The Live in Public
by Tammy Parks
I am sorry that I will miss talking to you all on teh 15th. I have a wedding that evening (a reception at least) I really enjoyed talking to the group on the 18th in a small intimate session. I thought I woul post some of the things I was inspired to add in my last packet as I was talking to Ruth and see if any of you all felt the same way or different. A few things just jumped out at me.
The introduction warns artists against the “white lady syndrome” (7) or what Devora Neumark calls “trying to rescue instead of involving participants.” As I discussed in the last packet, I too find missionaries and mediocrities to be very destructive to the community. Also the reader is reminded that a community is not a static entity. “It is, rather, a phenomenon, existing in a specific site and often summoned into being at the appropriate moment.” (8) I think that this definition is too simplistic, though, and ignores the tradition, culture, storytelling and caretaking that build community. This “summoning into being” sounds a bit like mystical jargon to me. I must remember that the community, in terms of its historical embodiment, existed before me. Martha Morena describes the artist’s role to be “a part of community; to help that community articulate its sacredness, not only for its particular group, but to share with others.” (11) I am not sure what to do with the word sacred in this sentence because this word holds a great deal of baggage for me. In my town, sacred means Christian. I prefer the word hallowed, as in valued, respected and adored, which seems to be more inclusive of secular ideas and expression.
All of the authors of the essays in this book might differ in the methods and techniques of practicing socially engaged art but they would agree on one thing: that “communities benefit from having a connection with artists and deepening their connection to their own creativity and their own voices.” (14) With this understanding in mind, I address those essays that I find most interesting due to my agreement with their ideas or the discord that rings out when I read them.
Paula Jardine’s Celebrating Spirit: The Role of Celebration Arts:
Jardine says that “By taking over and transforming public spaces, we reclaim human space and bind community, building connections and empowering people to address other issues that affect the life of the community. By repeating the event, it becomes part of the community calendar and social fabric.” (24) Perhaps this is the effect of ritual that Lucy Lippard is talking about in Overlay. I think that repetition of a community event year after year reveals the deep commitment of the participants while allowing the phenomenon to evolve as the participants grow older or change. By “creating space with intention,” (27) we transform a public space into a public place where we can bridge our differences as we highlight what we have in common. The work is the result of collective participation, but the citizen artist is important because (s)he brings an overall vision to the event to ensure unity and completion. Jardine believes that community based celebrations are vital to each locale because they allow us to maintain “our link with metaphor and beauty by questioning, inspiring and re-inventing our customs and traditions, we reinforce culture as a living entity.” (28) I see how the story of the place is told again, an important act of remembering.
Devora Neumark’s How at Home Are We Really?: Diversity and Dwelling in Canada’s Multicultural Landscape:
Neumark identifies a huge paradox in the societal policy of the federal government’s platform, found in Canada’s Heritage report, in which it outlines how it wants “multicultural assimilation and the maintenance of cultural differences.” (41). What tricky terrain this is to travel. I have encountered this tension before when I was studying Spanish at the University of Southern Mississippi. As hyphenated Americans, many people struggle to maintain a sense of tradition to their heritage while integrating into the American mainstream of language, dress and entertainment. How are we to be the same yet different? How are we to be different yet the same? How do artists respond ethically to this scenario, avoiding stereotypes and other simplistic interpretations of cultural identity and values?
I find Tania Willard’s poster called “Walls Turned on Their Sides Are Bridges” to be a simple, beautiful and masterful piece. (42) This is a perfect example of the power of metaphor at work. Quietly, the artist takes an image, the border between the US and Mexico and turns the wall on its side and transforms the wall into a bridge. The simple visual twist is compelling and persuasive.
Irwin Oostindie’s Uncomfortable Choices: Inside the World’s Most Liveable City:
“Participating arts projects become activities to occupy people’s leisure time and break through the isolation endemic in consumer culture.” (61) Barbara Kruger got it right when she created her “I Shop Therefore I am” piece. She has identified a contemporary cause of alienation, isolation and introversion as we become a culture of consumption.
Under modern trends of public art sponsorship or urban and rural revitalization programs, Oostindie writes that art has been “pushed to collaborate with business improvement associations, municipal departments, schools and libraries—as low wage accessories to civic institutions.” (67) As someone who has based their practicum around improving the aesthetics and atmosphere of the school I teach in, I am sensitive to these kinds of proclamations. Our murals are not accessories, in fact, they are the visual highlights of the building, and, yes, I chafe at the low wage aspect of this work, but I know how to get it done anyway.
Oostindie warns that “programs and initiatives that make the areas more attractive for investors make it less affordable for residents.” (69) It is tragic to watch revitalization programs ultimately result in the exile and expulsion of the very people they were trying to help. I am sure that many capitalists would cringe when I say that I would like to see legislation enacted along with revitalization programs to regulate rents to prevent this from happening in the future.
Glenn Alteen’s Dystopian Realities: The New Art Activism:
I commend the efforts of Action Terroriste Socialment Acceptable (ATSA) in Montreal who each year sponsor a five day festival called “State of Emergency” to bring homeless people from across the city with “performances, activism, intervention, dry clothing, and hot food.” (76) They should be commended and helped financially as they challenge society’s attempt to keep the homeless invisible. Annie Roy, a co-creator of the organization and event, intimates that hope is “the point of the event.” (78) They do not base their success on the qualitative progress or change they can assess. They hope that they can change attitudes, but this happens “only one person at a time.” (80) It is too bad that grants can’t be based on hope, determination and good intentions instead of numbers.
Maria Hupfield’s Aboriginal Art Practice from Quillboxes and Kitchens to Totem Poles:
I had an epiphany as the author talked about an aboriginal community based program called the Common Weal Project in Regina. The official name of Virginia includes the term Commonwealth, and I saw the potential name for my community based program/project—the Appalachian Common Weal of the Arts. Common Weal is an earlier expression of English refering to the life and health of the whole. I saw many connections with the principles of Hupfield’s aboriginal cultural community development programs and what I am interested in starting in my town. “There is a tradition in urban Aboriginal organizations of supporting the arts by supporting artists through the purchase of artwork.” (88) In my Heads Above the Rest project, local artists would decorate the shaved cosmetology heads, the heads would be showcased around the area in local businesses and they would be auctioned off at the end of the year. The proceeds would be split in two, half going to support the Common Weal and half going to support the vocation and livelihood of the local artists.
Oliver Kellhammer’s Botanical Interventions: Open Source Landscape and Community Repair:
I think that Kellhammer identifies two major reasons why many artists are hesitant to work collaboratively in community projects. First, they must “leave the controlled space of the studio and step into the seething messiness of the world outside.” (116) I think it is messy, confusing, frustrating, slow and bureaucratic. It can also be fun, passionate, innovative, revelatory and democratic. Secondly, he reminds us that the artists must give up a certain degree of control of the process and the product as it “interacts with the communities around it.” (118) I am discovering that giving up control is liberating as I watch students make more decisions and take charge of their environment.
Kellhammer created “Park” in Toronto in which he took an empty lot and planted plants and provided a water source. He describes his work as “open source” because his goal is to have the work live on without him. He says he became more of a fixer than a maker. He works as a bridge builder between people and nature. “Park” was a “botanical intervention” (119), and Kellhammer reverted back to the status of observer eventually as “natural and human systems grow over and absorb the scaffolding” (120) he helped to create on the lot. It must feel good to have something that started as a simple idea grow into something self-supporting.
I would like to use Kellhammer’s work in the next advising discussion as a specific example of successful ecoart.
Caffyn Kelley’s Better than Sex: Sweet spots, Systems and Openings at the Online Conference on the Art of Engagement:
Kelley discusses an online conference of over 200 participants from around the globe that took place before the real conference in Vancouver.
One participant expressed their concerns about funding. “When funding runs out, when the project is completed, communities and society as a whole are left abandoned.” (138) I shared my concerns of starting a community based program in my town with the fickle disposition of foundations and programs that offer grants. What do deeply involved community members do who when the funding runs out? There is the potential of doing so much good yet so much harm when a program falls apart upon losing financial support. I appreciate the advice offered by Brita and Susan during our conversation on October 18th. They suggested starting more at a project level than a program level. I now plan to start with this smaller goal with a specified time frame that does not raise expectations unintentionally. I will start with promises that I can keep since many of the people in my community have been let down so often in the past.
Another participant identifies existing programs that are “closed systems—hierarchical, defended boundaries, insiders and outsiders.” (141) This is how I would label the Fine Arts Center in my town. In their closed system, there is no place for change or creativity. Those who volunteer or who are on the board are the insiders. No one can make a move unless the action is cleared by the director who is a micro-manager. I see this as a recipe for defeat if one is concerned in involving as many members as possible in a community, both as participants and as active and concerned viewers.
I was impressed with one participant who questioned the legitimacy and success of the on-line discussion itself. How socially engaged is any type of on-line communication? Is “on-line conversation limited to communicating more information, rather than cultivating vital relationships?” (145) Elizabeth Lange writes in response quite eloquently, “The power of electronics and a corresponding frenetic economy is increasingly at odds with the organic needs of humans—their embodied seasonal and biological rhythms, social need for continuity and the spiritual need for reflection and meaning. Interacting in an online environment, how can we make space for silence, stillness, attention, and the integration of knowledge?” (145)