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Open Engagement: Does it end at art?

Gran Fury. AIDS activism poster by the Silence = Death Project, 1986. Courtesy International Gay Information Center Collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Gran Fury. AIDS activism poster by the Silence = Death Project, 1986. Courtesy International Gay Information Center Collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

I recently participated in the ongoing Open Engagement blog project “100 Days 100 Questions,” which has employed many (100 actually) artists and organizers and writers in the socially-engaged art practice field to answer questions. As number 64, I was given “Does it end at art?” and my answer goes something like “No! Well…yes, kind of it does. But not really. Sort of.” Best kind of answer! Check it out.

When I first started thinking about this question, only cliches and tired arguments came to mind – perhaps indicative of how entrenched certain critiques are when discussing social practice. My inner monologue went something like this:

First thought––well, art can clearly be a catalyst for and contributor to social change. I can think of lots of projects–likePark Fiction in Hamburg Germany, which after many years years resulted in a park and became a paragon for participatory planning and right to the city movements; or work that proposes alternative societal systems while simultaneously exposing problematics, like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicles or FutureFarmers founded by Amy Fransheschini; or the viral political and iconic power of the graphics of Gran Fury during the Act-Up movement. So art is not an end, it’s a beginning. Who’s to measure the resonant power of political artwork anyhow, “social practice” or not?

And then the second thought reared its head––well, measurement is a problem and will always be a problem. Art has to be an end in itself, despite its social value, because otherwise it must be leveraged to meet metrics. It then loses its inherent risk capital, its experimental nature, its agonistic outlook––because art investigates the exclusions in society, the unforeseen, the imbalances and impossibilities––and would be fettered unimaginably by having to meet a standard. Any success realized by an art project according to some outside metric would need to be taken up by someone else, isolated, replicated, and built upon. This is not an impossible task––just impossible for art.

So I reach the third thought. Art is an end in itself, and here I go policing the boundaries of art, exactly the tired (and frankly, boring) exercise that I try rigorously to avoid when thinking or writing about social practice.

Read the rest here.

The Creative Time Summit Dispatch #2: Passion, Empathy, and People (or, After Lunch)

"The Sixth Borough" Lunch at Judson Memorial Church, by Stefani Bardin and Mihir Desai.

“The Sixth Borough” Lunch at Judson Memorial Church, by Stefani Bardin and Mihir Desai.

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.

The Creative Time Summit Dispatch #1: Race, Place, and Empowerment (or, Before Lunch)

Paul Ramirez Jonas project during the kick-off party at Judson Memorial Church.

Paul Ramirez Jonas project during the kick-off party at Judson Memorial Church.

Today I am in New York City attending the Creative Time Summit on art and urbanism, and decided to try my hand at a live-blogging. Or at least quick-turn-around blogging, which is not usual for me. Whenever I come here, I am a little culture-shocked by such a very different quality of urbanity than Los Angeles, which is characterized to me by bubbles of isolated experience, existing simultaneously in a sprawling series of metropoli that rub up against one another. In New York, everything overlays everything else and the urban environment is constantly reproduced, very used and traveled and expediated (rather than disused and overlooked), and that state brings its own challenges. So as to the question of the role of cultural production in urbanity, this bicoastal perspective is an interesting context from which to begin.

Settling into a red seat in a packed NYU Skirball center auditorium, I watched Creative Time president Anne Pasternak and chief curator Nato Thompson introduce the summit, and attempt to frame the conversation as a way to bring fresh, honest ideas to an old conversation – one of artists in the city, placemaking, and all of the sociological and political complexities that come with that. Like gentrification, race, equity, and justice in urban development. How do artists embed within and rewrite the city?

As if to respond to my own dual experiences, Los Angeles-based artist Mario Ybarra Jr. gave another framework, meant to give what he called an “insider” view from an artist’s perspective, trying to make work in the city. In his typical manner, he made things very accessible. Urbanist Neil Brenner then spoke eloquently about the very real questions of co-optation and a neoliberal agenda in gentrification, and Nato Thompson and Rick Lowe had a very provocative discussion about race. These were the highlights before lunch, and below follow my notes and summaries.


#1 Intent – You want to bake your mom a cake for her birthday.

#2 Content – Your mom likes chocolate, strawberries, and whipped cream. That will be the content of your cake.

#3 Context – Your sister made a great cake last year that everyone will be talking about. That is the context in which your cake is being made.

#4 Production – What are you going to need to produce this cake? Money, Tools, and Help (and I would say, Time).

#5 Distribution – How are you going to invite people to your party? How are you going to serve the cake? Where are you going to serve this thing?

#6 Documentation – Proof to your sister that your cake existed, and was better than hers. But who is going to take the pictures and put up the Flickr feed? It also gives you leverage to make your next cake.


Neil Brenner from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, who is a professor of urbanism, gave a quick but rousing keynote presentation. He gave a very hard-hitting lecture about urban revanchism under conditions of neoliberal capitalism. Revanchism (based on the word “revenge” and applied to territorial losses) is a local growth and development mechanism that actively leads to disempowerment, exclusion and gentrification in the space of the city, and he believes that Guiliani’s NYC is a paradigm of this. Brenner focused on the way cultural production is leveraged in service of this profiteering development and growth scheme of current neoliberal urban ideology. Brenner asks, is place-making a weapon for social justice in this context, or is it a trap? Place is instrumentalized by capital for profit-making, which is continually reinvested into the marketplace for more and more surplus. But in order to work, capital must be invested in place in a moment of fixity to combine with labor power. It imprints itself on the places that we live in. But places are not only the realm of capital. People live, work, and struggle within places, and articulate different ideas (beyond the economic) of what places can be.

Brenner rooted these ideas in urban philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “The Right to the City” – which he sees as a potential counterpolitics of place that advocates for the democratization of places. Lefebvre descrived this as a double-edged democratization. First, you radically open the city for all, but that is not enough. Most importantly, you also democratize the POWER to produce place (beyond the owners of properties and production), and by doing that you open up the possibility of producing a radically different world. There is a long history of radical social movements dedicated to this kind of openness; Lefebvre himself was inspired by the Paris Commune and May 1968 general strikes, where as the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and the recent Occupy movements also were about different ways to produce the world, by democratizing access to the urban spaces of the world as well as the means to produce. There is a battle going on, and it continues, in the Arab world, in Brazil, and elsewhere.

Brenner than identified these risks that come with creative place-making:

1)      Place can become an enclave (if it is confined to a building or housing or commune). It can be very inspiring, but in this form it cannot disrupt the forces of gentrification that flow unmitigated around it.

2) If place is too disrupted and radical movements intervene in the structures of power too much, then they are repressed by the full force of those in power (police actions, annihilation of the place)

3) Radical placemaking is co-opted by forces of power. These powers connect with radical ideas of cultural production, but instrumentalize them for the local growth economy and development machine, as described in Richard Florida’s work on creative economies. This actually makes conditions more favorable to the neoliberal project.

The radical politics of place must avoid these traps…but how? How to appropriate and mobilize place for social justice and radical democracy? But we must be aware of these vulnerabilities to be best positioned to do that.

Neil offered these strategies:

1) Stay dialectical. We must continue to be aware of the dual nature of space.

2) Assert core political values. Be clear about our radical values and state them clearly.

3) Expand our spatial imagination. We must think not just about places, but interconnected networks and larger-scale spatial politics.


Rick Lowe and Nato Thompson opened up a really interesting conversation about race, place, and class in art practice in the city. Rick made the point that community art practice has been going on forever, from people embedded in communities who organically generate projects out of the community organizing they are already doing. As someone who came from a community arts background now crossing over into social practice, Rick commented that graduates from these new credentialed social practice MFA programs now want to go into neighborhoods of black and brown people and “help them.” He wondered, “Is social practice a gentrified version of community arts?”

They attempted to hit the question of race head on, but ended up identifying and exploring some of the barriers to honest conversation about race. Oftentimes, getting the right people at the table when embarking on socially-engaged projects is the most challenging part. Nato made the point that in Suzanne Lacy’s recent project that Creative Time helped produce, “Between the Door and the Street”, she taught him that it’s important not to just start with the project idea, but with who is sitting at the table that help get to the idea.

Rick agreed about the importance of people, and that his methodology always places people as the starting point. He said, “If this work is about anything for me, this is about empowering people to produce their own places. We can’t do it for people, we need to figure out how to start with the people and give them agency.” His warning to young artists interested in social practice and placemaking is that “It is easier to get to the physical place, and much harder to get to the people. Many artists hide behind that, and don’t want to acknowledge that. Everyone should write on their mirror ‘What is my race question today?’ People of color think about race on a daily basis, and white people don’t, it is like shadow-boxing to talk about race with white people. If you are a young artist doing a project in a neighborhood where there are black and brown people, race should always be on your mind, all the time.”

Rick and Nato also tackled the question of aesthetics in concert with impact in socially-engaged work. Rick remembered that artist Tania Bruguera once said, “I want to make art that doesn’t point at a thing, it is the thing.” Rick proposed that these typologies are not diametrically opposed, but can exist in concert. The art project can be “the thing,” but the aesthetics of the work can also point at the thing (that is the project itself). In other words, the work is both a structure (as in it builds an infrastructure), but it is also a gesture. It need not be a solution, but can retain its poetic nature. It can be both the thing and can point at the thing. Rick insists that as art practitioners and cultural producers, we must guard the poetic capacity of the artwork, and that this is in fact necessary. The pull of capitalism is so strong that it leverages everything in service of a profit mentality, and artists can become co-opted by these insatiable growth mechanisms and subsumed by problems of scale. For example, if you just do housing (as Project Row Houses does), you get criticized for only having 80 units when the housing problem in your city encompasses tens of thousands. But an art project doesn’t need to be at that scale, it can very much be a non-profitable, poetic gesture. I like that Rick used the work poetics rather than aesthetics, because poetics allows for context to a much larger degree (Boris Groys goes deeply into this discussion in his book Going Public), and the “sovereignty of context” as Roberto Bedoya put it, is absolutely key to this work.

The Case of the Queens Museum of Art and Corona Plaza

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.

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.

Can Artists Use Technology to Enable Community?

IMLab Summer Workshop. Photo Courtesy UCLA IMLab.

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.

La Tierra de la Culebra Park: Can Artists Heal Nature?

'Food is Art, Art is Food' Village market, outside of Chaing Mai, Thailand, 2008. | Photo: Courtesy Andy Lipkis.

'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.

Public Matters: Market Makeover SMACKDOWN!

Ramirez Meat Market Makeover. Image Courtesy Public Matters.

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.

Oxy SOCiAL Symposium: Can the Sidewalk be a Stage?

bodycity. Ballona Caterpillar. Image courtesy bodycity.

bodycity. Ballona Caterpillar. Image courtesy bodycity.

The third SOCiAL: Art + People interview posted on KCET Artbound today, about a variety of incredible hybrid practices from a community of artists connected to and springing from Occidental College.

Continuing with the third in my series of conversations with artists and organizers engaged with multivalent social and public practices as part of SOCiAL: Art + People, I was pleased to speak with participants in a panel that will take place on Thursday, October 18th at 7pm on the Occidental College campus. Organized by artist Mary Beth Heffernan with the Center for Community Based Learning and the Department of Art History and Visual Arts, the panel will include artists Tucker Neel, Stephen van Dyck, Geneva Skeen, and the collective bodycity. Though their practices are diverse, they are linked by their critical and performative interventions into the public sphere, be that bodily, sonically, or via technologies of communication. All slide through liminalities, through the political and the poetic, and are deeply influenced by the context of Los Angeles.

Sue Bell Yank: The title of this panel is “Can the Sidewalk Be a Stage?” but Mary Beth [Heffernan] said that the discussion will be primarily driven by your practices. How do you find your way into this question through your own art practices?

Mary Beth Heffernan: A little context on the first question…Anne Bray kindly came up with the title after our conversations about younger artists whose work engages the public sphere. She had a summer deadline and I didn¹t have a snappy title yet. I’m not sure I would have chosen the word “stage,” as it has theatrical connotations, but it does pose the question about a rhetorical shift in action and/or speech that I think can be helpful here. My intentions with the panel are to interpret the notion of stage widely to mean a theater of action in the spirit of Augusto Boal’s notion of theater, a prompt to dialogue, break down hierarchies, and re-narrativizing space.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Artists + Institutions: Appendices

As a follow-up to my interview about the October 4th  Artists+Institutions: Common Ground event at the Mak Center with David Burns, Sara Daleiden, and Kimberli Meyer, I wanted to post some supplemental material that might illuminate the content of the conversations.  Below are the 20 questions culled and refined from the many dozens of questions submitted anonymously by the artists, organizers, curators, and writers who attended the three summer salons leading up to the public event at the Schindler House on King’s Road. I was honored to host one of the six tables at the October 4th event, and I believe we may have only used a couple of these questions as conversation starters…but quite naturally the conversation migrated to many of the topics covered here.

To get a taste of where these discussions went, of the topics and ideas most urgent to the ecosystem of people at these events, I have also included the beautiful notes created by Christina Sanchez of phrases uttered at the summer salons, many of which were repeated and expanded upon in the public event.

20 Questions

1.     How do artists, curators and other cultural producers maintain a sense of integrity, social responsibility, and truth to their own moral compass when working within institutions that are increasingly influenced by the forces of the art market, corporate desires and/or donor-initiated programs, particularly in the current economy?

2. What are the most auspicious models for relations (power, economic, communicative) between the autonomous agency of artists and institutional identity?

3. What infrastructure, resources, and representation is needed to adequately support socially-engaged work and other developing practices that aren’t amplifying an object-based tradition of art production?

4. How can new sources of funding be generated in light of the deep shifting in the global economy and subsequent decrease in established arts funding?

5. Is it still relevant to value curators as both an agent of institutional interests and a dynamic advocate for artists, serving as an educational bridge for scholars and audiences interested in the flow of art history?

6. When is it productive to comprehend poetic performance in all activities within institutions, understanding artists have a capacity to rethink institutional structures from a position within the structure?

7. How do we work to best demystify the institution with the option to strategically rebel so that the relationship between artists and institutions can be the most mutually beneficial and productive?

8. What is the role of art in these times of polarized politics?

9. Must populism be at odds with rigorous aesthetic conceptualism?

10. Is an umbrella term such as cultural worker appropriate to describe the overlaps of artists, curators, directors, organizers, and producers within all artistic disciplines?

11. As empathetic and politically minded cultural workers, how can our desire for complex and rich metaphors within artwork translate to a complex and rich distribution within the public?

12. How do we want the next generation of art institutions to be structured and experienced in light of past tendencies towards the academic, historic and intellectual?

13. As more cultural institutions increasingly work to include socially engaged art practices and extend their responsibilities towards broader publics, how do we safeguard such incremental advances in social justice while discerning the institutions role in picking up the slack for the failures of the state?

14. What are differences between established art institutions and an artist’s work inventing agency to mimic institutions?

15. What do the changes at MOCA mean to you?

16. How do we support our museums and their directors and curators to prompt a new civic imaginary through reflection on their own operations?

17. Artists are functioning as curators and institutions are functioning as curators. How does this affect the power dynamic for valuing and production within art and culture networks?

18. What terminology is productive to describe the frequent occurrences of institutions curating an “artist producer” to curate “artist supporters” to produce large-scale discursive projects?

19. How can artists and curators best work together to navigate institutional resistance to projects that won’t necessarily drive attendance or augment an institutional “brand”?

20. How can artists be trained to be effective socially and aesthetically, when the history of that aesthetic training is notoriously hermetic?


Artists + Institutions: Can We Find Common Ground?


My second interview as part of the SOCiAL: Art + People series went live on KCET Artbound this morning, and I felt so fortunate to have witnessed this fascinating conversation between Sara Daleiden, Kimberli Meyer, and David Burns about their Artists + Institutions collaboration. The public salon will take place tomorrow night and I will be moderating one of the tables–come join us and add your voice to the conversation!

On Thursday October 4th, the Mak Center is hosting a free public salon entitledArtists+Institutions: Common Ground at the historic Schindler house. This “real-time, dynamic public performance” is the capstone event to a series of intimate summer salons with invited guests who represented various positions and roles along the continuum of artists and institutions. The entire project is a collaboration between artists David Burns and Sara Daleiden, Mak Center director Kimberli Meyer, featuring Sarah Beadle and the collective Notch as well as artist Christina Sanchez. I sat down with Burns, Daleiden, and Meyer to discuss both the summer salons and the upcoming public event, as well as what challenges and urgent concerns drove them to produce such an ambitious dialogical project. We explored the real or perceived chasm between the needs of artists and the needs of institution, wondered how to negotiate that rambunctious terrain together, and acknowledged that in coming to essential understandings, we have more power to collectively change the structure of things than we think.

Sue Bell Yank: I came to the July Salon, and I was wondering what the impetus was of this whole initiative, and how the public event caps it off.

David Burns: To explain the origins, Fallen Fruit working with LACMA was the original thought bubble, which was from a conversation I had with some of the artists who were going to be working on the November 7th 2010 Let Them Eat LACMA event, who were really just confused about how you work with an institution as an artist and how you deal with things that are really pragmatic, like legal, emotional, or whatever. And that conversation kind of faded because I was working on that project, and afterwards, it didn’t leave my brain. I approached a few people about making something happen not knowing what that would be, maybe thinking bigger, or in a different way. Something that was more formal and organized. It occurred to me that one of the best choices was to approach Kimberli [Meyer] as a partner/collaborator, and we started talking, and she said, “Hey, I think this is something Sara [Daleiden] should be involved in” and then within half of a meeting I was like “Oh my god, this is probably the right thing, let’s move forward somehow.”

Sue Bell Yank: How did you two [Kimberli Meyer and Sara Daleiden] find your way into this idea, what did it mean for you?

Kimberli Meyer: I immediately thought it was a good idea, not knowing what kind of form it would take, that actually took a little time and it wasn’t until the three of us got together that we really nailed down what the form was, but I think this idea of trying to find a space, a neutral territory in a way, to talk and bring people from various sides and positions together to have candid conversations was very appealing to me. Partly that has to do with the kinds of questions that we ask ourselves internally a lot at the Mak Center that relate to the roles of us, the Mak Center staff, the roles of artists that we work with, the roles of curators that we work with, and everything in between. I feel like more and more that people don’t just have one role, that there are multiple roles and there is a whole continuum. It seemed like a good idea to give that more outward form.

Sara Daleiden: This is a totally unique collaboration for me because I have empathy and connection in two different routes. Kimberli had spoken to me about it because I had collaborated with the Mak Center on a whole slew of projects in the last seven years, and I really appreciate the Mak Center institutionally, I can’t compare it to any other institution in my life in terms of how experiments can happen and how it can both exist in the landscape of institutions in Los Angeles, but how it’s scale and flexibility allows for a certain kind of production and thought that I just think is rare here. And with David I just feel a comparative practice, I mean you talk about LACMA, I can talk about [The Los Angeles Urban] Rangers and MOCA Engagement Party, you know, and there’s all these sets of questions. What does it mean when artists are acting like institutions, taking a lot of the producing roles on…maybe that we want to, part of it’s just great, deep frustration, part of it is registration of the economic climate we’re in now. My hope for this program that has come out of the summer salons, and I’m excited for this moment of congealing it publicly with this event, is that these core questions get us to ask how we want to structure production. Whether it’s the institutional end, or the dynamic between the artist and the institution. Questions like, for those of us coming out of social and public practice, what is needed to encourage and support these practices? From the artists’ perspectives, how do we get funding when the economic climate has changed so much, and the political layers associated with that? To me, there always a deep layer about labor going on, and the history of how labor has gotten defined in art production that’s up on the table. It’s painful at moments, but there are things about that we can adjust. I think those are some of the core motivators that I saw, and I saw these two different frames on it by working with David and Kimberli. I’ve seen those questions come up in the salons because we have a range of people that conceptualize themselves in those roles and sometimes multiple roles that have been at the table in those discussions, so they already naturally themselves are negotiating, just like the three of us. There is no polarization, like you’re just an institution, you’re just an artist, it’s already this hybrid zone of action.

Read the rest of the interview here.