Lunch was interesting. Called “The Sixth Borough” it was an art/food project, or perhaps an aesthetic food experience curated and designed and made by artist Stefani Bardin and chef Mihir Desai. The conceit was that each borough in New York City was represented, and those of us who signed up for the lunch could select or were assigned an area and a cuisine. “Brooklyn” focused on rooftop gardening, “Staten Island” was seated on the ground in the manner of a Sri Lankan wedding feast, and I got Queens, which served food out of a cardboard cut-out “food truck,” drinks out of metal buckets, and we all sat on a scattered simulacrum of park benches and stoops. I was initially a bit bummed that I didn’t get to sit at a beautifully made table, but my bahn mi sandwich was really substantial, and I was very hungry. I’m glad I got that one and not one of the more “experimental” meals (one table had what looked like a pillar of air and coal dust). After lunch was an incredible and very intense set of experiences at the Summit, and I have just a few highlights described here. There is always a tension between providing a wide range of projects and not nearly having enough time to go deeply into them. But these are some of the ideas I was glad to know about.

In session 2, which was all about Brooklyn, Risë Wilson, founder of the Laundromat Project, opened the discussion with a provocation to think and talk differently about race. She noted that one of the problems with gentrification is that we don’t unpack the language, and that is also the problem with a conversation about race. This is an opportunity to think not about skin-tone, but about power and wealth. Who historically has the ability to acquire and leverage assets? The only way to change the conversation is to trust one another, and the only way to trust one another is to tell the truth. To help us do that, Risë then had us do a yoga-inspired exercise where we sat up on the edge of our seats, put our shoulders back, and put a hand on our heart and the other on our belly. She asked us to deeply consider our own bodies and our own relationship to privilege as we listened to what we heard.  As we took deep breaths with eyes closed, she asked, “In the context of your own relationship to privilege, what would you be willing to give up in the pursuit of equity?”

This was a perfect segue into director and documentarian Kelly Anderson’s short presentation, which focused on the social and physical changes in Fulton Hall, a small historical shopping district in Brooklyn that is the protagonist in the film My Brooklyn. Told through individual stories and the emotional and social fabric of the neighborhood, it became clear that the redevelopment of downtown Brooklyn was not natural and not inevitable. There was a close collaboration between government and corporations to significantly change the character of the city, with very little opportunity for the public to intervene. Over 100 re-zonings occurred under Bloomberg that increased inquality and racial segregation throughout the city. Once people saw the film, they wanted to do something, and have begun to self-organize screenings as a part of “My Brooklyn, Our City.” Perhaps this interest is a glimmer of hope in a landscape of such sweeping injustice.

Artist Michael Premo used the example of superstorm Sandy as an opportunity for communities to come together and help one another. He said, “Communities have solutions. What we need to expand are the platforms for participation, and the resources to execute these solutions.” For me, this really gets to the core of what I was trying to talk about with my co-production posts. The role of a socially-engaged artist has evolved to encompass both the infrastructural platform and leveraging resources to invest in communities.

This is not to say that the socially-engaged artist or cultural producer is the only or even the best person to be in this role. In the panel afterwards, Rise urged the speakers to give strategies for the average person to be empowered to shift the structures of power that determine how change occurs.

Some final thoughts from the panelists:

There was general agreement that we need both the grassroots change and the ability to push policy (what Michael Premo called a “dual-power strategy”).  We need more participatory economic and democratic processes, like participatory budgeting.  We want to live in a place where when we get good things (like a park) it doesn’t feel like its the beginning of the end for that neighborhood as it currently exists. We want to have more of these conversations with the people who we are talking about, who are not in the room.

The focus on people, empathy, and agency has been a refreshing theme in these discussions, and a quite sophisticated shift in the tenor and language of conversations around social practice. No hand-wringing over the boundaries of art and the definition of social practice, or setting up oppositions between politics and aesthetics. This conversation has been rooted in the stories of people, the displaced, the activists, acknowledging how the rate of change outpaced human reactions to it,  and how empathy, platforms for self-determination, and the radical democratization of civic processes can arise from personal relationships.

SESSION THREE: Building from the Ground Up

Kenneth Bailey, urban designer and founder of Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) spoke about social tragedy, and how some events, actions, and episodes serve to make places more brittle, more fragile, and more likely to break. He referred to this as “placebreaking.” Social tragedies are unevenly layered, and affect different people differently. If you don’t have the means and assets to withstand a social tragedy, it affects you so much more profoundly. There is also the third aspect, which is that the media reflects and reports upon that tragedy back to the people within it. Some tragedies are reported upon with warmth, while others demonize the victims of that tragedy at the same time that they are trying to get through it. Kenneth ended with a call for conversation with a small group of people about placebreaking–if people have endured a social tragedy, what remains?

Artist Christoph Schäfer spoke about Park Fiction, a project set in the red light district of Hamburg Germany called St. Pauli, which is directly adjacent to the harbor. The harbor had recently been rezoned, and was slated to be developed into a series of warehouses blocking the harbor view from the tenements across the street. Rather than protest, they decided to start an unauthorized planning process based on the production of desires from the people in the neighborhood. This culminated in an “Archive of Desires” that were leveraged, through exposure, to convince the city to buy into the idea of the park. The park itself is not enough, the park is merely a platform to “spatialize desire,” which is where true power lies. Schafer reiterated the Lefebvre idea of “the right to the city” which he said is also the right to centrality, and the right to re-imagine and re-define space. This became a movement of localized struggles in Germany, and the park played a part in that movement. Resistance continues. Recently, the park renamed itself Gezi Park Fiction in cross-city solidarity for the protests in Turkey, and Schafer ended with a call for more inter-city Gezification.

Chido Govera, an amazing woman from Zimbabwe who grew up as an orphan in Africa, connected place-making to passion. She focuses that passion around building communities around orphan children that empower them to provide for themselves, as she herself had done. She found the tools to do that in studying the process of cultivating mushrooms. Mushrooms grow on waste, do not require many resources, and getting men and women to work together empowers cooperation. Her work goes so much beyond that notion, she has expanded this to seeding entrepeneurship in many countries, to help people rise up beyond their situation and not have to accept victimhood.

Section 4: FLANEURS

Vito Acconci began by repositioning the flaneur not as an idler, a dawdler, a drifter who is passively acted upon by the city, but as an activist, an agitator who shakes up the geography of the city and disrupts it.
He sees his work since the 80s not as art, but as architecture and design. The difference, is that in design, you are inside of something. In art, you are on the outside looking in. He mentioned Acconci Studio as an important factor in his design work, because he believed that work in the public should come from at least three people. One is solo, two is a couple, and the third thickens the plot. Even the Catholic Church knows this, he quipped, because they brought in the Holy Ghost. The future of architecture, he mentioned as a preface to his project “Mobile-Linear City” is that it moves. Architecture that is immovable acts upon people – only when people can act upon architecture can they gain some measure of power.

Again in these panels, we return to the question of empowerment. How to invert agency, create ways to include the voices of people who live in these contested places? Who knows what might happen then? This day of the summit didn’t provide concrete answers, but that was never the point. What was powerful were the individual stories, relationships, and the grounding of theoretical principles or concerns in the real. Mary Jane Jacob, moderating the discussion for the final panel, probed for individual stories and experiences from her presenters, appropriately underscored that theme, and justified the very work of the Summit itself. It is only by the ambitious and proactive formation of platforms for relationships (bolstered by the honesty, self-knowledge, and awareness of context that is so necessary for trust and understanding) through which change can be born. It is difficult and cumulative work, but the Summit provides a tempo to the conversation that allows it to be built upon.

Unfortunately I must return to LA, so this will be the final dispatch; and a return to the Hubs & Hybrids interview series of LA artist-run spaces.