Category: Blog Post

Random International’s Rain Room (2012) is an immersive environment of perpetually falling water that pauses wherever a human body is detected. The installation offers visitors an opportunity to experience what is seemingly impossible: the ability to control rain. Rain Room presents a respite from everyday life and an opportunity for sensory reflection within a responsive relationship.

In the words of Raqs Media Collective:

“The best kind of art, like the rain, invokes a re-ordering of the cognitive and the sensory fields. It asks of its actual and potential publics to open doors and windows and let the other worlds in. This re-ordering–subtle slight, sure, sharp or soft as the case may be, whether it is a desultry drizzle across a few frazzled or jaded synapses, or the neurological equivalent of an electrical thunderstorm and sudden downpour — is why we bother with art in the first place. When it rains art, we do not reach for umbrellas. It makes sense to let ourselves soak, as long as we can, like children dancing in the season’s first rain.”

In the same vein, my art practice does not discriminate audiences in the application of art but almost always disrupts a habitual pattern to inspire a personal or social shift. As Creative Director of limeSHIFT, our art interventions have influenced empathy, community and leadership in private companies, universities and neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and New York City. Many of our working practices are directly informed not just by individual artistic processes, but also by the working modes of artist collectives.

Artist collectives have occurred throughout history, often gathered around central resources, for instance the ancient sculpture workshops at the marble quarries on Milos in Greece and Carrara in Italy. Collectives featured during both the Russian revolution when they were set up by the state in all major communities, and the French Revolution when the Louvre in Paris was occupied as an artist collective.

An artist collective is an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together towards shared aims. These aims can include almost anything that is relevant to the needs of the artist, ranging from purchasing bulk materials, sharing equipment, space or materials, through to following shared ideologies, aesthetic and political views or even living and working together as an extended family. Sharing of ownership, risk, benefits, and status is implied, as opposed to other, more common business structures with an explicit hierarchy of ownership such as an association or a company.

The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” is associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy. Beyond sharing materials and ideologies, artist collectives have showcased time and again that collaborative processes tend to benefit all of the members of any given community.

Lehlogonolo Mashaba (South African, b. 1983). Markings Of Belonging V (Studio), 2014. Ink on paper.

How can the arts be used to help humans gain cultural awareness in order to benefit the collective whole?

When I first encountered this question I was a little dumbfounded. I could not tell the question’s head from its tail. At first, I identified that it was confusing to think about using the arts to ‘gain cultural awareness.’ What is the relationship here between ‘arts’ and ‘culture’? The arts are a physical manifestation of the internal creative impulse of any given place and its people. The arts are a physical manifestation of culture.

As a result the arts makeup a significant percentage of how humans communicate with each other and see each other. As such, diversity training is simply learning to be more conscious of how you communicate with and perceive others. Using music, dance, story-telling, literature and other forms of expression are powerful ways to learn about expression. Honing in, expanding upon, and polishing off how you see other people within the world around you. Becoming aware of others’ mode of operating is essential to our own success. Understanding our similarities and our differences is the foundation on which one builds healthy relationships. To use the arts to gain broader consciousness is a meaningful pursuit.

I am particularly interested in exploring how the visual language component of how we express ourselves informs how we engage with each other. Which is to say, if we are going to point to our differences I believe that we must also point to our similarities. It just so happens that we all engage with the world through our sight. We all have eyes.

How those eyes translate color, shape, and depth differently from villages in the north to villages in the south is part of what makes my work as an artist so exciting. We all react differently to visual cues, but we are all reacting nonetheless. There is great potential in exploring these reactions and how they translate from person to person and group to group.

Kerry James Marshall (American, b. 1955). Untitled (Studio), 2014. Acrylic on PVC panels.

In her handwritten notes for a student lecture, artist Agnes Martin wrote that inspiration is “the beginning and end of all art work.” Expanding on the subject, she continued:

An inspiration is a happy moment that takes us by surprise. Many people are so startled by an inspiration or a condition of inspiration, which is so different from daily care, that they think that they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inspiration is there all the time for anyone whose mind is not covered over with thoughts and concerns, and [it is] used by everyone whether they realize it or not…It is an untroubled state of mind. Of course, we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last, so we say that inspiration comes and goes, but it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say that it is pervasive.

These words are helpful because when examining my artistic practice and thinking through how and where I find inspiration the first question that popped into my head was “do I go after inspiration or does inspiration go after me?” Writer Elizabeth Gilbert believes that it is not a binary answer. She sees our relationship to inspiration as a relationship. “You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”

With that said, I am grateful that over the past decade I have cultivated patterns in my life that have kept inspiration around me continuously. These patterns have been woven in through the acts of traveling, reading, and conversing. All three are variations on choosing to get lost in other people’s lives.

Picasso often spoke about the idea that every child is an artist and Martin agreed with him.  Expanding on her thoughts regarding inspiration she would say that from childhood to adulthood our relationship with inspiration is continuously evolving:

Young children have more time in which they are untroubled than adults. They have therefore more inspirations than adults. The moments of inspiration added together make what we refer to as sensibility — defined in the dictionary as “response to higher feelings.” The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children.

I believe that it is children’s insatiable curiosity that sets them apart from adults.  As we “grow up” and face the many responsibilities that come with adulthood we build patterns that keep us from asking questions and engaging in the world the way a child would.  What if we made it a priority to go to spaces we never occupy? What if everyday we left our homes with the intention of meeting someone new? Everyday.

Ultimately, the inspiration for my work comes from the people I encounter moment to moment in my life. Plato once wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Through my practice as an artist I am interested in exploring how we can be soldiers in each others’ armies collectively engaging in the sadness and joy that comes with being human.

“A $450 billion problem.”

“70% of employees aren’t fully engaged.”

 

If you’ve ever wondered why caring about employee engagement is important, the above intimidating statistics may catch your attention. Yet, the conversation among business leaders is rarely on whether or not employee engagement is important (it is!). The disagreements instead lie in how to improve it. Employee engagement is a tricky problem to diagnose since it depends on an intricate set of drivers from across the organization, including ones outside of the employee’s defined role, such as Work/Life Balance, Physical Work Environment, Play, People, Sense of Accomplishment, Brand Alignment, and more.

Figure 1. Drivers of Employee Engagement

Source: “Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice: Why Should You Care About Employee Engagement?” (2015) Microedge.com. MicroEdge, LLC.

With limited time and resources, what should leaders focus on? Research points to the following as the top four issues to improve engagement: Role Design, Organizational Identity, Career Ladders and Community.

Figure 2. Employee Motivation Ranked by Company Process

Source: McGregor, Lindsay, and Neel Doshi. “How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation.” Harvard Business Review, 20 Apr. 2016.

At limeSHIFT, all of our workshops establish collective intention setting. We help employees connect with their own source of purpose and connect that with the people and environment around them (People, Place and Purpose). Under this lens, we view Role Design as more than the tasks assigned to the employee. Effective Role Design means an individual has a clear purpose within a collective context. It helps to set boundaries, empowers individuals within the collective and creates ownership by building out spheres of influence (see our methodology in Figure 3). Thus, our work also influences both Organizational Identity and Community.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Paul Leinwand and Varya Davidson discuss how Starbucks savvily utilized its culture to promote strategic initiatives. The bottom line:

“Let people bring their own emotional energy to an enterprise where they feel they have a stake… thus leverage the company’s culture to bring its strategic identity to life.”

Two key ideas jump out of this statement: “their own emotional energy” and “stake.” Translating into limeSHIFT terms, we see “individual purpose within a collective context” and “ownership.”

People, Place and Purpose.

Align individual and organizational values and give people a sense of ownership in the company and employee engagement will drastically improve. We know because we’ve seen it. The spark of excitement from a new collaboration. The renewed vigor for work. The pride that tilts an employee’s chin up slightly higher. Those are the clear signs of engagement that we get to see after a limeSHIFT workshop.

Figure 3. limeSHIFT’s Co-Design Methodology

 

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.

 

 

I used to have a full-time art practice – a space where to concentrate on my process and create my own work. While I accomplished a lot, I also had time to deliberately do nothing. When I moved to New York it became too expensive to be an emerging artist and maintain a full-time art practice. Most artists in New York take on jobs and “work on my personal stuff on the weekends.” Though often it is difficult to muster up the energy to do so. In fact, many emerging artists work in jobs associated with the arts but purposefully not in creative positions to avoid being “creatively drained.”

As an idea, I disagree with the premise that  there is a cap on creativity. Working in a creative position at limeSHIFT doesn’t hinder my ability to create my artwork. It does take time away from my practice but it doesn’t take away from my inner dialog and thought process. Nothing stops me from thinking about how I create and the materials I use.

The only way to get an idea is knowing you need one. Creative ideas and concepts for artwork don’t happen in the studio alone. The inspiration for your work can come from anywhere and from doing anything – it’s the practice of opening yourself to it and contemplating it. Being trapped in a studio can limit your exposure.

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Talking about your work is an important part of the process for an artist – it helps you articulate your thoughts into tangible actions. As the Artistic Director at limeSHIFT, I am exposed to many artists and learn about their processes. Usually guiding them through how their practice could work with limeSHIFT and help execute their vision.

I recently completed a visual artist residency at BRIC and will be heading to MacDowell in September. Throughout this time I am given space to actualize my thoughts and create the artwork that rests in my mind. Luckily, limeSHIFT understands this relationship with my work and allows me to juggle these responsibilities. Before I set foot in these studios I have a clear work plan and the rough idea on what I would want to accomplish. However, the nature of making artwork isn’t that precise and experimenting in the studio is a large part of creating.
While creating this work and working at limeSHIFT – I learned that being a practicing artist and employee in a company takes a lot of planning. But if it is something you want to pursue, it is important to work for a company that is willing to foster that relationship.

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?

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For nearly 60 years, Americans for the Arts has convened an annual convention for arts and community leaders to network and discuss strategies for building stronger towns, counties, and cities through the arts. As this professional field has grown, so has the gathering. What started as a small group of 45 people in 1955 has now grown to nearly 1,000 each year.

I was invited to speak as part of the ‘Embedded Artists and the Power of Residencies’ session. Like any good insurgency, artist residencies–inside schools, governments, businesses, and more–can quickly move from “why” to “how did we do without?” In the session, we dived deeply into examples of successful residency programs and gather ideas for how to replicate them in any community.

This session addressed issues of arts education, community development, diversity/equity, engagement, leadership, private sector engagement, public art, and public value. I was honored to be on the panel with Lisa Temple (The Community Engagement Manager at Adobe), Shaw Pong Liu (one of the Artists-in-Residence for Boston Creates), Charles Tracy (Director of Arts Partnerships for the National Park Service), Elizabeth Segarn (Staff Writer for Fast Company Magazine), and it was moderated by Myran Parker-Bass (The Executive Director of the Arts for Boston Public Schools).

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I had the opportunity to share work from Monday Morning Kabul, Beware of Colour, and Colour in Faith as predecessors to limeSHIFT. I connected many of the artistic practices that we have developed over the past decade in public space to the ways in which corporations can activate the imaginations of their employees and in the process elevate the company’s culture.

The president of Americans for the Arts (AFTA), Robert Lynch, addressed the convention and begun with: “Risk. Controversy. Action. Vision. Vibrancy. Equity. Accessibility. Power. Innovation. Failure. Design. Community. Leadership. These are the concepts you’re grappling with now…” As a startup, we are dealing with all of these things on a daily basis. The conference was filled with ideas that inform the way that we think about our company’s challenges.

IMG_8250 “All the arts, all the people” has been AFTA’s steadfast declaration about equitable access to the transformative power of the arts. It is an aspirational phrase—and one that limeSHIFT strives to meet.

We founded our company because we believe that access to a full creative life is essential to a healthy and democratic society. Lynch concluded his speech by stating, “Our core belief that all people should have equal access to the arts has never wavered, but the political, social, and economic circumstances in which we carry out our mission are constantly evolving. We all must evolve, too.”

limeSHIFT exists to support this evolution.

The first client. The first project. The first co-created corporate art installation.

How meaningful is a startup’s first engagement? For limeSHIFT, it was everything.

Last month, limeSHIFT finished its first engagement with a corporate client. An idea that originated in an MIT classroom became a reality at Life is Good’s Boston headquarters. limeSHIFT, as a concept, has been evolving for years; it’s the culmination of work started by Yazmany Arboleda and Nabila Alibhai with their 2013 orchestration of Monday Mornings in Kabul, where the mission was to use the insertion of art and beauty to transform a community and change public narrative.

By moving this practice into a corporate setting, limeSHIFT was testing a new idea, using public art methodologies in a private community. As noted in limeSHIFT’s first blog post, I wrote, “our job was to create art that would inspire Life is Good’s employees to spread optimism externally.”

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#electricJOY, Yazmany Arboleda, 2016

Through a process of quantitative and qualitative research and workshops, Yazmany and I dug into the culture, ethos and inspiration at Life is Good. The result was two art installations, #electricJOY and #helloSUNSHINE, located in the stairwell and lobby entrance, respectively.

Employee feedback was overwhelmingly positive. On #electricJOY, Christine Kwitchoff, Director of Global Sourcing, noted that “this mural has sparked so much conversation and really sets the tone for our interaction with others.” Colleen Clark, Director of Optimistic People stated, “it’s a beautiful representation of the people at Life is Good and the reality and the authenticity of the moments they go through in any given day.”

The inspiration for #helloSUNSHINE came from a workshop where Emily Saul, Director of Programming at Life is Good Kids Foundation, wrote the following as the intended message for those entering the space: “Hello, I see you. You matter. Your time matters. What you do here is valuable. Be inspired to be here and help make Life Good for the world.”

Elizabeth Segran, Staff Writer at Fast Company (Moderator) Yazmany Arboleda, artist and cofounder of limeSHIFT Elizabeth Thys, CEO of limeSHIFT Bert Jacobs, CEO of Life is Good Colleen Clark, Director of Optimistic People at Life is Good

Elizabeth Segran, Staff Writer at Fast Company (Moderator)
Yazmany Arboleda, artist and cofounder of limeSHIFT
Elizabeth Thys, CEO of limeSHIFT
Bert Jacobs, CEO of Life is Good
Colleen Clark, Director of Optimistic People at Life is Good

We unveiled the artwork during a Boston Artweek Panel where Bert Jacobs, CEO of Life is Good said:

  • “Every company including Life is Good is challenged to get their teams to feel united and inspired all the time…Art like nothing else in the world can bring people together.”
  • “We benefited in productivity during the weeks when the project happened because it created energy in the space”
  • “Cross-departmental collaboration increased rapidly when we started working with [limeSHIFT].”

In the end, our first project with the help and support of the Life is Good community inspired us to continue with our work. It encouraged us that there is, in fact, a place in the world for more social practice art. For that, we are eternally grateful. The first truly is everything.

“What they did was open up a curiosity in all of us that I think makes us better decision makers and better community members.” – Colleen Clark, Director of Optimistic People at Life is Good