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Can Artists Use Technology to Enable Communities?

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IMLab Youth Summer Workshop 2012. Photo | Courtesy UCLA IMLab.
IMLab Youth Summer Workshop 2012. Photo | Courtesy UCLA IMLab.

In Partnership with SOC(i)AL: Art + PeopleA series of discussions around LA about Socially Engaged Art, September to November 2012. Instigated by Anne Bray of

For the next in this series of interviews in conjunction with the SOCiAL: Art + People initiative of public programs, I sat down with Anne Bray (artist, organizer of SOCiAL and founder of LA Freewaves) and Fabian Wagmister (director of the Interpretive Media Laboratory, IMLab). Long-time collaborators and innovators in the use of new media to foster collective creativity, Anne and Fabian spoke about the roots of their practices in leveraging a rapidly changing media landscape to enhance a connection to place, foster dynamic community development, and create generative, civically-engaged networks in Los Angeles. They will be joined by fellow artists Pedro Joel Espinosa (IDEPSCA's Mobile Voices), Vicki Callahan (USC IML), Micha Cardenas, and Shagha Ariannia (Long Story Short) in a panel and discussion at LACE on Saturday, November 3rd at 1pm.

Sue Bell Yank: I think it would be helpful to get some background on LA Freewaves, and UCLA IMLab, what your overlapping interests are in terms of interactive media, and what you hope to explore in this panel.

Fabian Wagmister: The Interpretive Media Laboratory, which IMLab stands for, is a project of REMAP, The Center for Research, Engineering, Media and Performance here at UCLA. Fundamentally, it focuses on collective creativity and participatory design as a way to bridge communities with a public design process for their own neighborhoods. So we're very interested in finding a dynamic, fluid, meaningful process by which residents of a neighborhood engage the public process in terms of what's happening to the neighborhood. We specifically focus on Northeast Downtown at this point, because we have a base there, which is LACE (at 6522 Hollyood Blvd), where this event will take place, and because we have established a partnership with California State Parks in relation to the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Largely the concept is this idea of collective creativity. So we look at the community not so much as providers of content for us to make things about, but as the creators instead. We are interested in creating cultural architectures where that can take place. So the gathering of media, data, all the ways to find out visual expression, we release the power into the group that is doing it. Generally we do this in the context of engaged civic research, in that basically we look at mobile devices and technology as a research tool for the community, to use it to analyze what a particular public project is proposing, and then do what we call "citizen science." This is to go out into the community and document the reality, and see to what extent it reflects, matches, or that the plan being proposed serves the needs of the community. Usually, similar to these other projects, we provide groups with the technological infrastructure to go out into the community and basically we look at the cell phone as a magnifying glass, as a sound analysis tool. We use sensors and additional technology depending on what people are trying to study. It's not so much about making images -- even images for us is a form of data that then people keyword, categorize, and it's a way of thinking about their own environment.

For example, a recent project, we did a Summer Institute for high school students from high schools specifically around Northeast LA. For six weeks they gathered data from their own neighborhoods and then they were introduced to statistical analysis of that data so they could learn what this data says about my neighborhood. They focused on a multiplicity of projects including sound pollution, to history awareness of their neighbors, to what extent are people aware of the history of their neighborhood, to a number of other things.

IMLab Youth Summer Workshop 2012. Photo | Courtesy UCLA IMLab.
IMLab Youth Summer Workshop 2012. Photo | Courtesy UCLA IMLab.

They designed data-gathering campaigns, they engaged in gathering the data, and then from the analysis they did, they did an exhibition in which they were asked to share their findings with the community in a creative way. So ultimately they created artworks that were reflective of their process and their findings. They will do sometimes interactive media, some did games that were about exploring the neighborhood through a set of rules, some did more physical installations where they made a map of the neighborhood and then they created paper structures that reflected the data they found around the neighborhood, some painted murals that were about the relationships they had found. So that's really the process we're interested in, technology as a research tool for the community about itself, and then engaging their creative capacities as a group. We're not interested in...we understand the place for individual creativity, but in this case we're trying to get them out of the sense of "Me, and what I think, what I want to express," and into a dialogue about collective identity, and how to reflect that collective identity that somehow is connected to the data that they gather.

IMLab Youth Summer Workshop 2012. Photo | Courtesy UCLA IMLab.
IMLab Youth Summer Workshop 2012. Photo | Courtesy UCLA IMLab.

Sue Bell Yank: And then is there an ultimate goal for this data to go on to influence policy or planning? It seems like it would be invaluable information.

Fabian Wagmister: Well, part of the secondary thing we're looking at is what kind of dynamic public process can take place? Because right now you have these public meetings that are just about some check mark on some form by the planners. Not because the planners don't want to do something more meaningful...

Sue Bell Yank: They don't know how. And the same people always show up to these things.

Fabian Wagmister: That's right. And everybody does their little drawing on a paper, and nothing really happens, and we all write our names on a card and it goes into a file, bye-bye. So is there a more dynamic and interesting way. We are thinking a lot about these things. A lot of it is ultimately about empowerment, of people and of the group itself. And some of these groups, made up of kids who didn't know each other before they were part of this program, they have created their own Facebook groups, and become politicized and informed and have continued the dialogue. We did a project called Eco-Interns in partnership with the William C. Velasquez Institute in Northeast LA in which for six weeks a group of teenagers visited a number of parks and explored the relationship of nature to the city. And then from the data they collected they designed six billboards that were actually posted around the park for about a month. They're beautiful.

Eco-Interns Billboard "Stop Appreciate Nature." Image courtesy UCLA REMAP and IMLab.
Eco-Interns Billboard "Stop Appreciate Nature." Image courtesy UCLA REMAP and IMLab.

Anne Bray: They're very complex, rich statements, layered.

Fabian Wagmister: It's interesting because whenever you talk about collective creativity, there's a tendency to feel that that means "bad art." That's "weak aesthetics." I strongly believe that is a mistaken conception and a lack of understanding about what collective creativity is, which is not just about silly exercises. It's very focused, a very engaged process that has an evolution and ultimately can produce very serious and compelling art. At the content level but also at the aesthetic level.

Anne Bray: We did Hollywould together in 2008, and we worked with many different ages. One of the big surprises for me were these gay seniors who got deeply into the history of their neighborhood and continued working there.

Fabian Wagmister: We did a similar project with a youth group at the William Mead Housing Project in Northeast LA and it was mostly Latino immigrants, working class, poor kids, and, for example, something that was surprising was how many of the girls were focusing on cars, and how big car culture was to their dads. So they were documenting hubcaps, things like that. They were really into cars. A lot of the time we work on issues of identity in terms of cultural specificity. There's such focus on universality, but we're very interested in helping them discover the specificity of their own culture and strengthen it.

Sue Bell Yank: Anne, moving to you, what is the background of Freewaves and how is it overlapping in its concerns?

Anne Bray: All the projects that we mentioned here, there are individuals and there is collective process. It's almost a spectrum of people, from working solo to very collaborative practices. I'm a networker of systems, gathering artists who are making video all over LA County. How wide can we go to find sources that can possibly work on a project like Out the Window, to put video on a bus? Not everything will work, it has to be two minutes, we can't count on sound, there are language barriers, sometimes it's too loud, it's too soft. There's GPS triggering but it only works half the time, the monitors are broken, the driver sometimes turns them off. There are systemic challenges, and then there are individual bus challenges. But there are a million people a day riding the buses. I have always looked for systems, like KCET, the web, Hollywood Blvd...

Out the Window on LA Metro buses. Photo | Courtesy Anne Bray.
Out the Window on LA Metro buses. Photo | Courtesy Anne Bray.

Fabian Wagmister: Creative distribution systems.

Anne Bray: Yes, and I try to get it out there, with a wide range. So we're getting funding to commission pieces, five different pieces by six artists, artists with big names like Mel Chin, to high school kids. I try for good work, I try to put it together with artists that can take that kind of context. At the same time, the work is seen in context with this really corporate advertising.

Fabian Wagmister: The fact that it's mixed with this very commercial medium, I actually find it very exciting and interesting. It's a challenge.

Anne Bray: Weather, quizzes, news. It's that intervening technique. At the same time, the series SOCiAL: Art + People, when I finally sat down to write something about it, I really felt that art has moved from isolation to intervention to participation and engagement. What I'd love to propose for the next stage is integration. That there isn't plop art, that we're not temporarily there, we are everywhere. Really pushing the idea that art can be everywhere. And realizing that there are so many circumstances where it's very difficult, and the bus is one of them. Every situation we're in, there are yes and nos. So I look for one where I can get in more easily, or where I can get access now, and try to grow them. With the bus, what I really love is trying to do the one-year relationship and making it really interactive. So putting a piece out, then we have the questions, then we hear back, then we respond to them, and after a year we could probably have a serious dialogue with some of the people. Then we could be saying, "Why don't you make a video?" On our site are all the resources in LA to help people make a video. And gradually, could we turn the whole channel over to the bus riders?

UCLA REMAP in Hollywood. Photo | Courtesy Anne Bray.
UCLA REMAP in Hollywood. Photo | Courtesy Anne Bray.

Fabian Wagmister: The environment is so different and interesting, the idea that it is a moving screen. These layers of passengers, most of them are there, every day at the same time, going from the same place to the same place because they're going to work or school. Probably 60-70% of riders are habitual riders.

Anne Bray: You know, it's even higher, 85%.

Fabian Wagmister: I imagine. So the idea that you can establish a communication system where slowly they realize, "Wait a minute, now I can start contributing content!" and that the content can be related to the places that they're traveling through. So, what do I see, what do I want to share with other people about what I see? I mean, the system as it is now is limited, and I think Anne and everyone working on it have tried to push it as much as possible, but the idea that the content can be provided by GPS data so that it is site-specific while you are traveling. So whatever you are looking at on the screen somehow refers to the outside, and it is asking you questions about the outside that you can give feedback about, that can become part of the cycle the next day. It is a very powerful set of relationships. Now, there are a lot of limitations...but the panel is about where are we going with these things. And we are going to use these projects to point at directions. The idea of communities having creative tools to deal with the day-to-day in a dialogic mode, I think "Out the Window" is really powerful.

There's something in common with all of these projects -- that ultimately they're not about final statements or final exhibitions, but they're about systems. Interactive. I would call them relational systems that basically allow communities to discover relationships, some which are problematic and need to be fought against, some which are positive and need to be reinforced, but ultimately its about people being able to tap into the deeper set of relationships that somehow condition their lives, enable them or not.

Sue Bell Yank: To try to draw connections, I feel like I see in the art paradigm, we have so-called "social practice" on the rise, this desire for artists to break out of the white cube and engage in these relational networks and systems and effect change outside of the art world, and I also see that we're in the midst of enormous changes and paradigm shifts in our media. The tools of distribution, the tools of production, I see it everywhere. We're in an application phase now, the effects on our culture have yet to be discovered. So I see this very interesting intersection happening with both of your projects in connecting this relational desire that is connected as well to our media platforms changing.

Anne Bray: What I like about all of these projects is that people are doing it instead of Google telling us what the options are.

Sue Bell Yank: And people have these tools more and more at their disposal, they have the tools to make video, they have the tools to collect data and send it out to lots of people. There's this untamed explosion. These projects are very interesting because there is a focusing of this energy. It relates to place, it is embedded in relationships, it creates new networks that are very useful and generative and most of all, related to place.

Fabian Wagmister: I think you are right, and when you say the word "place," I think that is very important to most of these projects. I'm actually very ambiguous about technology in general, I have to be honest with you, I have big problems. If I could choose, I would choose a world without computers. Funny for me to say, right? Ultimately I think it's like film-making. If I consider the impact of film-making in the last 150 years on world culture, I have a negative take on it. It was largely a tool of imperialism and homogenization of culture, where kids in Bolivia, all they saw was Terminator and never saw themselves reflected on the screen. And we all know there have been incredible films about liberation and empowerment, yet most humans don't even know those exist. And with digital technology I am also skeptical, I mostly see that the negatives far outweigh the positives. There are some positives, and since this is the world we live in, we need to tap in and potentialize them as far as we possibly can.

Anne Bray.
Anne Bray

Anne Bray has been working at the intersection of public art and media art as a hybrid artist and director of a nonprofit media arts organization. The creativity of one and the social outreach of the other have continuously fed each other. Access to edgy, demanding art by a broad public is Bray's mission. She exhibits installation/performances of video, audio, flat and 3-d screens at traditional and nontraditional venues including museums, galleries, gas stations, malls, movie theaters, and department stores, as well as on TV and billboards. She has produced public art projects with GLOW art festival in Santa Monica, Public Art Fund, NY Avant Garde Festival, LACE, CRA, FAR, Cinematexas among others, and multi-media installations at Santa Monica Museum of Art, Track 16, Pomona Museum of Art, MIT, Images du Futur in Montreal and other experimental spaces. As a lecturer for the past 20 years, she has taught graduate seminars in the new genre arts at Claremont Graduate University as well as public art at University of Southern California, and mentors students through their MFA and MA theses.

Fabian Wagmister.
Fabian Wagmister

Fabian Wagmister's current work focuses on alternative technological modes for collective creativity. He collaborates with diverse communities to generate reflexive media systems emphasizing cultural and locative specificity. In this context technology and culture converge into a performative social practice of investigation and expression. Fabian is the Head of the Production Program at UCLA's Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP) and the Interpretive Media Laboratory (IMLab).

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