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Conference Report


Conference Schedule
Saturday October 15, 2011

10:00 am - 11:30 am RISD Museum, 20 North Main Street, Providence

Site visit: Distant Mirrors

with Ellen Driscoll (RISD Professor and Head of Sculpture) and Marcel Lussier (Materials Recycling Facility Business Manager at Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation)

12:00 pm - 2:30 pm Ximedica, 55 Dupont Drive, Providence

A Conversation with Holly Ewald (Urban Pond Procession) and Drake Patten (Steel Yard Executive Director)

*includes lunch from Apsara, 12-12:45PM

3:00 pm - 5:00 pm The Spot Underground, 15 Elbow Street, Providence

Site visit: Jewelry District site-specific public art installations

with Betsey Biggs (Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies, Brown University) and students

* Projects will be on view 1-4PM; maps will be available on the corner of Point and Richmond Streets (near Olga's Cup and Saucer) starting at 1PM and at the Spot starting at 3PM. We will convene at the Spot at 4PM for a discussion of the work.

7:00 pm - 9:00 pm Roots Cafe, 276 Westminster St, Providence

A Conversation with Carol Bebelle, Artistic Director of Ashe Cultural Arts Center (New Orleans), Dorothy Jungels (Everett), and Elmo Terry- Morgan (Rites and Reason Theatre), moderated by Nehessaiu deGannes (Independent Actress, Poet & Rhode Island College Faculty)

Working in Context: Scope, Scale, and Space in Providence
October 15, 2011
Providence, Rhode Island

Louisa McCall, co-founder with Marie Cieri, of Artists in Context provided an introduction and “context” for this convening and the organization’ initiatives.  The Providence conference was one of four regional events in Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island.  Founded in 2009, Artists in Context’s purpose is to “support research-based, multidisciplinary, embedded practices of contemporary artists and other creative thinkers who seek to invent alternative approaches to existing societal challenges. “ Louisa also briefly discussed next iterations of long-term projects, as well as generative capacities, attitudes, and implications for artists who pursue contextual practices in the public realm.

Quite unexpectedly, I found it constructive to situate and contextualize the work of this organization in light of other projects that have been formative to my thinking.  I began with an exemplary individual.  I instantly thought of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who may be the most “contextual” artist I can cite.  She has worked as an embedded artist for the New York City Department of Sanitation for almost 30 years. Another relevant organizational example is the Contemporary that was founded in Baltimore in 1989 as an exhibition program without its own exhibition space.  Embracing its mission as a “homeless” organization, the Contemporary was compelled to partner, collaborate, and camp with other organizations, briefly intervening or creatively “colonizing” the space and daily operations of another entity.  Clearly this process of requisite coordination and co-habitation stimulated ongoing dialogues and short-term “cooperatives.”  More recently, the new Granoff Center at Brown University is an art space without a fixed program.  Richard Fishman, Director of the Center for Art and Creativity, with his colleagues at Brown, RISD, and other organizations is constantly engaged in the invention and orchestration of events, exhibitions, courses, and other innovative collaborations.  And Harvard’s new Arts@29 Garden also is a programmatically open and hybrid space that solicits proposals to develop supple, interdisciplinary, cooperative projects through ephemeral affinities.

Artists in Context is another model that shares some of these characteristics with all of these projects and programs.  Like the Contemporary, it is ambitiously peripatetic and agile; connecting to existing initiatives, enterprises, and structures to support alternative creative approaches in relationship to societal challenges and the unsettled conditions of contemporary democracy.  And like the new projects at Brown and Harvard, it embraces open conditions and existing systems with organizational flexibility.  Artists in Context “occupies.” Often modestly asserting a presence without a large ideological agenda, the organization connects to elements of extended networks of contemporary ideas, affinities, and sociability.

The following is an informal set of reflections.

Ellen Driscoll: Distant Mirrors
with Marcel Lussier, Business Manager, Materials Recycling Facility at RIRR

The first event was a presentation by Ellen Driscoll on her project Distant Mirrors that floated in the Providence River for several weeks this autumn.  Ellen acknowledged Artists in Context support for her work and its capacity for “stirring things up.”

She eloquently presented the multiple, shifting, dynamic, and overlapping contexts for her project:  historical and contemporary, environmental and industrial, reconstituted resources and sustainable labor.

For years, the artist has harvested recyclable plastic containers from dumpsters and household garbage, following the New York City Marathon, and, for this most recent project, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation where she met Marcel Lussier, Materials Recycling Facility Business Manager.  With Marcel’s support, Ellen procured 1/6 of a bale of recycled plastics to construct the work.  She worked with four enterprising studio assistants who worked eight hours a day, five days a week throughout the summer to produce Distant Mirrors.

Whenever she makes a piece, Ellen seeks to re-use elements. Like a yogurt culture, these are the “starters” or pilot lights that ignite future work.  When Distant Mirrors is pulled out of the river, it will re-enter the stream of recyclables.  This kind of ambitious, contextual work is frequently surprising and serendipitous.  An unexpected outcome was that the work became a net for river debris and a habitat for ducks.  These are two of the unplanned (and unimagined) consequences of working in active, unpredictable public and natural sites.

Marcel Lussier discussed the operations of the facility where hand-sorting is the predominant form of labor, as well as the significance of his work with Ellen. The entire resource recovery site is 1000 acres.  It now is a certified habitat for wildlife and birdhouses and other structures have been constructed to attract wildlife.  Lussier has worked with community groups, Boy Scouts, and other organizations that require different methods of communication and opportunities to pursue consequential and engaged community/public work.

The ultimate goal of the facility is to increase the life of the landfill; the expectation is that the site will continue in use for 20-25 years.  Each day, the facility “receives” an area of solid waste that is the size of football field and 15 feet deep.  The facility encourages recycling, composting, and stresses the importance of educating children (the future generation of consumers and activists) about recycling.  Dual stream is sorting into two bins.  Single stream uses one bin where all recyclables are combined and is easier for consumers. Communities are charged for residential trash, but RIRR does profit-sharing with communities based on number of tons of recyclables brought to the recycling center.

The dialogue between Ellen, Marcel, and the audience moved discursively between the art work, the management and future of recycling and solid waste, and the sometimes surprising discoveries made through an aggressively contextual practice.

A member of the audience asked Marcel how he maintains optimism about this kind of work?  He discussed potential education programs and future markets, including processes to compress plastics into pellets that are then made into fibers/textiles.  This material process is done in the United States, but paper recycling is being shipped to China.

What is the relationship of the concept to the reality of the art work?  Ellen responded that, in some respects, the entire process is one of letting go.  During the duration of the work, the ducks occupied the work; it became their habitat.  The large piece was a filter; the smaller works became harbors for debris.  She elaborated on how her work connects with the 21st century oil industry – and the long history of jockeying for resources, land, position, and opportunities.  Ours is a history of escalation that started with a thesis, moved to an antithesis, and now is a process of synthesis.

The tensions in this work are strikingly apparent:  conviction and doubt; temporary and permanent; ephemeral and ubiquitous materials of an insatiable culture -- and the support systems required to manage these materials and sustain Ellen’s work.  The work – and this piece in particular – was more supple, adaptable, open-ended in contrast to more formally established processes and organizations.  The work developed through a process and belief in horizontal labor where different skill sets are thoughtfully deployed.  Ellen and her four artists/partners modeled sustainable labor as a daily practice.

What about the data set as artists begin to generate information based on their work?  What if it is not absolutely perfect?  Is there perfectability in research?  There are compromises; Ellen constantly asked if it was a “dreadful sin” to use so much water to clean the enormous volume of plastic required to make this temporary work?   How do artists create maps/new cartographies of contextualized practices, where the process is pre-conceived, post-formal, and conceptually adaptive.  It produces new ways of thinking about artistic practice, the role of artists, and social engagement.

Holly Ewald, Urban Pond Procession
with Drake Patten, Executive Director, Steel Yard

Holly began by describing the context for her work: the Pawtucket watershed that streams into the Narragansett Bay (from Roosevelt Lake, Spectacle Pond, Tongue Pond, etc.)  The current site of her work is the environmentally-stressed Mashapaug Pond, with its sign of dos and don’ts and other warnings. The site was the home of the former Gorham Silver manufacturing site. The project began with the Department of Environmental Protection and Public Health that wanted more compelling signage  -- advisories and warnings -- for the site. Holly works through inclusiveness and indirection.  Rather than immediately designing new signs, she gathered people – share-holders -- along the way as the work developed and, as a consequence, changed.

She was motivated by a salient question:  Do you want to do a protest or a celebration?  She chose the idea of a community celebration, parade, or procession. This led to broad-based planning and the collaborative creation of fantastic and fanciful fish costumes.  The artist worked with kids at a local Buddhist temple to create the costumes.   The first parade, from temple to the pond, was in 2007.  This was the preamble forthe following rough chronology.

2007-08 – producing the signs
2008-09 – unveiling of signs
Worked with Eric (graphic designer at the RISD Museum of Art) who helped to finalize signs with the RI Department of Transportation (RIDOT).
2009-10 – founding of UPP – Urban Pond Procession
Increased focus on the inter-connectivity of all waters

2010. Ewald had an artist residency at I-Park where she explored how to make her work float on water (as a painter.)
2010-11 – She studied the native history of the site, as well as sound and music.  Worked with Sophia Academy, Nathan Bishop School, and the Extraordinary Rendition Band
2011-12 – She worked with Annie Valk, Associate Director of the Center for Public Humanities at Brown, on an oral history.  She explored the Gorham Silver Manufacturing site its industrial history.  Sophia Academy and the Steel Yard will help to support the production of floating sculptures.

Drake Patten, Executive Director of the Steel Yard, discussed her own transition and evolution from independent artist to collaborator and facilitator.  What does it mean to no longer be an artist but a cultural producer?  She discussed her role and the work to create the Steel Yard, including a major environmental clean-up of the contaminated industrial site.  The Steel Yard did not remediate the site for the recognition, however there has been considerable attention to this ambitious environmental initiative.  Drake and others seek to place artistic practices and opportunities for artists at the forefront.  The most significant mission of the Steel Yard is as a site for art-based and creative learning, training, and making.  Workforce training (with a grant from Bank of America) to produce functional urban amenities and objects (garbage cans, bike racks, etc.) also is an organizational focus. People become stewards in the community.  Confrontation with environmental and justice issues have helped to clarify the mission of the Steel Yard.  It works at the intersection of art-making and community-change.  This sometimes becomes a distraction from the art.

Questions and discussions included:

How has your collaborative process evolved?  Has this way of working changed your sense of identity?  What was the process of role re-definition?

Holly’s work is based on narrative and story-telling that encourages people to discover their voice.  She often gives herself the assignment she gives the kids.  Her work is often intuitive; she worked from an intuitive response to Pawtuxet Village and its history – both indigenous and colonial.  This led to a postcard (dialogue) project and collaboration with folklorist Michael Bell.  These are examples of how artists pull together different opportunities and identify affinities from which they attempt to make something new.

A question was raised about gender issues in this work.  This includes women as practicing artists in the public realm, as well as artists who give up their practice to become “organizers.”  Is there a cultural expectation for women to shepherd this work?  Drake mentioned how art went from what she was doing or making to something else.

What is the relative importance of art compared to people?  It was important to engage the community first, build a constituency before designing and installing the work – or signs?

It doesn’t take much to realize that there is a connection between art and health. Why isn’t there an art division in the Department of Health?

What is the relationship of site to more socially-engaged work?  How do we write about this work?  What does it mean to be cultural critic when the boundaries of the work are constitutively ambiguous and shape-shifting?

There are many dimensions of this work, as well as different and often unpredictable durations.  Some people keep adapting roles and projects; others are catalysts (pilot lights who ignite possibility) and then withdraw so that new leaders can guide and continue the work.  Does there need to be a “succession” plan for this kind of public and contextual work?  Especially when the potential scope of the work – its connections and consequences – exponentially expands beyond the vision or expectations of the artist.   It is interesting to consider roles that are pre-determined and those that gestate and emerge through the process.  What are the particular and persistent responsibilities and ethics in this work?

This is art that frequently also looks something else.  Is this a diminishment of the work?  Or how do we turn the tables and write more insistently about this work because it is so deeply connective and multiply-implicated?  How do artists parse and navigate the official and actual structures often are contrasting or contradictory?

Artists in Context and these presentations and conversations highlighted the intricate network of co-dependencies that shape, foster, intervene, challenge, connect, and critique contextual art practices.

Patricia C. Phillips
November 21, 2011