Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Role of the Public Artist

You are lucky to be a student enrolled in the unique Visual and Public Arts Program of Cal State Monterey Bay. So, what exactly does that mean? Who is the public artist? What is their role in this society? In what ways is the public artist's role essential in a democracy?

These are the questions I asked myself when thinking about why I'm studying here. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview one of the creators of this public piece, artist David Avalos. The following comments come from this interview in response to general questions about the role of the artist.

On making space:

"What we meant by creating space was based on our understanding that 'public art space' is not some predetermined quantity that can be either occupied or unoccupied. That space comes into existence simultaneously with the successful presentation and public reception of the art work. In other words, the successful production of the public art work results in a space that did not previously exist for art. For example, graffiti art transforms a space that is intended simply as a wall into an art space. The space is not created for the public alone bur to the artist(s) and the public."

On "other roles" of the public artist:

Although Avalos states that he is not in a "position to decree what role a public artist 'must play'", he does offer some other roles that the artist takes on in the creation of public art. Avalos writes, "Other roles played: decorator, illustrator, designer, provocateur, propagandist, art maker, image-maker, conceptual artist."

In an interview that appeared in The Neighborhood Reporter, in February 1988, Louis Hock and Elizabeth Sisco offer important ideas about the different ways the public artist has an influence on public discourse.

On selecting the topic of the art work, Hock explains:

"We wanted to deal with a topic that's indigenous to our area. We wanted to make a statement that would relate to people taking the bus. We didn't want to make art for Hallmark cards. Art is not meant to be a cheerleaders. It is the responsibility of the artists who receive public funds to show things the way they see them."

On involving the audience with public art, Sisco emphasizes:

"We're bombarded with images, so we wanted to do something that actively involves the viewer: puts art into the landscape...None of us wanted it to be a blatant statement, a slap in the face like the 'listen to our radio station' message of most advertisements. We wanted it to be something that you'd have to look at and draw your own conclusions."

Here are some questions I would like to pose in hopes that you will come back to this blog and contribute your ideas, opinions and worldviews after our presentation.
How do you see your role as a public artist? What, if any, is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY?

The Artist's Need to Evolve: Searching for Different Mediums

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The act of choosing a public bus system to display art work reminded me of the graffiti movement, which began in the 1970's. I was reminded of the fact that many graffiti writers used public transportation to not only practice and show-off their art, but to force others to pay attention to them because they were so often ignored in other aspects of life.

According to Jeff Chang, author of "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation", "graffiti writers had claimed a modern symbol of efficiency and progress and made it into a moving violation. As their mini-riots spilled all-city, all day everyday, authorities took their work as a guerilla war on civility. They were right" (Chang 122). Chang cites historian Ivor Miller's observation that, "the northbound trains had once been a symbol of freedom, and in decaying postindustrial cities, subway trains were merely the beginning of the daily circuit of alienating labor" (122). Chang continues to describe Miller's observation by quoting Lee Quinones, a well-respected graffiti pioneer. Chang quotes:
"Subways are corporate America's way of getting its people to work. It's used as an object of transporting corporate clones. And the trains were clones themselves, they were all supposed to be silver blue, a form of imperialism and control. And we took that and completely changed it" (122).

When I read this quote, I made the connection to the decision that the artists of "Welcome to America's Finest Tourist Plantation" made to choose a moving target that, like the subways, also got people to their jobs. I thought that many undocumented workers use public transportation because they cannot drive legally with a license. I felt that the artists were not only thinking about spreading their message across the city, but that they may have been thinking about the bus in this way.

Although graffiti on public transportation was illegal, advertisers would later adopt this same type of space for marketing their products. To this day, it is common to see public buses and trains covered in digital print decal posters selling products like Coke, Virgin Records, and even movie advertisements.

Related to this concept, Avalos claims, "if the art that potentially occupies such space is to continue to be a target of this city's hostility, then public artists will increase their chances of survival by making that target a moving one... The artists wanted to create an image that would survive on the streets, existing everywhere simultaneously throughout the county yet laying claim to no single space...Aiming to illuminate the absence of public space, the artists have created a public forum within a conceptual space."

A New Way of Seeing: forced and voluntary immigration, cheap labor and our interdepency on one another

Drawing my own conclusion:

Let's remember that our economy, and therefore our country is dependent on undocumented workers' labor. Like the worker and his family who depends on the job for survival, our economic system would not be what it is today without the exploitation of cheap, or illegal labor.

In his analysis of the California "Black Market" agriculture economy, Eric Schlosser, author of Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market claims that,

The fastest growing and most profitable segment of California's Farm Economy-- the
cultivation of high value specialty crops-- has also become the one most dependent on the availability of cheap labor. Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diet of health
conscious, often high-minded consumers, is still picked by hand...As the demand for these
fruits has risen, so has the number of workers necessary to harvest them...today anywhere
from 30-60 percent, depending on the crop, are illegal immigrants. Their willingness to
work long hours for low wages has enabled California to sustain its agricultural

This is today's reality. But if we look at the history of this nation, we can see that in fact, that cheap labor has always been a way for certain individuals and corporations to make large profits. Take the following historical examples:

1) The Slave Plantation System: Slaves literally built the wealth of this nation and some of its most well-known and valued symbols, such as The White House. In addition many of today's wealthiest corporations used slaves to build their economic foundation. As stated in the article, "Slave Profits and the Roots of the Wealth Gap", authors Meizhu Lui and Rose Brewer assert:

Well-known bastions of American capital also have the institution of slavery at their foundation. Last Tuesday, lawyers Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and Ed Fagan filed lawsuits against insurance company Aetna, railroad giant CSX, and FleetBoston bank, claiming that these companies profited from slavery. These are only a fraction of the prosperous American companies whose wealth came in part from the slave trade.

See the slavery link to the left for more information.

2) The Colonial System (Also known as the Mission System): Under the mission system, thousands of Native peoples were used to cultivate land, manufacture produces and strengthen the economy of the church (Phillips, The Enduring Struggle).

3) The Chinese: The Chinese not only helped build the railroad systems, which enabled businesses to expand, and took land away from American families and farmers, but they also contributed to agriculture and fishing industries in the Central Coasts. See the link on the left under "Chinese Labor" for more information.

4) The Bracero Program (1942-1964): This was a "guest worker" program that asked for the labor of thousands of Mexican workers. Migrants were "shuttled" to the border for work, and once they were sprayed with anit-lice chemicals, they were allowed to enter the USA. Once here these workers were tied to one single employer. Even today, there are some Mexicans who participated in this program who are still waiting for payment for their services that they never received. See the links, "Operation Wetback" and "The Bracero Program" for more information.

5) The Prison Industrial Complex: As more black and brown youth, specifically young men are imprisoned, many for non-violent crimes, their labor is being used to create great profits for various companies and personal individual whose business is the prison system itself. Prisoners today can't get a college education in jail, but they can make or process the following products: children's toys, liscence plates, chicken cutlets (in the south), clocks, tables etc. (Letter to the President, 2005) Also, see the link, "Prison Industrial Complex" for more information.

6) "The Tourist Plantation": Today's tourism industries rely heavily upon the cheap and abundant labor from south of the border. As Avalos states in The Neighborhood Reporter, 1988, "If we consider the realistic rather than the mythological landscape of San Diego then we must acknowledge that the Super Bowl could not be held here if this town did not have a tourist complex of hotels, motels, restaurants, and amusement parks. And without the undocumented worker, San Diego could not have a tourist industry."

A final note: When we think about the atrocities of slavery, colonialism, false imprisonment and labor exploitation, it is key that we understand how all of this violates the right to be human.

According to Article 2 the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights", published by the United Nations:

    Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

    See the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" link for more information about the articles defined by the United Nations.