By Laura Ng
Arts administrators, emerging philanthropists, and cultural patrons and arts practitioners converged at the Atwater Village Theater on October 20th for EALLA’s full-day Fall Creative Conversation, asking again, what is “creative placemaking”? Or, in the long-form title, to explore “Sparking Inclusive Dialogue Through Creative Placemaking.” Dan Kwong, Project Leader for Great Leap’s COLLABORATORY, may have put it best when he compared broaching the question to the ambivalence and trepidation felt when one is asked to measure the impact of arts on social building. With disciplines as divergent as Anne Bray’s work in media arts, Dan Kwong in performance, and Brian Janeczko in architecture and industrial design/fabrication, one unifying outlook voiced by the panelists was that creative placemaking must happen organically with a collaborative conscientiousness responsive to a specific community.
Keynote speaker John Malpede framed the particularity of elements needed to come together by sharing his own experience at the Los Angeles Poverty Department, which he founded almost serendipitously. The performance artist volunteered with a group of lawyers offering their services pro-bono to the residents of L.A.’s Skid Row until he became a de facto paralegal, who so galvanized the community that those same clients involved themselves into launching self-produced dramatic performances. With no permanent headquarters, their activities attracted the attention of screenwriters from other parts of the city and instigating conversations with numerous neighborhood organizations, such as LAMP and the Skid Row Players’ drummers, materializing improvement amenities such as the “funky trash cans” provided by OG Man that would not be readily perceived as an urgent need to those outside in what they termed Normalville. None of LAPD’s partners were based in the arts, Malpede noted. His spark revealed a surprising passion for culture in “the homeless capital of America” when its denizens were given the opportunity to speak from their own point-of-view.
Anne Bray of Freewaves echoed the notion that attaching predetermined signifiers, especially the word “art,” without attention to one’s audience can be alienating. She prefers to introduce new projects using an open-ended term, like ”experiment,” and spoke for caution around the institutional and corporate preoccupation with branding. In the drive to align with the language of creative place, declaring an area an “arts district” is oft tethered by conflicting expectations for economic redevelopment and its consequences of gentrification, displacing the original characteristics that made a place unique. Where projects of public good are subject to the whims of private benevolence and externally steered policymakers, losing one’s goals to unmediated and distant stakeholders is an immanent danger. For her upcoming Out The Window series, which will bring art to Metro’s TransitTV broadcast aboard its fleet of 2000 buses, Anne Bray stressed the importance of letting public art be informed by cross-disciplinary perspectives and community feedback. With help from a social scientist to compose a meaningfully phrased questionnaire, Freewaves conducted in-person surveys asking media-saturated riders to respond to an initial batch of videos. The largest outpouring of responses came not in direct reaction to the art presented but from being asked what they would do given a chance to create a video for other transit viewers; overwhelmingly, they expressed a desire to make transiting more pleasant for fellow passengers and to give a personal rendition of their own neighborhoods.
In public discourse, interventionists will want to take credit for “transforming” a place, for injecting their vision as a panacea that turns around the fallen to route it onto the track of ascendance, but putting an ear to the ground bespeaks a different narrative. The panelists each left their own preconceptions aside as they learned that communities are defined by complex constituencies rather than clean-cut geographic parameters or societal divisions. Maintaining an openness and flexibility was vital for their initiatives to thrive. While Great Leap started as a forum for the marginalized Asian American experience, an influx of stories untold from populations defined neither by race, gender nor class, changed its course into a performance platform for a widespread community of emerging arts professionals, keeping it relevant decades later.
Each speaker framed creative placemaking not as formulating something sprung out of pure isolated genius, but as unlocking the latent “resources” of a place to spur creative and economic vitality (Bray); listening then reflecting back a community’s voices, which gives “validation” by building trust one person at a time (Kwong); and to “highlight” the underutilized or unnoticed (Janezcko)—to amplify underlying riches from within an existing fabric. Perhaps this is why it lends itself so easily to repurposing dormant spaces. This mode frequently requires an admission of an incomplete understanding, of blind spots that need filling in, and collaboration with common purpose recognizing different knowledge sets in tribute to diversity.
For Brian Janezcko, the unknown actually becomes a rallying generator for collaborative participation. In his temporary installation Bitter Melon, erected on LACMA’s campus in association with Fallen Fruit’s exhibition mapping edibles on publicly accessible land, the Silver Lake-based Materials & Applications designed an open-weave bamboo structure bent to form a large overhead trellis as an experimental site for cross-pollinating fruit genetics. Its actualization was enabled by the knowledge of a bike maker, who shared the technique of applying heat with a blowtorch to caramelize and arc the bamboo’s material fibers, and the binding process expedited by Japanese skilled workers, whose handcraftsmanship encouraged M&A’s volunteers to take confidence in their own abilities. Together the fabrication was completed within an impressively rapid three weeks.
At each juncture, their process revealed that inclusive dialog is not an outcome of creative placemaking but essential to its viability. One need look no further in L.A. than the Watts House Project to realize the deleterious effects of communication derailed. It’s a tremendous responsibility to self-check against assuming that neighborhood denizens would be aware of the stringent technicalities of funding legalese, and to converse with funders from dominating the program that will be implemented in a place where they are not the main frequenters. Even the ZERO1 initiative by Google, who is beloved for fostering play within its company culture, is watched with unease as it forays from venture capitalism into arts funding for signs of tasking creative practitioners to lend their artistic integrity to a commercial agenda without inquiring what is most valued by its nascent constituency.
The deliverable of creative placemaking is customarily a short-lived event, so relationship-building must be the prime motivator for grassroots sustainability. Dan Kwong reiterated the importance of letting people be heard, even if decisions ultimately veer in another direction. For Kwong, if putting on a great event destroys a relationship, then the project was a failure. Likewise, the other panelists shied away from conventional metrics to weigh success, but when they were approached by individual and personal stories of a positive experience, they knew they were getting close.
What we admire in projects we’ve seen, how we hope we can impact or revitalize a community are bright guideposts to be tempered by the living conditions of our chosen locale. Creative placemaking is participatory and evolving, nurtured by a smattering of elements whose chemistry is under ongoing experimentation. Whether it be the residents’ energy, the artists’ expertise, the philanthropists’ assets, or municipal access, it requires collaborative engagement for a long-term commitment, where time-based creative projects spiritedly unveil a place’s character with each iteration. We are communicators and doers, and with sustained effort from this foundation of respectful openness, we may find ourselves moved beyond raising issues to addressing real social inequity and sustainable identity in tangible ways. A flourishing culture and economy will be the resultant indicators of our mutually empowered well-being.