An excerpt from BOMB 111, on newsstands now! Three artists converge at Gaines’s LA studio to unpack the paradoxes and challenges of public practices such as Arceneaux’s Watts House Project in Los Angeles and Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston. A selection from the interview series In the Open: Art and Architecture in Public Spaces.
Outside his hometown of Los Angeles, Edgar Arceneaux is best known as a maker of graphic, crystalline drawings, recently of the underground histories of one of America’s most contested cities: Detroit. But in LA, Arceneaux has a visible public presence as the executive director of Watts House Project, “a collaborative artwork in the shape of a neighborhood redevelopment project.” The Watts House Project marries art, architecture, and sustainable community development to redefine a neighborhood that receives an influx of art tourists visiting the fabled Watts Towers. However, the community framework hasn’t benefited much from the frequent visits to Simon Rodia’s strange and incredible steel towers.
It was a similar impulse that engaged artist Rick Lowe to initiate Project Row Houses in Houston. In 1993, Lowe began meeting with residents in the Northern Third Ward district to imagine how this historic and struggling African American neighborhood could be reimagined in an economically sustainable way. Since then, Project Row Houses has evolved from a single block to span six-and-a-half blocks of buildings repurposed by the project, and it has spearheaded not only a major artist residency program (where Lowe and Arceneaux met), but has helped boost the community’s basic services and infrastructure.
Charles Gaines is an artist and a professor at CalArts, where he taught Arceneaux. For several years, Gaines’s work has emphasized the iconography of accidents, disasters, and environmental degradation as a means of analyzing how these phenomena are mediated and subjectively internalized. Gaines acts as something of a moderator for this discussion, which took place at his LA studio, bringing philosophical focus to a paradox faced by both Arceneaux and Lowe: what does it mean when the artwork itself assumes the guise of an institution?
Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Edgar Arceneaux: I was introduced to the concept of the will to power in Charles’s essay “The Theater of Refusal.” I thought the concept was relevant to the Watts House Project because there’s a struggle between the idea and its material manifestation. It possesses a non-utilitarian character because it justifies its own being. The work we’re doing in Watts is normally bracketed within a community-service dialogue. I felt that that, as a concept, severely limits the work we’re doing. Something I’ve tried to do at the site is focus on the creative act, not on fixed results. The problem with the notion of the will to power is that it perpetually justifies using art as vehicle to advance a particular message. The best art is paradoxical in nature; concepts colliding without making sense or having a predetermined end.
Charles Gaines: In the article, I was making a point that you’re making: that the will to power is Nietzsche’s critique of knowledge. Under this critique, the formation of ideas is driven by the need for power, not truth. Universal knowledge becomes its justification, since power reveals special interest—subjective—and truth claims objectivity. He speaks of it as a way of gaining agency and authority where concepts, ideas, or premises have this incredible egocentric base. Based on this, Edgar seems to propose that you advance political issues in art because you want to make them significant and to be considered. But in doing that, there’s a problem of authority, where other things are cancelled out by your particular occupation of that space. I think you’re saying that trying to pass an idea on that basis makes it a totalizing point that negates other positions.
EA: Exactly. When you’re in the space of making work, there are multiple readings and possibilities in which the work can move and flow, but if it’s only understood as utilitarianism, then it’s limited to this binary code of cause and effect: you do this, it makes a person’s life better. Rick, could you talk about the case of values being expressed within an organizational structure and how you diffuse that across an organizational mission?
Rick Lowe: So you create work, and you may have reason to bracket it in a particular way because it empowers you to continue to do what you’re interested in doing. But then there are other people with different needs bracketing that same work in a way that suits them. That’s the case when you’re doing work that has an organizational structure or is community based. Most often in the art world, markets consume art in a way that empowers people in the market, monetarily. Everybody has their own way of bracketing things and extracting power.
EA: The use of it from the minority position is that the acquisition of power or authority is justified by the struggle to replace or dismantle the current majority position. But the concept’s flaw is that it is tied to finding pleasure by taking power from others. The danger is that once that power is established, one must maintain it by the same tactic used to get it.
RL: Often it’s a complete disregard for others. That’s real power, right?
EA: You don’t do that.
RL: Of course I do. I think we all do it.
EA: How do you manage that in the space of Project Row Houses? People there love you.
RL: It’s a battle to sustain my sense of purpose within that relationship. Socially engaged or community work is never stagnant. This is very different than most traditional artwork, where physical and social relationships are pretty defined. Sometimes there are opportunities for long-term sustainability in which you build structures; that’s what I did with Project Row Houses. It was conceived by me as something that could be a transformative entity within a neighborhood in Houston. It could have stopped as a one-shot thing: a group of artists doing some installation stuff in this depressed neighborhood, calling attention to it, and walking away. But folks got interested in contributing their expertise to develop the project into an ongoing activity. It became an organization. With any activity, everybody has their own sense of how they gain power and what kind of power is needed for sustainability.
CG: Is the mission fluid?
RL: It evolves. Right now it’s at a very good state because I’ve learned that the broader your net is, the more capacity you have. Early on, we started with a mission that described historical preservation, brought artists into this low-income neighborhood, and provided education for youth and transitional housing for single mothers. Originally, we weren’t looking philosophically beyond that. Later, we crafted a mission statement that didn’t define but was a potentiality: to be a catalyst for community transformation through the celebration of African American history and culture. It’s very broad, which leaves it open for people to figure out which roles they can play in it, creating this dynamic of constant power struggle. I’ve lost people in that process and gained others who saw opportunities.
EA: I’m curious how you consider your role in the organization today as opposed to ten years ago.
RL: Ten years ago, the sustainability of the organization was a huge part of my responsibility. Now I’m getting close to the point where I would like to be, where I think all artists should strive to be in their practice: the role that I play at Project Row Houses is effectively that of a resident artist. But because I’ve been in this process for so long, it’s very easy for me to see creative opportunities for the institution. My role is to constantly funnel in creative ideas that help move the agenda forward. I think that’s a role of artists we need to value within society. When Mierle Ukeles appointed herself the artist in residence of the New York Sanitation Department, it was more of a symbolic gesture. My thinking is that there should be a possibility to push that even further, that being an artist in residence with the New York Sanitation Department should be anempowered position.
EA: Are you physically, kinesthetically involved? Like rolling up your sleeves and digging ditches or moving pallets?
RL: On some projects. Like Brother-N-Law’s, the community store, or the wash-and-fold. I’m not doing the work but I’m lining up contractors to do the build-out, that kind of stuff.
EA: Would you consider that a curatorial position?
CG: There’s the issue of definition.
EA: It’s an important question.
CG: The question is: how are values or notions of art being played out at Project Row Houses? It’s a location, an institution—additionally, with ideas about art practice. How is Project Row Houses playing out ideas of art practice—particularly within the standpoint of works of art as opposed to, say, curatorship? So you have to differentiate between work as a curator and work as an artist. I’ve got a general idea that art is the philosophical activity of proposing ways of seeing or looking at the world. The debate around socially engaged art that’s difficult to address is what is art about it, because you’re trying to solve the question in relationship to autonomous art. As long as you have to struggle against autonomous art, you have lost power as a practitioner. My idea is that the only way to produce art is to produce fewer identifiable activities of art practice. Adorno wrote that identifiable markers of art practice can play themselves out in a socially engaged practice which isn’t devoid of politics. But he says nevertheless, “That is identifiably art.” I don’t agree with that, and I can accept the entire social network or social language as a place where art ideas can be placed. Art needn’t be distinguished from other activities.
BOMB’s interviews are made possible in part with the support of readers like you. To read the rest of this conversation, check out Issue 111 on newsstands now or please SUBSCRIBE.
In the Open: Art and Architecture for Public Spaces is sponsored by Cary Brown-Epstein + Steven Epstein with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency.