Chemi Rosado-Seijo

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The houses of Naranjito, located outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico, follow the contour of the mountain beneath them, rising and falling along the ridges. This is the first thing Chemi Rosado-Seijo noticed from the foot of the hillside; not the boarded windows or trash-lined streets–signs of a declining economy in what was once a thriving community founded by coffee-plantation workers. And so, in an effort to draw attention to the uniquely organic shape of this small town–and to instill a sense of civic pride among residents who were increasingly disillusioned with their economic situation–he began to paint all of Naranjito’s houses green.

During the project, Rosado-Seijo asked homeowners for permission to paint their homes a shade of green of their choosing. Many declined at first, primarily because the color is associated with the independistas, a local group that sought succession from the United States. But gradually, as the color popped out of the terrain and complemented the hues of the surrounding trees, they began to agree on condition that he also repaint other parts of the property such as stoops and fences in different colors. He enlisted local youth to help him paint, and held workshops, conferences and other events that brought positive press coverage to a community inundated daily with reports of the endemic unemployment and crime that had characterized the village.

Throughout his practice, Rosado-Seijo transforms public perception by presenting new approaches to the urban experience. In 2005, he was commissioned by the New York-based Art in General to explore Manhattan on skateboard. He then created a map of the best skate sites and routes he located during his travels; his 15-foot diagram proposed an alternate transportation option as well as a new aesthetic understanding of the city. El Cerro was presented at the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

 

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Navin Rawanchaikul

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Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market, which dates back to the 19th century, is best characterized by the word “epic”: The densely packed stalls and stores feature inexhaustible rows of wares, from vegetables and chickens to brightly dyed textiles and plastic knick-knacks. Likewise, the market’s population has become an equally diverse cross-section of religious and ethnic identities over the years. Artist Navin Rawanchaikul grew up working in his family’s fabric store amid the complex, cultural mélange. To celebrate the market’s centennial anniversary, he organized an arts festival, called Mahākād, inspired by the market’s history, that included site-specific installations and events as well as two-dimensional works such as historical photographs; portraits of its current inhabitants; and a vast, monochromatic mural depicting 200 community members. In reference to the international scope of the market, visitors were given maps of the space, and leaflets designed to look like “passports,” which could be stamped at each art station. After receiving ten stamps, visitors were eligible to receive a free magazine that recounts Mahākād’s history. Directed by Rawanchaikul’s Navin Production Studio, and in collaboration with several community groups, the festival’s accompanying activities included workshops, a tour of the project sites led by Rawanchaikul and a panel discussion about community engagement in contemporary art practices. The festival’s title references the ancient Indian text Mahābhārata–a complex, network of characters and plots that reflects the interwoven relationships embedded in the market.

Rawanchaikul uses the realm of the everyday as both the subject and venue of his art. He often creates his work under the banner of Navin Production Co., Ltd., his production company that he founded in 1994 and launched by producing bottled, polluted water from a canal in Chiang Mai. In 1995, he initiated “Navin Gallery Bangkok,” his taxicab-turned-mobile art gallery.

 

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Katerina Šedá

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One Saturday morning in 2003, the mayor of a small, Czechoslovakian village, Ponetovice, broadcast a message to all 350 residents: He asked them to go shopping–at the same time. For the rest of the day, the people continued to synchronize their routine according to a schedule that was posted on the village bulletin board. They simultaneously opened windows, swept porches, ate dumplings, met for beers, and finally all retired to bed at 10 pm. Though the regimen, created by Katerina Šedá, was strict, members of the community felt liberated by the shared activities, an experience many Europeans perhaps associated–somewhat nostalgically–with their lives before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Šedá, who lives and works in Brno, named the project after a common saying in Czech provinces: “There is nothing there.” “They feel that everything important happens in cities or somewhere beyond our borders,” Šedá has said. For one year, she conducted interviews, distributed surveys, and observed life in the village, which was once the site of major military battles in the 19th century, but was now largely disconnected from the socio-political fabric of Europe.

Šedá often asks her projects’ participants to recount personal information that she then re-presents in order to encourage new reflection on what their lives can mean. When the artist’s grandmother fell into a deep depression after her husband’s death, refusing to leave her armchair to perform even basic, hygienic tasks, Šedá encouraged the elderly woman to draw, from memory, every item sold in the hardware store where she worked as a bookkeeper for 30 years. The activity, which yielded hundreds of images, allowed Šedá’s grandmother to engage with the past, in order to re-enter her life in the present. Similarly, by performing their minute, daily tasks en masse, Ponetovice residents were empowered to reconsider the larger terms of their citizenship.

 

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Mammalian Diving Reflex

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For one day, fifth- and six-grade students from Toronto’s Parkdale Public School provided haircuts, free of charge, in hair salons across the city. Using the tresses of mannequin heads, they trained for one week with professional stylists, learning how to trim bangs, add color, shave necklines, create long layers, and use a blow dryer. While adults provided supervision during the sessions, most patrons trusted the novice hairdressers, who worked in pairs or groups, to make aesthetic decisions like color choices and hair length, on their own. The project, which later traveled internationally, culminated in a two-day series of performances at the Milk International Children’s Festival of the Arts back in Toronto.

Haircuts By Children was organized by Mammalian Diving Reflex, a Toronto-based arts and research group that creates very specific interactions between people in public spaces. For Out of My League, participants were asked to approach strangers who they believed were ‘out of their league’ and engage in conversation with them. Slow Dance with Teacher made high-school teachers available for one night to slow dance with their students. The group’s name is inspired by a self-preservation technique triggered by extreme physical duress. For example, when the body is suddenly submerged in water or caught in a freezing environment, all major bodily functions slow almost to a halt, minimizing the need for oxygen, and increasing the chances of survival. To that end, Haircuts leveraged the image of children performing a highly specialized, and personal, form or labor, as well as the often-precocious nature of 10- to 12-year-olds, to convey a larger message: If children can be empowered as creative thinkers and decision makers, shouldn’t they be allowed to vote, too?

 

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Mardi Gras Indian Community

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Since the 1800s, working-class Blacks in New Orleans paid tribute to Native Americans who aided escaped slaves on their routes to safety by “masking Indian”: building and donning elaborate costumes for Mardi Gras, fashioned from layers upon layers of feathers, beads, sequins, and billowing fabrics dyed in energetic colors. For 52 years, Allison “Tootie” Montana, a construction worker and chief of the chief of these Mardi Gras Indians, lead the parade: His signature, three-dimensional geometric designs often weighed hundreds of pounds, costs thousands of dollars, and earned him a National Endowments for the Arts grant, and was the subject of feature-length documentary. On July 10, 2005, thousands New Orleans residents gathered to march in his funeral procession, out of respect for his art, and his advocacy for this community.

Montana was a long-time, outspoken advocate for Mardi Gras Indians, who often faced discrimination from local law enforcement. On the night of his death, he addressed the City Council, along with other chiefs, to protest police brutality, as well as efforts to squash Mardi Gras Indian parades and other public gatherings. Moments later he collapsed on the floor, and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. His funeral procession, which drew both non-Indians and Indians, was one of the largest to trickle down the well-known parade route from the church to the cemetery; participants beat tambourines, chanted, and moved like rhythmic clouds of aqua, orange, red, and yellow smoke.

 

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Rick Lowe

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In 1993, artist Rick Lowe purchased a row of abandoned shotgun-style houses in Houston, Texas’, Northern Third Ward district, a low-income African-American neighborhood that was slotted for demolition. He galvanized hundreds of volunteers to help preserve the buildings, first by sweeping streets, rebuilding facades, and renovating the old housing’s interiors. Then, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and private foundations, the growing group of activists transformed the blight-ridden strip into a vibrant campus that hosts visiting artists, galleries, a park, commercial spaces, gardens, and as well as subsidized housing for young mothers, ages 18-26, looking to get back on their feet. Called Project Row Houses, the effort has restored the architecture and history of the community, while providing essential social services to residents. Now functioning as a non-profit organization, the project continues to be emblematic of long-term, community-engaged programs, and has been exhibited around in world in museums, and other art venues.

Since Project Row Houses’ inception, Lowe–the 2010 recipient of Creative Time’s Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change–has privileged art as a catalyst for change, a word that he has considered carefully: “It used to be that you could assume a progressive agenda when you heard the word ‘change,'” he says. “But language is shifting. Clarity is missing.” The project first took root after a conversation he had with a high school student who questioned the efficacy of making art objects in the quest for social justice. Inspired, Lowe looked to the work of artist John Biggers, who believed that art holds the capacity to uplift tangible social conditions, before intervening in the Northern Third Ward.

Project Row Houses has grown from 22 houses to 40, and includes exhibition spaces, a literary center, a multimedia performance art space, offices, low-income housing, and other amenities. In 2003, the organization established the Row House Community Development Corporation, a low-income rental-housing agency.

 

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Suzanne Lacy

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For one afternoon in 1994, two hundred and twenty high school students in Oakland, California, sat in parked cars on a rooftop garage and talked to each other about violence, sex, gender, family, and race. The teens spoke candidly, without any kind of script, while an audience of nearly one thousand people–including numerous reporters and camera crews–walked from car to car, leaning in and bending over, to hear their conversations through rolled-down windows. The resulting footage of the performance, called The Roof Is On Fire, was aired locally on multiple networks and nationally on CNN.

Oakland teens were already accustomed to receiving media attention, though largely through negative portrayals of young people involved in riots, violence, and conflicts with police. This event, however, which was organized by artist Suzanne Lacy in conjunction with TEAM (a group of teens, educators, artists, and media workers), was designed as a positive media spectacle, with young people depicted as citizens rather than liabilities. For five months, Lacy met weekly with teachers and teens, including those from a nearby probation program, to discuss issues important to them, and to craft a message for civic leaders about the role of young people in Oakland’s future. The Roof Is On Fire reflected the crux of those discussions, as well as Lacy’s decades-long mission to counter misleading media images with empowered, community-oriented actions. Since the 1970s, she has created performances that offer alternative narratives and interpretations of news coverage. For example, In Mourning and In Rage presented a public ritual on the steps of Los Angeles’ City Hall in response to coverage of the murders of 10 women in December 1977. While the stories focused on the random nature of the violence, Lacy’s collaborative performance was a call to action, and reframing of the killing spree from a feminist perspective.

 

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Helena Producciones

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For eleven years, Helena Producciones’ Festival de Performance de Cali played a key role in the cultural life of Cali, Colombia, a city with a notable shortage of resources and support networks for the arts. The festival provided a forum for both emerging and established international artists to create performances that were interactive and politically motivated, and defied traditional boundaries between artist and audience. Examples of past performances include Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s installation of an enormous American flag on the wall of the Tertulia Museum; French artist Pierre Pinoncelli’s amputation of his pinkie finger in protest of the kidnapping of 2002 presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt; and a concert by Las Malas Amistades, a Casiotone art school band whose independently produced CDs have attained cult status among college students. Artists were invited to participate by invitation and through an open call for submissions. The five-day festival would also include workshops, street interventions, and talks held in various cultural centers throughout the city–from public plazas to modest artist-run spaces.

Helena Producciones is a non-profit, multidisciplinary collective that expands definitions of visual art by organizing events that promote local culture and community-initiated activism. The collective, which includes artists Wilson Díaz, Ana María Millán, Andrés Sandoval, Claudia Patricia Sarria, and Juan David Medina, often offers institutional critique through its work, as well as perspectives on local conditions, alternative to the routine social and economic conflict endemic in Colombia. The collective was also responsible for Loop, a semi-weekly television program that aired in Cali from 2000-2001 and mimicked the variety show format in order to report on the activities of local artists and punk bands.

 

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Farid Jahangir and Sassan Nassiri, Bita Fayyazi, Ata Hasheminejad, and Khosrow Hassanzedeh

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In 1991, five Iranian artists, Farid Jahangir and Sassan Nassiri, Bita Fayyazi, Ata Hasheminejad, and Khosrow Hassanzedeh, took over an abandoned house in Tehran, Iran, and used it as both studio space and found object–a place to collaborate, and also explore the physical and political meaning of urban architectural detritus. They spent two months creating various projects in the house, including paintings, installations, and sculptures. An installation of wallpaper peeled away from the walls in long strips, broken vases spilled over countertops and out of cabinets, and atmospheric projections of images like El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz filled the relatively spare rooms of the house.

At the end of the two-month period, they opened the project to the public, as well as other artist collaborators. During the artists stay, the house maintained its status as abandoned property–no effort to renovate it occurred– while it also evolved into an active, lived space. After the run of the show, the artists demolished the house, carrying out its original, intended fate.

 

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Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR)

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Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency is a Palestinian art and architecture collective and a residency program based in Beit Sahour, Palestine. Organized by architects Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, and Eyal Weizman, DAAR examines the possible re-usage of existing architecture in occupied territories–a process they refer to as “Revolving Door Occupancy.”

In 2006, the Israeli army evacuated Oush Grab (literally translated as “The Crow’s Nest”), a hilltop military site at the edge of Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, from which colonial regimes had governed Palestine for centuries. When Israeli settlers took control of the abandoned building, Decolonized Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), along with other Palestinian and international activists, reclaimed Oush Grab as public space and initiated plans to convert it into a multiuse park. To generate interest as well as support for the plan, DAAR hosted bingo games, film screenings, prayer sessions, and tours of the land with the help of NGOs and the local municipality. The Israeli settlers retaliated by marking the old structure with graffiti, which DAAR responded to by organizing community cleanup measures. In addition, after discovering that same hilltop was also a roosting ground for thousands of migrating birds, DAAR punctured the structure with holes in order to transform it into both an observatory and a nesting place.

 

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