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Connecting through Community Art

This week’s post is brought to you by Piper Prolago, OCH Student Fellow and TU sophomore in art history. Piper is interested in the ways that public art commemorates and brings meaning to communities outside of the normal confines of efficiency and capital–in turn, community art becomes a space for play and re-imagining mundane spaces.

When I moved to Tulsa for my freshman year of college, one of the first times I felt at home in the new city was driving downtown and looking at all of the murals that decorated the buildings. As an art history major, seeing the way that various communities express themselves has always been one of the most exciting parts of traveling. Whether glimpsed on a road trip or appearing suddenly in my hometown, public art serves to celebrate these seemingly mundane spaces.

With this in mind, I chose to consider the concept of play in public spaces as part of this year’s OCH theme. In a world geared towards efficiency and capital, it becomes increasingly difficult to find ways to reconnect with this fundamentally human urge to play. The inclusion of art in urban spaces not only facilitates, but encourages, us to do this.

In order to explore the connectivity between art and cities, I asked all of the research fellows to select a work of art from their hometown and one from Tulsa. They each spoke about the memories they associated with the works and how they felt individually connected to each piece. In most cases, the fellows selected works that were commemorative or primarily aesthetic, and certain themes began to emerge.

Murals throughout Tulsa as well as examples like Magda Sayeg’s yarn bombing stood out as being intentionally and characteristically playful. These works aimed to shift the way we think about and interact with everyday objects. Rather than seeing the same brick wall or stop sign, these artists use play to readapt and reimagine the urban environment. Through this, we are able to look at spaces we might see over and over again – or even aesthetics that seem to exist in every city – and rethink them. As a result, otherwise mundane objects or spaces  become unique to a certain city. I call these works lusory because they so plainly embody the spirit and idea of play.

The commemorative works that seemed to characterize hometowns illustrate a different kind of public art. Rather than being strictly aesthetic, they articulate a specific message, speaking to the collective memory of a certain set of people. In the case of monuments like a statue of the Colorado Springs founder that Dr. Latham submitted or the Land Rush memorial in Oklahoma City that Professor Taghavi-Burris shared, the works become indicative of the city’s history. These kinds of community art speak to a narrative shared by the inhabitants of a particular space.

While the explicitly commemorative examples above become accessible to inhabitants of a particular space, other veins of community art serve a more specific cultural group. In these instances, community art can give a sense of presence and voice to groups who may not be represented in a space. Examples include eL Seed’s murals of Arabic calligraphy on buildings across the world or Diego Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. eL Seed adapts this traditional form of art characteristic of the Islamic world, reimagining it to challenge viewers’ conception of Muslims in their own communities. Rivera is able to capture a biopic of Mexican history with particular emphasis on the effects of colonialism, revolution, and conquest on indigenous groups. Here, Rivera is able to effectively insert indigenuos issues into a narrative that generally ignores their perspectives.

In both of these instances, community art also has an essential  critical function. In such cases, artists identify issues and aim to draw attention to them with the ultimate goal of remedying a perceived flaw in society. Works like Jenny Holzer’s Vigil projections of accounts of gun violence onto Rockefeller Center confronts the public with a problem, demanding recognition and action to solve it. Alfredo Jaar’s Lights in the City targets the problem of homelessness in Montreal. Jaar installed red lights in the Copula of the Marche Bonsecours, which were triggered when homeless people were invited to press buttons situated throughout the city. By giving the homeless population a very aggressive and visual presence in the city, Jaar aimed to force the population to engage in conversations about a problem that has generally been ignored, just as the people themselves are.

Regardless of how we attempt to categorize such works, they become “community” art through the interactions and memories that individuals within a particular space share with it. Regardless of a work’s seriousness, it starts as being “lusory” by nature. Public art imposes acts of leisure – observation and contemplation – in an otherwise efficiency-centered space. Artists must play with ideas and topics in order to present them to the public in the most compelling manner. Art does not need to be playful in order to play with us, nor does art does need to have a critical meaning to be meaningful.

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