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When Art Becomes Critical Practice: The Village of Arts and Humanities

Critique needs to be thought not solely in abstract terms, but in the material practices of culture. As more small and medium scale artistic interventions take place in cities across the world, how are the interstices of our urban spaces offering up possibilities for living and doing politics differently? What are the conditions of possibility in art practice, specifically in community arts, to critique and offer alternatives to various models of community engagement, democracy and politics?

The Village of Arts and Humanities is an exemplary community art organization, providing a long-term example of urban intervention through art. The Village, although it has been greatly lauded for the social justice work that it has performed, was not initially conceived in these terms. Rather, it started through the simple gesture of an artist and a group of children drawing a circle in an abandoned lot and beginning to dig. However, through the actions of those involved in the Village, the neighbourhood shifted, from an easily recognizable deteriorating inner city, to an attempt at a collective project of self-determination.

Background: What is community art?

Situated explicitly within a grassroots, activist agenda, community-engaged art is a form of art that seeks to undermine the elitism of artistic production and reception. Modernist paradigms have determined who has access to the arts, as a producer and as a consumer, and this has been limited to those with the wealth, education and leisure to be able to “fully appreciate” the difficulty of the avant-garde. Following François Matarasso’s (2005) conviction that access to arts is key to our ability to participate autonomously in democratic society, community-engaged art brings political art practices into the content, methods, processes, and institutions that define and create art. Community-engaged art practices orient themselves to disenfranchised, marginalized groups, in the hope that this will enable art to become more democratic, and for these creative ways of working to open up new political possibilities. What is interesting about the Village of Arts and Humanities, and why it is exemplary of community arts more generally, is that this process of citizen engagement happened, in large part, through the material practices of art, through the physical transformation of a neighbourhood.

Turning to the Village …

In 1986 artist Lily Yeh was asked by her friend acclaimed dancer Arthur Hall to transform the abandoned lot next to his house. He had seen her indoor gardens that she had created in galleries, and asked if she could do a similar project outdoors. When Yeh first entered the North Philadelphia neighbourhood of Fairhill-Hartranft, it was nothing like the neighbourhood she would leave in 2004. Walking down the streets for the first time she saw many adults with suspicious faces staring at her as she made her way past abandoned lot after abandoned lot. Broken glass in boarded up doorways were the gathering places for people with nowhere else to go. The lines of poverty and racism, the systematic marginalization and neglect of (primarily) black people in the United States, resulted in the overdetermined positioning of the so-called ‘inner-city ghetto.’

Yeh began to work in this community, not to ameliorate its social problems, but to initiate a process of creating art with community members. As she worked, she drew the attention and curiosity of the neighbourhood children, later recruiting the help of various adults, some of who were unemployed and struggling with substance abuse. A collective of citizens emerged through this work which allowed them to begin to address some of the larger needs of the community. The needs for food, for Narcotics Anonymous meetings, for housing were addressed through the work of the Village. These social problems were met laterally by connecting people to their immediate environment. By providing the opportunity for a neighbourhood to express itself differently, people could begin to imagine a community that was more beautiful, that inspired awe, building moments of the sacred into the profane urban landscape.

The Village of Arts and Humanities, as it stands now, 23 years later, is composed of 12 art parks and sculpture gardens. It has involved the transformation of a 260-block area, a transformation that equally includes environmental, social and political spheres. And this beauty of mosaics, carefully designed walls, poles planted and erected to mark tribute, as well as a tree farm, and various vegetable gardens, constitutes the visual manifestation of the work of the Village. But what is really important in these physical transformations are the social and political shifts that they also imply. They imply the working together of a community, the investment in place from its members. These efforts also seek to address the larger questions of systemic oppression from which they originate. As one project organizer put it: “lot cleaning and greening are practices that could help to heal the deep wounds of cultural misrecognition, but only if done as part of a much broader effort to dismantle racism in our society at large” (Hufford and Miller, 2006: 72). However, although the Village may begin to address the questions of systemic oppression from within the community itself, it is not obvious how they go about the larger project of dismantling racism more broadly.

Critiques of community arts

The fact that these larger power structures are often not explicitly addressed within community art projects is one of the strongest critiques leveled at its ways of working. Miwon Kwon (2002) cautions that in community art the function of art is often placed as a kind of romantic cure-all for the ills of a community, where self-expression is privileged over critiques of systemic oppression. Community art practices have been increasingly taken up by state governments as a way of focusing on individual (faults), rather than on the systems that produce individuals, lessening the state’s responsibility in the production of poverty, racism, etc.. This reflects what Grant Kester has identified as a “persuasive cultural mythology, grounded in romanticism, that conceives of the artist as a shamanistic figure able to identify with, and speak on behalf of, the poor and the marginalized. Within this mythology the artist becomes a channel for other people’s experiences of social oppression” (Kester, 2004: 140). Further, these romantic myths are founded upon a notion that ‘arts are good for people,’ the arts being used historically as a tool for social organization and normalization (Lash, 2006). Community art can then exacerbate the socio-economic divisions between artist, as privileged subject, here positioned as ‘expert’, and marginalized subjectivities, by addressing people as always already marginal.

The possibility of public space

However, the strengths of community arts are to offer a way of working that allows for a different approach to politics, to the critical, and, in the case of the Village, the re-patterning of an entire neighbourhood. Instead of working only through creative individual expression, the Village works as a way to expand upon existing knowledges, for example, through oral history projects linking elders and youth. Importantly, as its critical practice, the physical transformation of the neighbourhood has created a kind of buffer to protect the community from imposed development and simultaneously creating a desirable place for people to live.

The work of the Village can be seen as a political intervention by way of creating public space in a context and “period marked by the ascendance of private authority/power over spaces once considered public” (Sassen, 2008: 85). In this sense, the physical transformation that the Village enabled, explicitly undermining both paternalistic structures imposed by the state and models of market capitalism that displace communities, can be seen as a form of material critique or critical practice. For “If, following Raymond Geuss (in turn following Marx), critical theory can be defined in terms of self-reflectivity and the desire to change the world, then when criticism and design take on the task of self-reflection and evidence a desire for social change both can be described as critical (as forms of critical practice here rather than critical theory)” (Rendell, 2007: 4). Critical practice is here defined as evidence of self-reflection with a desire to change the world manifested through a built environment. The material transformations that the Village enabled fully fit within this model of critique, offering a collective grassroots take on critical practice. The Village begins to incite the question why more neighbourhoods are not planned, are not literally built or ameliorated, by the people who live in them. It serves as a model for understanding community autonomy while refusing the forces of market-driven urban development. Understanding the importance of small and medium scale projects in shifting politics also entails an understanding that political efficacy is not necessarily tied to state actors. “Street-level politics makes possible the formation of new types of political subjects that do not have to go through the formal political system” (Sassen, 2008: 86). What these kinds of interventions make clear, in fact, is that there is a kind of political possibility in abandonment, for it allows people to work in ways that might not otherwise be possible. As Lily Yeh speaks of the Village she notes that its status as marginal is what marked its success: “The reason the Village happens is because it is in the inner city where things are broken down, where the law doesn’t choke everything. We are out in the wilderness, where things are kind of quirky, where it’s possible for wildflowers to break through” (Yeh, 2004). She makes clear that being outside of the normal parameters of political engagement is what allows for different ways of conceiving of living and being together, different ways of organizing politically. The recognition that the Village’s supposed deficits could be valuable resources is central to the Village’s politics. Because city planners had already abandoned the neighbourhood, they did not interfere when Village participants began to transform abandoned buildings into low-income housing. Former Operations Director James Maxton describes the process this way:

“We took a backdoor approach to a lot of things that we did. The parks and the houses we rehabbed weren’t built with expert supervision and/or skills and talent. We stepped outside the norm. We didn’t use union labor; we used a lot of drug addicts. I was pushed into areas and made more capable than I’d ever dreamt possible. It was through trial and error that we were able to put all these pieces together. And the community began to feel better about itself” (Wallace Foundation, 2004a).

In this, the Village displays how empowerment can spring from an ethic of simply figuring out how to get things done. The material transformation of a neighbourhood, as the Village shows, is never simply material, but rather can be a powerful step towards community self-determination. Following Doreen Massey, it becomes apparent through this example that “The spatial is both open to, and a necessary element in politics in the broadest sense of the word” (Massey, 1994: 4). Our spatial, material practices become not simply the backdrop of social and political realities, but rather, contribute to their constitution.

The Village as Community Cultural Development

Village members recently decided to join forces with 10 other local community organizations to create a community development project entitled ‘Shared Prosperity’. It is an attempt to take the lessons of community arts, by empowering people through what they already have, to determine their economic and political future together. ‘Shared Prosperity’ became a forum to collectively decide the direction that the community wanted to move in, and to begin to address some of the systemic problems of racism, poverty, etc. with creative solutions, rather than simply weeding them out. In Yeh’s words

“For me, it’s about sense of place, and the creative act is to launch this project [Shared Prosperity]. I could see the future of the whole Village being tied to the neighbourhood; instead of building a million dollar center, you build the Village horizontally. The bigger goal is to try to create something so deeply rooted that it can stand firm against the global takeover by interest groups” (Hufford and Miller, 2006: 32).

In this sense, community cultural development can be a way of challenging imposed and normalized cultural values (Goldbard). But it is possible that the Village will not be able to maintain the balance between artistic vision, community engagement and social justice. It has begun the process of institutionalization, employing 16 full-time and a dozen part-time staff and operating on a budget of $1.3 million (Wallace Foundation, 2004b). Although this kind of funding can open up possibilities for furthering the kind of horizontally driven work of the Village, it can also signal a shift from responding to neighbourhood needs to needing to support itself as an institution. Further, if the Village’s success was predicated on the fact that it didn’t need to rely upon standardized structures, what happens now that it has become its own kind of regulatory model? Are the possibilities for remaining critical limited by the processes of institutionalization?

Conclusion

What the example of the Village of Arts and Humanities does offer is a way of recognizing the importance of forgotten urban spaces, as places of incredible potential. This is not to deny the efficacy of state led or more institutionalized projects, but the Village does serve as a reminder that overlooked or abandoned places can equally be sites of resistance, that local continues serve as a specific nexus of fluxes of more global issues, power dynamics, and struggle. The creative production of place can be seen as a critical material intervention that can serve to challenge and check normalized social, political, and physical systems. In this sense, the critical becomes a set of practices and debates that call into question hierarchies and solidifications of power and an attempt to rework these entrenched dynamics. It is important to recognize that the struggle for more equitable power relations happens not solely within a discursive realm, but also through our physical environments. The Village reminds us that physicality, the creation of public space, is inseparable from social justice projects, implicitly showing the ways in which the critical needs to be thought through materiality and everyday practice.

References

Goldbard, A. (2006) New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development. Oakland: New Village Press.

Hufford, M., Miller, R. (2006) Piecing Together the Fragments: Ethnography of Leadership for Social Change in North Central Philadelphia 2004-5. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Joseph, M. (2002) Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kester, G. (2004). Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kwon, M. (2002) One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Lash, H. (2006) ‘You are my sunshine: Refugee Participation in Performance,’ pp. 221-229 in D. Barndt (Ed.) Wild Fire: Art as Activism. Toronto: Sumach Press.

Leggiere, P. (2000) ‘Lily Yeh’s Art of Transformation,’ The Pennsylvania Gazette. Downloaded on September 13, 2009 from www.upenn.edu/gazette/0700/leggiere.html.

Massey, D. (1994) Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Matarasso, F. (2005) ‘Art for Our Sake: The Artistic Importance of Community Arts,’ Downloaded on September 15, 2009 from http://web.me.com/matarasso/one/downloads/Entries/2009/2/20_Community_arts_files/Art%20for%20Our%20Sake.pdf

Miller, R. (2005) Performing the Urban Village: Art, Place-making and Cultural Politics in North Central Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rendell, J. (2007) ‘Introduction: Critical Architecture: Between Criticism and Design,’ pp. 1-9 in J. Rendell, J. Hill, M. Fraser and M. Dorrian (Eds.) Critical Architecture. New York: Routledge.

Sassen, S. (2008) ‘Cities as Frontier Zones: Making Informal Politics,’ pp. 83-94 in J. Backstein, D. Birnbaum and S. Wallenstein (Eds.) Thinking Worlds: The Moscow Conference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art. New York: Sternberg Press.

Scher, A. (2005) ‘Art in the Village,’ YES Magazine. Downloaded on 14 September, 2009 from http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=1263.

Wallace Foundation (2004a) ‘Village of Arts Big Man,’ Downloaded on 14 September, 2009 from http://www.wallacefoundation.org/KnowledgeCenter/Pages/VillageOfArtsBigMan.aspx.

Wallace Foundation (2004b) ‘Going Toward the Light: Philadelphia’s Village of Arts and Humanities,’ Downloaded on September 15, 2009 from http://www.wallacefoundation.org/KnowledgeCenter/KnowledgeTopics/CurrentAreasofFocus/ArtsParticipation/Pages/VillageofArtsandHumanities.aspx.

Yeh, L. (2004) ‘Yeh in her own words,’ Downloaded on 14 September, 2009 from http://www.wallacefoundation.org/KnowledgeCenter/Pages/VillageOfArtsLILYYEH.aspx.

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