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Antelope Valley Art Outpost: Building Community in the High Desert

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In partnership with Antelope Valley Art Outpost: Antelope Valley Art Outpost is a creative placemaking project that supports regional vitality through artist-driven projects in the unincorporated California communities of Littlerock and Sun Village.

Tucked away between the San Gabriel and the Tehachapi Mountains, and straddling both Los Angeles County and Kern County, the Antelope Valley exists on the 2200 square miles of arid land at the outer crescent of the region's urban megalopolis. Best known for its blooming wildflowers and aerospace industry, as well relative geographic isolation and relatively high poverty rate, the County of Los Angeles launched a program to use art and public practice as tools to inspire development in the communities of Antelope Valley. The Antelope Valley Art Outpost is an attempt to foster and facilitate creative communities in unincorporated areas and, in turn, also to encourage a stronger sense of community in the area. In tandem with the Antelope Valley General Plan, the Outpost is a creative placemaking effort to use "artist-driven" projects to promote community development in areas such as Sun Village and Littlerock.

For this placemaking project, artists, residents, and "stakeholders" work together to conceive and realize projects and programs, with help from partners including the MFA Public Practice program at Otis College of Art and Design, the Lancaster Museum of Art and History (MOAH), the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance (GAVEA), the Department of Regional Planning, and the Office of Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. The endeavor is managed by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and Metabolic Studio.

The two-year long project aims to affect the larger creative Antelope Valley community through the identification and support of community assets and local artists. It's designed in two phases: Cultural and Community Asset Research led by Otis MFA students in Public Practice, and the Artist-in-Residence Program in both Littlerock and Sun Village.

The Outpost project hopes to engage and empower residents to actively participate in the community development process. They promote the use of innovative approaches in planning and development in city and county issues, hoping to build social unity in the greater Antelope Valley and increase a sense of pride and positive community identities.

TEAM ANTELOPE VALLEY PROJECT: Amy Sanchez, Laurie Peake (Metabolic Studio Fellow), Tracee Johnson (Graduate Teaching Fellow), Misael Diaz (Cognate Collective with Amy Sanchez), Suzanne Lacy (Program Chair) and Robin Gilliam (Project Manager)
TEAM ANTELOPE VALLEY PROJECT: Amy Sanchez, Laurie Peake (Metabolic Studio Fellow), Tracee Johnson (Graduate Teaching Fellow), Misael Diaz (Cognate Collective with Amy Sanchez), Suzanne Lacy (Program Chair) and Robin Gilliam (Project Manager)
Suzanne Lacy in front of her Three Weeks in January installation.
Suzanne Lacy in front of her Three Weeks in January installation.

The Outpost activates the community in a two-fold process. During the first phase of the Outpost project, the Otis graduate students will work within each community to conduct research and host "Open Conversations," where visiting artists and Otis students will lead discussion, activities and technical assistance workshops, designed to identify local cultural assets. The second phase will consist of an Artist-In-Residency in both towns, in which the artists will develop projects based on findings of the Otis students' research. Director and Curator for MOAH Andi Campognone says that the two-part project will help local artists develop their professional skills and expand their practice. "As they are helping to professionally develop artists in the Antelope Valley, we will choose two that engage with the social practice artists that we are hiring to come into the community, to be Artists-In-Residences -- one in Littlerock and one in Sun Village," she says.

Through interviews with community members in Sun Village and Littlerock, the Otis public practice students identified core needs according to their responses. Henderson Blumer, one of the participating students looks ahead to the hundreds of fascinating possibilities they are brainstorming about, during their research and development stage. "Antelope Valley has a rich and complicated history my colleagues and I have only begun to experience," he says. "This is much different than the stereotypes about Antelope Valley, which I hope will break down the more we explore."

Museum of Art and History, Lancaster
Museum of Art and History, Lancaster

Based on the student's interactions, they came up with five themes to be addressed in their engagement programming. The themes include: youth engagement; environment and habitat; economics; cultural identity; and art and culture. The Open Conversations workshops and lectures were developed that center on those five themes.

"I think this is the most creative way to engage the community," Campognone says, "talking about themselves and expressing themselves. Sun Village and Littlerock have subtle cultural histories that the county may not know about, and this is a way for them to have a say in implementing new infrastructure as a community."

At the helm of the social practice project is Suzanne Lacy, a well-regarded performance artist, and founding chair of the MFA in Public Practice at the Otis College of Art and Design. "Our task is to use creative ways to engage people in Littlerock and Sun Village, and to suss out what are the resources that exist there that might rise to the surface," she says. "There are about 18,000 people in this region, so what happens if you can get half of them involved? That's going to change the tenor of how the community envisions itself. It's just got to."

Andi Campognone at MOAH. Photo by Anne Marie Rousseau.
Andi Campognone at MOAH. Photo by Anne Marie Rousseau.

Lacy spearheaded the nascent social practice art movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and continues to evolve her craft in communities today. In her 2013 "Between the Door and the Street" performance in Brooklyn, Lacy and a group of over 400 women and a few men spent a Saturday evening taking over 60 stoops in Brooklyn to have conversations. Conversations were unscripted but choreographed from questions forwarded by each group that revealed the extent of activist engagement in issues of gender, race, ethnicity and class. As the conversations drew to a close, tables set up in the center of the street and residents offered hot refreshments to the audience and the performers.

With the Outpost, she uses social practice methodologies to help explore larger political issues and inspire public engagement. At a recent lecture, she mentioned the four key concepts she considers with any social practice project: the use of hidden knowledge; supporting a plural voice in democracy; intersectionality; and placemaking. She says she's interested in engaging the residents of the Antelope Valley in a project that exists at the intersection of art, politics, activism, citizenship, community and public voice. "I think it's a great gift to work with an organization as progressive as the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, in terms of being willing to experiment with both a learning process and a community process," she says.

For residents of the Antelope Valley, Campognone says MOAH "has been the cultural hub for the Antelope Valley for 26 years," which makes it a good a convening location for the first phase of project. "Its role now," Campognone says, "will be hosting the professional development for the Antelope Valley artists. I think that's why the county looked to us for this project." Campognone says that they will also be working and facilitating the professional artists in social practice that they're bringing into the community. Devora Orantes, a Museum Aid at MOAH is excited about the opportunities this grant and project will bring this area. "We envision that through engaging the artistic communities, it will provide educational opportunities for artists in the Antelope Valley to grow and explore social practice, and also prepare them for the application process to the artist-in-residence program that will be the result of this, in phase two."

The next Open Conversations takes place on March 13 and 14 and features social practice artist Susan Leibovitz Steinman who will be hosting a brainstorming session and interactive workshop focusing around community gardens as a form of social practice art. Steinman has been collaborating with communities all over the world for 30 years now, creating large public installations that address ecological and social concerns, tailor-made to address community-specific needs and wants. Her projects focus on low cost, eco-friendly techniques that yield great results in many ways.

Steinman's project in the Antelope Valley will explore garden-spaces as a tool to build stronger communities and improve health and well being of the residents of the area. "More things are gained from a food garden than just healthy food," Steinman says. "It has economic and social benefits and can help beautify communities as well. By working together, people not only part of the process and learn the skills; they also take ownership of the project."

Steinman hopes to engage the artists in the area to participate and consider an alternative sense of art practice and help to build a better community in the process. "Artists have very special skills," Steinman explains, "they can think outside of the box; and that thinking outside of the box is really an amazingly critical tool that is actually very exciting when people work together, when they collaborate."

Further Reading on Social Practice from Artbound:

Artbound Episode: Social Practice
In this episode, Artbound explores social practice arts throughout Southern California.

The Spirit of North Shore
Residents of the resource-starved North Shore community on the Salton Sea hope a new plan for renewal and social practice art will promise a more sustainable future.

Market Makeovers: Public Matters, Place, and Pedagogy
Public Matters' Market Makeovers green the food desert -- one corner store at a time.

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