Nine Mile Run Greenway Project (1996-2000), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Image courtesy Reiko Goto, Tim Collins, Robert Bingham, John Stephen.
www.publicartscotland.com published a ‘Thoughts and Responses’ piece entitled Beyond Planning by two long time colleagues from Pittsburgh, Denys Candy and Reiko Goto. Candy was in Scotland to consult on the Helix project in Falkirk and Goto has been doing her PhD with On The Edge at Gray’s School of Art. Both represent long term grassroots, localist and pedagogically radical approaches to working with communities. Neither flit between public art projects telling stories of how their work transforms communities, nor do they place primary value on ambiguity.
Denys Candy paints an idyllic picture of Vermont in the snow, whilst at the same time contextualising it within a longer term understanding of the likely impacts of global warming on one local industry – the production of maple syrup. For anyone who enjoys that epitome of North American cuisine, pancakes, bacon and maple syrup, the loss will seem one of personal luxury, but as Candy points out others will lose jobs, income and cultural identity.
He then shifts focus, bringing us back to Pittsburgh, to the history of a steel town. The key juxtaposition in this movement from Vermont to Pittsburgh is the ability to ‘touch nature.’ From a location where that is easy, to one where it has been much harder, he’s not concerned with theoretical questions about what nature is, or what wildness is, but rather the simple pleasure and documented benefits to health and well-being of access to nature.
Denys drills down into the specific history of ‘urban renewal’ in Pittsburgh, of de-population, freeways creating isolation, ‘white flight’ and suburban sprawl. His position is that,
“…we need to embellish, improve upon conventional or apparently rational planning methods by adopting attitudes and practices that I call creative regeneration, predicated on asking deep questions and addressing them in practice, collaboratively and collectively.”
His methodology is grounded in two questions framed by Terri Baltimore, who co-founded Find the Rivers! with him,
“How do we heal post industrial cities rent by the trauma of demolition, discrimination and displacement,” and, “What strategies and methods bring more well-being, defined as improvements in economic, ecological, physiological and cultural health?”
He characterises three stages of “unfolding action,” involving “Re-experiencing, Re-imagining, Re-making,” and he touches on the application of this process in an area called “the Hill” in Pittsburgh. His process is exemplary and bears much deeper reading to really understand.
Reiko connects Denys’ project on “the Hill” to her and her partner Tim Collins’ work in Pittsburgh where, over a similar ten year period, they undertook two related projects, Nine Mile Run and 3 Rivers 2nd Nature. She connects by describing the experience of being invited to participate in Denys processes, and reciprocating by inviting him to participate in her and Tim’s processes.
Reiko and Tim’s methodology, like Denys’, is rooted in ecological and cultural understanding. All are intimately familiar with the history of the place and people they are working with. All place the highest value on working within communities, All have strong aesthetic understanding driving their work. Reiko highlights the work of Suzanne Lacy, artist and teacher, and Grant Kester, art historian and theorist, who provide a framework for understanding the conversational as an aesthetic mode, and the convivial as a form rather than a method or intention.
When artists such as Lacy, Goto and Collins, Candy and others specify conversation as an aesthetic, they are not primarily focusing on the instance of the conversation, the immanent experience of it at any one point, but rather the conversation as a durational performance.
For these artists, the conversation is the 10 year conversation in a place, with many, many people through formal and informal processes. Within the conversation there will be formal public meetings; there will be intentional activities such as trips to see and experience places and all the associated experiences; there will also be the informal and chance encounters. Some elements of the conversation will be about the artists learning both from the locals and specialists. Other elements of the conversation will be about the community learning from itself, sometimes reflected through the artists. There will be tough moments and convivial moments, but the convivial will be what is remembered.
The idea that conversation is an aesthetic is informed by performance art more than visual art. The cues are in Allan Kaprow’s scores for Happenings, intentionally purposeless activities that engage participants in a negotiation of shared experience. By way of an aside, the researchers of On The Edge, at the instigation of Anne Douglas, took Kaprow’s score Calendar (1971) as focus for work over the last year. The way that Kaprow’s scores function as a boundary and orientation point around which a number of people with disparate interests negotiate creative action and creative relationship became sharply clear.
Another cue is in the radical/critical pedagogies of in particular Paolo Friere. Friere’s concern that learning needs to acknowledge power relations, and through developing an understanding of the historical context (which of course in his context was colonialism and in these artists’ capital, industry and racism) enable and empower individuals and communities to shape their own futures. This had a significant influence on late 60s and 70s feminist methods such as consciousness raising, and more recently Ranciere’s text The Ignorant Schoolmaster revisited these ideas.
The role of the artist and teacher is critical in these processes, and both Reiko and Denys are at pains to avoid constructing this in any heroic or charismatic mode.
Reiko articulates Denys’ role in a way that is normally framed in terms of glue or connecting,
“His work is like the essential but tiny knots between the pearls in the necklace. He keeps many different stakeholders and interests from rubbing against each other. It also keeps the whole project secure by maintaining each activity as a connected but separate entity. Denys helps to hold the integrity of a community that consists of many kinds of people.”
Her nuanced analogy of a string of pearls, being both the string that connects and also the knots that keep elements from rubbing together, is very effective.
Another relevant aspect of understanding the aesthetic of conversation comes from the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. They describe learning from their project Atempause Für Den Sava-Fluss that something they have come to call ‘conversational drift’ is a beneficial outcome. The project developed a discursive approach to the riparian landscape which increased the amount of clean water in the river Sava. Although interrupted by the Yugoslav war, their proposals were implemented with EU funding. Their assistant on the project went on to employ, iterate and evolve the approach developed by the artists on another nearby river, the Drava. The Harrisons’ concept of ‘conversational drift’ articulates the way that a conversation (in this larger sense) can move away from you, but carry on, and then come back into your life having developed in its own way. This throws into sharp relief the values and characteristics of a conversational aesthetic.
This short thought and reflection, written by two masters, barely touches the surface of the knowledge, wisdom and experience of the writers.