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Betty Ann Brown


“Community, as it is being enacted here, is the ability to touch others in ways that matter to them--to give them a voice...Community is the starting point for new modes of relatedness, in which the paradigm of social conscience replaces that of the individual genius...[This is] art which speaks to the power of connectedness and establishes bonds, art that calls us into relationship.”
--Suzi Gablik

In a previous ArtScene essay (January 2002), and subsequently delivered at the College Art Association meetings in February of this year, I argued that community building art is a significant creative practice that should be more widely acknowledged and valued as an important creative option for this new century. I continue the discussion here, looking at ways in which artists can interact with community, as well as projects by artists who work in the connective paradigm. Lewis Hyde’s discussion of art as gift enters into this issue intimately.

In an article dedicated to community building as an art form, Atlanta artist Eleanor Hand describes four models for artists working in community (“Artist’s Survival Guide,” Art Papers, May/June 1997, p. 47). In each, the artist enters the community and observes or interacts with the community.

In model number one, the artist makes art about the community or about her experiences with or impressions of the community. This is the artist’s singular vision.

In model two, the community participates in a discourse that contributes to the design or site of the finished artwork, or art product, then the artist makes it.

In three, the community members help the artist to make the art product.

And in four, the artist collaborates with community members in the research, discourse, site choice, design development, and making of the art product.

I am most interested in Hand’s fourth model of community building as an art form. This is the truly interactive model. It requires empathetic relationship between artist and community, establishment of personal and meaningful connection between artist and community, and ongoing commitment to dialogue between artist and community. Indeed--and for many artists, this is the most problematic part--it requires that artists release some control of the final product into the hands of the very communities with which they are collaborating.

As Los Angeles muralist Judith Baca asserts, “In some productions where you are going for the power of the image, you can get a massive amount of input from the community before the actual making of the image, then you take control of the aesthetic. That’s one model. Another is a fully collaborative process in which you give voice to the community and they make the image. Both of these processes are completely valid, but there’s little room for the second because artists take such huge risks becoming associated with a process that may not end up as a beautiful object. The confusion is massive when you talk to people who are writing about it--whose art is it, the kids’, the homeless people’s, or yours?” (Quoted in Suzanne Lacy, “Mapping the Terrain: The New Public Art,” Public Art Review, Fall/Winter 1993, p. 33)

Baca’s (rhetorical) question about ownership of art brings up the issue of power and representation. The late Craig Owens developed a critique of representation that was derived from Michel Foucault’s comments on “the indignity of speaking for others.” Owens cautioned that “to represent [others] is to subjugate.” These issues of Craig Owens’ theories are discussed, among other places, in his obituary, written for Art In America by Nancy Marmer and Lynne Tillman (September 1990, pp. 184-186).

Community building art projects that give voice to often disenfranchised populations, thereby give them power of self-representation, allowing them to, in a fashion, speak for themselves. Such a process of empowerment is made possible by artistic relationships.

Los Angeles artist Kim Abeles has established situations in which young people are encouraged to develop relationships with senior citizens, whom they later honor in large installations. Frankenstein’s Hearts is a piece she worked on with youths from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Each teen interviewed a community elder, then created an icon, an assemblage sculpture, a representative pattern, as well as panels of textual fragments, from the interview. The various artworks inspired by the interviews were then installed in horizontal bands circling the gallery. In the center, a large sculptural woman was composed--Frankenstein-like--from parts of each of the elders’ accounts. Rather than depicting a frightful monster, the giant woman represents the healing integration of communities and generations through the recounting of personal stories.

Kim Abeles, "Frankenstein’s Heart"
(installation view), 2002,
mixed media installation.

Kim Abeles, "Frankenstein’s Heart"
(detail), 2002, mixed media installation.

Joyce Kohl was called into relationship with the people of Zimbabwe while on a Fulbright in 2001. A noted California ceramic sculptor, Kohl initially traveled to Zimbabwe to advise on the development of an art department in the local university. But when she learned that two out of five people in the country has AIDS and that social mores have led to pervasive public denial about the disease, Kohl was compelled to initiate a community building artwork inspired by the AIDS quilt. She visited a local tile factory and asked several of the tile painters to design images about the impact of AIDS on their lives. The individual tiles were so powerful, that she determined to create a large public work based on them. Kohl secured a site on the walkway between the art museum and the nearby park, commissioned a local man to build a structure, and helped the tile artists to create murals from their initial designs. At the same time, Kohl was working with AIDS orphans. She helped them create their own tiles, which were incorporated into a bench near the Zimbabwe AIDS wall.

Yony Waite, “Ambiguity,” 1995,
mixed media box from the “WOMEN/
Beyond Borders” project.

Elena Siff, "Global Vision," 1995,
mixed media box from the “WOMEN/
Beyond Borders” project.

Lorraine Serena, "Battle of Selfhood,”
1995, mixed media box from the
“WOMEN/Beyond Borders” project.
Wisconsin artist Sonya Clark creates communities of artistic relationship in her ongoing Beaded Prayers Project. Inspired by the tradition of beaded amulets in Africa, Clark has developed a workshop process in which students and other community members create beaded packets that contain their prayers, wishes, hopes or dreams. Each participant creates two sealed beaded packets: one to keep in celebration of individuality and the other for a related traveling exhibition entitled Beaded Blessings. Over 1200 people ranging from 6 to 90 years old have participated in over 30 different countries. This winter, Clark oversaw Beaded Prayers Project workshops in Kumasi, Ghana, Africa; in Owings Mills, Maryland; and at the American Craft Museum in New York City. Imagine the power of dozens of New Yorkers coming together to embody their hopes and prayers in beautiful beaded amulets.

Even broader international scope has been achieved by the community building project known as WOMEN/Beyond Borders (W/BB). W/BB boxes were recently exhibited at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Santa Barbara artist Lorraine Serena initiated W/BB with Elena Siff in September 1992. Together they contemplated the ease of shipping miniature works of art around the world. As Serena attests, “The idea spread by word of mouth and very soon we found our ourselves collaborating with over a dozen area artists. At one of our studio meetings, we focused on a miniature wooden souvenir box from the 1950s.” The group of women decided to use such a box as the physical containers--as modern reliquaries, if you will--for depictions of their current experiences and aspirations. The tiny boxes of dreams became the prototypes for a decade of transnational community building. Serena writes that the goals of W/BB are: “To honor and document women’s visions; to build community through dialogue; and to inspire all women to express their creativity.” She cites Adrienne Rich, who has written, “Until a strong line of love, confirmation and example stretches from mother to daughter, from woman to woman, across the generations, women will still be wandering in the wilderness.” WOMEN/Beyond Borders has created community in Kenya, Austria, Cuba, Australia, Jerusalem, Sweden and Italy--to name just a few of the venues in which the tiny boxes have been created and exhibited.

Starting on April 29, 1993 (the first anniversary of the civil unrest in Los Angeles), Jill d’Agnenica began placing magenta plaster angels throughout the city. She and a growing team of volunteers created the angels--a total of 4,687, approximately ten per square mile of city terrain--and distributed them on street corners, at bus stops, in front of buildings, beside freeway off-ramps, and at other locations where they would be happened upon and possibly “adopted” by passers-by.

D’Agnenica intended the random appearance of angels throughout the once-wounded city to serve as catalyst for personal and communal reflection. It was her hope that the experience of seeing an angel (and even more importantly, as word got out, the affirmative act of looking for angels) would become a positive aspiration for the often alienated populace of Los Angeles.

Community building projects such as those created by Abeles, Kohl, Clark, Serena and d’Agnenica function as gifts, in the way Lewis Hyde uses the term in his book, The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (London: Vintage/Random, 1979). Hyde sets up an opposition between the gift, which is freely given, and the commodity, which is tied to the market economy. According the Hyde, the act of giving a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved.

It is this element of relationship which leads Hyde to speak of gift exchange as “an ‘erotic’ commerce, balancing Eros (the principle of attraction, union, involvement) against logos (reason and logic, the principle of differentiation in particular). A market economy is an emanation of logos,” whereas the community building art projects are emanations of Eros. As such, these gifts are agents of social cohesion. They create community by nourishing “those parts of our spirit that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, the group, the race, or the gods.”

And we need this art, these gifts, because, according to Hyde, in a society where we maintain no institutions of positive reciprocity, we find ourselves unable to participate in the “wider spirits” he references. We find ourselves unable to enter gracefully into nature, unable to draw community out of the mass, and, finally, unable to receive, contribute toward, and pass along the collective treasures we refer to as culture and tradition.

Jill D’Agnenica, “Angels # 1108- 1115, 2400
Block, Riverside Dr., Silverlake,” 1994, photo-
graph documenting the Angels project.

Jill D’Agnenica, “Angels #2939-2942,
109th and Avalon,” 1994, photograph
documenting the Angels project.