Break Arts was established more than ten years ago and in that time, we've partnered with artists, community centers, schools and cities to produce books, projects and performances with our partners in Honduras, Mexico, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zanzibar. We've learned so much about what it takes to forge, establish, sustain and respectfully close projects. It's not easy and it's not always perfect -- because this work is relationship-driven, we acknowledge that our work is as fluid as the lives of those who lead them. Partnerships fall apart, fade, lose steam, meaning or purpose. Partnerships also persist, transform, and grow, depending on the strength of the idea, adequate funding, excellent planning and collective desire.
This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Lake FX Summit at the Chicago Cultural Center, where artists, educators and administrators from across the city weighed in on "Artists Responding to the Times" at a Teach-In organized by Sara Slawnik of 3Arts. Artists Barak Ade' Soleil, Monica Trinidad, Cheryl Pope, Emmanuel Pratt, Meida Teresa McNeal, and James T. Green were all present to talk about their experiences, as well as a smattering of other interested folks sitting in the circle. The conversation was moderated by Barbara Koenen and Alice Kim, who offered up two guiding questions:
What [the hell] is engagement?
What is the relationship between arts and social justice?
The Language of Collaboration
Emmanuel Pratt of Sweet Water Foundation lamented the hijacking of language by those who don't truly 'do the work' of socially-engaged, community-based art. Words like "engagement," "outreach," and "community" have lost their meaning in a frenzy for funds. Nonprofits often use this language to attract funders and donors, as they generate 'buzz' and trust, but so often those using the language aren't actually following through with depth or meaning. We end up feeling splintered between those that 'do' and those that 'speak about the doing' with unwarranted authority. It also means that funding ends up in the hands of those who can speak the language of this practice and 'perform it' without actually knowing or partnering with those who understand how to make the work happen in real-time.
Barak Ade' Soleil talked through essential differences between "outreach" and "engagement." Whereas outreach draws from a missionary, othering, displacement paradigm, engagement speaks to the 'evolving relationship to community, which requires deep listening,' actively responding to the people with whom you partner. It requires you, the artist, to critically examine notions of "entrance" and "exit," and acknowledge the vulnerable nature of relationship-building as a "we" as opposed to an "I," asking ourselves, "who is / isn't at the table with me?"
We often recognize how powerful it can be to collaborate, sharing resources, time and talent, but we rarely talk about the pain of these collaborations when we work without boundaries, systems or structures to define the work. When we don't address the unspoken realities and expectations or negotiate power dynamics in a way that makes sense to everyone involved, it's easy for a collaboration to stall or fall apart. Ironically, even though artists know that the best collaborations take time, listening and presence, we don't always build that into the project design, and then wonder why we're struggling with an arbitrary deadline or a way of working that defies our deepest values and definitions of quality. Meida Teresa McNeal of Honey Pot Performance often draws from ethnographic practice, allowing 12-18 months to build a project using methods that rely on story-collecting. Designing collaborations means that we can set the terms for this kind of engagement, considering depth and quality through every stage of the planning and execution of any given project. When we draw from best practices in project management, we define roles, share transparent timelines, and finally start to work collaboratively in the truest sense.
When we partner and collaborate, what are the invisible stories made visible through our work? Are we telling the same stories over and over again, reinforcing stereotypes and tired narratives fueled by racism and bias, or are we designing projects that mine for and reveal new narratives? Monica Trinidad spoke passionately about the story of the Republic Steel Mill Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, during which Chicago police corroborated with the mill to attack unionizers. Had there not been an art memorial piece to honor those who were murdered that day, Monica believes she never would have heard about this story of resistance. "Artists are gatekeepers of truth," she shared, quoting Paul Robeson. "How do we create "irresistible movements with our art?" Monica has worked with and organized activist groups like We Charge Genocide, For the People Artist Collective and People's Response Team to instigate change while also providing healing and support for those dealing directly with the devastating fallout of police brutality.
While "armchair activism" gets a bad rap, James T. Green calls his digital approach to activism his "silent, sneak attack," speaking to the critical role played by those who work behind the scenes to communicate socially-engaged artistic practice. Many of us have anxieties about not "doing enough" when we double click and share, but James calls this work his "silent acts of justice," encouraging everyone to look at one's own particular skill sets and activate them for a purpose. Not everyone has to be out on the streets chained to the other in order to engage the questions and the struggle. Producing, archiving, documenting and sharing the work is just as crucial as the physical work itself, and it's essential to honor the unique set of skills that everyone brings to the table.
Listening & Interpretation
Artist Cheryl Pope insists on listening as the most powerful disposition for collaborative practice, recognizing that there is a 'palette' or 'menu' of engagement levels, and that all of us can assess our own capacity at any given moment because engagement is fluid. You can 'step up' or 'step out,' depending on context and capacity. Listening is first and always part of the work, but accuracy is everything. "Is this accurate? Is this what you're saying? Am I getting this right?" Cheryl thinks of interpretation as a 'sense,' something that you hone in on and perceive with sharper accuracy through practice. And 'time is the thread that runs through all of it" -- our projects deepen depending on the elasticity of time to make room for the failures in transmission of meaning and desire. Cheryl thinks about collaboration as an invitation, creating points of entry to a conversation that leaves room for acceptance or decline. In collaborative practice, artists are often the interloper, the 'third person,' mediating, disrupting, exposing, questioning, and interrupting the given norms of a place, person or project. We don't always get recognized for small surges of change, our presence sometimes IS the change, and as 'public adults,' that can be profound in and of itself, especially when working with children and youth.
Coin, Capital & Collaborative Practice
So you're an artist who wants to respond to the times. You want to create work that disrupts, interrupts, newly interprets, challenges, and provokes. You want to fight capitalism even as we live and participate within it. "The revolution will not be funded" by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. What do you do when you can no longer (or never could) rely on funders whose values counter your vision? It means saying no to funders whose demands and success metrics don't match your politic. This means shifting who you think your audience is for this work, relocating the work within the art world, for example, or presenting the work you do outside of traditional forums and networks. It also means that you experiment with other ways to produce revenue, borrowing from small business best practices and activating alternative systems for exchange, moving from a 'bottom line' profit-based economy to one that considers the 'triple bottom line' -- people, planet, & profit. It means redefining where we place value and how we define capital. Are we after cash flow or are there are other forms of value we can trade, share, accumulate and redistribute? Cultural, creative, financial, spiritual, social, physical, digital and emotional capital all challenge us to rethink the collective wealth we generate, carry and redistribute with us in our work.
Resisting Resistance as Brand
In a brand-obsessed culture, resistance itself gets codified and commodified, hijacked and kidnapped, repurposed and reused again and again until even those who think they're doing the work are trapped in the rhetoric of resistance -- performing and defending the brand, or the self-as-brand, without checking in on our personal and collective assumptions or failures. This is an opportunity to scale back, take a break, plant new seeds, look up from our work and check who is with us at the table. Barak Ade' Soleil ended with this to think about: "Access is the number one injustice. Who is not informed? Who is not with you in the conversation? Who are you speaking for or about in your work? Are they there and present with you by your side? If not, why?" Mobility is not just about physical freedom, it's about the the power to rearrange, reconfigure, reimagine the work so that meaning is shared, desire is real, and change is in reach.
Thanks to the organizers and artists for such a great conversation.
Images: #1 Just Yell, Cheryl Pope, #2 We Charge Genocide, #3 Sweet Water Foundation