May 31, 2016

Art in Embassies: A Collaborative, Participatory Installation

As an artist involved with creating participatory art for the past 10 years, my installations aim to present an art experience that takes viewers from contemplation to social engagement. As an arts educator, I always welcome opportunities to teach and hold workshops on social practice. This post details the amazing experience I had recently through an invitation from the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies (AIE) program to travel to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will focus on my experience collaborating with six San Jose artists, and my participatory installation at the “Reflections on Diversity” opening night reception at Ambassador S. Fitzgerald Haney’s residence. I plan to share in subsequent posts the wonderful experiences and insights I had in conducting four workshops during this trip. 
         San Jose artist Carolina Parra transcribes text on English blackboard.        
June 2015: How my journey to Costa Rica began
My journey in participating in the AIE program began with an email invitation from Ms. Camille Benton, AIE Curator for the State Department, to submit an artwork for her “Reflections on Diversity” exhibition to be held at Ambassador S. Fitzgerald Haney’s residence in San Jose, Costa Rica. I was delighted for such an invitation but I also thought that it would add to the experience of social practice if I were to be there to do the installation and to hold a talk to engage the public. With that in mind, I sent my proposal to Camille and was pleased to receive an enthusiastic response. In the ensuing months a number of bi-country teleconferences involving Camille in DC, as well as with Ms. Beverly Thacker and Ms. Gabriella Bolanos at the U.S. Embassy in San Jose began to take place as we mapped out an itinerary for my 5-day trip. The result was an exciting and full agenda that would give me opportunities to:
  • Collaborate with six San Jose artists on making of my text boards for the “Reflections on Diversity” exhibit.
  • Give a talk at the “Reflections on Diversity” reception on opening night.
  • Conduct four social practice workshops for the University of Costa Rica, National University, the Museos de Central Bank, and for community artists, including an organization called Arte por la Paz.
To engage the audiences at each of the scheduled events, I would begin with a PowerPoint presentation on social practice, followed by a participatory art activity using my bisected-text technique for a “hands-on” experience, and end with a debriefing of participants’ personal experiences of the entire workshop.

March 28, 2016: Collaboration with 6 amazing San Jose artists
Mr. Juan Diego Roldan, Visual Arts Coordinator at Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano, invited six local San Jose artists to collaborate with me: Ms. Li Briceno, Ms. Karla Herencia, Ms. Carolina Parra, Mr. Audie Rafael Fallas, Mr. Fernando Rudin, and Mr. Xavier Villafranca. We were given an expansive gallery in the Centro Cultural to do our work. Upon arrival at the gallery, I was happy to see my two blackboards that had been shipped to Costa Rica were already mounted on a wall. I had prepped these blackboards months before in my Maryland studio, with 12 strips of painter’s tape running horizontally on each four-by-six-foot blackboard.
MCB talking with six San Jose artists who worked with him on text transcriptions.  
As I sat in a circle with Juan Diego and the six artists, I was enthralled by the energy and creativity these individuals exuded --- exactly what I needed for my planned participatory art project. I asked each of the artists to speak about their own work, as a way for me to learn more about each of them. Fortunately for me, the good folks from the U.S. Embassy had set me up with portable translation equipment and an earpiece, from which the voice of the professional and personable Mr. Leslie Gonzalez was translating in real time every word of each of the artists as they spoke in Spanish. I learned that the San Jose artists were practicing in a variety of disciplines, including everything from painting and sculpture, to participatory art and motion-activated site-specific installations. In addition, some of them were also art professors at University of Costa Rica. It was humbling to meet such a group of creative and talented fellow artists and I was grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with them in the creation of my blackboards.

When it was my turn to speak, I shared my concept for the project and about my bisected-text technique. I also spoke about Jacques Derrida’s sous rature – placing words “under erasure” – and how my methodology had evolved from teaching art theory, and how it became participatory in 2003 when I first invited the public to decipher the text and to experience the art through language. 

As we began to work, I shared with them the short passage I had written that was inspired by the title of the exhibit, “Reflections on Diversity. This passage would be the text that would be transcribed onto my blackboards, in English and in Spanish. Here is the text I wrote:

The first step in understanding a diverse culture is taken through language. When we meet people from other cultures their new language is like music. We may not understand the meaning but we can hear the rhythm of speech. Rather than focus on our lack of understanding we should revel in the rhythmic poetry of the other. The moment we encounter a new language can be transformed by the wonder of a diverse culture. This is a discovery and exploration of diverse cultures through the rhythm of language. Knowing cultural diversity begins first with language.

The above passage was saved on two iPads I had brought, one iPad had the English version and the other had the Spanish translation. I gave the iPads to the artists, who had divided into two teams: Carolina, Xavier and Raphael worked on transcribing my English text on one blackboard, while Li, Fernando and Karla transcribed the Spanish translation on the other blackboard. At the beginning of transcriptions, adjustments were made so the size of text would be approximately two inches. Some of the artists asked whether I wanted them to print or write in cursive. For past installations, printed text was my preference but for this project I wanted the individual writers to have the freedom to decide how to do their text so some wrote in cursive form.

While the artists were hard at work, a reporter from La Nacion arrived to interview me. During the interview, Natalia Diaz Zeledon asked some intriguing questions about social practice and the nature of the artist’s control of the work. I talked about my first experiments with participatory works, and how challenging it was for an artist “to let go of his work” and how I try to “connect more with the audience and give them an experience to be immersed in art.”

Meanwhile, a number of creative ideas were emerging. First, Li raised a question about whether she could incorporate the use of Esperanto on the Spanish blackboard. I thought this was an excellent suggestion and quickly agreed. In short order, Carolina asked if some Spanish words might be interspersed in the text on the English blackboard, and then someone wanted to know if they could use “Spanglish.” Again, I agreed. My appreciation for the collaborative spirit of these six artists had by this time truly energized me. After all, this was the first time that I had worked with other artists on transcribing text and I was feeling empowered by the collaborative nature of our efforts. The ease with which our collaboration had developed and their creative suggestions allowed me to easily alter my typical process.

Our collaboration was wrapped up with the most exhilarating group debriefing after the “hands-on” experience. Each of the San Jose artists expressed their appreciation for engaging in this collaborative process. Some of them also shared ideas on how they might use this participatory concept in their future work within their communities. I also discovered that a common perception among them was “how comfortable they felt with [my] open attitude to share the experience.”

As for me, I told them that the suggestions they had made on using other languages on the boards had made a strong contribution to our collective work. I also expressed that I had truly enjoyed our collaboration, and I appreciated them sharing their energies on the project, and I would be honored to have them each sign their names on the blackboards as co-authors. They unanimously agreed and, choosing red pastels from my materials, we moved to the blackboards and each 3-person team signed their names on the bottom front of the board they worked on. Among the photographs documenting the morning’s activities are several of them signing their names on the blackboards.

March 29, 2016: Opening reception at Ambassador Haney’s residence
The next night was the opening reception for “Reflections on Diversity” at the Ambassador's residence, truly a highlight of my trip. The evening began in the beautiful garden with Ambassador Haney welcoming his guests. During his opening remarks about the exhibit, he also introduced Roberto Gomez, a Miami-based artist, and David Johns, a Navajo artist from Arizona, who both had abstract paintings in the exhibit. After that, Ambassador Haney introduced me and invited the assembled guests to move inside to the foyer where my blackboards were installed.

There were approximately 50 guests assembled in the foyer where my blackboards were installed. I shared with them the incredible collaborative experience I have had the day before with the 6 San Jose artists at the Centro Cultural. I talked briefly about participatory art and how I wanted to be present at the launch of this “hands-on” activity at the opening of this exhibit. As the guests waited with anticipation, I stepped out from behind the podium to walk to the front of the two blackboard panels, and gestured to the large bowl of red, white and blue chalks and pastels – “the colors in the Costa Rican and United States flags” – and invited them to come forward, to see what words and phrases they could find, and to participate in our art.
Ambassador Haney led by example by picking up a red pastel and walking to the Spanish blackboard. The rest of the guests responded quickly to his initiative and they began to interact with the blackboards enthusiastically. Soon they were fully engaged with the chalks, the text and one another. It was very gratifying for me to see the guests’ energetic contributions and appreciation for this new participatory art form.
 MCB & Ambassador Haney talking about the artwork during opening reception.
It was exhilarating to speak with the Ambassador, his wife, their children and guests about my art and their experiences interacting with the blackboards. I was also thrilled to share the moment with five of the artists I had collaborated with, who were at the reception. As I continued to interact with all the guests, the evening passed before me as though I were in a beautiful dream, one that I am truly grateful to experience.

Final reflections
This experience of working with the San Jose artists has given me a new appreciation for collaboration as a methodology. Creativity can be pushed into new theoretical areas and my participatory practice will be further expanded. There are two possibilities that I can now envision: new collaborative installations created in tandem with peer artists, or the act of constructing a project takes place with the participation of the public in a coordinated effort. Either way, I look forward to the possibilities of developing unique works and projects in collaboration with others both in the United States and overseas.

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