In accepting the visiting gig at the Kansas City Art Institute I really did not know exactly what I was in for. And neither did my hosts. We had a general framework. Three days, the use of an exhibition space called Paragraph on Friday night (through the generous support of the Charlotte Street Foundation), student involvement from the Printmaking and Interdisciplinary Arts departments, some kind of workshop, and the requisite public lecture. That all sounded great to me, but without further specifics (budget for workshop? facilities? number of students? etc) I could not make too many plans. As well, there is the fact that I do not have good information about or experience with KC as a place.
In the end none of that mattered. The students and faculty knew enough about my practice to expect an experimental approach, and they were evidently hungry to see this kind of social art on campus. So we sat down on the first morning to design a project we could bring to fruition in two days’ time. After about three hours of hashing out possibilities, opinions, analyses, and models, we arrived on an agreement for what it would make sense to do. The students brought to the table their concerns and observations about the Kansas City environment, especially in the vicinity of the Paragraph gallery space. I did my part by filling in the group knowledge with my experiences at Mess Hall, working with Red76, and introducing terminologies like those found in most issues of AREA. For their part, about thirty or so students pledged interest and commitment, enough for us to undertake a rather elaborate experiment.
The title of the workshop became Engagement Park. I helped to frame the project with the following text.
How to bring and art out of its social insularity and into ordinary life? The problem is an old one, and has vexed artists easily for more than a hundred years. In our time the question is saddled with specific anxieties and discontents having to do with social divisions, class stratifications, and the limits of democracy as they relate to the delivery systems of art. In this place—Kansas City, but in many other North American urban areas, besides—the question becomes highly localized, having to do with spaces identified as art venues and their relationship to their neighboring areas. Problems of urban planning, economic trends, and the unimaginative values that drive city development come to the fore.
Behind this whole endeavour lies the question of the specific role of art and artists in urban economies, a society riven by social divisions, and a political system that seems only to respond to monied interests. Do artists have certain roles to play in making various social dynamics or fissures visible? Can artists offer something particular in bringing different populations into contact? Yes, no, maybe, and under what circumstances?
We started with a set of people with limited or no collaborative history, a limited amount of time, access to Paragraph, a space located in an area of town that signifies different things to different people, and our skills and experiences as artists and art students. Within those tight constraints, we’ve put forward several small experiments in directly engaging site specific publics: 1) people in the restaurants and plazas of the Power & Light district, and 2) people waiting for the buses outside Paragraph, and on the buses themselves.
After having been processed quickly through our skills as art makers and exhibitors, the information and documentation gathered will be presented at Paragraph on Friday night, over food, drink, and a discussion about the experiment, beginning at 7 PM.
The individuals who made it happen:
Jenna Stanton, Sean M. Starowitz, Lindsey Rife, Kelsey Pike, Sami Freese, Matthew Gladson, Martin Rico, Keegan Rogers, John Hilger, Terry Campbell, Sara Cramer, Aly Parrott, Christopher Bostwick, Zoë Pedziwiatr, Sarah Smith, Will Burnip, Greg Daiker, Justin Rulo-Sabé, Katherine O’Hara, Jesse McAfee, Jessica Brackett, Richard Bray, Emilee Denich, Mallory Dorn, Teresa Dougherty, Sarah Hazelwood, Lance Heybrock, Cambria Potter, Osciel Ramos, Kathleen Rivera, Joseph Sprenke, Dan S. Wang, Julia Cole, Miguel Rivera, Hugh Merrill, Seth Johnson, Kate Hackman
students broke themselves into four groups: one that explored the space of
Power & Light, one that focused on public transit spaces and rode the buses
that pass by Paragraph, and two groups that stayed on campus to print stuff for
display and giveaway, to be used in the engagement and exhibition parts of the
project. One of the groups that worked on printing stuff came out of a Seth Johnson-taught class, he of Carnal Torpor.
To explain: “Power & Light” is a downtown entertainment district made up of restaurants and bars covering about nine blocks. The centerpiece space is a covered plaza called KC Live! It is basically an open air pedestrian plaza ringed on four sides by a two-level facade of themed drinking establishments and restaurants, some of them huge and none of them small. Each one caters to a different kind of clientele. There is an upscale Maker’s Mark bourbon bar and restaurant, a corny piano bar for the fifty-something Jimmy Buffet fans called Howl at the Moon, and a cowboy/rodeo bar called PBR Big Sky, and more than a few others. The district as a whole reeks of overdetermined consumer experiences, and this feeling is reinforced by the fact that there is a dress code enforced in the evenings.
Paragraph is not more than two blocks from the edge of Power & Light, and predated the development of the district by a number of years. Partly for this reason Power & Light stands out as a question mark in the minds of some who recall what this part of town was like before Power & Light came into being.
Many of the students had negative opinions about Power & Light, even to the point of admitting probable bias. Even without ever having been there. Apprehending the obnoxious aesthetic of the district’s architectural space and clear consumerist orientation, I could certainly see why. Which is all the more reason our engagement experiment was important to conduct. I made the point a few times over the course of my stay: social art practice is very much about discovering who you are, what you see of yourself when you exit your social comfort zone.
Before heading off campus the public transit group felt the most anxiety and uncertainty about their direction. But they ended up with the best stories and the most resolved contribution to the Friday night presentation. They also managed to bring into Paragraph on Friday night at least two people they had randomly encountered at bus stops the day before—folks who had never been to Paragraph, who had previously not known about it, and weren’t part of any art circles. One of them, a fellow who raps under the name Macc Foolio, came and contributed some great thoughts about the state of the KC underground hip hop scene, the need to bridge subcultures, and various observations about linking artistic worlds around town. That is social art, right there: making our world’s connect. Even if only momentarily, it is a victory against the forces and habits of cultural division.
some pics from Friday at Paragraph. It ended up being one of the best one night shows I have ever seen, much less been a part of.
Whoop Dee Doo stopped in! Lovely to see Jaimie and company in their hometown, and under circumstances much different than when I first met them in Chicago. That time it was a dinner party at the Experimental Station, but the Whoop Dee Doo crew were stressing big time, under the gun for their Heartland installation.
The group that focused on Power & Light used a new media display and interactivity tactic. Having distributed cards in the Power & Light district with questions on them and a Google Voice number to which people could text their answers, we awaited answers to stream in, projected on a wall in Paragraph. We only got a few, but this way of working, we all agreed, is promising and deserves further application.
Early in the project formulation process, I was asked by Sean Starowitz what a project might look like that involved turning Paragraph into something like Mess Hall for a night. Part of my answer was to say that a Mess Hall evening event often involves some simple potluck meal. So we had a potluck, including some nice sweets donated by stores around Paragraph, solicited by the students. I have to say, the students were really on this project. It was a great effort!
Jesse McAfee and the Print Factory crew set up their portable shop for the evening, as well. For the heck of it. And live printing is always welcome, I would say, in any kind of event.
One of the students from the Power & Light squad, Aly Parrott (isn't that a great name??), documented her encounter with a bar patron through the direct strategy of narrative storytelling. She printed the text onto these little chipboard cards...who knows where they might go, or what they might be good for as objects. In contrast to the anti-social nature of the bar itself (loud, obnoxious music, little social mixing, ugly surroundings), the story of this woman Aly spoke to is so human and sweet. It would be interesting to insert these kinds of humanizing texts back into the space of Power & Light.
I got to hang a display of the printed matter I brought with me. Don't know what people made of all this political junk. That is Miguel Rivera in the pic, chair of the KCAI Printmaking Department.
I was told by students and faculty that the Friday event was totally worthwhile and quite different even by the standards of Paragraph shows, which often lean towards the experimental. Miguel sent me a follow up a couple days later saying that some of his students expressed interest in maintaining some effort working in a social art vein. That makes me happy, but I will respond by emphasizing the political nature of this kind of work. I do not believe in social engagement for its own sake, anymore than I believe in the art for art's sake. There are a great many crises emerging in our world today, and they will not be solved without some fundamental realignments in our social behaviors. I would even say that a great many of these crises will not be 'solved' at all; only ridden out and endured. Even then, to maintain our humanity, our capacity to act with the best of human traits–compassion, humor, love, and creative perserverance–we need to expand the ways in which we relate to one another, and for groups of people to relate to one another. And we must do this in the face of capitalistic logics that reduce our social relations to narrowly economic ones. This task will be especially important for the younger generations. That is the critical dimension of social art, and why the students would be wise to continue developing their own social practices.
KCAI interdisciplinary arts major Sean Starowitz also posted some good pics of the installation and discussion at Paragraph on his blog here.