Suzanne Lacy: How does a voice emerge?

Seminar 4: A public conversation

Suzanne Lacy:  Thank you, Moira [Jeffrey], for those introductions.  I particularly appreciate the opportunity to be here tonight and thank you very much for making that possible, Nicol [Stephen].

It is not an accident that we are here in this, rather than another, venue at the closing of the Working in Public Seminar series.  You may wonder why would we be doing a seminar on public art and closing it at the Scottish Parliament.  Hopefully, by the end of the evening, you will know.  We have been through a long process.  We have gone to many venues in Scotland; and across these venues we have gone from the private to, now, the very public.  Here we focus on the implications of the public in terms of policy.

Our task here tonight is to question the nature of public life at this moment in Scotland and, of course, while I have some reflections on that, I will offer those at the end of the conversation.  You all know much more about that than I do.

The thing that, I think, has been very exciting for me about the seminar series leading up to this event is, how artists and art organisations might play a significant role in shaping the direction of the development of policy.  I know we pay a lot of lip service to that, but I think, tonight, what we want to do is open you up to a consideration of the nitty-gritty of how that might take place, as well as what kinds of dangers might be encountered in our respective encounters in that process?

I was asked to show you (and, with reluctance, I will) yet again a piece of work that I did in Oakland.  I worked in Oakland – let me tell you briefly something about that.  It is a small town on the west coast of California, on the coast in the San Francisco Bay area and it is a town of around 350,000 people.  It is a city that one quarter of the people are under the age of 18 and, if you look at the public schools – the schools paid by the state – they are 95% minority students.  If you look at the schools paid by private individuals, they are 95% white.  So, in this incredibly diverse community, schooling alone tells you that there are inequities going on.  Within a state-wide media environment that vilified youth (I think, to a much greater degree than in Scotland, but I have seen some things about the Aberdeen Cruisers) which actually has created, or supported, the creation of public policies that are quite onerous (having to do with where kids can gather on the street corners, for example), we began ten years of projects in 1990.  They involved literally hundreds of people in planning and thousands of people in the direct audience and tens of thousands of people in the media over this period of time.

What they were, the Oakland Projects, is a series of performances and installations all done outside the art museum, outside the gallery, in the streets, on the rooftops, in the schools – done, basically, all over the city, on the subject of youth well-being, in its broadest sense.  We covered health, teen pregnancy.  We covered conflicts between youth and adult authority and, in particular police (but not exclusively); between youth and their teachers as well.  The young people would come to us and say, ‘We’re having a real trouble over here at Freemont High, can we do a performance around this issue to talk to our teachers and tell them how we feel about it?’

We did some direct service to youth, but mainly these art projects were positioned to allow a youth voice to emerge in mass media and to allow it to emerge before, and in front of, the communities that they lived in so that the kind of dialogue that I think ought to be part of the civic sector, could indeed happen.  (Later I will tell you a few things about the quality of public debate in the United States and how, in particular, this type of art project was intent on creating, over ten years of time, all these layers of conversations – in the class room, on the media, in City Council, in workshops for youth.)  The projects involved – and I think critical to our being here tonight – they involved a large and informal group of planners.  I wanted to map that territory for you – this set of alliances.  There were politicians involved, elected officials from the state level to the city level and the county level.  They were involved – some very deeply – in planning processes.  There were non-elected officials such as the Director of Public Health, the Police Chief, the Head of the Probation Department, leaders of non-profit organisations – people like mentorship organisations, church organisations, religious affiliated groups, there were artists (kind of an ad hoc group of fifteen or twenty artists over time) and there were educators – high school teachers and college teachers.  There were media, and we took the media as partners.  We found reporters who could work with us over time to deliver, what we thought was an appropriate advocacy message on behalf of youth, and then, of course, there were the young people themselves.  All of these people operated in this town 350,000 folks over time came together, separated, came together, separated, to produce this series of projects.

Now, you might wonder, in particular, what they did.  What did Mayor Jerry Brown do; what did Councillor Sheila Jordan do?  They did a variety of kinds of things.  They helped us define the topic.  I would meet with a Councillor who had a big problem with youth crime in East Oakland and we would talk about youth crime and how the neighbourhood felt about it, and how that might help us with the agenda of the project, and who we might want to be communicating with in that area.  They operated as collaborators.  So they defined the topics; they collaborated on the planning processes.  In one instance this involved all the City Council showing up at a “basket-ball as performance” art project the night before they would vote on the new Youth Policy.  So they showed up and all the TV cameras in town showed up and we all talked: youth, police officer and city council people, about these issues together in front of media.  They brought visibility and credibility.

The clip I am going to show you, has two people.  On the talent level is Arnold Perkins.  He is the Director of Public Health for the County of Alameda.  He is, what I call, our talent pool.  We got some politicians and officials who were very good facilitators to facilitate some of the work of our projects.  Then you will hear Police Chief Richard Word.  He is standing in front of the television cameras and he is making a public statement about the way the Police Department positions itself with respect to youth – or should be positioning itself, so it is a very political moment.  He is representing and defining these issues.
These are some of the ways.  City Council gave us a place where we held our workshops.  Students came and went and met the Mayor as he was walking in and out.  So, in this town of 350,000 people, we had a fairly decent piece of office space.  We went around saying, ‘Can’t we just have a workshop here?’; ‘Could we have it over here?’; ‘Can we get the Chief to drop by?’, and basically helping the young people develop their voice as civic actors.

What you are going to see tonight is just about three to four minutes of the students getting rehearsed, going into the performance, and sitting down.  I will show you just a clip.  The second part of the performance (which we will not be able to see tonight) is when the community gets involved.  We leave the first act and go into a place where all the community is talking with each other about what they have just heard.

[video clip]

Suzanne Lacy:  The second part (which we won’t see tonight) does go into where 80 people from eight different communities sat in groups of ten.  There was a big mentorship sign-up table; there was Video Youth doing video programming and running around interviewing the police officers – so the tables were turned.  The community was involved.  This entire project was a two/two-and-a-half-year project which ended with this event which was a way to create a very fulsome participatory civic discourse.

Tonight you are going to hear a lot of different ideas about what art is and about who makes an artist – I mean, who makes art; what art does – that is really part of what we are exploring here in relation to the public sector.  In my experience in Scotland, I have seen these kinds of definitions: ‘art as expression’ – and, in particular, it is used in terms of an expression of a national heritage in a unique identity when it is used publicly.  ‘Art as beautification of the commons.’  In particular, you have got some pretty incredible public art – not to mention this building itself and its siting in Edinburgh.  Art is also considered partner in various regeneration and social inclusion schemes; as well as art being something collectable, as in any place else.  And then there is this current buzz: ‘art as an engine in the creative economy.

Tonight I invite you to explore, with these practitioners, something maybe different.  Maybe, take a look at art as conflict resolution; art as a process of civic negotiation; art as citizenship training.  From a default position of no engagement,  to multiple way of bringing people into the citizenship commons: art as a stimulant for discourse of collective meaning-making.  And, finally – what I shall return to later tonight – art as a form of research.
I am inviting you now (if the Core Group could stand up) to go into three different break-out rooms and, in these break-out rooms you are going to have about 30 minutes for an intimate conversation with these artists in these rooms.

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