The Wave as ‘Placemaker’

More Awesome News

Elena and I are very pleased to announce that we are recipients of a $10,000 2014 Arts Catalyze Placemaking Grant (ACP) from the Connecticut Office of the Arts, Department of Economic and Community Development!  The ACP grant program was created to  “invest in the state’s arts-based cultural activities and infrastructure in ways that will advance the attractiveness and competitiveness of Connecticut cities, towns, and villages as meaningful communities in which to live, work, learn and play.”

In partnership with The Connecticut Library Consortium, we will be conducting four installations of The Wave between January and June of 2014 in the Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT, the Public Library of New London (CT), the Willimantic (CT) Public Library and the New Haven (CT) Free Public Library. The installations will serve as a catalyst for the establishment of ‘Community Engagement Hubs’ or centers for on-going community dialogue, and will remain in the libraries as visual documentation of the project and a visual reminder of shared community responsibility.

By using The Wave in four urban libraries as an appealing, interactive art installation that will attract a wide variety of participants and become a catalyst for community conversations on the topic of water, the libraries will: (1) Create a trusted and safe venue for on-going public dialogue on community issues, with water being only the first topic of discussion; (2) Improve civic engagement among segments of the population who have been less involved; and (3) Improve social isolation among community members.

'Wave-Makers' at CT Office of the Arts Higher Order Thinking (HOT) Schools Teacher Institute, 2012


‘Wave-Makers’ at The CT Office of the Arts, Higher Order Thinking (HOT) Schools Teacher Institute, 2012

 Placemaking as Process and Philosophy

The term, “placemaking” began being used by writers such as William H. Whyte in the 1960s and by architects and planners in the 1970s to depict the process of creating public spaces that would take into consideration the needs of people and not just the physical design of buildings, shopping centers and roads.  The Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit, international, planning, design and educational organization, founded in 1975 and dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities, defines placemaking as follows:

Placemaking is the process through which we collectively shape our public realm to maximize shared value. Rooted in community-based participation, Placemaking involves the planning, design, management and programming of public spaces. More than just creating better urban design of public spaces, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of activities and connections (cultural, economic, social, ecological) that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. Placemaking is how people are more collectively and intentionally shaping our world, and our future on this planet.  

These are lofty words for how we can become more connected to the places in which we live, work and play through creative activities and shared experiences.  We are very proud to be part of this process in Connecticut.

Should Art Museums Go Interactive?

I was intrigued by two articles published this month in major media outlets that question from opposite points of view the primary purpose of art museums and the value of participatory museum experiences like The Wave.

The first, published on August 11, 2013 on the cover of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, was entitled “High Culture Goes Hands-On” and was written by Judith Dobrzynski, a freelance writer and former editor of the Times. Ms. Dobrznski states that “great museums are places of solace and inspiration,” and suggests that they are fundamentally changed when they respond to the current trend of incorporating interactive visitor experiences.  She sites numerous examples of this growing trend, including the 2011 participatory performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art entitled, “The Artist is Present,” during which thousands of museum visitors waited in long lines over the course of two months to sit across from the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, and engage in a moment of intense, silent connection.

Although the author doesn’t see the value of the Abramovic performance piece, it is a fact that many participants were moved to tears by the experience.  A documentary film, also called “The Artist is Present,” records the artist’s lengthy preparation for the project and the range of audience reactions. The Museum itself photographed the faces of the visitors each day in much the same way as we have photographed the “Faces of the Wave”at each of our installations.

 "The Artist is Present" Marina Abramovic and Visitor, 2011 Museum of Modern Art


“The Artist is Present”
Marina Abramovic and Ulay, 2011
Museum of Modern Art
Scott Rudd Photography

Incorporating a quote from a speech given by Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, in which he states that museums had to make a “shift away from passive experiences to interactive or participatory experiences, from art that is hanging on the wall to art that invites people to become a part of it,” Ms. Dobrznski is mourning the good old days when the art alone, the “masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making” were enough in themselves to delight the museum visitor.

The second opinion piece, “Why I Hate Museums,” by James Durston, published on August 22, 2013 on the CNN Travel Page of its website, has ignited a firestorm of responses on the site itself and in numerous on-line discussion groups for museum employees, consultants and devotees. Instead of seeing museums as places of ‘solace and inspiration’ as Ms. Dobrznski does, Durston refers to the vast majority of museums he has visited throughout the world as “cavernous rooms and deep corridors (that) reverberate with the soft, dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning” and in which there is “a climate of snobbery…” He asks, “Where’s the relevance? Why, in places designed to celebrate life and all of its variety, is there such a lack of vitality?” Mr. Durston concludes that museums should “stop relying on the supposed intrinsic value of their collections. Stop ‘presenting’ when you should be flaunting. Give me a story. Show, don’t tell.” Mr. Durston is begging for the kind of participatory experiences that Ms. Dobrzynski bemoans.

In a time when many art museums are down in attendance and looking for new ways to connect with audiences, these articles should be required reading. The first article takes the point of view of the elite, the visually literate who are able to enter these ‘hallowed’ spaces and find personal meaning in a work of art hanging before them. The operative term, “High Culture,” that is used in the title of this piece, offers an insight into why the ‘hands-on’ approach in museums is needed and is working. For many individuals, young and old, rich and poor, the thought of going into a traditional art museum to stare at paintings or sculptures with which they have no connection, is simply intimidating. They don’t have an understanding of the vocabulary and movements that comprise art history and like Mr. Durston, hate feeling like ‘ignoramuses.’

If the first goal of art museums is to get people in the door so that they can ultimately broaden their understanding and appreciation of art, then there is great value in engaging these visitors in ways that encourage them to show up.

As public artists currently bringing an interactive art installation to art museums nationwide, we have seen first-hand the simple joy that participants exude when they realize that they ‘get it’ because they ‘did it.’

 Young Man With His Piece of the Wave at the National Aquarium, 2013 Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


Young Man Exuding Enthusiasm Holding His Piece of the Wave at the National Aquarium, 2013
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman

 

We Are Connected #2: The Faces of The Wave on World Oceans Day 2013

The Wave at The National Aquarium on World Oceans Day: June 8, 2013

Elena and I have just returned from creating a Wave installation at The National Aquarium in Baltimore to celebrate World Oceans Day.   Hundreds of visitors of all ages and from all over the U.S. and beyond participated in the event, which was held outside the Aquarium and alongside Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. How moving it was to see the diverse faces of  America and the world recognize their connections to one another visually through The Wave!

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We Are Connected: The Faces of The Wave

Since August of 2011, hundreds and hundreds of individuals of all ages and racial and economic backgrounds from cities and towns in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York have participated in The Wave installations at museums, galleries, parks and schools. Some have approached the project and the task of ‘making a wave’ with initial hesitation; others have ‘jumped right in’ with confidence and enthusiasm. All walk away, however, with a smile on their faces and a new appreciation for water. They remark on the beauty of The Wave as it glitters in the sunlight and ‘crashes’ in the wind. Many say participating in the project made them feel happy. Here are some of the faces of The Wave.

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Homage to the Earth: Earth Days 1970 and 2013

Earth Day 1970: Public Art 101

Forty three years ago when the first Earth Day was held, I was just finishing up my freshman year at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. As part of the celebration, which would ultimately mark the beginning of the modern environmental movement, our sculpture professor required that we design and implement a bio-degradable, site specific, outdoor installation.  Of course, the concepts, ‘site specific’ and ‘installation’ were brand new to the contemporary art world as was the idea of ‘bio-degradable’ materials. I didn’t know at the time that what we were assigned to do could also be classified as Public Art and that so many years later I would be immersed in a large public art project and remembering my first, primitive attempt in that discipline today, on Earth Day 2013.

After a limited survey of the common substances familiar to us that might fall into the category required, my classmate, Leslie, and I decided to collaborate on a jello sculpture. (Yes, even then I was prone to collaboration.)  It seemed silly to us at the time and hardly worth the monumental effort it required to make, refrigerate and transport the product of 100 boxes of red jello.  It was a warm day on April 22, 1970 when the sculpture was installed on the concrete walkway outside our dorm, and the jello melted appropriately as required.  I wish I had a photo of the actual sculpture to document the moment, but picture this: large 12″ x 18″ slabs of red jello piled on top of each other at various angles to a height of about 3 feet, shining brilliantly in the sun.  The image below will give you a general idea of what it looked like.

 Red Jello, Cubed


Red Jello, Cubed

I remember fellow students mocking our efforts and those of our classmates as they passed by. None of them connected the ‘art’ to a statement promoting a ‘green’ environment and conservation of the Earth’s resources. Quite frankly, Leslie and I didn’t either. We were just completing the assignment. I am grateful now, though, to that professor for forcing us to pay attention by commemorating that historic day. Happy Earth Day 2013.

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Public Art as Community Building

The Purposes of Public Art

Historically, public art in the form of monuments, equestrian statues and sculptures in plazas or parks has been commissioned or built to commemorate individuals or events, emphasize the stature of governments and corporations and embellish and beautify public spaces.

There is another kind of public art, however, that has emerged in the last four decades, whose purpose is to engage individuals in ‘building community’ while they are creating works of art with the help of artists serving as their ‘mentors’ or ‘facilitators.’  Suzanne Lacy, in her 1995 book, Mapping the Terrain coined a new term for this type of community building public art: she calls it ‘new genre public art.’  It fosters connections among the participants and also develops in them a sense of personal pride as well as a common purpose and new appreciation for their local, state, national or international communities.

Lily Yeh: Transforming Communities Through Art

Lily Yeh is my personal hero. Her work exemplifies public art that is community building. She is an inspiring public artist who, though the power of art, is transforming communities and motivating individuals around the world. In 2002, Lily, a native of China and a long-time resident of Philadelphia, created Barefoot Artists, an organization dedicated to “training and empowering local residents, organizing communities, and taking action for a more compassionate, just, and sustainable future.”  Lily has worked with students, teachers, local elders, victims of genocide and children and adults suffering from trauma, pain and poverty in Rwanda, China, Ecuador, Haiti, Ghana, Syria, Italy and the U.S.  The methods she uses to engage communities and create stunning works of art are described in Awakening Creativity, a book she published in 2011. In it, she eloquently documents the journey she and the students and staff of The Dandelion School underwent to physically and spiritually transform their school, and in the process, their lives. The Dandelion School is located in an impoverished neighborhood populated by rural migrants in Beijing, China.  A documentary film on Lily’s work and life is currently in post-production.

 The Dandelion School Project, Courtesy of Lily Yeh


The Dandelion School Project
Photograph Courtesy of Lily Yeh

The Wave as Community Building

The Wave also falls into the category of ‘community building’ public art. Visitors to our Wave installations feel a sense of pride when they add their own pieces to The Wave which is growing and growing as it travels from community to community. They feel a sense of pride that their community has joined with others to create a work of art that is glorious as it glimmers and shimmers in the sun. Children and adults alike want to see where their pieces ultimately end up in the installation and how they are connected to the whole, just as they are connected to each other by their mutual need for water, the most fundamental requirement for life on this planet.

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Young Participants at The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein

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Participants at The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein

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Participants at The Wave Installation
Connecticut Office of the Arts, HOT Schools Summer Institute, 2012
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein

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Participants at The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein