Art for Social Change Student Blogger Study Abroad

Freedom and Transformation

Students with Imagine Joy practicing Yoga

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Zoe Quinn (she/her/hers) is HECUA’s student blogger for Art for Social Change Spring 2021. She is student at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in art. Read on for her next post!

Two words that keep returning to me while reflecting on this past month in the Art for Social Change program are freedom and transformation. More specifically, the artists’ ability to use the freedom of their practices to transform, problematize, and raise questions around various issues, even transforming notions of what an artist is. Weisman Art Museum’s Curator for Creative Collaboration, Boris Oicherman, and socially engaged artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, recently spoke in our class and they have opened my mind to new ways of doing these things. Our cohort has been moving towards creating larger scale art projects. The wisdom of Mierle and Boris will definitely guide this process. As we continue moving in this direction it is important to keep freedom and transformation in mind. 

Chances are high that I will use the term socially engaged artwork (SEA) more times than I can count in my blogs this semester. Therefore, before I get to the various guests that have attended our Zoom classroom, I should introduce author Pablo Helguera, whose words in “Education for Socially Engaged Art” have been illuminating and informative as our class begins to practice art/change-making in our communities. The contemporary artworld has virtually no limitations on what art can be and SEA embodies this freedom in many different ways. Some qualities of SEA that Helguera identifies are social collaboration and participation, an interdisciplinary nature, and addressing social issues on an actual level (versus symbolic). He writes that “socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity.” This process creates new insights. Socially engaged art is free from disciplinary distinctions, free from traditional notions of authorship, and free from art-making processes that align with capitalist forces. These positive trickster-like qualities allow SEA to create actual change. 

I feel as though I don’t know where to start when attempting to describe the breadth and depth of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ career in the arts. To provide a little background: she has used her voice as an artist to challenge the separation between the processes of art and the processes of life, something called maintenance art. A pioneer in the development of SEA praxis, she has been the artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation for over 40 years, unpaid, continuing her legacy. Some of her projects have included shaking the hands of all 8,500 NYC sanitation workers and washing the front steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum. Since 1989, she has been working on LANDING, a collaboration with the Department of Sanitation to create a public park on the site of the Freshkills Landfill and various installations. I am in awe of how she so artfully transforms maintenance into art, using her role as an artist to enter a gray, uncharted area. She is not a legislator or a sanitation worker, but in a trickster manner, she creates an in-between space, taking advantage of her freedom as an outsider and an artist. Our program director, Marcus Young, is a member of her artistic lineage, bringing his creative skills and imagination to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

It is easy to be inspired by the playful nature of Mierle’s work, as well as the audacity and drive to challenge the “forces that be” in such a concrete way. There has always been a lack of respect for maintenance work, whether it be unpaid household labor, traditionally performed by women, or underpaid sanitation work. We must uplift the voices of those that are often rendered invisible. In our discussion with Mierle, we connected this to self-care, which is often framed as indulgence, when in reality, it is self-preservation (Audre Lorde), especially in a society that glorifies ‘the grind,’ or more aptly, ‘burnout culture.’ Furthermore, self-care is also community care and transformation. As we learn more about what we are able to contribute, our capacity to give is increased. By bringing all of these issues into the realm of social art, real change can be enacted, both on individual and systemic levels. Freedom and transformation are heavily present in Mierle’s work and I only hope that I can bring some of the aforementioned audacity and originality into my own artistic practice. 

I was also inspired by our visit to the Weisman Art Museum (WAM) and our discussions with Boris Oicherman, WAM’s Curator for Creative Collaboration, who is one of two people with that job title in the country. It is a role that allows for a lot of creative freedom, as it does not have to be in accord with traditional museum practice or a specific discipline. In fact, the goal of the Target Studio, which he curates, aims to build connections across disciplines, between the art and science sectors in particular. The collaborative, socially engaged, imaginative nature of this space is different from the space of the rest of the museum, which we spent time reflecting on. Museums traditionally collect, display, and preserve objects, a system that has been in place for years and years, but fosters a variety of separations (time, place, etc.). I am reminded that spaces like the Target Studio can exist, ones that connect artists and community members, especially as socially engaged art gains more traction. It is a space that supports artists that are practicing outside of the materialistic systems that museums have developed. 

Art offers incredible transformative potential, from transforming sidewalks into canvases for poetry, to transforming (revealing) maintenance to be art, to transforming connections to our bodies through movement art. It also is freeing. It can free people from binaries, from isolation, and from systemics that are not affirming to people. I am reminded of all of this by the amazing guests and discussions that ASC has had these past few weeks, and I am excited to bring these thoughts into my future projects. 


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