One year ago I was asked to speak as a student representative at Residency Unlimited‘s symposium: Embedded, Embedding: Artist Residencies, Urban Placemaking and Social Practice in New York. It was an incredible experience presenting my ideas about the ethical responsibilities of socially engaged artists alongside some exceptional theorists and practitioners, and I carried what I learned from that experience with me to Bethel just a few short months later.
Since beginning SOIL SERIES with Hillary in June, I’ve had the opportunity to put my theories into practice and have grown immensely as an artist. That is why I was especially excited when symposium curator, Livia Alexander, asked me to participate in a roundtable discussion hosted by ArtsEverywhere, “the latest program of Musagetes, a Canadian philanthropic arts organization founded on a deep belief in the transformative power of the arts.”
Although I urge everyone to read Musagetes’s profound mission statement in its entirety, I would like to quote the final paragraph:
“There’s a war going on out there. It’s a war being fought in three dimensions — rhetoric, capital, and power — creating holograms of societies shaped by fear, oppression, consumption, and individualism or, if we rebel enough, by love, difference, potential, and collectivism.
The snipers are everywhere. But where are the arts with their rebellious irrationality?”
The ways in which Musagetes rebels are “through intellectual inquiry, documentation, and investigation; in fellowship and solidarity with communities of concern; and with transformative actions, combining unexpected combinations of people and ideas.” Through ArtsEverywhere, Musagetes furthers its commitment to two core principles: “that the arts must be a central component of individual and collective experiences of the world; and the arts must be a vital part of all social and political processes (governance, justice, activism, economies, education, etc.).”
I consider it a great honor to have participated in the conversation around these ideas, and I would like to share the discussion that took place as a part of ArtsEverywhere’s Global Roundtable series.
Artist (Residency) and the City offers insights from ten artists working within communities around the world. Although the focus of this discussion is on artists working within urban contexts, I feel proud to have been able to represent a rural perspective – one which I hope can translate to communities of all types. Below I have shared my contribution to the discussion, but please take a moment to read some of the other responses, as they are inspiring, insightful, and varied.
First published on ArtsEverywhere.ca (in collaboration with Residency Unlimited)
Issue #1 Leading Question (from the introduction by Livia Alexander):
What role can urban planning and cultural policies play in navigating the slippery boundaries between nurturing artistic agency and social engagement, and advancing broader policy initiatives of urban economic growth? Does the artist residency model offer the appropriate conceptual setting for effective implementation?
Social Drawing as a Model for Community-First Engagement
I would like to start by posing an alternative question to the one offered in this roundtable:
How can artistic agency and social engagement shape urban planning and cultural policies to advance broader policy initiatives for community-based development?
This newly-arranged question reflects my ethic of bottom-up engagement rather than top-down management. If artists are to truly engage communities and avoid perpetuating gentrification, their initiatives must begin at the community level. Urban planning and cultural policies are only effective inasmuch as they are dictated by the populations they serve. Similarly, artistic engagements at the community level must, at the very least, act in partnership with those involved and avoid hierarchal models for participation.
Artistic freedom is necessary for effective horizontal engagements. If the artist feels undue pressure to please outside funders, institutions, or policy-makers, their investment in community is compromised. In addition, the market-driven art world allows little room for true community commitment, pigeonholing artists into the role of gentrifier. In their hunt for both financial (and thus artistic) freedom and a sense of belonging, artists have become the perfect pretense for developers looking for cultural capital to bolster their profits.
Indeed, urban planning and cultural policies can aid in the further protection of vulnerable communities. However, it is far more authentic and empowering for communities to set those terms for themselves. Artists wishing to contribute to the holistic health of a community must first be prepared to ask questions and gain an understanding of people and place before providing services or influencing policy. Once these bonds of trust have been established, the artist has tremendous power to affect change due to the unique position the artist occupies as both a member of the community and a figure apart from it.
I propose social drawing as a model for community-first engagement of the kind articulated above. Social drawing is the theory and practice that drives my collaborative, socially engaged project with Hillary Wagner, SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing. SOIL SERIES aims to reestablish networks of nourishment in Bethel, Ohio, a rural Appalachian village struggling with high unemployment, rising poverty levels, and a staggering opioid epidemic. Together with a local organization, Empower Youth, we are developing a site for expanded access to nutritious food, cultural programming, and mentorship at the intersection of art and agriculture. Although our social drawing reflects rural realities, I believe the model can be expanded and applied to urban and suburban communities as well.
Social drawing modifies Joseph Beuys’s theory of social sculpture to operate at the community scale. Where social sculpture imagines a utopian total work of art to which all people contribute, social drawing emerges from within a small-scale community (such as a town or neighborhood), and is constructed through intimate, relational connections between people. “Drawing” in this context becomes the act of connecting. Lines spread out from a central core consisting of significant sites and community actors. Each new line intimately understands and builds upon existing community networks in order to identify and develop new pathways towards health, knowledge, resources, and support. As in Beuys’s social sculpture, contributors to the drawing need not identify as artists, nor is the path of the drawing dictated by artists. Rather, artists act as facilitators, asking new questions, imagining new possibilities, and creating the conditions needed for an intricate and expansive web.
The work of initiating the SOIL SERIES drawing began even before we arrived in Bethel. Through Hillary’s parents, long-time residents of Bethel and employees of the local school district, we were able to connect with Scott and Lori Conley of Empower Youth (EY). In the three years since their inception, Empower Youth’s weekly food bags and mentorship programming for at-risk Bethel students has become so vital to the community that a local bank, Community Savings, recently gifted the organization a foreclosed 15-acre ranch to aid in their expansion. These initial connections within the community provided the first points in our nascent social drawing, allowing us access to existing relational networks and establishing the EY Ranch as the project’s nexus.
In partnering with Empower Youth, an initiative for social and economic change growing from within Bethel and reflecting its concerns, we were better able to establish trust and engage community members on their terms. Social drawing as a model does not require artists to be of the place in which they are working, only that they proceed with empathy and foreground the community’s needs. Although Hillary grew up in Bethel, her long period of absence and sudden return from New York with a master’s degree and two friends from the Northeast (myself and my husband), necessitated a heightened degree of intentionality in how we cultivated our community presence.
Our partnership with Empower Youth has also allowed us an enormous amount of artistic freedom. Where Empower Youth must remain practical in its goals due to the overwhelming urgency of the situation in Bethel, we are able to dream up new possibilities and explore imaginative solutions. It is imperative, however, that we truly participate in this partnership, and we work hard to ensure we are supporting the organization’s mission, not burdening it.
Just as social sculpture emerged from the political and social turmoil of the post-war era, social drawing responds to current sociopolitical divisions and widespread economic inequality. These crises have produced in artists and the broader public a hunger for connectivity and collective action. In an effort to address growing despair as a result of high unemployment and disappearing opportunity, we have developed arts programming that connects Bethel residents to the village’s rich historical and agricultural past. In addition, we continue to foster relationships with local farmers, historians, educators, and small-business owners in order to form new pathways towards mentorship for area youth. As our drawing expands, we look forward to also engaging local politicians, institutions of higher learning, and nearby cultural institutions so as to establish a network of support and opportunity around this rural community. The drawing, however, behaves like a root system and new lines unfold like tendrils from a centralized core. Social drawing as a model can be applied to urban or suburban communities as long as the artistic engagement is similarly inextricably rooted in a community core and expands outward through its existing networks. This ensures that all new marks reflect the community’s values and concerns and that lines pointing to policy originate with the people.