Dear Contemporary Art Museum,
Shared, expressed vulnerability is a key component to caring relationships. Socially engaged artists, myself included, often withhold expressions of our own vulnerability. This leads to relationships that perpetuate harmful power structures. It was not easy for me to learn to be vulnerable with my collaborators. However, I have no doubt that this shared vulnerability is at the heart of our ability to challenge the status quo.
These slides are from a talk that my husband, Scott Berman, and I gave at the “Arts and Moral Development” conference in Birmingham, England. Although I take issue with the presumption of art creating moral development, I do think it is important that artists and arts institutions who want to work with vulnerable populations, understand that we, too, enter those relationships vulnerable.
Dear Contemporary Art Museum,
I am an artist with what is called a social practice. Trained as a sculptor, I use materials and processes to critique and celebrate social structures. One of the beautiful things about being a sculptor is that you develop a sensitivity to the use of specific materials to tell your stories. Clay can speak of the earth, humility and warmth; textiles speak of humanity, time investment and connections. As my social practice has developed, relationships and time have become key sculptural materials. How else could I create an understanding of a specific social structure than through relationships and committing the time to listening and being a part of the surrounding conversation?
The beauty of entering into conversations about a city as artists is that we aren’t expected to have all the answers. We enter the conversation with our creativity, and with our ability to see things differently. For example, my arts practice, NODhouse and room13delmar, were born from walking the entire footprint of Grand Center, from Lindell to Cook Avenue and experiencing the shift at Delmar and Grand. At first I thought the shift was the result of the built environment, the lack of beautiful lighting and flower boxes north of Delmar and how it embodies the history of this divisive street: the investment in one area of the city compared to the neglect in another. But, since spending time there, I’ve learned that what is important is not the absence of lights and flowers but the absence of institutional support for the public sharing of the creativity north of Delmar.
So, the question became, how could I both celebrate that creativity, and critique the absence of its public storytelling?
That is how room13delmar began. The mobile studio functions as both a celebration of the creativity that already exists north of Delmar, as well as a critique of the absence of that creativity in the offerings of the Arts District. Over the last year and a half, groups of us in the four blocks north of Delmar (some of whom are here tonight) have been developing relationships of creative trust. And with that trust, the expectation of being seen and heard.
Teacher and philosopher Paulo Friere said, “If I am not in the world simply to adapt to it, but rather transform it, and if it is not possible to change the world without a certain dream or vision for it, I must make use of every possibility there is, not only to speak about my utopia, but also to engage in practices consistent with it.” My utopia is a place where each person expects that his or her life matters; a city that honestly critiques itself, and whose institutions celebrate the lived experiences of all of its citizens. We can do much better here in the Arts District. We can make a permanent home for the Black Repertory Theatre. We can fill opening nights at Portfolio Gallery and purchase artists’ work there, and, we can include, a First Night Stage, north of Delmar.
Lives are enriched by the work of artists. I know that each of the visionary women honored here tonight can tell you of a time that her life was impacted by experiencing the work of a female artist. Grand Center will fulfill its mission when it ensures that its Black neighbors experience their stories being expressed by Black artists throughout the Arts District. We can create such a reality together. We need only a shared vision and a commitment to using ‘every possibility there is not only to speak about (our) utopia, but also to actively engage in practices consistent with it.’
In his fab new book, What We Made, Tom Finkerpearl says, “One of my pet peeves….is that I don’t like to look at photographs of public art that don’t include the audience.” (pg 72). When I first read that sentence I was in complete agreement but something happened yesterday with Room13Delmar that made me reconsider the images of people in documentation.
Two young men were making holiday cards for their children and partners while Room13Delmar was on the sidewalk of Grand Boulevard, north of delmar. One of them asked for some help with spelling and the other told me he had never used a glue stick before. Their cards and their faces were so beautiful, I would have loved to have had a photo of them. However, it was so clear that what was important about the moment was being present, sharing the experience with them. If I were to take out my camera and photograph them, we would no longer be in the moment together, there would all of a sudden be a ‘them’ and a ‘me’.
I didn’t take a picture the entire time they were with me at Room13Delmar, the experience, in public, north of delmar, is exactly what Room13Delmar is about. Some would tell me that that type of documentation is exactly what I need to be able to tell the story of Room13Delmar. However, the story of Room13Delmar is only as beautiful as the moments that make up Room13Delmar; these moments have to be the focus at all times.
For today, I will rely on words to tell the story and, an image of Room13Delmar quietly in situ.
It’s been a month since I attended the Creative Time Summit in New York and I needed some time to live with the experience in order to be able to write about it. The Summit was my first time
at a professional conference. It was amazing to be surrounded by people working in and talking about social practice. I don’t know if it is because I am in St. Louis or because I am busy engaged in my own practice but I have not had many opportunities to discuss social practice with peer artists. I have my close ones and community members I discuss it with all the time, but that is not the same as conversations across place about the type of work itself.
Hearing artists from all over the world use language similar to my own was very affirming. The organizers acknowledged that many people in the audience could be presenting at the conference and, with all humility, I could imagine NODhouse fitting into the program.
I would have loved a space in the conference dedicated to peer critiquing of socially engaged projects. It is rare to get artistic feedback about the work. People are able to informally evaluate the way social practice work is functioning or not functioning in a community but conversations/critiques about how it functions as art are rare. In fact, I am not sure if we even have much of a constructed language around this in the field. There was little discussion about the aesthetics of social practice at the Summit. I think most of us think about the aesthetics of our produced works and also, maybe even more uniquely, about the aesthetics of our relationships but what does a critique of those sound like?
In our commitment to raising the voices of all the ‘others’ in the world, we can’t let go of our commitment to ourselves as artists. The work is made stronger through thoughtful critiques and discussions of the work and I find that, possibly because the ideas and communities that most of us are working in are so compelling, the artfulness of both the work and the way we are in the world is not discussed enough. Those types of conversations help to feed me as an artist.
I acknowledge that conversations around aesthetics are a challenge across cultural barriers. It comes up in my own practice where I am at the table because I am an artist but I am also at the table because I want to support the expression of others. When our individual aesthetics collide, resolving that conflict in a way that everyone feels heard is crucial. How do other artists approach this? When do we as artists feel we have been successful? How is our work viewed outside of our own communities? We are at a time in the development of social practice when we can create the framework for these conversations and their existence in the art and art historical world. I am inspired by thinking of my work as part of something larger, something that future artists and communities will build upon. I want the building of this framework to be an active, purposeful creation and perhaps, Creative Time gatherings are a place to begin the effort.
My friend Nick and I are building Room13Delmar. The tricycle from England arrived, we have (sort of) finalized the plans, started cutting and welding steel and cutting and sewing industrial felt. It is an exciting time. It feels different than I might have thought it would as I spent the last year in conversation about the magic bag studio. The conversations were (and continue to be) an integral part of my practice. They are a headier engagement than what is happening in the studio right now.
In the studio we make decisions, cut here, attach there, and act. Having done a great deal of thinking and talking about the design, there is not that much time between decision making and action right now. This is quite a contrast to the time that was necessary to create the relationships around Room13Delmar. I would have a meeting to discuss the project and then leave with the hope that that discussion would lead to another discussion that might lead to community funding support. There was a sharing of ideas and hopes but very little direct action.
I guess that’s not true, there was direct action but it was not of a visible type. It is almost shocking to me as we make a decision in the studio and there is physical evidence of that decision almost immediately. Thank goodness for Nick who seems very comfortable in this place, I find myself slowly getting back up to speed as I reacquaint myself with the studio and distance myself from the conversation table. The work of the studio is so beautiful in its visible purposefulness.
31 July 2013
Room13Delmar has been the recipient of two art grants and much community funding in the past two months! It has been a heady time for the magic bag studio and I am very grateful for the support of both the arts and north of Delmar communities. If you have been keeping in touch, you know that all year I have been in conversation about the studio. Many people suggested I try a Kickstarter campaign. I love Kickstarter’s grassroots approach to arts funding but I also feel that its presence is being used by traditional funding sources to allow them to continue to support the safest, most institutional art. I felt from the beginning that community support of Room13Delmar was necessary to the work’s function as a tool for social change.
It is lovely to have the arts community support artmaking north of Delmar. It is lovely to have my community partners embrace our work together to the point where they are funding it. These actions make Room13Delmar theirs and are tangible expressions of their commitment to crossing the Delmar Divide. I think about each of them as I order the materials for the fabrication of the magic bag studio with the funds they have given. Thank you Critical Mass for the Visual Arts, Justine Petersen, St. Louis Regional Arts Commission and Urban Strategies for your support of both the physical Room13Delmar and the understanding that drives it.
8 March 2013
It’s been a bit since I have written. I know some of my time has been used trying to re-orient myself back into the artist bit of Room13Delmar. I spent much of the beginning of the year working to integrate the business and art pieces of the work in preparation for presenting it to a group of business people. I have learned that the artists in the group completely understood what I was describing and that for some of the business people, Room13Delmar was difficult to understand. I am kind of pleased with that because it means I did not abandon the art of Room13Delmar in my pitch.
However, afterwards, I did feel a need to just about physically re-orient my thinking. I missed talking about the art of it; while not talking about it, I developed a separation from it. I found me needing to ask myself, ‘what is the art of Room13Delmar itself? How is it a part of my artist practice?
During this same time I have had the absolute privilege of partnering as artist-in-residence with Metro St Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity (M-SLICE), a grassroots activist organization on the northside of St. Louis. They are committed to the power of using art as part of their actions and have created a relationship with me to do so. Our relationship is an authentic, organic manifestation of the goals of my practice from the process by which the pieces are realized to the beauty of the gestures themselves.
I love the relational aspects of my practice. It’s the private, reflective part of my practice I miss; I am craving space to make work that is solely about what I am thinking. Recently, I have come to understand that I need some time with my own head. This week I got a bit of that and it feels fabulous. I am writing this down because I think I may need reminding.
25 January 2013
I created a two minute ‘elevator pitch’ for Room13Delmar after being selected as a semi-finalist for a social venture grant. It was difficult to decide how to approach the pitch because I see so many connections around Room13Delmar; how was I, a durational artist, going to express myself in two minutes?? I had several drafts but eventually created something that I felt honored my practice and respected the format. Once the performance of the two minute piece was over, I really enjoyed my conversation with the panel of judges! In the end, I wasn’t selected as a finalist but I felt very good about the experience.
I posted the last paragraph on NODhouse’s facebook page and received this response from Clare Gibbs, the founder of Room13International: Scale it up… roll it out… franchise… just a few words and phrases that get thrust at Room 13 all the time. All wrong. Just let it be. If Room 13 can just be in many places at once so much the better!
This was so kind and affirming. It was nice to know that we share this thought about the way we want to be in the world. I wasn’t surprised because it was definitely the feel I got working at Room13Hareclive with artist-in-residents, Shani and Paul. The work to realize Room13Delmar as a physical object continues…..
24 December 2012
In the past two weeks I have:
I am so interested in the art of listening. I attended three ‘Delmar Divide’ events in ten days and was struck at each by the need of people to publicly tell their stories of the divide to people who are listening.
– six meetings in the past week
– one conference call
– nerves around upcoming panel discussion
– countless emails
Just keeping you up to date with the process; having many conversations in a variety contexts. Thinking about how my choices around who to go to for funding reflect my larger goals. For example, most of my grants have been, understandably, offered through the art establishment. Is this where I belong? Is this where I want to belong? What does the source of funding say about the practice?
26 November 2012
Durational artworks are only possible through the creation of relationships. I love working with Jen Francis. Without hesitation she joined the vision for NODhouse several years ago and I am so lucky to be able to continue working with her on the design for Room13Delmar. She is talented, enthusiastic and generous. Every time I open an email from her, I see my ideas coming to life. Here are the latest drawings.
14 November 2012
Went to the Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts (VLAA) panel “How to Apply for Stuff” and the Skandalaris Center of Washington University’s “Coffee with the Experts” this week.
My takeaways from the VLAA event were:
My takeaways from the Coffee with the Experts were:
It is interesting to be ‘out there’ talking about Room13Delmar. It is such a large part of the piece right now as I raise funds to create the magic bag. I am trying to see this as a creative practice as well which is sometimes difficult because it seems so defined by non-creative ideas (money, grants, emails, etc). The time I am spending with others is crucial to the piece. I think what I enjoyed so much about today’s Coffee with the Experts was the juxtaposition of my artist-self with my burgeoning business-self. I heard myself talking; I could tell when I was comfortable talking about the parts of the Room13Delmar process I feel most deeply and the areas in which I am a bit unsure. I spoke best when I spoke from what I know from my artist self.
30 October 2012
I am a bit stuck really. I don’t know why but I can’t seem to get myself started on anything. There are no new specific grants to apply for and the creation of the magic bag is postponed for a bit. We were going to work on additional drawings of the bag but the storm on the east coast has my partners in Vermont (understandably) distracted. I am distracted by the storm too, even though I am in the middle of the country. True, my mom and sister’s family are on the east coast so I am keeping tabs on them but I feel more personally distracted. My non-place relationship to it seems to be amplifying my sense of dislocation in general after last year.
I need to be creating Room13Delmar’s light pole banner but am not sure what I want in the painting portion of it. Wheels (for the trike)? NODhouse (for location)? wall of Delmar? oooooh, maybe that’s it.
16 October 2012
I am going to begin today to document the creation of Room13Delmar. I have been working on it for a bit but have just decided to share the process. One of my favorite exhibits I saw while in England last year was Jeremy Deller’s “My Failures” exhibit as part of his survey show, Joy In People. How lovely to have a showing of ideas that were never realized. It was a gift to both fellow artists and to the viewing public to learn that even this Turner-prize winning artist is sometimes rejected. So it is with all humility that I share this process of making Room13Delmar a physical reality, rejections and all.
Where a public art practice seeks to use art to impact specific sites, a social practice seeks to use art to impact particular social systems. Systems being understood as the way we make decisions, the way we communicate, the way we do things and the places and people we value. In much the same way a public art artist would create something for a particular place, a social practice artist creates something to critique or celebrate a particular social relationship.
Is there art in fundraising? Not is there an art to fundraising, because there does seem to be that but is there art in fundraising? I ask this as I enter my sixth month of trying to get funding for my latest sculpture. It is the sculpture that is Room13Delmar, a mobile art studio that is visually and functionally a cross between a very large Mary Poppins bag and a pop-up camper. I have spent my studio time in the last five months writing grant proposals and making meetings to discuss the idea with potential partners. As a relational artist, I am sometimes thrilled by the sense that with each conversation and with each clearer written expression of my idea, I am creating Room13Delmar; these interactions are visioning the piece into existence.
Then there are times when I am so tired of talking about money and want to lock myself in a room and put my hands on a tangible material. It seems obvious that I should then be doing both at the same time but it is difficult. Each meeting is an opportunity and most meetings leave me feeling closer to the creation of Room13Delmar and these meetings take time, they take my studio time. I also am not a tinkerer in the studio. I wish I was, I wish I could just go in there and make stuff but I don’t approach the studio that way. My head has to be into the physical work and my head is right now into the creation of dialogue around Room13Delmar.
I am just wondering if there is an art to this. Can I figure out a way to satisfy my desire to create through a shift in my thinking about the fundraising? Is this shift merely a shift in my relationship to the fundraising or is it more physical, a way to document the process that would feel authentic and artful? These are not rhetorical questions. These are questions I need help answering. Let’s imagine being in a critique together, what would you say?
“Has she considered a different delivery system for the studio to gauge interest?”
This question is so interesting to me because it often comes up in relationship to my work. It seems to be asking for a defense of why my artwork as imagined by me is a part of my practice. It does not take into consideration what I am coming to understand is the durational part of my durational practice. The duration for me refers to the time and process it takes to truly create change across that barrier. The process occurs through three steps:
The experience of art in a place and then
The creation of art with a place
Respectful relationships don’t start with a person asking another person for something. They begin with a gift for a person, followed by a commitment to being with that person and then, if the previous steps are successful, the creation of something with that person. Putting Room13Delmar in a van and driving it north of Delmar is not the same thing as designing, fabricating and creating a sculpture that turns into a studio in that place. The latter requires a commitment by me. A giving not only of my time but of my art, my self. It is not merely about serving the underserved, it is about sharing with them.
I am sure that part of the reason the NODhouse installation was so positively received was because the embroideries were already finished and framed to be hung in a gallery. There was no requirement of my north of Delmar business partners to tell me what they wanted or to problem solve alternatives with me. They could either accept the gift of the work or not. It was the beginning of our relationship and it was respectful. Room13Delmar is a next step. It is different in that it will involve a more active participation by people north of Delmar as they use the studio to explore their own creativity. But it still begins with my bringing my art to them. It is not the same to set up a folding table and ask them to join me. The magic bag sculpture that turns into the studio is my artwork and serves as proof of my commitment to them, my desire to create something north of Delmar.
I used to feel guilty about the focus on my own studio work in the durational NODhouse project. Questions such as the one at the top of this post seemed to be saying, “If it is really about north of Delmar, then the people who live and work there should choose what they want there.” That is one understanding of making community art but it is not the only understanding. NODhouse and with it Room13Delmar is about north of Delmar but it is also about me and my art practice. I gift as a gesture of respect.