Can Artists Be Part of the Real World?: Civic Engagement and Aesthetic Action

Shannon Gibney writes on art that aspires to be part of the fabric of the city. She spoke to Sandy Augustin at Intermedia Arts and Eleanor Savage, who's producing "Landmark: 24 Hours @ The Stone Arch Bridge" (sunrise, August 27 to sunrise, August 28).

The Stone Arch Bridge

Can art really transform our world and social interactions? Practitioners of art and civic engagement initiatives believe that it can, although they also say that the process is both difficult and demanding.

The Potential for Civic Engagement

“What we’re finding is that there are a lot of artists who are already engaged in engaging people and getting people to look at issues – whether it’s beautifying an alley that was used by a lot of drug dealers, and getting kids to dance in that alley, so that the community takes it back,” says Sandy Augustin, Artistic Director of Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. “Or if it’s looking at gentrification on the Greenway – how do you engage people in that?

“So is there any one way to do it? No. (How formal is our articulated vocabulary of art-based civic dialogue?) I think there are many ways. Once you put a magnifying glass on it, you start to look at what the outcomes are, what you’re really intending to do through this art.”

For Augustin, this means being very deliberate about intentions.

“We’re [Intermedia] still trying to keep the integrity of the art, integrity of the artist, but we’re still hoping to find people who are interested in working with us to create a dialog around immigrant issues and policies, about the idea of Homeland Security, about displacement, about gender and orientation, communities of color, GLBT communities and so on,” she says.

How Does Art Grow into a Community?

Indeed, Intermedia consistently showcases some of the most cutting-edge and vibrant community-based art in the state. Its recent B-Girl Be show, for example, on women and hip-hop, was like nothing the Twin Cities had ever seen before, which might be why it brought the house down.

“B-Girl Be was the result of a series that we were producing, curated by Desdamona, who saw that every time she curated women, the audience was overflowing. So, she suggested, ‘I wonder if we should do something working with women.’ And then, working with the staff at Intermedia, it grew into ‘Well, that’s really think about this multidisciplinary [project].’ We put a committee together of about nine women, probably seven of them really, really core, who worked together for over a year with the staff to pull this thing off. Now you’ve got seven strong women from different backgrounds — how does that come together with an organization that’s used to running a particular way as well?

“Things really have to become a partnership and a shared trust between the artist and the organization. And the organization has to give up some control, too. So everybody’s got to maintain their own function. ‘This is our function, to make sure to make sure this thing happens. This isn’t the only thing that we’re doing, but we want to make sure that we’re staying true.’

“The great thing is, something like a B-Girl B can permeate other programs, can find new partners because of its attraction and appeal. Something like Immigrant Status brought in people we would have never met otherwise: the Department of Health, people in housing, people in the architecture department at the U who are very involved and interested in these issues. And making sure that the funder, too, is aware of what’s going on and where your resources are. Those are key things.

“And then, in terms of dialogue, it’s essential to really look at, ‘Well, what are we really trying to accomplish? What is the dialogue that we want to happen?’”

Landmark: It Grows Out of the Ground

Local video artist Eleanor Savage says that her group Local Strategy, a multidisciplinary art collective, has been very intentional about what they hope to accomplish through their project Landmark: 24 Hours @ The Stone Arch Bridge, which takes place later this month.

“There’s myself, a composer, choreographer, another visual artist with a performance and theatrical background [who are spearheading the free public art event]. We came together – we actually got some funding to do a site-specific work at the Stone Arch Bridge area. And we started visually exploring the site, physically exploring it, and conducting research on the history – going back to when it was formed geologically to the first people who lived there and were in the Dakota tribes. Then, the white settlers came in and basically wrestled all of the land away. And then they started using it as a milling site. So they started milling lumber and flour. So there’s that real industrial aspect to that site for a number of years, until electricity came in, and it wasn’t so important to have water for water power.

“So there was all of this people history and labor history related to that site that is kind of invisible now. You walk around that area, it’s been kind of re-purposed. There’s a lot of arts going on in that area now – the Mill Street Museum, the Guthrie Theater, and all these condos.
“And the site is huge. There’s the river, the beautiful Stone Arch Bridge, other bridges, up- and downriver. So we were trying to figure out how to approach that site. Aside from all of the layers of history, which is mammoth, the physical presence of that site is huge. We didn’t want to try to compete, create a spectacle. We wanted to try to do something that worked with the site, and try to tease up information about the site. Not in a scientific or didactic kind of way, but more in a artistic creative response to all of that.

“The event that we came up with is a 24-hour long event. And the reason for that comes out of the site itself – that kind of persistent huge-ness, that it’s impossible to take in everything about that site in one sitting. So we wanted to try to do something that mirrored our experience of the site.”

Finding Out Where We Are

With this in mind, Local Strategy has devised a number of participatory activities to engage the public in this buried history in very visceral and creative ways. A 24-hour continuous musical score will begin at sunrise on August 27, and a “Sky Procession,” in which participants are encouraged to create pieces of the sky from various materials and then carry them across the bridge, takes place at 12 pm. Visual installations should be ubiquitous, as will opportunities for dance and movement. A publicity postcard for the event promises “More than 100 performers over 24 hours & YOU!”

“One of the things that art can do is bring people together in a room or outside in a space,” says Savage. “And anything that does that so that you’re connecting with one another and not just relying on media stereotypes or some mediated version of reality is a good thing. I think that kind of art will break down this kind of generated and all-pervasive fear that is going on in this country right now.

“For me, art does that. Just talking with people . . . inspires a feeling of hope. I think we need to hang on to that idea if have any hope of getting out of the current environmental and political situation that we’re in,” she adds.

Augustin agrees that in the post-9/11 era, art, and talking about art in various communities, has become more important than ever.

“I saw an incredible shift in people wanting to stay post-performance in the audience [at Intermedia after 9/11],” says Augustin. “We say, ‘You have five minutes, get up and stretch a little. Those of you who have to leave, thank you for coming. Those of you that would like to stay…’ And you expect about 10 people to stick around and want to talk, and most of them are friends of the performers or something. And now it’s a case where 99 percent of the audience stays. If someone gets up, they’re using the bathroom and they’re coming back.

“What is that? I think it’s a combination of primarily people really wanting to dialog and wanting to stay connected in real time, as well as the fact that we’re being more deliberate about inviting people and make the conversation accessible. So we try not to use the words anymore ‘Artist’s Talk.’ Because it sounds like, ‘Okay, now the artists are going to talk to each other.’ Instead of a community dialog around these issues, the artists will be present. [Then the audience thinks,] ‘Oh, that’s sounds really interesting.’ Just flipping the words around like that can make a marked difference.

“I also think that if we’re relevant, then people are going to want to stay and talk about it. If it doesn’t feel relevant to people, then they’re not going to stay.”

Where Does the Money Come From?

Neither Augustin nor Savage believe that funding for programs in arts and civic engagement have increased in recent years, although both agree that the success of such programs have allowed many to continue past their scheduled end dates, and have also spurred on intense debates and discussions about best practices and possibilities in the field.

“Is there more funding? I haven’t really seen it translate into actual dollars,” says Augustin. “The Ford Foundation is continuing their Animating Democracy Initiative [which was created as a four-year project], so those were dollars that we thought the tap was closed, and they’re re-opening, which is great.

“I think there are other organizations out there, other funders, who are engaged in thinking about how people talk about or use the arts to build bridges. I mean, artists have always been looking at that – looking at partnerships in the arts, or social service partnering, or arts education kind of thing. But I think there’s a more concentrated vocabulary we can use now to think about it.”

Savage concurs that the vocabulary used to talk about such projects has evolved. She says, “I think that the lingo has shifted from community to civic engagement. The idea behind that is really powerful – taking a passive concept and making it into a much more active task. Engagement is a much more active idea.

“I think everyone is struggling with ideas about how to do this. It all points to the fact that in this country, arts is not an essential focus on everyone’s consciousness. I’ve been to countries where on spring break you can’t get a ticket to the theater because all the students are out of class and they’re all going to the theaters in London or something. But in American culture, art is focused on entertainment, instead of a vital way for us to communicate with each other.”

But Augustin is hopeful that arts and civic engagement initiatives can help change the way most Americans approach art.

“I’m very excited that more people are talking about [arts and civic engagement],” she says. “It would be great if there were more opportunities for artists to engage communities in dialogue around these issues more deliberately. And then again, what I would like to see is how that information comes back, and people share what they’ve learned. In organizations or in the community, to say that, ‘This was a dialog that began with an artist, or because of, or through the arts. Isn’t that really interesting? Wouldn’t that be something if homeowner X or single mother X got involved?’ I want to make sure that that’s happening. That wherever there’s a sticky issue happening, maybe there’s an artistic way that we could solve a problem, or bring it to light.

“People are sharing what they’re doing [with arts and civic engagement initiatives], and it’s fascinating. But there needs to be more of it – How are you doing it? Why are you doing it? Where do you see yourselves going with it? How are you sustaining it? So that whole funding part becomes part of the program. So now, we’re not just doing this exhibition; we’re going to always do this exhibition with this in mind, that we’re the opportunity for engagement. And trying to work with the artists who are interested to do that.”

Landmark: 24 Hours @ The Stone Arch Bridge takes place from sunrise, August 27 to sunrise, August 25. The event is free for all ages and begins at either end of the Stone Arch Bridge; on the West Bank at Portland Ave. And the river, and on the East Bank at SE 6th Ave, and the river. For more information, visit the website at the link below, or call 612-605-1420.

For more information on Intermedia Arts and its upcoming season, visit its website at the link below, or call 612-871-4444.