Author: jesse

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-12-41-58-pmEarlier this month, a modernistic fabric sculpture appeared beside one of the most historic battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War: the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts.  The bright yellow tent-like structure stands out against the dry, open landscape, inciting curiosity in passersby.  What could this be? Why is it here?  Those who approach the structure are met by an artist’s statement:

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In the coming months, “The Meeting House” will host community gatherings to encourage dialogue, growth, and healing surrounding the issues that “The Meeting House” itself explores. Reflective of limeSHIFT’s mission, “Using social practice art to shift communities and bring about empathy, healing and collective inspiration”, this project seemed fitting to look at through the lens of our own work. Below is an interview I conducted with the Los Angeles-based artist responsible for “The Meeting House”, Sam Durant.

Jesse Ryan: I want to start by asking you how you got to where you are today, how you got to creating “The Meeting House” and where the project came from. What was its inspiration?

Sam Durant: When I was invited to do this project about a year ago, the Black Lives Matter movement was really in the news–first of all, the police killings of African Americans, but also larger issues of institutional racism. And when I grew up, I grew up during the desegregation of the school systems and the attempt to do that through bussing. So, going into the project I knew that Boston, still, is even more racially segregated now than it was back then in the late 60s and early 70s. So, to me, it seemed like a lot of historical things were playing out again, and the site being so important to American history, with the Minuteman park there and the war and the transcendentalists and the underground railroad, that’s what I was thinking about.

JR: “The Meeting House” is no exception to the sociopolitical undertones I’ve noticed in a lot of your work. Where does that come from, and do you view your work as art, or as an artistic approach to activism?

SD: That’s a good question, it’s a tricky one. I think it really depends on any one situation. Art can sometimes have a kind of activist feedback in the real world, but I would say my work is art more than anything else. It is aesthetic, it operates in the realm of representation. It is not a political activity or a political action. Sometimes an artwork can have political effects in the world, but that is not where I would locate my work. It is really about representation, not reality. It is about imagination and creativity.

JR: Where did the concept for this big yellow outdoor structure come from?

SD: It came about through a combination of a lot of factors. The Trustees of the Reservation, who invited me to do this project and to put an artwork in the landscape, they wanted something that was publicly visible, that would get people thinking, and something that was maybe even a little provocative. With that in mind, I thought I should do something that would be visible from the road, from the Minuteman Park, and from The Old Manse itself. The idea for the structure itself was to use the 18th century houses that the first generation of free Africans had built in Concord as a sort of platform. That became the floorplan of my structure: symbolizing the history and bringing back the presence of that first generation of Africans in Concord, but then trying to open it up. So the tent structure was about looking forward–being transparent and temporary but also hopeful for the future.

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JR: What gives art this power to bring people together, start dialogue, and transform spaces in the way that the meeting house is already doing?

SD: Well work like this shows you that art actually is a powerful thing in society–it is important to people. I teach art and my students often wonder, “What is the point of doing art? Does anyone really care?” And I always point out that if you look at the New York Times, there is a section in the paper–its own section–that is devoted to arts and culture. And if you think about it that way, that must mean it’s pretty important, you know? There are a lot of things that we do in the world that don’t have their own section in the New York Times. I really is important to us, but I think we often forget that. Even on the most basic level, art is an expression. I think that is what gives it the ability to bring us together. Any kind of art or literature or film, any kind of music, it is all an expression–of humanity, I think… Of the possibilities that we have as individuals, but also as groups, to do meaningful things and do inspire each other.

 

 

Photo by Robert Cohen

Photo by Robert Cohen

In the wake of the recent police-involved killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up momentum, gaining increasing support and expanding its range of different activist methods. On the news, we have seen huge crowds participating in marches, sit-ins, and vigils across the country. What hasn’t been broadcasted, perhaps because it challenges the angry-and-aggressive-protester narrative that news outlets so often portray, is the art that has been created in response to police brutality and racial injustice.

There is no better time than now to both explore and showcase how art can affect, transform, inform, and/or challenge social movements.  Can it heal? Can it empower? Can it join in and fight?

Over the past several years, themes of police brutality and racially charged violence have emerged in virtually every art form: Music (think Lauryn Hill’s Black Rage and Vic Mensa’s 16 Shots), poetry (see [insert] boy by Danez Smith), and an incredibly wide range of visual art.  Clearly, racial activist art is being created in abundance, but why? What makes art such a powerful tool?

Gran Fury, "Silence = Death"

Gran Fury, “Silence = Death”

At its core, activism has always been about making an impact, providing shock value that will spark conversation and action.  As a universally understood tool, activists often employ visual art to challenge, shock and disrupt narratives drawing more people into the dialogue and enabling the pathway to change.  The roots of the power and uniqueness of art can be traced back to earlier social movements such as Vietnam War protests and the fight against AIDS.  The posters created in both the Vietnam era and the AIDS crisis became emblems of their movements–captivating visuals that essentially advertised the cause.

In the Black Lives Matter movement, we are seeing the same thing: be it new symbols like two hands raised in surrender, or adapted signs like a single fist held high, these images have become universally known. Without words, they remind us of the injustices this movement is working to dismantle.

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Art has the power to combat injustice, but what else might it be able to fend off? When the products of activist art are often so jarring, we as viewers fail to recognize the incredibly healing nature of the creative process. Children’s book illustrator Christian Robinson said of his latest drawings, “I made [these] as a way of processing and grieving the [killing of] Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It’s therapy, especially in the face of tragedy.” So when we infuse it with activism, art is not only the powerful weapon that it appears to be, but a mechanism by which an individual can begin to heal.  

Art’s healing powers do not stop at the individual level.  Take musician and performance artist Shaw Pong Liu’s latest project, “Code Listen” for example.  The Boston artist plans to bring teens and Boston Police Department officers together to share their experiences through collaborative music making.  In Liu’s words, the project will “prototype ways that music can support healing and dialogue on topics of gun violence, race and law enforcement practices.”  As demonstrated by both Christian Robinson and Shaw Pong Liu, creating art in the face of violence and hate not only has the power to heal the artist, but the communities they serve as well.

Photo by Eduardo Munoz

Photo by Eduardo Munoz

The Black Lives Matter movement proves to be one in a long line of social movements that have and continue to demonstrate the powers, both combative and therapeutic, that art can carry.  

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Photo by Circuit Sweet

How can art affect and transform space? This question not only guides our work at limeSHIFT, but also serves as the subject of much discussion and contemplation in the greater art world as well. As the definition of “art” continues to change and expand, more and more artists are responding to that very question, creating site-specific works in populated public spaces. So, what kinds of answers are these artists proposing? And how can we extrapolate meaning from their abstract works?

In late May, with help from the Public Art Fund, British artist Martin Creed debuted his public installation “Understanding” in Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The piece consists of a rotating, 25-foot-tall red neon sign that reads “Understanding,” and is on display on the park’s Pier 6, making it visible from the Brooklyn Bridge and parts of lower Manhattan’s waterfront. Concrete seating surrounds the base of the massive, spinning neon attraction. “Understanding” both interacts with and imposes on the space around it.  From its arresting location to its striking subject matter and literal glow, passersby cannot help but engage with Creed’s work.

Photo by the Public Art Fund

Photo by the Public Art Fund

While the piece itself is quite a physically imposing presence, it’s more figurative impact on the space seems to be the opposite.  Usually, big bright signs serve to advertise products, telling their viewers what to think, do, or buy.  In this case, however, Creed has designed the opposite into his piece: ambiguity. Challenging the typical uses of the medium at hand, “Understanding” asks questions rather than answers them. Impossible to ignore, the glowing sign invites hundreds of people per day to think about what understanding means to them.

Martin Creed’s piece in Brooklyn Bridge Park serves as a powerful example of the ways in which art can affect and transform its surroundings.  In the middle of a bustling New York City park,“Understanding” reminds the busy passersby to pause, contemplate, and perhaps even try to understand what it means to understand.  As Creed so deftly demonstrates with this piece, one of the most powerful ways art can affect the atmosphere of a space, either physical or figurative, is to actively engage with that space, engineering a level of ambiguity into the work that allows for dialogue to emerge between the art itself and its viewers. In the spirit of Creed’s work, I encourage you to bring your own experience to the piece now and engage in that dialogue as we do at limeSHIFT. So, what does understanding mean to you?