Seminar 1 Introduction: Suzanne Lacy

Seminar 1: Aesthetics and Ethics

I was asked to say a little something about why I had decided to come here.  I am an academic and an artist and a writer, and live in California. Many years ago I convened several artists and curators to develop a text called ‘Mapping the Terrain‘ and subsequent to that time, I have done a lot of writing. I wanted the opportunity to stop and reflect on where my practice had taken me since that period of time and I decided I would like to think about the Oakland projects.  The Oakland Projects are a series over ten years on the subject of teenagers. I worked with teenagers, artists, activists and organisational people as well as four institutions: Health, Criminal Justice, Public Policy and City Council and Education.  When we began, like all artists, we intuited our way forward. The work got more and more complicated; and before you knew it, our analysis took us into significant engagement with the public sphere in Oakland.

We accomplished many things through this work. We helped to get the youth policy developed and passed by City Council, one that dedicates about $100,000 a year to youth activities. We helped support, and were the recipients of, a funding process called Kids First where youth give grants to other youth. It was not all success. A Police Chief’ Youth Advisory Group fell apart within a year.

Throughout these ten years, there were probably a hundred people I worked with, not to mention the kids themselves. Some of the kids (not all of them) grew up with me and with this team of a hundred people who would come in and out of the projects. It is hard to talk and write about the complex texture of relationships that come into being over ten years in this kind of project There was on-going mentorship of youth, and the youth themselves who grew up to continue youth development or political work. It is also hard to talk about whether that is an artwork or not part of an artwork
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I thought it would be very interesting to take the time and reflect with you here in Scotland and in the UK in general. As I’ve been coming back and forth here for many years, I’ve seen how much more developed the dialogue is here around these sorts of issues. I realised it is complicated by issues of the effect of public funding. That is part of what we will be exploring together.

For me it is an opportunity to reflect and to read. With my two thesis advisers, Anne Douglas and Grant Kester, I’m probably the luckiest person getting a PhD right now. The reading however, was not enough, and we came up with the idea (and this is, I think, part of Anne’s invention) of generating a learning environment as part of a research process. I decided that to look at my learning as it is reflected by professionals in the field here, people whose practice can inform mine. Your learning in the seminar will teach me and, potentially, my projects will teach you. Through your reflection on these projects and how they relate to your work, hopefully we will engage in a dialogic process that we will further – not so much my own research–but where we are going as a field.

I was asked to say a couple of things about the Oakland Projects that are not really evident when you read about them in a book or looked at the video. Most of these projects were based on an analysis of the way in which the image of young people operates in California’s public culture. The reason California is significant (that is California’s urban areas) is that it is probably the most diverse state in our country, has the largest economy, and seems to be the place where issues like division of wealth, immigration, population growth among Latinos, etc, are being played out.  It is where most of the prisons are being built. It is where the schools have gone from being among the top of the country to the lowest.
These projects provide an opportunity for me, at least and, hopefully, for you all, to look at what is happening to youth in an urban environment and to consider whether, or to what extent, an art project can support youth development or community development.

My question continues to be – How do you describe this work?  How do you represent it, and how do you understand whether or not it is as effective or functional as you’d like it to be?  And then, does it operate as quality art? What is quality in this context?

I want to thank Anne and Carole and my colleague, Reiko Goto, and many of you here tonight, also consider colleagues in this field. Thank you so much for coming.  I’m looking forward to this.

Oh!  I forgot to introduce Grant! Here’s something I just found out about him, though we’ve known each other for a while. Grant was working in non-profit and writing criticism when he decided to go back to school and get his PhD. He went to a renowned grad program in the area of theory. I was impressed – often people who are successful in academia have little experience in the non-profit sector in our area. With his pedigree — both working in non-profits, writing in the field and his understanding of theory, along with a predilection to look closely at artists work, it seems like an unbeatable combination. I think a lot of us in the field really appreciate the thinking that Grant is doing – the kind of openness of his approach and his interest in the process details and the implications of our work. He is one of the few people who I think bridge a deep understanding of activist practice as it actually takes place within a community and the sometimes esoteric world of theory. For those of us who know him well, we particularly appreciate his nasty sense of humour!

Grant Kester: Ok, thank you Suzanne.  I’ll try and focus on the hubris and keep the nastiness to it a reasonable level and thank you also to Carole, Anne and Reiko. It’s good to see a number of you guys tonight who I have known from past trips.

It is my first time in Scotland, but I’ve been to Northern Ireland and Ireland and England quite a number of times.
What we are going to do tonight is some work that comes out of the current book project that I’m working on called ‘The One and the Many‘.  It looks at contemporary collaborative and collective art practices.

[See Grant Kester’s paper: Wazungu means “White Men”: Superflex and the Limits of Ethical Capitalism.]

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