditional realm of art. What really interests me about socially-engaged art, and what distinguishes that art from something like DeCaires Taylor’s work, is that it does not stop at that – it wishes to (as Dont Rhine from Ultra-red put it eloquently) “not only change our perception of the world, but change the world we perceive.” This is not a judgment but rather a shift in understanding of the role of art, and its catalytic potential.
Therefore, the role of media in these projects shifts dramatically, becoming more of a counter-agent to the work itself. In a symbolic practice (Pablo Helguera distinguishes this from “actual practice,” some sort of scalable change intervention on society, and cautions that most socially-engaged art encompass both rather fluidly—both the “change in perception” as well as “change in the world”), media can increase audience and facilitate a perceptual shift in absentia. It can likewise mischaracterize the work, essentialize it or simply have a bad opinion of it, but because of the work’s purely symbolic potential this does not necessarily diminish its ability to shift perspective. It has no effect outside of the slippery realm of the symbolic, and whether you love it or hate it, the work is what it is and it says what it says (to you).
This is quite different in the case of socially engaged artwork. In work that strives to make actual impact on the world, that is co-produced with a temporary community, as part of or in spite of its symbolic potential, media can play a devastating part in undermining the work’s interventionist capacity (especially if it treats it as a cipher, emphasizing only its symbolic nature). It can do this in several ways. First, media tends to speculate on and predetermine expectations and outcomes, which can poison a co-productive process from within. Its narratives function best with an uncomplicated hero or visionary, which ascribes a role to the artist that he or she may be actively trying to avoid. It can place the fragile process of building trust amongst participants and the tentative construction of community within a fishbowl, wherein outside pressures and attentions can collapse a nascent collective. It can heighten existing divides. It can take time and attention away from the work at hand.
This is not to say that no good comes from media exposure (acceptance, interest from authorities or those in power, deeper understanding, financial support and resources) but it is a bit like playing with fire. It can’t be well-controlled. What happens when it goes up? Who gets burned?
Next week, two projects affected by different kinds of media inflagrations (one positive, one negative), and what it meant for them.
In early December, I was lucky enough to be invited to a conference in Florence, Italy on socially-engaged art. The gathering was organized by NYU in conjunction with Creative Time to explore whether or not there were enough issues of note embedded in political, public, and participatory art practices to warrant a university research center dedicated to their study. Our resounding and unanimous conclusion as a group can be inferred by the breadth of these next blog posts I am undertaking—so many revelatory threads of commonality (in solidarity and in concern) emerged that I would like to begin to unpack and ruminate on each in a series of vignettes, in the hope that helpful patterns become clarified and saturated. As my thinking on these subjects shifts, as I ponder how socially-engaged is both a symptom and an actor of its context, how it can be a lens through which to makes sense of our ever more quickly shifting society, how it can illuminate discrepancies of power and intervene upon them, my conclusions will evolve along with these iterative posts. We are none of us static.
But right now, at this moment, the following conversations concern me. I am gratified that they do not address the tired old questions of “Is this art?” and “How do we measure what good it does?” and “Should this be the realm of artists or social workers?” (though I won’t promise those topics didn’t come up in the conference at all), but rather become touch points for the work itself. In other words, these analytic categories emerge from what people are actually doing out in the world, not from some old-fashioned notion of what art should be and how these works fit into that paradigm. These are just some threads that jumped out in comparing quite diverse practices globally (I literally wrote in my notes “just some of the threads”). I suspect some of them will fade into obsolescence quite soon, some of them will gobble up other categories, all of them are overlapping and porous. But for the sake of a list, and because I like the neatness of lists:
- Mediation (the role of the media in these works, how their narratives are expressed symbolically)
- Co-production (the extent to which the “vision” and “goals” of the work rises collaboratively from all participants rather than being determined by an artist or institution)
- Negotiation (how exchange works in these practices as opposed to a “charity” or “volunteer” paradigm)
- Methodology (the extent to which there is a clear—if flexible—methodological process for making decisions, working together, and engaging)
- Growth (the rate of appropriate growth for a project, its context, its participants, and its goals)
- Image & Aesthetics (the role of image and aesthetics in the symbolic power of the work)
- Life Cycles (how a project responsibly enters, grows, and exits a community)
Over the next several months, I will dig into a number of compelling projects in Los Angeles and abroad through these lenses. My hope is that connective tissue may be discovered in how the deepest and most resonant of these works are approached. That the roles of artists, expert residents, participating organizers, cultural producers, critics, and audiences may be unpacked with care. And that a more nuanced understanding of how these works function beyond their sound-bites may reflect on the society at large, and why our current conditions give rise to this kind of work.
Next week: Mediation (what underwater sculptures, grand visions, and invisible artists have in common).
QMA collaborates with the Uni Project to bring a mobile reading room to the newly pedestrianized Corona Plaza, August 2012. Photo | Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art.
For this next interview in the SOCiAL: Art + People series, I sat down with theorist and curator Bill Kelley, Jr. and Director of Public Events for the Queens Museum of ArtPrerana Reddy to speak about Queens as a vanguard for the integration of socially-engaged art into a museum context, and as a case study for the changing role of the museum in civic life. The specific conditions of Queens have resonance with Los Angeles, and Prerana and Bill will further explore these concerns on Saturday, November 3rd in a free public program as part of Bill’s curatorial residency at 18th Street Arts Center.
Sue Bell Yank: So Bill, what was the impetus behind inviting Prerana [Reddy] to this event, and for hosting an event like this?
Bill Kelley, Jr.: I learned about Prerana’s work and the work of the Queens Museum of Art not here, not in the States and LA, but from my contacts in South America, that there was this woman from the Queens Museum roaming around the Andes, talking to these various communities in Cuenca and Quito [cities in Ecuador] and all these places. “You should get to know her, Bill, you should know her, why don’t you know who she is?” So when I went to New York a few years ago, I called her up. She picked me up and we went to the Queens Museum and met with the director, Tom Finkelpearl, and she showed me around Corona Plaza and talked to me about some of the projects. In some ways it reminded me about the migratory experience at some level with friends or contacts in Los Angeles, and this was a great model for discussing what the relationship was with museums and these types of immigrant communities. As someone who works blurring the line between theory and curatorial work, it prompted certain questions about curatorial practice, about the roles of museums, the roles of theory and discourse and all of these things. So when the opportunity came for Prerana to come to LA during my residency at 18th Street [Arts Center], I was really happy that she could come.
Sue Bell Yank: Prerana, maybe you can give us a little bit of an overview of some of the projects you are working on that Bill is interested in.
Prerana Reddy: Sure, and to pick up on why I was roaming the Andes…Queens Museum is pretty far out from Manhattan, far away from the center of the city. We realized that what we couldn’t do, nor should we do, is replicate a contemporary art museum model, or modern art museum model of what was happening in Manhattan. We didn’t have the same type of resources, we didn’t have the same type of visitor, and we didn’t have the same type of collection. So we went to the drawing board and said, “What can we do better than those museums?” or “What are we primed better to do?” and if our users–and we like to use the word “user” more than “visitor”–are mostly going to be people from the neighborhood around where we are, then how does that impact how we do business? How we curate, how we do programming, what we think the role of a museum is, and we happen to live in a neighborhood, Corona, that is highly, highly new immigrant, and is probably about 70% Latino. Not necessarily from any one particular place, there have been lots of waves of immigration. Probably 30-40 years ago you would have seen a lot of Dominicans, Columbians, and since the 80s more Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants. So you have this kind of mosaic of people who might be united by being from Latin America, but at the same time are quite distinctive. Because the community is so transnational I felt that in order to understand the art and cultural context of our local community, I had to go back to Latin America and have that experience myself. I was lucky enough to know some Ecuadorian artists who had gotten government grants to work with Ecuadorian immigrants in my community and knew some of those people, and ended up hiring those people to be my guides. I had no agenda, I didn’t have any meetings lined up, but I had that curiosity. It did help me, when I came back, to be able to say, “I’ve been there. I know this landscape or I know something about the politics, something about the history of migration.” Something about the familiarity that changed fundamentally my relationship, I didn’t have to rely on my staff people who were from there. It says something to the community about the fact that the institution does care deeply, or that people from the institution do care deeply about their daily lives and not just audience development or getting people in through the door.
Read the rest of the interview here.
IMLab Summer Workshop. Photo Courtesy UCLA IMLab.
For the next in this series of interviews in conjunction with the SOCiAL: Art + Peopleinitiative of public programs, I sat down with Anne Bray (artist, organizer of SOCiAL and founder of LA Freewaves) and Fabian Wagmister (director of the Interpretive Media Laboratory, IMLab). Long-time collaborators and innovators in the use of new media to foster collective creativity, Anne and Fabian spoke about the roots of their practices in leveraging a rapidly changing media landscape to enhance a connection to place, foster dynamic community development, and create generative, civically-engaged networks in Los Angeles. They will be joined by fellow artists Pedro Joel Espinosa (IDEPSCA’s Mobile Voices), Vicki Callahan (USC IML), Micha Cardenas, and Shagha Ariannia (Long Story Short) in a panel and discussion at Chiparaki on Saturday, November 3rd at 1pm.
Sue Bell Yank: I think it would be helpful to get some background on LA Freewaves, and UCLA IMLab, what your overlapping interests are in terms of interactive media, and what you hope to explore in this panel.
Fabian Wagmister: The Interpretive Media Laboratory, which IMLab stands for, is a project of REMAP, The Center for Research, Engineering, Media and Performance here at UCLA. Fundamentally it focuses on collective creativity and participatory design as a way to bridge communities with a public design process for their own neighborhoods. So we’re very interested in finding a dynamic, fluid, meaningful process by which residents of a neighborhood engage the public process in terms of what’s happening to the neighborhood. We specifically focus on Northeast Downtown at this point, because we have a base there, which is Chiparaki (where this event will take place), and because we have established a partnership with California State Parks in relation to the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Largely the two concepts, really that are connected, is this idea of collective creativity. So we look at the community not so much as providers of content for us to make things about, but as the creators instead. We are interested in creating cultural architectures where that can take place. So the gathering of media, data, all the ways to find out visual expression, we release the power into the group that is doing it. Generally we do this in the context of engaged civic research, in that basically we look at mobile devices and technology as a research tool for the community, to use it to analyze what a particular public project is proposing, and then do what we call “citizen science.” This is to go out into the community and document the reality, and see to what extent it reflects, matches, or that the plan being proposed serves the needs of the community. Usually, similar to these other projects, we provide groups with the technological infrastructure to go out into the community and basically we look at the cell phone as a magnifying glass, as a sound analysis tool. We use sensors and additional technology depending on what people are trying to study. It’s not so much about making images–even images for us is a form of data that then people keyword, categorize, and it’s a way of thinking about their own environment.
For example, a recent project, we did a Summer Institute for high school students from high schools specifically around Northeast LA. For six weeks they gathered data from their own neighborhoods and then they were introduced to statistical analysis of that data so they could learn what does this data say about my neighborhood. They focused on a multiplicity of projects including sound pollution, to history awareness of their neighbors, to what extent are people aware of the history of their neighborhood, to a number of other things.
Read the rest of the interview here.
'Food is Art, Art is Food' Village market, outside of Chaing Mai, Thailand, 2008. | Photo: Courtesy Andy Lipkis.
For the next in this series of interviews of organizers and participants in the SOCiAL: Art + People initiative, I had the privilege of corresponding with many practitioners engaged deeply in the relationship of art, nature, and social justice. The format of the event in La Tierra de la Culebra Park on Thursday October 24th, entitled Can Artists Heal Nature in LA? includes 10 people each speaking briefly for 5 minutes, accompanied by a potluck and generous open discussion. In keeping with this format, I asked the participants to respond to questions in a single sentence (and if possible, a 140 character tweet-size answer). Some participants adhered to this more than others, but all collated succinct and thoughtful responses that give some insight into their work and concerns. Janet Owen Driggs was an instigator and facilitator of this event’s organization, and begins by explaining its underlying impetus and process of organization.
Janet Owen Driggs: The subject is such an enormous one, and one that I am wrestling with a lot at the moment. Not literally, I mean I am under no illusions that ‘art’ can ‘heal’ ‘nature’. But because I believe the question, because it is crass, enables us to access some very important, elusive, other questions. It begins to pry open:
1) Access the ways in which we conceptualize, and (attempt to) experience, the environment as a thing apart from ourselves.
2) Consider ways of constituting “non-humans” as subjects.
3) Think about our practices as beginning to not only imagine and represent difference or change, but to perform it.
It might be useful to know the process by which this was organized. Anne Bray contacted me in June (or thereabouts) to see if I was interested in organizing something about the art/nature intersection for her conversation series, SOCiAL: Art + People. We talked it through a bit and, aware of my own limitations, I reached out to a small group of people whose participation I felt was crucial to avoid a stale, repetitive conversation on the topic.
As a group we identified a number of geographically, culturally, racially, and economically diverse initiatives that are operating at that art/nature intersection. Hoping to bring people together from a variety of these initiatives, we wanted a lot of voices in the conversation. We consequently decided on the 10-person/5-minute structure and started compiling a long list of potential presenters.
Janet Owen Driggs, Olivia Chumacero, and Anne Hars organized the event, with participants and co-organizers including Hadley Arnold, Tricia Ward, Allison Danielle Behrstock, Andy Lipkis, Mark Lakeman, Ron Finley, Eric Knutzen, Jane Tsong, Jenny Price, and Sarah Dougherty. Read the rest of the interview here.
poster in documenta offices | Photo Courtesy Tamarind Rossetti
This post is the fifth in my series of interviews of social practice practitioners, curators, organizers, and writers as part of SOCiAL: Art + People, and I was delighted to have the chance to learn more about the groundbreaking exhibition dOCUMENTA (13).
This Wednesday, October 24th at 7pm at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, a panel of curators, artists and students invited by the Otis Public Practice program will discuss the multivalent, ground-breaking exhibition dOCUMENTA(13) (which took place this year from June 9 to September 16). Documenta is a large-scale exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every 5 years in Kassel, Germany, and is open for 100 days. This year’s edition was helmed by curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (recently named the most influential figure in contemporary art by ArtReview), who envisioned an event centered around both the frictave and romantic potentials of globalization in the dual worlds of the West and the Middle East (and the fluid digital terrain that melds and complicates their relationships). Otis Public Practice student Tamarind Rossetti instigated this event after returning from a field internship working with documenta artist Mariam Ghani. Her desire to unpack, interrogate, and reflect on the exhibition with a group of Los Angeles based artists and curators (including curator John Tain and artist Leslie Labowitz-Starus, in addition to Ciara Ennis, director/curator of the Pitzer Art Galleries and Pilar Tompkins-Rivas, director of residency programs at 18th Street Art Center) speaks to dOCUMENTA(13)’s resonance in the field, and in the development of young artists in a rapidly changing world.
Sue Bell Yank: What was the impetus behind holding this event?
Tamarind Rossetti: The Otis Public Practice Program places students around the world in field internships during an artist’s installation of a project so that we experience how the field actually operates. I went to documenta to work with Mariam Ghani on her pieces A Brief History of Collapses, 2011-2012, a video installation, and Afghan Film Archive, an online database of the Afghan films that had been hidden from 1995-2002. The breadth and intensity of the works I saw at documenta were so meaningful in thinking about how to develop my own work that I wanted to discuss these with friends and colleagues who are interested in: public practice, archives, political art, and site-generated works. We asked Pilar Tompkins-Rivas from 18th Street Arts Center to moderate a panel we convened of artists and curators, including me, who would present their experiences of the exhibition in order to consider, what can we learn from dOCUMENTA(13) and what does it suggest about current developments in social practice?
Sue Bell Yank: And what do you think is the relevance of this documenta to the state of socially-engaged art practice?
Tamarind Rossetti: Mariam Ghani’s artwork had a specific impact on how I understood and experienced documenta, because her pieces dealt with recurrences of collapse, recovery, and mirroring of histories. One piece showed a dual video projection traveling through the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul and the Fridericianum in Kassel as a voice described the multiple lives each building has lived. This piece worked with building, occupation, destruction, re-habitation, while the viewer sat in the building being described, visually and historically. There was a feeling of being in two places at once, in many times at once, of the changeability of history, and the persistence of destruction and rebuilding/repurposing, redefining.
John Tain: This edition of documenta was very much engaged with various forms of artistic work identified with social practice, and the curators seem to have adopted many of the strategies to be found in such work in their own thinking. Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev’s participation in this year’s Creative Time Summit would seem to confirm this.
Leslie Labowitz-Starus: The overall experience of documenta this year was one of expanse across locations, and thinking about the big picture, how all the elements of this complex exhibiton functioned. There were multiple locations throughout Kassel, seminars in Kabul, work in Cairo and Banff. It was impossible to see it all. I saw so many amazing things, and I’m sure I missed so much. In addition to the physical multiplicities, artists from multiple generations, backgrounds, experience, and their work came together in all these places to create a whole exploration to how art relates to society at large. There was also a meeting place in Kassel where the artists and community members from Kassel got together and brainstormed how art can respond to the changing world. Knowing the past structures of society that have not worked, and thinking about what is next. What comes after this capitalistic model that is no longer working for the society? And how can artists inform and help create that?
Documenta isn’t about one artwork. It’s about all the artworks, spread out all over the city, the world. Bringing artists from the other sites: a question of what s going on in the world.
The exhibition is saying, how do you know about these things that you don’t really know about, but only see? It’s bringing things together so the visitors can see and experience in a different way: different than the news, than the media.
Read the rest of the interview here.
Ramirez Meat Market Makeover. Image Courtesy Public Matters.
For the fourth in my series of interviews with socially-engaged contemporary artists, organizers, writers and thinkers as part of the SOCiAL: Art + People events, I sat down with artists Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada, co-founders and collaborators in the artist-run interdisciplinary organization called Public Matters. Public Matters is a multivalent and dynamically shifting arts organization dedicated to affecting powerful change (most recently regarding food injustice in impoverished communities) over long periods of time through youth media empowerment, collective creativity, leadership development, and physical and behavioral change. They are engaged in enormous partnerships with UCLA, USC, and various community organizations as part of a five-year NIH grant to combat cardiovascular health problems in East Los Angeles, and have effectively integrated arts and creativity into combating an enormous public health crisis in a way that very few arts organizations have. I have previously analyzed the organizational structure of Public Matters, but in this interview the artists have a chance to speak more in depth about their partnerships, their teenaged collaborators, and the role of arts in social justice.
Sue Bell Yank: We can start by talking about this particular event, coming up on October 20th at 10am in East LA, the Market Makeover Smackdown!
Reanne Estrada: SMACKDOWN! I like to say SMACKDOWN as if it were in capital letters.
One of the things we learned with our work with Market Makeovers is that the work really begins after the stores are physically transformed because then you have to bring in the process of making sure people come to the stores and buy the fresh produce, the healthier items, so the store owners will keep participating and the solution becomes a sustainable one for the community. So that’s, as you know, a big undertaking because you have to promote the stores, promote the inventory, but you also have to promote behavior change. So people who are used to a cheap processed food diet that’s very convenient, are suddenly fiending for kale, or going crazy for that winter squash. So there’s a gap that we have to overcome. That’s where the “Smackdown” came in, because this fall we’re working with students from the School of Communication, New Media and Technology (CNMT) at Roosevelt High School, so they’re working on the store transformations and the promotion of the project. We thought the “Smackdown” would be a good way to get their competitive juices flowing, and also to bring in fresh blood and new attention to the stores.
Read the rest of the interview here.