Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Art of Occupy

A guest post by ARC Associate Director Michele Rabkin.
Someone  sent me an email recently asking “where are the artists” in the Occupy Cal movement.  My short answer would be: everywhere.  From my perch on the sidelines, I have observed arts embedded in the protests and demonstrations in a number of ways and on a number of levels.  Some echo long-standing traditions of protest.  Folk singers and gospel choirs have sung from the steps of Sproul Hall. Slogans have been hand-lettered on fabric banners that adorn the plaza. Following a joint march of students from UCB and Berkeley High, I’m told that hundreds stood in line to receive silk-screened “Hella Occupy” posters. Others take a more playful/conceptual approach. When tents were banned from the plaza, a group attached tents to balloons and set them afloat in the sky overhead. Others placed dozens of books on the ground, splayed open in tent-like shapes. The plaza sported several installations concocted of tree branches and one large pink paper-mache dinosaur (sadly destroyed in the police raid).  There have been satiric performances by the UC Movement for Efficient Privatization (UCMeP).
And then there are artists as citizens. Faculty member and poet Robert Hass has written eloquently about his experience on the front lines of the protests, where he was on the receiving end of a police baton.  I count nine ARC-affiliated professors among the group of forty-seven that called for a special meeting of the Academic Senate to discuss recent police actions, and recognize many other familiar names.  Even before the recent turbulence, ARC faculty were working to imagine a new future for the university—and in recent days, many of them have been speaking out, teaching-in, and organizing.  Artists can bring to the table not just superior graphic design skills or soaring soprano voices, but the ability to think critically, creatively, and expansively.  Too often, artists are lauded only for their ability to clearly communicate information or ideas formulated by others.  The current moment is one in which we can recognize the role that artists play as thought leaders.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Like so many others who attended SITUATED on Monday, I returned to the mayhem of other responsibilities, but I found myself returning again and again to the ideas shared and questions explored.  Here are some of my reflections, and I would love to hear what is preoccupying you.
Expanded Art Inside Artistic Silos or “How many people can you make love you” (Theaster Gates):  So this is an ARC theme, and we found it again in the world of socially-engaged art.  While so many of us make or support engaged work that “crosses” art forms, we are situated in different art worlds that define that crossing.   Who reviews? Who commissions? Who grants? Who collects? (And do you aspire to be collectible?)  Whether you are inside such ecologies, avoid such ecologies, or make alternative use of such ecologies, the techniques, histories, terms, and goals of a practice will be differently understood.  They structure our perception of what is rigorous or redundant, didactic or abstract, an intervention or an appropriation.  For some, time-based work is a break with an inherited form—others have been working durationally all along even if they never used the term. They affect our relations with authors, with collaborators, and with “signatures” –— and whether we care about such relations in the first place.
Organization or “Patience with Bureaucracy” (Debra Walker): Organizations are also having to re-skill in order to support such work, and some people have to create new organizations to get things off the ground.  Hybrid, socially-engaged work challenges traditional divisions of labor between curatorial, producer, educational, outreach, PR, and technical departments of an organization.  That re-skilling gets compounded when artists work with civic organizations whose language and processes create new opportunities and new hurdles.  Meanwhile, perhaps those of us in the arts and humanities have cultivated a bit too much “impatience” with bureaucracy in our students.  Perhaps we can use that legacy of what Benjamin called the “organizing function” of artist-producers to re-imagine the aesthetics of organization for our current moment (one that seems to need a slightly different mix than either the models of community art or institutional critique seem to offer).
Self-Reflexivity or “Inner Battles” (Allison Smith): More than I realized we were going to, our Monday was filled with reflection about how individual artists “situate” themselves as individuals in their practice, psychically and materially.  Allison Smith shared the ambivalence of being on the “wrong” side of Civil War battles; Theaster Gates talked about wanting to be “redeemed;” Sean San Jose reflected on what it means to re-situate himself from the Mission to 5M; and Marc Bamuthi tries to resist the impulse to subject himself to a “purity test.”  Meanwhile, Michael John Garcés delicately but deliberately asked us all to situate ourselves reflexively; his “story circle” exercises vacillated between the privately emotional and the systemically political in a way that challenged the division between these scales.
Social Re-skilling or “Sorcery School” (Joel Tan):  What kinds of skills do artists need to navigate the social?  Let’s remember that, in addition to a patience with bureaucracy, other fields in public health, social work, critical pedagogy, and community organizing have developed models for talking, listening, gathering, and teaching.  What might it mean to reimagine artistic training with these skill sets in mind?  Meanwhile, let’s think in reverse.  How can artistic imagining jostle the orthodoxies and routinized processes of other social sectors?  What does it mean to develop what Joel called the “artist’s quiver” as a set of tools to extend to other social and governmental sectors?
Social Content or “Content needs to be sweating and breathing” (Bamuthi): So there has been much debate and ink spilled on this topic, but the fact remains that this kind of work challenges binaries that we thought were over but that still persist—the lines that divide form and content, art and apparatus, theme and structure, foreground and background, medium and support.  What looks like form to some reads like content to others—sometimes too much content to be artful.  All the speakers spoke clearly about the need to create structures that propose questions rather than assuming answers in advance.  Projects refused stable oppositions between good guys and bad guys. But many of us know that the interrogative impulse can get us into trouble with civic or activist partners who want art-making to advance us toward a pre-determined goal.  Meanwhile, while I appreciated that each speaker responded to my question about how their art has “expanded” to address social content, I also appreciated moments that took us in the other direction. Rather than framing art as something that has to expand to incorporate the social, project after project asked us to remember that “the social” already occupies the interior of art practice.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “SITUATED: Time-Based Art and Neighborhood Ecologies” on October 10, 2011.  ARC Director Shannon Jackson discusses the event and the research projects it grows out of on the SOTA (State of the Art) blog:

Monday, October 3, 2011

SITUATED: A Rite to Heal

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “SITUATED: Time-Based Art and Neighborhood Ecologies” on October 10, 2011, organized in part around the premier at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts of red, black & GREEN: a blues, a collaboration between Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Theaster Gates, and Michael John Garces. ARC Director Shannon Jackson was commissioned by YBCA to write an essay on the piece, in which she explores many of the issues that will be taken up at the SITUATED symposium:
“Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s red, black & GREEN: a blues (rbGb) is a multidisciplinary performance experiment. It mixes visual art, spoken word, choreography, theatre, and film in ways that expose the boundaries that still exist amongst these art forms; its composition is an aesthetic act that integrates ritual, critique, and community engagement at once. Now there is a great deal of fine work out there that aspires to similar goals. In this early 21st century, those of us who try to keep tabs on the creativity of contemporary artists  find them blurring boundaries of all kinds. Choreographers are siting their work in museums as often as theatres; sculptors are organizing interactions instead of creating objects; and videographers are creating installations in spaces other than the cinema. Meanwhile, much of this work aspires to social engagement with this crossmedia mixing, searching for new ways to activate viewers and mobilize communities. Let’s think about what this crossing means. But let’s also think about rbGb in particular, and about how its making and its dissemination prompt a recalibration of what we think collaboration can be…” READ THE FULL ESSAY at:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SITUATED: Allison Smith

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “SITUATED: Time-Based Art and Neighborhood Ecologies” on October 10, 2011. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by artist Allison Smith, Chair of the Sculpture program at California College of Arts in San Francisco.
1) What are you most looking forward to from this gathering?
I am most looking forward to seeing the same set of things using a different set of lenses.
2) What are the top five lessons you want to share to fellow artists and community leaders about the kind of work you do?
Most likely no one will encourage you to do the most important work, because it hasn’t been done yet and is literally unthinkable. If your idea feels awkward at first, it may mean that it is especially worth pursuing.
The craft world and the social practice world are both relatives of art, like distant cousins who don’t often get together. But what they share in common is the desire for direct engagement. In the craft world, it is the object, passed hand to hand, that functions to connect people. With social practice, the object is often foregone, in favor of a more immediate conversation. Though different in their approaches, both are really after the same thing.
Art is a great arena for posing questions that cannot easily be resolved. To attract participation in a project, pose a question that is both open and provocative enough to draw in a diverse range of people with widely varied if not opposing views. Then create a receptive and nonjudgmental space in which everyone can be seen and heard.
The education department is often a better gateway into the art museum than the curatorial department. With the exchange of ideas at the core of its mission, your project can have a measurable impact and a much farther reach.
Many people are concerned about the lack of traditional skills being taught to art students these days. As someone deeply invested in issues of craft, and myself a sculpture professor for over a decade, I still believe that the most important skills an artist or craftsperson can learn are people skills.
3) Confessions of a ______ turned ______: fill in the blanks to help us understand how you have re-skilled during your career. 
Confessions of an artist interested in how war re-enactors act out trauma using handcrafted props turned artist working with military service members using craft to engage in the healing process.
I am an artist who studied psychology and abandoned art therapy because it didn’t account for the impact of social injustice upon the psyche. Now I find myself incorporating the healing arts into my projects as a way of making socially engaged work more deeply impactful.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Our Powerhouse Year on Market, by Ivan Vera

On September 12, 2011, the ARC will be hosting a retreat and working session to discuss sustaining the arts in the Central Market district in San Francisco. Participants have been invited to submit guest posts to this blog to promote discussion.
Ivan Vera is the Community Arts Program Manager at Central City Hospitality House.
With the assistance from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the Northern California Community Loan Fund and NEA/SFAC ARTery Project grant last year, we were able to temporarily relocate to Mid-Market while our Leavenworth building undergoes renovations. The Community Arts Program’s participation in last year’s art initiatives in Central Market has been an era of growth for the Arts Program and an incredible motivating factor for our artists; it has propelled them to excel not only in their creative output but also on their overall professional growth as artists.
The welcoming response we’ve had from neighborhood residents, landlords and businesses has been very encouraging. Our temporary presence in Central Market this past year has been very inspiring, the artists have had a much larger audience than at our original location, making our artists reception an immense success, not only with a considerable increase of sales, but with also with our general visibility; the number of volunteers that are involved with the Community Arts Program have increased as well.
This past fiscal year, our figures show that approximately 1,850 individual artists attended CAP, for a total of repeat visits of 6,380. Out of the individual artists, 78% of them were new to the Community Arts Program. 48% of those artists where living in unstable housing situations or homeless.
Not only did we continue to provide the services to the Tenderloin artists that used to frequent our studio on Leavenworth, but we now reach a much broader audience that not only reaches SoMa residents but the city at large. This is due largely to the huge street traffic our temporary location presents but also to Blick Art’s presence half a block away.
The majority of artists utilizing the free-of-charge fine arts studio and gallery would not be able to afford the resources we provide on their own. What is most inspiring, is that the majority of our artists face incredible amounts of frustrations on a daily basis trying to access human services and basic needs, and that they can put all that aside and produce some of the most remarkable works of art. It’s a testament of the indomitable human spirit at its best, and what makes my job most rewarding.  
Our agency’s mission is to provide opportunities for self-growth and self-determination to homeless people or others in need. The agency builds community strength by advocating policies and rendering services which foster self-sufficiency and cultural enrichment, encouraging self-help, mutual respect and increased self-esteem.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Understanding Market Street, by Will Thacher

On September 12, 2011, the ARC will be hosting a retreat and working session to discuss sustaining the arts in the Central Market district in San Francisco. Participants have been invited to submit guest posts to this blog to promote discussion.
Will Thacher is President & CEO of Market & Turk Company.
Market Street was once a glamorous destination for the western world, boasting of such landmarks as the Palace Hotel, the most expensive and luxurious hotel of its time, the Chronicle building’s clock, the largest ever built, the Call building- one of the tallest in the world, and City Hall, a splendid monument to the city.  People came to Market Street for shopping, entertainment and business. Laid out circa 1847 by Jasper O’Farrell, it runs 3 miles from the Ferry Building to Twin Peaks and has been compared to  Fifth Avenue, the Champs-Élysées, or the Great White Way.
Despite suffering a devastating blow with the 1906 earthquake and fire, Market Street emerged  as grand as ever with new buildings, businesses and entertainment theatres. Market Street has had a long history of arts and entertainment venues with dozens over time, mostly concentrated in Central Market. Starting with vaudeville and continuing with Cinerama cinema, movie houses and live performance stages, Central Market Street was active with thousands of people and a vibrant night life.
In the late 50’s and 60’s, however, Central Market Street started a steep decline, due to many factors which included the decline in attendance to the many large and glamorous theatres, removal of marquees, and BART construction. Central Market Street was left with boarded up theaters and buildings and marginal businesses and liquor stores. Blight set in with large concentrations of the homeless, drug dealers, prostitutes and societal castaways.
There have been many attempts to redevelop/revitalize Central Market, but to no avail. The city has tried, private enterprise has tried but the herculean task to get to the “Tipping Point” has been elusive.  Yet, at this moment in time, we may be closer than ever to igniting the spark that gets us to that point. Even though it is a time of deep economic recession, with the city having limited resources and the State withdrawing Redevelopment funds, Central Market is fighting the head winds and progressing one organization at a time. It is the unique collaboration of government, community and business lifting together that has given rise to the current success.
As market rents rise and vacancies decline in SOMA, arts organizations and tech companies look to Central Market for their new home. One by one they are congregating together on Market Street for synergy in mind set, supporters and patrons. The challenge is to choreograph the revitalization in such a way that the resulting mosaic of businesses, organizations, retail, and residential all support each other without over gentrification.  The Arts and Entertainment are vital to the successful rebuilding of the area. Both large and small arts organizations are needed to bring vibrancy and diversity to the area.  The arts attract and engage the community at large in many ways that complements other commercial and residential activities. Art must be incorporated into the area, from open space insulations to large theatre, from fringe to main stream. Artist and art organizations must engage with the building owners and the city to facilitate long term leases, co-ops and multi-million dollar developments.
Reduce crime 
  •  City to reallocate police resources to Central Market Street
  • Increase Mobile units and officers
  • Community involvement- businesses, owners and residences create watch groups
  • Discourage the opportunities and existence of undesirable and incompatible businesses and activities- liquor stores, pornographic , drug and prostitute related activities 
Reduce vacant and boarded up buildings
  • Enforce and enhance legislation to penalize building owners for boarded up buildings that are not actively trying to be leased.
  • Introduce legislation that  incentivizes building owners to lease up building with extra incentives for long term and below market rent leases to the arts (ie tax exemptions)
  • Create committees/organization to assist(resources, money, knowledge and contacts) popup businesses and temporary art installations(static and dynamic) in vacant spaces
Develop long term influence and presence of the arts
  • Find large art benefactors and art organizations to develop, fund and sponsor large scale projects in Central Market Street (ie.TEDP).
  • Develop  affordable housing for the arts
  • Student, teacher, staff and actor housing for short and long term stay at affordable rates
Develop a traffic(auto, bike, foot, public) and parking strategy that supports all activities on Central Market
  • Late night theatre
  • Art/entertainment
  • Commuter
  • Retail
  • Office business
  • Restaurant
Support and maintenance for common areas (common mission statement and policies)
  • Community Benefit Districts(CBD) having consistent and united goals that work together with each other, police, government,  merchants, vendors, members and the community of Market  Street