Shannon Jackson: Art +

4 Oct

In the arithmetic of the arts, minus (-) is the sign of the times. It’s depressingly visible in the dwindling funding for arts institutions and the shrinking wallets of audiences. Shannon Jackson’s reading of the equation, however, reverses the terms. Director of UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center, Jackson looks at the ways artists, museums, landlords and communities are adding on value (and sometimes headaches) by joining forces or commingling formerly separate practices. No longer Rapunzels in their separate towers, the arts, she finds, are busy hailing passing boats and making common cause with their neighbors, both aesthetic and actual.

On October 10, two of Jackson’s current research initiatives will themselves be added together: Art + Time which explores the increasing hybridization of the visual and performing arts (with the resulting complications for curators turned casting directors and museum staffs turned stage hands) and Art + Neighborhoods, which examines the supports and stresses involved in the creation and sustenance of new urban arts districts. The resulting symposium, titled Time-Based Art and Neighborhood Ecologies, will focus on places in the Bay Area and in other parts of the country where boundaries between the art world and the so-called real world are being creatively and compassionately blurred.

The titles of Jackson’s initiatives may sound simple but her intentions are not: “Can we stay complicated about this?” she asked an interviewer.

Developers eyeing property, performers dreaming of venues, and  residents feeling the squeeze perceive the role of the arts in their communities differently. Yet, she says, they depend on the same kinds of support, and many of the same institutions. Her field is performance studies: With its interest in integrating disciplines and historic links to anthropology, it’s a good background for framing an exchange conducted in multiple tongues. Or gestures. “My hope,” she told Art Practical’s Cristina Linden, “is that by thinking about support as a complex system, as a social question but also as an aesthetic question, we can activate a different conversation.”

The conversation at Monday’s symposium will involve an array of artists who juggle the sometimes-seen-to-be mutually-exclusive terrains of social engagement and aesthetic innovation. Among them: the Cornerstone Theatre, initially formed to stage classic dramas with the residents of rural communities, but for the last 20 years creating theatre with the varied populations, neighborhoods and workplaces of Los Angeles; California College of Arts’ Allison Smith whose investigation of historic needle crafts and implements has resulted not only in ambivalently object-laden sculptures but has also prompted her to develop skill sharing communities among recovering veterans; Oakland poet-educator Marc Bamuthi Joseph, whose Life is Living urban festivals join music, spoken word and performance art with environmental action; and University of Chicago’s Theaster Gates, whose CV unites studies in urban planning, ceramics and Religious Studies and whose installations may combine Zen temples, downtown blocks, and gospel choirs.

The theme of addition is evident in the titles of the symposium’s panels: Expanding Audience/Expanded Theatre, Expanding Craft/ Expanded Objects, Expanding Environmentalism/Expanded Pedagogy.

But along with the excitement of pushing outward, Jackson sees new, fruitful limitations arising from practices that “not only celebrate freedom” but explore networks of obligation and responsibility.

The question which underlies the work of all the participants in Time-Based Art and Neighborhood Ecologies,  is two-fold : “How,” she asks, “do we make an ensemble? How does ensemble make us?” In talking about adding and subtracting, it seems, we are also talking about interdependence: a process akin to breathing in and breathing out.

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written by Ariel Swartley

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