It is tricky to talk about this project.
During the summer of 2008, Transformazium was asked by the organizers of Flux to be artist co-ordinators for an upcoming Flux event scheduled to be held in Braddock in late September. This is the way Flux was described to us: Flux has been happening in Pittsburgh since 2000. It brings artists and musicians to neighborhoods experiencing economic transition. The artists chosen to participate have the production cost of their work covered and also recieve a cut of the money made through ticket sales at the event. The idea is to distribute resources directly to the participating artists.
As artist co-ordinators, Transformazium was responsible for choosing artists to represent Braddock and North Braddock. We had some concerns.
First, we were aware of a schism between long-time residents of the area, and a small but growing community of new residents (including ourselves) and artists who rent studio spaces in the Un-Smoke building. This schism was partly due to geography--the Un-Smoke building and the associated convent building are located at the far end of Braddock in a relatively isolated spot. And it was partly due to the fact that community building is hard work that requires constant communication and commitment from all parties involved. Does it need to be said that the area in which we live is majority African-American and economically struggling, while all of the new residents and studio artists are white, with at least the perceived economic power to move long distances, buy property, make choices about where to live and work? It usually does. Does the race/socioeconomics equation exclusively define our neighborhood and our relationships with our neighbors? No, our (all of our) situation is much more rich, personal, and complex.
Second, we felt that resources in Braddock had been very generously made available to artists and newcomers (again, including ourselves), while long-time residents had not had the benefit of these resources. In a community that has experienced significant economic challenges, we felt that the money generated by an event occurring in Braddock should also be distributed to area residents.
In order to feel good about participating in the event, we needed to design a project that would deal with these concerns directly, while being conceptually interesting.
Our idea was to approach the project in two parts. Part one: we commissioned local residents to create a family portrait, leaving the definition of "family" up to the individual resident artist. We chose people that we had met and formed relatioships with, that had welcomed us and challenged us, and that we thought would be enthusiastic about the project. Most had not considered themselves artists before the project, though a couple are practicing professional artists, and a couple more would like to pursue careers in the arts. These portraits were executed at the direction of the artists, in collaboration with Transformazium members Dana Bishop-Root and Ruthie Stringer (that's me), and were output as high quality digital prints. We think that all of the artists chosen showed remarkable skill and sensitivity in the portraits they created.
Part two: we asked the artists with studio spaces in the Un-Smoke building to each create two welcome mats. We intended that one welcome mat from each artist would be part of a tiled floor installation in the main gallery space of the Un-Smoke building displayed along with the family portraits, and one would be placed at the entrance of their studio spaces.
Our hope was that our portrait artists, their friends and family, and other community members, would feel welcomed into a space that had begun to feel like a very separate Braddock, and that greater dialogue between new and long-time community members could be stimulated. We were also interested in the definition of "family", the place of art in the context of a struggling community and vice-versa, and the shifting perspectives of insider/outsider.
Unfortunately, just weeks before Flux was to take place the event was cancelled. If you want to read a newspaper article about the circumstances around the cancellation, here's one:
What the Flux? Future of traveling art event unclear.
The production costs of the project were not covered and there was no money to be distributed to the participating artists. The members of Transformazium were extremely disapointed, and we were left feeling like we had broken a promise to our community somehow. We were left questioning whether arts organizations really have the ability to change economic circumstances in a community like Braddock, and worrying that we had not communicated clearly to the resident artists who had welcomed us into their homes and shared their families with us. We felt burned and we felt guilty. We are a small organization with almost no money at all. We had invested our own energy and resources into the project, and had asked our neighbors to invest energy and resources with the understanding that their work would be compensated. We wondered how different we looked from the arts organization that organized and then cancelled Flux, and how different we actually were. I am just one member of Transformazium, and I can't tell you exactly how we felt. But it seems important to try. Because the project was developed in a context, and when that context changed, we were shaken. We weren't sure if it was a project anymore. After some months of reflection, this is the conclusion we have come to: the portraits created by the resident artists are beautiful and stand on their own. The issues brought up first by the event itself, and then by its cancellation are important and deserve to be wrestled with.
The welcome mats were never produced, but the family portraits were already underway when the event was cancelled and we were committed to finishing them. The families recieved a framed print of their portraits, along with a small artist's fee. Here are portraits from six of the seven project participants. Sincere thanks to all of the families involved.