From narco-wars to urban basketball, making art out of activism

Should we judge activist art on the way it looks or the social change it creates?

In 1996, L.A. artist Suzanne Lacy gathered together two teams of players in Oakland for a very unusual basketball game. Part performance art, part social activism, "No Blood/No Foul" brought together a team of cops and a team of Oakland youth for a lightning-paced game of street basketball in which the rules were changed every quarter. Kids served as referees and the audience could vote on calls with their applause.

The piece took its name from the guiding principle of street ball: no blood, no foul. And it served as the public high point of a long-term project led by Lacy that was devised to empower Oakland youth.

To understand how kids and cops regard each other, the artist conducted interviews with both groups. She worked with the City Council and various youth organizations and government agencies to develop a Youth Policy Initiative that would help fund youth programming in Oakland. Then she staged the basketball game — a cathartic encounter between kids and police that had the result of bringing the two groups together (even if it was as adversaries of sorts).

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FOR THE RECORD
Sept. 19, 7:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this post attributed an architectural installation about changes to the city of Medellin, Colombia solely to San Diego architect Teddy Cruz. He had three collaborators on the project: architect Alejandro Echeverri, graphic designer Matthias Goerlich and political theorist Fonna Forman. The text has been updated to reflect the change.
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The piece is part of a tradition of art-making known as social practice (art that requires the engagement and participation of its audience in order to be realized), and it is on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA). "Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy" was organized by independent curator Lucía Sanromán, and it examines works in which artists have labored, on their own or with government help, to bring about social change.

"I've looked at practices that include an element of engagement, that are utopian, that seek to improve things," Sanromán says. "There is a huge range of activities that come under social practice. Artists can have a tea with the friends and call it social practice. But I want to re-frame the approach a little bit and look at practices that have a specific end in mind."

The show includes work by artists, architects and one city mayor. The case of the mayor is an interesting one: Antanas Mockus governed the Colombian capital of Bogota in the mid-1990s and again from 2001 to 2003. With a number of artful acts he staged while in office (Mockus is the son of a Lithuanian artist), he helped inspire a dialog about civility and trust in the bustling Andean metropolis.

While in office, Mockus was subjected to death threats and therefore forced to don a bullet-proof vest. But he cut the shape of a heart from the vest and employed it as a symbol of trust. He staged events where weapons were melted into baby spoons, pedestrian deaths were marked with stars and he hired mimes to encourage pedestrians and drivers to obey the rules. He even donned a superhero suit and cape as a character of his own invention called "Súper Cívico" (Super Citizen).

In the show, Mockus' actions are presented in a series of photographs. It is an engaging chronicle of the power of art: Mockus, faced with a frazzled city tested by the violence of the narco-wars, encouraged a greater trust in the city's institutions through a series of symbolic gestures that resonated way beyond simple changes to the legal code.

"In a way, what he did is a ritual-based practice," says Sanromán. "He took this very psychological approach to improving the relationship between citizen and state."

Other installations highlight various social-practice related projects: San Diego architect Teddy Cruz, along  with three collaborators, study the urban planning decisions made to improve life for the poor in the Colombian city of Medellin. Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera has a petition going to get the pope to accept undocumented migrants in Vatican City. And the Argentinean collective Ala Plástica presents objects and documentation related to an oil spill in the Plata River estuary — a spill they had a role in cleaning up and documenting (documentation that got Shell, the company that caused the spill, to take responsibility for its actions).

The works featured, explains Sanromán, are all long-running. "Many social-practice projects are one or two events," she says. "I was interested in looking at projects that range in length from three to 10 years. I wanted something that had a long durational quality. These are projects that serve as interesting case studies."

For the viewer, this is not always easy to digest quickly. A lot of social practice installations consist of documentation, charts, graphs, infographics and video. This can make it feel less like art and more like a day at the think tank. In other words: kinda dry.

In this regard, "Citizen Culture" has done an admirable job of trying to present ideas in a visually engaging way. The photographs and layout of Mockus' Bogota actions, as laid out by Mexico-based graphic designer Futuro Moncada, are very engaging.

Also intriguing is the installation that contains documentation from Lacy's "No Blood/No Foul," which includes bleachers, a chain-link fence and basketballs that viewers are invited to bounce. All of this incorporates video of the interviews that Lacy conducted with Oakland kids and cops about their relationships with each other. Fascinating on their own, in the wake of riots in Ferguson, Mo., these videos are essential viewing. (You can see a summary of the project here.)

In addition, in a piece that serves as a prelude to the exhibition (in its own room, just before the main gallery), SMMoA executive director Elsa Longhauser has installed Anri Sala's "Dammi i Colori," about the Albanian mayor who painted Tirana in bright colors as a way of uplifting the spirit of the city. The footage is otherworldly and the gesture is right in keeping with social practice ideas of using art to change attitudes and policies. (See a short trailer.)

That said, there are works that aren't as compellingly staged. Cruz collaborated wtih architect Alejandro Echeverri, graphic designer Matthias Goerlich and political theorist Fonna Forman to produce a study of the sweeping urban changes in Medellin. But their installation feels like a bunch of diagrammatic architectural charts. (Not all that interesting; easy to get lost in.) And, on its own, the model for Michael Maltzan's Star Apartments in downtown L.A. fails to convey a bigger story: how a collaboration between Maltzan, the city of Los Angeles and the Skid Row Housing Trust came together to make this innovative building come to fruition.

All of this gets at the difficult nature of evaluating activist art: do we judge it on the way it looks? Or on the nature of the social change it creates? There is no clear answer. (This is something I discussed in a story I wrote for ARTnews back in April.) Sanromán recognizes that going to a show of this nature isn't anything like gazing at nice paintings of wildflowers. But she hopes that the exhibition will give people an opportunity to consider issues that they might not think about otherwise.

The show was inspired, she says, by her experience of living in Tijuana from 2008 to 2011, when the city was reeling from all kinds of narco violence. "All of my friends, artists and architects, we were staunch in our desire to stay and become better citizens," she says. "Colleagues of ours told us about what cities like Medellin and Bogota had done ... that these cities found a way out of their malaise — not only the violence, but the complete lack of trust in government. And it is a process that has involved, in many cases, the work of artists and architects."

"One of the things that a show like this does is that it gives these issues a second chance," she says. "When you see what happened in Missouri a few weeks ago, you see that there is so much fragility. But then you look at Suzanne Lacy's 'No Blood/No Foul,' and you see that we can have role in changing that."

"So I want to ask the audience to give me a chance," she says. "Just look. And perhaps there will be a label or a photograph or a beautiful text that will make you want to look again."

"Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy" and "Anri Sala: Dammi i Colori" are on view through Dec. 13 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, smmoa.org.

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