Clear & Transparent

When I attended a small, prestigious fine arts college for my undergrad, we would joke that our school colors were “clear” and “transparent.” Now, some ten years later, I have ironically found myself dealing with building an art piece out of mostly invisible or clear blocks, while trying to cross seemingly transparent boundaries.

To elaborate—I thought, for this blog, we might talk less about HIV/AIDS and more about community engagement/social practice art, along the socioeconomic/racial divides. Each one of those subjects is very heavy, and many scholars still ponder them today. So, like in my past posts, I plan on only covering my thoughts and trials that pertain to the Contracting An Issue project.

I will begin by providing the working and multi-layered definition of “Social Practice Art” as described by Wikipedia: 

Social practice is considered a medium for making art. Social practice art came about in response to increasing pressure within art education to work collaboratively through social and participatory formats. Social practice art is a term for artwork that uses social engagement as a primary medium. Social practice art is also referred to by a range of different names: socially engaged art, community art, new-genre public art, participatory art, interventionist art, and collaborative art.

Artists working in this medium develop projects by inviting collaboration with individuals, communities, institutions, or a combination of these, creating participatory art that exists both within and outside of the traditional gallery and museum system. Artists working in social practice art co-create their work with a specific audience or propose critical interventions within existing social systems that inspire debate or catalyze social exchange. Social practice artwork focuses on the interaction between the audience, social systems, and the artist through topics such as aesthetics, ethics, collaboration, persona, media strategies, and social activism. The social interaction component inspires, drives, or, in some instances, completes the project. Although projects may incorporate traditional studio media, they are realized in a variety of visual or social forms (depending on variable contexts and participant demographics) such as performance, social activism, or mobilizing communities towards a common goal.

Social or community engagement is not always large. I think we often see the words “community” and “social” as involving many people; however, one can have a community consisting of only a few individuals and be social with just one other person. Often the strongest and simplest way to engage others is one on one. For Contracting An Issue, we see each interview and each conversation as building blocks leading us towards engaging the greater community. 

I once read that artists are like scientists, and just like scientists, we begin with a question. For this project, the question is around investigating how HIV/AIDS does or does not affect people in particular communities around the globe.  Yes, there is an art/theater component with actors performing a sort of guerrilla theater. Also, the video/photos are used as documentation along with the writing in our blog, but the core of the project is about engagement. To me, the “art” comes in the form of asking questions and creating a space where people, after being engaged, might ask themselves similar questions in return.

That is what the project is really about—creating and building artwork out of the in-between space people share when asking questions. It is the many different and often intimate forms of engagement that make the project work, so it is essentially constructed out of clear blocks of human reactions.

Our process begins by collecting personal perspectives by conducting one-on-one interviews; we then weave together their stories into a spoken word script. Using story telling, we engage the communities by having actors act out the script. The actors set up in public spaces, unbeknownst to the crowd, and begin to tell their stories. Just like the disease, the actors pop up in one’s life without warning.  Along with our blog and other outreach, each engagement will eventually be shown together to create an overall art piece that will show a glimpse of how different communities around the globe feel about and face HIV/AIDS today.

I have faced many different challenges producing this project here in the Midwest, but one of my biggest has been race. African American men are one of the hardest hit by this disease today.

“Of the more than 1 million people in the U.S. infected with HIV, nearly half are black men, women and children — even though blacks make up about 13 percent of the population. AIDS is the primary killer of African-Americans ages 19 to 44, and the mortality rate is 10 times higher for black Americans than for whites.” – NPR (Click here to listen to the whole story)

To collect an overall voice of Kansas City I must interview many different people from varied racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. I am a gay, fairly preppy white male from a nice-middle class background. I am not religious and could not come from a more different place than some of the folks I would like to interview.

Still, that seems to be the least of my problems. Here in Kansas City, there is this transparent line when it comes to race. When I first moved here, for the most part, all the people I ever saw and interacted with were white people. I wondered why, in a city that I understand to have a very large African American community, a city that is famed by Jazz, Blues, and BBQ, I had not even seen, let alone met, many African Americans? This seemed very odd.  Then I began to hear things like "don't go east of Troost." and I saw where this transparent line was drawn.

Of course this is not just an issue in Kansas City; this is an issue that is deeply rooted in our country. For me, and for this project, I find it hard enough to build and explain a project based on clear blocks of engagements alone. But doing so while trying to circumvent transparent boundaries of race is definitely an uphill battle I did not see coming.  Sadly, I may sometimes be subconsciously at fault for maintaining these boundaries, yet I still feel disgusted by their prolonged existence. The stigma around HIV/AIDS might run deep, but it is the similar stigma we hold around race that I feel aids in the African American community being one of the highest groups affected by HIV/AIDS today.