From Project to Practice: Imagining Communities
by Christina Schmid
Public art’s role in addressing a community’s concerns, bringing communities together, and being created for—or with—a particular community in mind has been much discussed by proponents of relational aesthetics, dialogic aesthetics, and relational antagonism.[i] Rather than treading this already well–trodden ground, I want to explore a different take on art’s relationship to community, one that is sustainable and socially engaged.
Let me start by relating an anecdote.
Recently, I heard Michelle Grabner speak at a panel on alternative or, as they’re now called, I learned, “independent” art spaces. Discussing one particular non-profit organization, she said, “they do so much for the community—and I’m sorry that sounds so awful—they play a really important part in the cultural life of…” etc. etc. My point is not to rehash that panel discussion’s details but linger on this marginal comment and to ask, with a little bit of alarm, why does it sound awful when someone—an individual artist or non-profit or independent group or collective—does something for “the community”?
Why, in other words, has art that is based in and addressed to a community gotten such a bad rep?
Revisiting Joyce Kozloff’s notorious 1996 list of kudzu-type public art projects, proliferating weed-like across the nation, still proves insightful: from the inspirational mural documenting the overcoming of adversity to the triumphal arch to nowhere, public art projects have followed predictable and politically correct models. That predictability certainly provides a sort of answer to the ennui with community-based art. When Mira Schor discusses Kozloff’s 10-point list in a recent essay entitled “Recipe Art,” it is precisely this déjà vu element—indeed the cliché of that civic-minded art by committee—that she objects to.
But predictability is not public art’s only problem. Krystof Wodiczko chastises a state of public art that has become “liberal urban decoration,” nothing but “pretentious and patronizing bureaucratic-aesthetic environmental pollution,” far removed from any serious challenges to the city’s “symbolic, psycho-political and economic operations” (124). The condescension Wodiczko objects to resonates in Kozloff’s poignant questions: “Are we trying so hard not to offend or provoke that our only goal has become education? Is this why so many pieces seem to be pandering or talking down? Maybe our communities expect more and deserve better” (41). Rather than art that affirms what we already believe to be important and hold to be true—the value we place on tolerance, understanding, and inclusiveness, for instance—how about public art that is a bit more unsettling, disturbing, disorienting, and less prone to happy complacency? What if we retired the comfort food version of public art and went for something with a little more zing? After all, as Kozloff cannily points out, “there is a difference between public relations and public art” (41).
Public art is a kind of symbolic intervention in public space. It is the shape of this intervention—whether pacifying or disturbing, short-lived or long-term, that I am concerned with here.
Conceptual artist turned architect of public spaces Vito Acconci differentiates between two types of public spaces: the prison or the forum for discussion. “A space is public,” Acconci writes, “when it either maintains the public order, or changes the public order.” Applied to the quandary of public art and community, it seems we have too much of the former and perhaps not quite enough of the latter. It is worth quoting Acconci at length here. He writes:
“A space is public, on the one hand, when it functions as a public prison: its conventions, images, signs, objects become facts of life – they make a system of order in which everything is in its proper place, and the citizens follow suit. A space is public, on the other hand, when it functions as a public forum: its conventions, images, signs, objects are turned upside-down, or collided one with the other, or broken into bits, so that those conventions are de-stabilized (they’re not solid facts anymore) and the power that grounds each convention is exposed (the space becomes an occasion for discussion, which might become an argument, which might become a revolution)” (Public Space).
What, then, is public art’s role in creating or maintaining these public spaces? When public art does not aim to support the idea of public space as a forum, when it does not assist in causing collisions and other disturbances, it becomes just another “fact” of convention, of propriety, of public relations designed to make “the prison” as pleasant as possible, and to reward us for following suit.
Yet public art cannot afford to take an explicitly adversarial stance. “In order to exist in the world,” writes Acconci, public art “agrees to certain social conventions, certain rules of peaceful co-existence … Using manners as a cover, public art can lie low; instead of attacking, public art insinuates” (Public Space). Rather than rally for the revolution, public art’s modus operandi relies on subtlety. The goal is not a revolution but an evolution: a slow-moving suggestion of change, of possibilities for a “new normal,” a different set of social facts, rather than a possibly painful collision.
I am particularly interested in projects that stem from practices that emphasize this kind of slowness as opposed to flashy, ephemeral microtopias that create communities for the duration of an exhibition; not in short-lived interventions, or three-week to six-week festivals, but in practices aimed at creating longer lasting, sustainable changes in the very fabric of communities. Think of this slowness as the stealth-mode of public art, eroding what we take to be social facts at a positively glacial pace, avoiding adversarialism, but sneakily working on bending the bars of the “prison.” The artist, in Acconci’s words, is “under cover” (Public Space).
In this “under cover” practice, the artist’s role vis-à-vis the community changes. No longer does the artist arrive with the halo of the proverbial knight in shining armor, the enlightened mediator or creative problem solver that we have all been waiting for. This stance, indeed, reeks of condescension and belittles any community in question.[ii]
Instead, the artist is, as public and private artist Christine Baeumler explains, “embedded in the community.” Military metaphor aside, the artist creates art with and for the community he or she lives with. Not for a few weeks or months—but for years. This slow-paced kind of public art risks becoming indiscernible from the community’s life, because it is so closely ingrained in the very fabric of the community. What is required of the artist is a lasting commitment and deep-seated humility, a letting go of traditional notions of ownership of the work and a truly collaborative and communal approach. Rather than a “let me tell you what’s good for you” approach, the artist listens carefully and responds with work that addresses the concerns of the community he or she is part of. The artist, rather than some sort of master creator, offers a particular perspective, a sensitivity, an approach to the world we inhabit, and actively responds to the community’s needs. The subtitle of my paper, “Imagining Communities,” identifies the role the artist plays as an integral part of the ongoing process of a community’s imagining itself as such.[iii] Rather than sounding awful, “doing something for the community” is the very raison d’être for art.
In what follows I want to provide some examples of two artists, Christine Baeumler and Marcus Young, who are working in this humble “under-cover” model as artists in residence in St. Paul, MN.
In July 2008, a sandstone sculpture of a woman’s head in Lake Phalen Park in St. Paul was defaced with blue graffiti smears: racial epithets disfigured the sculpture’s serene appearance and cast a shadow over the annual Dragon Boat Festival, scheduled to take place in the park a few days after the vandalism occurred. [iv] According to Marcus Young, the typical response of the city to violations of this sort consists of covering up the offending marks, effectively rendering them invisible to those who might be hurt by them, and removing the marks as promptly as possible under the cover of night, as if to pretend that nothing ever happened in the first place and to restore “normalcy” as quickly as possible. But since the sculpture in question had been created as part of Minnesota Rocks, a sculpture symposium dedicated to creating art in the public realm, and owned by Public Art St. Paul (PASP), the city’s default response in maintaining public order was open to slight alteration.
Like an injured patient, the sculpture was sheltered from public view by a white, gauzy paravent meant to be entered only by those who wished to witness the harm done. Those who did enter were invited to participate in the restoration: each visitor could apply a one square inch piece of tape which had been prepared by a conservator to the blue scrawls. Peeling off the tape effectively removed the spray paint. Thus the stream of visitors slowly restored the sculpture’s warm sandstone color.
This public art as ritual was conceived to give participants a way to recognize and mourn the racist attack, witness the sculpture’s defacement, and to ultimately become part in the restorative power of a communal response. “The piece”—if that is indeed the best way to refer to it—broke with the habit of restoring the public space to its usual appearance and created a communal response that empowered not only those harmed by the epithets but also those who wanted to show their support for those who’d been hurt. Public art allowed for a slowing down, a conscious registering of what had happened—and it was created in immediate response to an issue the community confronted.
The East Side Gateway Raingarden Project could be considered a response to a neighborhood’s needs, too, but involved a much more long-term commitment from the artist, who was just one of many individuals and organizations coming together to make the project possible. Christine Baeumler describes her role as that of a facilitator, creating connections between various communities and constituencies for about ten years.[v] What started as a small community group, the Friends of Swede Hollow, that Baeumler was involved in as a resident of that part of town, eventually grew to involve over 25 partner organizations, ranging from the Community Design Center to the Eastside Youth Conservation Corp, to the St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation, and resulted in the reclaiming of an industrial dumping ground between rail tracks and highway, and the transformation of that urban wasteland into the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary,a 27-acre park near downtown St. Paul.
Baeumler, who describes herself as an environmental artist, saw the rain garden as both fulfilling an ecological function—filtering the polluted run-off water from a parking lot before draining into the Mississippi—but also as an aesthetic project. However, reducing the outcome of this 10-year commitment to a “product,” to one more green space indigenous plants and a walkway of handcrafted tiles, made by the community, running through it, would be a mistake. [vi] The project, argues Baeumler, is much more concerned with the process, which ideally leads to a lasting transformation of the community.
It is important to note in this context that, over the course of the last two decades, Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen unprecedented demographic changes. Both cities have become hubs of expatriate Somali and Hmong communities, a change that has been welcomed by many but that has also made the ongoing re-imagining of community a pressing issue in some neighborhoods. The East Side Gateway Raingarden Project connected long-time residents with Hmong youth, who, as the sons and daughters of immigrants, learned to connect with the land, take ownership of the space, to transform it, and witness the lasting effects of the transformation they helped bring about.[vii]
These intangible components—the connections, relationships, and collaborations the project fostered—are equally if not more important than the physical change the site went through. They effectively allowed all the different groups involved to imagine themselves as part of a larger community. And, like these long-term relationships the project helped create, the garden continues to need tending.
The East Side Gateway Raingarden Project exemplifies an artistic practice built on long-term commitment from the artist who acts as a facilitator but does not claim ownership; a collaborative practice that moves slowly and evolves organically; and that brings about a sustained sense of community that did not exist prior to the project; in other words, a practice that models socially engaged art.
Let me end by briefly mentioning three other public art projects that originated in St. Paul and are invested in a different kind of longevity and sustainability.[viii]
Marcus Young, one of the founding member of Grace MN, helped create “Wishes for the Sky,” an annual festival to celebrate Earth Day on St. Paul’s Harriet Island. Now in its fifth year, this festival aims at creating a tradition for an increasingly diverse urban community—and again, not just short-term, for three weeks or three months, but as a staple of the annual urban calendar.
“Don’t You Feel It too,” a public dancing project conceived as an ongoing practice aimed at destabilizing the unwritten laws of public behavior, invites public embarrassment through unabashed displays of public dancing, a kind of behavioral art that encourages the unlearning of a particular set of codes and conventions. Young, never without ambition, compares this project to Yoga: part physical, part spiritual, a tool for building fluid communities, “Don’t You Feel It Too?” is a gentle “anormalization of everyday life” (Ligna 142). The questioning of how we inhabit public space is not confrontational here, an antagonistic collision that might result in an argument, which—I quote Acconci—might lead to a revolution—but a very non-confrontational unhinging of the “social facts” we typically take for granted.
The final project I’d like to mention is less ephemeral and proceeds in the peculiar parasitic mode Acconci associates with public art’s modus operandi: tagged on to the city of St. Paul’s annual sidewalk replacement project, when damaged sections of sidewalk are replaced, the project entitled Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk “re-imagines” what a sidewalk can be and intersperses concrete casts with poems, composed by residents of the city and selected by jury, with ordinary, non-poetic sidewalks. The effect is a lasting transformation of the urban space and an opportunity for reader, writer, and walker alike to imagine themselves as part of the city’s urban community.
While these artistic practices can be broken down into separate projects, it is less the individual projects that matter and more the underlying practice. The projects, in other words, are simply manifestations of an artistic practice aimed at changing how a community imagines itself: as fragmented, marginalized, isolated, powerless, and without voice, or as having and actively playing a part in the microcosm of urban decision making, city planning, and taking ownership, through art, of public spaces as fora, not prisons.
What defines this practice is an understanding of the artist as facilitator, a role that requires humility. This practice is also defined by its relationship to time: a long-term commitment is necessary to contribute to imagining communities. There are no quick fixes in this slow moving process only the dedication to restore a connection between artist and community that is very much not “awful” but vital. In the words of Sammy Watso, long-time curator of the Two Rivers gallery at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis, “we’ve lost the sense that art came out of the community in the first place. We’ve lost the steps from the community to the art, the ways a community understands itself as part of the art-making process” (184). It may be time to retrace those steps.
Acconci, Vito. “Public Space in Private Time.” Lecture for International Symposium Andere Orte. Öffentliche Räume und Kunst. (1997) http://www.visarteost.ch/andereorte/texte/vacconci/vapubl_e.htm Nov. 25, 2010.
Acconci, Vito. “Public Space in a Private Time.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 4. (Summer, 1990), 900-918.
Acconci, Vito. “Leaving Home: Notes on Insertions into the Public.” (2000) Situation. Ed. Claire Doherty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009. 135-137.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London, New York: Verso, 1983.
Claire Doherty. Situation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.
Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October. Fall 2004. 51-79.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Lyon: les presses du reel. 2002.
Grabner, Michelle. Panel discussion on alternative art spaces. Minneapolis College of Art and Design. November 18, 2010.
Kester, Grant. “Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially0Engaged Art.” (2004) Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985. Eds. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 76-88.
Kocur, Zoya, and Simon Leung. Eds. Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Kozloff, Joyce. “The Kudzu Effect (or: The Rise of a New Academy).” Public Art Review Fall/Winter 1996. 41.
Ligna, “Radio Ballet.” (2003) Situation. Ed. Claire Doherty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009. 142-143.
Schor, Mira, “Recipe Art.” A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2009. 231-244.
Wodiczko, Krystof, “Strategies of Public Address: Which media, which publics?” (1987) Situation. Ed. Claire Doherty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009. 124-127.
Watso, Sammy. Roundtable Discussion, December 13, 1994. Qtd. in Here and Now. A Report on the State of the Arts in Minnesota. Minneapolis: McKnight Foundation, 1996. 184.
[i] I am referring to the ubiquitous Nicolas Bourriaud, his sometime nemesis Claire Bishop, and other luminaries, such as Grant Kester and Suzanne Lacy.
[ii] Of course there are gradations here: Thomas Hirschhorn’s “aggressive sharing” (his term not mine) of his love of Spinoza’s philosophy with the residents of Bijlmer may not cast the artist as a quasi-messianic problem solver but, nonetheless, the project remains firmly grounded in the importance of Hirschhorn’s presence and his encounters with the residents.
[iii] The title of my presentation is an allusion to Benedict Anderson’s famous book, Imagined Communities, published in 1983, where he famously theorized the ways the abstract communities of modern nation states were imagined into existence.
[iv] I have previously discussed this piece in “Tilting the World,” which was part of quodlibetica’s April 2010 constellation.
[v] The last two of those years, three graduate students–Toby Sisson, Anna Metcalfe, Laura Corcoran–along with undergraduate Jamie Winter Dawson, all from the University of Minnesota, where Baeumler teaches, collaborated on the project. A documentary, directed by Amy Waksmonski and produced by Baeumler, chronicling the evolution of this project can be found online, on youtube).
[vi] Allow me again to gesture back, once more, to Joyce Kozloff’s list: as an immigrant myself, I am not interested in the adversity-overcoming immigrant narratives of the “it’s a small world after all” type that ultimately boil down to patriotic celebrations of the American Dream. Neither do I want to place the East Side Rain Garden Project under Kozloff’s “Heal the Earth” category, where “the artist is reclaiming a neglected urban site, recycling sewage, plating an indigenous forest, recreating a lost wetland, protecting endangered species, irrigating local gardens, purifying the air, feeding the community, and saving the whales” (41). While without doubt, the East Side Raingarden Project shares some of these features that, Kozloff argues, have become cliché, it is also different from and more than such altruistic interventions: the artist, as part of the neighborhood, is an interested participant who stands to benefit in the same ways as the rest of the neighborhood from fostering and indeed facilitating a newly imagined community.
[vii] The project’s partners also diligently recognized the long history the Dakota people, banned by law from being in Minnesota in 1862, have with the Bruce Vento Nature Reserve, adjacent to the Rain Garden, and the devastation wreaked on sacred sites by the railroad construction.
[viii] These projects, too, have been discussed in “Tilting the World” in quodlibetica’s April 2010 constellation.
1.-2.) Sculpture Restoration at Lake Phalen
3.-10.) East Side Gateway Raingarden Project
11.) Wishes for the Sky
12.) Don’t You Feel It Too
13.) Sidewalk Poetry