Welcome to a behind-the-scenes look at Shared Spaces, my new social practice art project. I’ll be sharing my process - my puzzles, hopes and uncertainties through which, with luck, you will be able to experience what it feels like for an artist to make the transition from making ‘things’ to making art in a community, art that seeks to change hearts and minds and respond to the needs of that community. You’ll get to watch as I steer and bump my way to art that becomes a shared common experience, a way for us to learn together, and to engage new voices in the Contemporary Art process.
Where to start? A few years ago, I realized that I honestly didn’t know enough about the parts of the US outside my familiar coastal-urban circuit. No one I talked to in New York and nothing I was watching or reading seemed able to explain it to me either. I took a few trips to Tennessee to see one of my California cousins who had relocated there and got really excited – it felt almost like another country! I rode around in a pickup truck and talked to a guy about his Harley. Shot cans in the field behind the woods. I came back and told all my Chelsea art friends about it. How could I get 20 of us together to just go be in Tennessee for a long weekend, just to ride around and talk to people, go to a barbecue, maybe even shoot at some stumps? My friend Seph Rodney at Hyperallergic listened thoughtfully and gave me a key piece of advice: you have to figure out a project-- a thing to do together-- to give everybody a reason to be there.
Seph’s idea made sense, and I started casting around for a likely project. I had been making wall relief sculptures with dozens of found objects and cultural elements. After watching an episode of Homeland, with the American flag in the credits, everything clicked: we could make flags together- relief sculpture American flags. People would bring along objects that were meaningful to them, or pick something out from objects I provided, and we would fill the flag with them in a sort of sculptural collage. I started applying to residencies and figured out how to take my show on the road- how we could make these wall relief sculptures in remote locations outside my well-equipped studio.
My hope is this will open up doors and give me a way to meet people I would never otherwise have any interaction with. Break down some of the stigma around each of our ‘types’ and let real people start to interact despite our different cultural and political viewpoints. In the end, I’m hoping I can do these projects with different communities all around the country and somehow get a richer understanding of who we are as a nation, of our complexity and diversity. I’ve decided to call it Shared Spaces: a journey into different aspects of American society that remain hidden in plain sight. And to reach even higher, in these fractured contentious times, to uncover some kind of new narrative at the end of all this – some hint or evidence pointing to some kind of new way for us all to live alongside each other despite our differences. I’m hoping to recover, uncover, discover some kind of new way for us to be Americans.
In recent years I’ve been looking at lots of artists who do Social Practice art, working with communities of people and making some kind of societal change the point of the work they do. People like Pablo Helguera, Trevor Paglen, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Mel Chin. It’s a new-ish field and still wide open to innovation which feels refreshing. I’ll dig deeper into some of these artists and their work soon in a future post, and will keep returning to their and others’ work in the field to draw contrasts, parallels and lessons as I embark in this new direction.