Editor's Note: We asked three artists to share their very different thoughts about the confusing concept of "creative placemaking". On Wednesday: Ashley Hanson; Thursday: Charles Campbell. Next week, they'll respond directly to the essays we publish this week. Enjoy.
As a performance artist, I have made non-traditional theater in traditional theater spaces. Over the past few years I have shifted my artistic practice towards making work outdoors, in my neighborhood, in concert with the places that matter to me that aren’t traditionally used as art spaces. Much of this work has been done with the inspiration and support of Arts on Chicago through Pillsbury House + Theatre. I also have a position with Springboard for the Arts as the Art and Community Coordinator for The Cornerstone Group, a progressive, woman-owned and operated real estate developer. This job has led me to partner with artists whose projects are designed for parking lots, empty lots, blank walls, and other spaces that will be something someday but right now they are nobody’s anything.
Here is the heart of “creative placemaking” as I have come to understand it; blank places are made into something by the act of artists seeing them as places for making. In this way, public artists see that underused spaces hold the same potential as an empty stage, or a blank canvas. The experiments in placemaking I am personally conducting are driven by my desire to stretch, change, and grow as an artist. Making work for different kinds of places takes my creative process to different places within me. Each new project has required me to take risks and think critically about process, people, partners, and product.
Placemaking requires artists to create a temporary venue designed specifically for their project. Often, I think artists who choose to present their work in the public realm do so because their ideas do not fit into any other setting other than the setting they make up. Either their content or their delivery or the spectacle or surprise of it begs for a context beyond the places specifically set up to showcase artists or where people go to “experience art”.
Placemakers make up the rules (within multiple limitations including the law as well as budgetary restrictions) and operate their spaces in whatever ways they see fit. In these temporary venues, process is often part of the product, allowing whoever is around to participate in the act of creation. This access to process is fundamentally different from private rehearsals or a studio-based practice where the audience/public only gets to see the refined/revised final draft.
To me, this transparency is both exciting and burdensome as it can be difficult for artists to practice placemaking projects, resulting in a lot of learning-as-you-go. This can be exhausting for the artist and, at times, underwhelming for the participants. Yet there is a thrill in not knowing what will work and what won’t that requires the placemaking artist to be present, adaptive, and responsive. I can say that before I go out into the wide open public realm where anything can happen, I feel the same kind of adrenaline buzz as when I am back stage waiting for my cue and wondering how that night’s show will unfold.
One gem of placemaking is the immediate and intimate interactions with people that result from the fact that you have brought your art to them and not required them to come to you. At their best, placemaking projects help people begin to experience art in their everyday life, but also make the public sphere a little more fluid and impressionable than we are taught it is.
As an activist fighting for racial and economic equity and access to the arts, I love that many placemaking projects are cost-free and claim public space as a place of exchange that can be molded and malleable by the people who live in it, pass through it, care for it, or use it everyday. In this way, it has an inherently anti-capitalist quality to it, even if critiquing economics has nothing to do with the projects, they still exist outside of the consumer-based transactions and this is thrilling. For these reasons, I can see that the placemaking movement has the potential to inspire spirited, dynamic projects used to protest, raise controversy, celebrate, or complexify the often over-simplified narratives told about places and the people who live in them.
If placemaking goes down a different road that is about feel-good-fun-times-for-the-whole-family, then I believe we are missing out on the radical nature of this art form. Don’t get me wrong, intergenerational experiences that leave people feeling delighted count as wonderful successes to me. But I also feel aware that if the latest and future waves of placemakers stay too tame or don’t build on the history of this art form as a form of protest, then all the worries that artists are the first step in a gentrification process that displaces people, culturally or economically, may come true.
One of the great joys for me in my ventures into the realm of placemaking is the opportunity to shape new partnerships. As a performance artist, I partnered with arts organizations to produce my shows. But as an artist whose work is interactive and mobile, I can get hired by parks, non-profits, libraries, real estate developers, businesses, mass transit, health care companies, community gardens. You name it, and placemakers can partner with it.
Not only does creative placemaking ask the artist to reach out to different kinds of institutions other than arts institutions to execute their projects, it also allows multiple sectors to have a base of artists that they can reach out to themselves to bring into openings, block parties, festivals, markets, storefronts, or wherever they know they want something fresh and memorable to happen.
Since arts funding is limited, artists need to diversify their income streams. Placemaking is one way to do it. But, of course, I also worry and wonder whether that leads to selling out, or turns the artistic process into a commodity. Or is it okay if riding on the waves of the placemaking trends can lead to a meaningful and clever way to make a living?
I often wonder if placemaking artists ought to have deep ties to the places, cultures, issues, or history where they work. If they aren’t familiar, is it their responsibility to learn and/or be accountable to the ways their work might not resonate with that place? In traditional venues, artists are allowed to make whatever they want, and people can choose whether or not to come in and see it. There is not the same contract with placemaking projects and the people who come into contact with them.
When art is made in the public realm, people don’t get to choose whether they see it or not. Is this why most of the placemaking work I have seen in the Twin Cities is really nice—as in non-offensive and not too disruptive? While I understand why, and so far have made happy, safe projects myself, I still love the fact that artists often play the role of agitator, taking people to challenging spaces and asking them to linger in the uncomfortable or painful parts of life/power/society.
I wonder if the placemaking movement has the capacity to hold all parts of the spectrum from suffering to celebration.
We will see.
See you on the streets.