Thinking about what it means to do the work that I’m doing. What is it that happens in ‘socially engaged’ art practice that makes me want to do it? In thinking about my experience so far with Flushing International High School, it’s important for me to sit down and write some thoughts out, for perspective and also clarity with myself on my methods, motives, and what I’m learning in this process of making art that is ‘socially engaged.’
Here I am – this person with a bunch of ideas about a project with immigrant youth; not an immigrant myself (at least not first-generation, as these students are), an outsider who lives on the other side of the country, coming in suddenly for three weeks in December and January. I enter the space, not knowing anyone except for my friend who teaches there and who had done so much already to help promote and support the project – but how much could anyone do given that I couldn’t even be there for this? The school is a world unto itself, it’s constantly happening, kids are there everyday, living their lives, and here comes this stranger saying, Hey, join me in this project!
What do I seem like to them?
You enter a space that you don’t belong to and try to forge new relationships. You are aware that there’s always the possibility that people will question your motives, why you’re there, what you’re trying to get out of it, etc. And though I am clear that my motives – or my hopes – are to make a critical, effective, affective work that addresses immigrant youth issues and engages a wider public in NYC, there were moments when I did question myself – What was I doing there? Why did I want to do this? These questions were weights upon me on the days when students were not showing up after school. If there were no students who were excited by this, then there was no project. (Later I realized much of these issues related to the fact that many students don’t have time after school – particularly the ones who eventually joined the project.) Planning — much I would do differently, though it would be helpful to live in NYC fulltime. Here is the nature of the main challenge of this project: that I live far away and that there is no mediating institutional support to aid in the structuring of time, coordination, and other logistics. I’m thinking here of the structure of a group like WochenKlausur – a working model that serves as a kind of goal for me as well. For now, it’s a beginning. Focus on what is plausible for this iteration, in the hopes to continue the project in a long-term format with long-term goals.
. . .
As a socially engaged artist I have to make work that rises organically in response to and in conversation with the people whose lives resonate with the social, cultural, and political issues I feel are important to make work about. The work does not exist without them – it just cannot. It’s important that their voices, opinions, and insights, and the relationship that we form together is integrated and fully present in the work.
And the work changes based on what they are willing to give.
They are truly my collaborators and hold equal authorship of the work. I bring what I can as an artist with an understanding of social practice methodologies and technical and design skills, and also as someone who knows some things about the issues they are affected by and invested in. I also bring a passion to do something in response to those issues.
. . .
Language. This is important for a social practice artist – how to convey what it is you do and why it’s art. Or do you have to explain at all? Better to just do, and the questions and answers (maybe) will arise as needed. Perhaps all this talk about what makes ‘social practice’ art should be left to art world bantering, for I’ve found it does little to move this project forward. But language is also important in the ethics of transparency. For me, this is a critical and necessary part of social practice art, transparency at every stage of the process.
To work in socially engaged art is to socially engage, meaning to foster new relationships based on some kind of established common ground or goal. It means being in dialogue and really listening. This latter element – the listening – is utterly critical – no real work that claims to represent or address the issues of a particular community happens without it. The listening is deeper than comprehension – deeper in that you have to access the multiple discursive meanings within a statement. For instance, when a student states, ‘I always talk with my friends about how we can get rid of our accents’, there is an expressed desire to fit in, or to pass, but something is also revealed regarding awareness of Otherness, of societal assumptions and prejudices against immigrants or people who speak with accented English. There is something stated about identity politics, interpersonal ethics, the immigrant’s struggle to be respected like any other person regardless of speech, ethnicity, race, education, and economic status. And the listening is also about forming a relationship of intimacy and empathic communication, which I would say is also integral in the ethics of social practice art.
I bring conceptual ideas, formal techniques, and insight in how to translate the sentiments of a particular subject position into something that could be regarded as ‘art.’ That’s what I do. But I am also learning how to do this – as every situation requires its own kind of response and artistic strategy. Methods and approaches must be formed to address the specific issues and particular contours of a community or social context. Awareness, flexibility, and responsiveness throughout the process is part of this work.
The individuals I work with bring their life experiences, their own specialized knowledge and expertise around the issues we are addressing, their passion for making change, and their own ideas in response to the suggestions I offer.
What is made in the process – new ways of knowing, new ways of being (in – relation). Knowledge is an activating force embodied by the subject-in-relation; it works on us and through us as we work on and through the world. As such, we are always in a process of becoming, producing these news kinds of knowledge and ways of being. Cybernetic feedback, positive feedback into the world.
The ethics are embedded: in relations, always ethics are embedded. How those relations are crafted and developed defines the ethics of the project. And so conversations are important – they are critical. And actions that respond in kind to those conversations are critical. Representation is contested and conversations will need to happen about how the students want to represent themselves. This dialogue is also a part of the work. Transparency.
. . .
And so, going back to this question: Why do I this work?
Because I must make work that speaks to, engages with, and challenges social and cultural problems. Because for me, human relationships are everything – they have the power to affect how societies function (or not) and policy at every level. The reason I maintain my identity as an artist, and not as an activist or social worker, is because I respond to problems with art – with images, sounds, affect, imagination, and discursive symbols – and believe that creative thinking and action are critical and active ingredients in finding our way out of the problems that persist within our societies. Other equally important ingredients are added by social work, activism, anthropology, sociology, planning, biology, gardening, and the list can go on depending on the appetite.
It is important for me to do this work, and to work in this way. This is born from my own desires to change things and also my belief in art to activate and operate within the realm of social and political change. I cannot separate art making from ethics – they are so intricately bound together. Just as some artists are compelled to work with certain technologies, ideas about the aesthetic, the postmodern, or other conceptual phenomena, I have to work with ethics and human relationships. (It is arguable too that all art is ethical, or relational, but for the socially engaged artist it is important to identify certain criteria and theoretical distance to develop a rigorous and critical practice that is distinctive from other ways of artistic production.) I believe in art’s ability to effectively and dynamically engage with the social, and so everything I do is a way to investigate and open the possibilities. I too am implicated in all of this – I am not just an outsider coming in, but also a subject that is affected, changed, and renegotiated within the process.
This all requires great risks. These risks are different from the kind required in art making that is solitary and studio-based (these risks can be great too), because you enter the ‘real world’ of human relationships, of lives lived always outside of the concerns of ‘art’, and you have to give yourself over to the situation – be in it. You have to give of yourself, and give up your desire to control, you have to identify your own preconceptions and challenge them, you have to let go of your own fixed notions about almost everything, including elements of the project that aren’t going to fit the context because the context is not what you had imagined it to be. All of this you must be willing to do so that you can be in the flow of life that you are entering, which is the source, the lifeblood, of the project. What I’m learning as a social practice artist is the importance of always thinking on your feet, responding to the shifts and changes of the context you’re working in. Whenever I begin to stress out, when I think things aren’t going as well as they should, when I am constantly trying to push the situation out of what I perceive as an impasse, everything jams, remains stuck, or becomes more impossible to overcome. But when I let go, when I recognize and accept the limitations and have a certain faith that things will actually work out, when I believe in the small things that have begun to work and move from there, then things begin to move; it all changes. The places of being stuck give way to other spaces – of possibility, of opening. Revealed to me are things I could have not anticipated or planned for.
And of course always is the risk that the project may not work out at all for any variety of reasons beyond your control. To be a socially engaged artist is to accept that risk and move forward with a pragmatist’s belief in the world.
. . .
The reality of this project is that time is limited. Space is limited. I have all the institutional support I could ask for. Most importantly, I have the participation and excitement of the students. In terms of what we can accomplish in the brief slots of time I can foresee, there is only so much that can be done, and so I also have to be very realistic. I think I have readjusted the parameters of the project to more appropriately fit the constraints, so it’s also just a matter of really maximizing the time and opportunities available to get at least that much done. (Which is still a lot, and can be very powerful if we’re all focused and clear about our goals.) The dialogue with the students has begun, and they are an incredible group of people to be working with. I think we can get a lot accomplished in the time we have.
Right now, as I prepare for February, I have to think up the activities and projects that we will do to make the art – the images, video, audio, and text. Video portraits and the question of representation, audio narratives, a guidebook to city for immigrants, the event planning… How to approach these goals in creative ways? How to structure the time… I can’t help but feel that results are needed, and by ‘results’ I really mean: knowing what this is going to look and feel like by March. Post-February trip I need to figure this out – the aesthetic backbone of the work.
So – lots of time in the studio. Everything must be documented. Talking, making, recording, shooting. I need to find it, together with the students.
I sat down with a group of students and an alumnus of Flushing International High School to think of ways that people can be more welcoming to the immigrant and aware of the challenges a foreigner faces in everyday situations. This card was made for today, International Migrants Day.
“My Future Is Here” is a site-specific project that brings to light the most pressing issues immigrant youth face when making a new life in the global city. Produced with collaborating students from Flushing International High School in Queens, New York, this multimedia project utilizes immigrant narratives and social intervention to encourage public participation and exchange. Collaborating students will act as experts and consultants on critical immigration issues from the youth perspective, informing the project’s content and conceptual framework.
A primary component of this project will be a multimedia installation designed to integrate with the physical infrastructure of Flushing International High School. Video, audio, and text created with the students will be strategically installed in specific exterior and interior locations throughout the building, creating experiential media spaces for guests to move through. The main themes of the installation will center on issues of identity, representation, interpersonal ethics, and claiming one’s civic and political presence as an immigrant and social actor.
Ongoing workshops with students will inform the second element of the project, which will be an ad hoc public service organization operating under the name Hospitality Services. This element will address various issues that arise in the process of immigration and encourage hospitality toward the stranger. Through socially engaged art practices and interventions, we seek to aid the newcomer in navigating the foreign social, cultural, and geographic landscapes of the city. Projects will include creating information cards for the public that encourage convivial encounters with a foreigner, as well as a specially designed, youth-authored “Immigrant’s Guide to New York City” that will contain information on important and useful places, tips on utilizing public services, hand drawn neighborhood maps, as well as advice on how to foster a healthy quality of living. Through these services, we envision and manifest new forms of belonging and sociality in an increasingly globalized world.
The culmination of the project will be an installation-event held at the school in June 2012 when the work will be installed and the invited public, which will include FIHS families and friends, city council members, activists, artists, and immigrant youth leadership groups, will have the opportunity to speak with the students about the issues they are most deeply invested in. Youth-facilitated conversations will create a platform for productive exchange that deepens public understanding and awareness of immigrant youth issues, and furthers the discussion on what we can do to foster more inclusive societies, as well as social and political change for the immigrant.
This project is founded upon the perspective that the languages and practices of immigration rights are critically indicative of a society’s notion of itself, and that public discourses and interactions through facilitated situations of encounter and mediated spaces of affective experience can foster productive collective investigations, imaginaries, and intersubjective exchange concerning the treatment of the (perceived) foreigner in our midst. By placing oneself within the public sphere whether through physical face-to-face interaction with another, or through the mediated spaces of an installation, the immigrant youth asserts her own subjectivity into the public imaginary, shifting the terms of engagement to make space for new voices to be heard.
Reblogged from here
How to frame yourself: A framing memo for Occupy Wall Street
George Lakoff, professor of linguistics | 10/25/11
I was asked weeks ago by some in the Occupy Wall Street movement to make suggestions for how to frame the movement. I have hesitated so far, because I think the movement should be framing itself. It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends. I have so far hesitated to offer suggestions. But the movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences. So I thought it might be helpful to accept the invitation and start a discussion of how the movement might think about framing itself.
About framing: It’s normal. Everybody engages in it all the time. Frames are just structures of thought that we use every day. All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But, ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.
In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is. All politics is moral. Political figures and movements always make policy recommendations claiming they are the right things to do. No political figure ever says, do what I say because it’s wrong! Or because it doesn’t matter! Some moral principles or other lie behind every political policy agenda.
Two moral framing systems in politics
Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility, but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative “democracy” is seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.
Though OWS concerns go well beyond financial issues, your target is right: the application of these principles in Wall Street is central, since that is where the money comes from for elections, for media, and for right-wing policy-making institutions of all sorts on all issues.
The alternative view of democracy is progressive: Democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally via The Public: public infrastructure, laws and enforcement, health, education, scientific research, protection, public lands, transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, and on and on. Nobody makes it one their own. If you got wealthy, you depended on The Public, and you have a responsibility to contribute significantly to The Public so that others can benefit in the future. Moreover, the wealthy depend on those who work, and who deserve a fair return for their contribution to our national life. Corporations exist to make life better for most people. Their reason for existing is as public as it is private.
A disproportionate distribution of wealth robs most citizens of access to the resources controlled by the wealthy. Immense wealth is a thief. It takes resources from the rest of the population — the best places to live, the best food, the best educations, the best health facilities, access to the best in nature and culture, the best professionals, and on and on. Resources are limited, and great wealth greatly limits access to resources for most people.
It appears to me that OWS has a progressive moral vision and view of democracy, and that what it is protesting is the disastrous effects that have come from operating with a conservative moral, economic, and political worldview. I see OWS as primarily a moral movement, seeking economic and political changes to carry out that moral movement — whatever those particular changes might be. Read the rest of this entry →
watching this on the live stream today and hearing people respond and chant along with these beautiful projections was pure magic and inspiration.
how it all came together is equally inspiring: a collaborative effort between ows occupiers, tenants of lower manhattan housing projects, and a few media artists. the interview is here.
More images of the projections.
Update, Nov. 23: This video capture the spirit of the protests in concert with the projections:
How One Percent Grabbed So Much of Our Wealth
The economic benefits of knowledge– which belong to us all– flow to the rich
Gar Alperovitz, professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, details how the rich have commandeered the commons for their own benefit in his book Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back (with Lew Daley from The New Press). See the excerpt  from On the Commons. Here in an essay from Truth Out he shows how the commons of knowledge— a human inheritance which is rightly shared by all—has become the foundation for the 1 percent’s lavish wealth. — Jay Walljasper
Of the 15 modern US-developed pharmaceutical drugs with over $1 billion in sales, 13 received significant public research and development support.
Elizabeth Warren points out  that there “is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” Meaning: if the rich don’t pay their fair share of the taxes that educate their workers and provide roads, security and many other things, they are essentially stealing from everyone else.
The biggest “theft” by the 1 percent has been of the primary source of wealth—knowledge—for its own benefit.
Knowledge? Yes, of course, and increasingly so. The fact is, most of what we call wealth is now known to be overwhelmingly the product of technical, scientific and other knowledge—and most of this innovation derives from socially inherited knowledge. Which means that, except for trivial amounts, it was simply not created by the 1 percent who enjoy the lion’s share of its benefits. Most of it was created, historically, by society—which is to say, the other 99 percent.
Take an obvious example: Many of the advances that have propelled our high-tech economy in recent decades grew directly out of research programs financed and, often, collaboratively developed, by the federal government and paid for by the taxpayer. The Internet, to take the most well-known example, began as a government defense project, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), in the 1960s. Today’s vast software industry rests on a foundation of computer language and operating hardware developed, in large part, with public support. The Bill Gateses of the world might still be working with vacuum tubes and punch cards were it not for critical research and technology programs created or financed by the federal government.
The iPhone is another example: Its microchips, cellular communication abilities and global positioning system (GPS) all flowed from developments traceable to significant direct and indirect public support from the military and space programs. The “revolutionary” multi-touch screen was developed by University of Delaware researchers financially supported by the National Science Foundation and the CIA. It is not only electronics: of the 15 modern US-developed “blockbuster” drugs with over $1 billion in sales, 13 received significant public research and development support.
But taxpayer-financed government programs (including, of course, public education) are only the tip of the iceberg. And here we are not talking rhetoric, we are talking the stuff of Nobel prizes. Over the last several decades, economic research has begun to pinpoint much more precisely how much of what we call “wealth” in general derives from long, steady, century-by-century advances in knowledge—and how much any one individual at any point in time can be said to have earned and “deserved.”
Recent estimates indicate, for instance, that national output per capita has increased more than twentyfold since 1800. Output per hour worked has increased an estimated fifteenfold since 1870 alone. Yet the modern person is likely to work each hour with no greater commitment, risk or intelligence than his counterpart from the past. The primary reason for such huge gains is that, on the whole, scientific, technical and cultural knowledge has grown at a scale and pace that far outstrips any other factor in the nation’s economic achievement.
A half-century ago, in 1957, economist Robert Solow showed that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the 20th century alone, from 1909 to 1949, could only be attributed to technical change in the broadest sense. The supply of labor and capital—what workers and employers contribute – appeared almost incidental to this massive technological “residual.” (Solow received the Nobel Prize for this and related work in 1987.)
The truly central and demanding question is obviously this: If most of what we have today is attributable to knowledge advances that we all inherit in common, why, specifically, should this gift of our collective history not more generously benefit all members of society? The top 1 percent of US households now receives far more income than the bottom 150 million Americans combined. The richest 1 percent of households owns nearly half of all investment assets (stocks and mutual funds, financial securities, business equity, trusts, nonhome real estate). A mere 400 individuals at the top have a combined net worth greater than the bottom 60 percent of the nation taken together. If America’s vast wealth is mainly a gift of our common past, how, specifically, can such disparities be justified?
Early in the American republic, Thomas Paine urged that everything “beyond what a man’s own hands produce” was a gift that came to him simply by living in society, and, hence, “he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”
To be sure, someone who genuinely makes a real contribution deserves to be rewarded. But today, most of what is created by all of society gets turned into wealth, and, somehow, directly or indirectly, shunted away from the 99 percent by the 1 percent. The demand of the various occupations that this theft be reversed is right on target—both in what we know about how wealth is created, and, above all, in what we know about how a just society ought to organize its affairs.