Friday, December 14, 2007


By: Peter Richman

“Taking understanding into action is dependent upon seeing that we are profoundly interconnected with the world. The notion of ‘I’ is emancipated. It becomes ‘we,’ integrated into a networked society in which we see ourselves in relation to ‘the other,’ a part of the world rather than a consumer of it.” – Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle (1)

“Wow, I haven’t used my brain in such a long time,” Danielle, who works at a large insurance company, realized aloud. Twirling her pencil, she announced in a part-joking, part-earnest, part-urgently-serious voice, “Thanks you guys for making me use my brain again!” After a collective round of nervous laughter, Rashida looked up from writing in her notebook and said, “I wasn’t gonna come tonight – I’ve got a million things to do at home, but I told myself I had to come and be here for myself. This is important and my work can wait.”

The Project
Collective Imprints is a work of conceptual art, a sociological experiment, a social gathering, a healing process. It’s a public intervention and an intervention by the public, both a highlighter and a mitigator of difference. What I mean to say by this is that the complexity of the project resists a simple definition, or, more pointedly, that I myself am still struggling to figure out what, exactly, Collective Imprints is.

The brainchild of community artist Michael Schwartz in conjunction with West Philadelphia arts space The Rotunda (2) , Collective Imprints is a ten-week, community-based, participatory visual arts collaboration. The ultimate goal – but not the ultimate purpose – of the project is to create two 4’ x 40’ murals on masonite panels to be installed in front of the venue’s two overhanging balconies.

According to the invitation to participate, offered as an open call to all of Philadelphia, the project aims “to bring together diverse groups and individuals who make The Rotunda the vital venue that it is. In doing so, we will discuss The Rotunda’s mission statement,” which reads:

“Fueled by the belief that art is a catalyst for social change and that the arts can lead to the formation of meaningful partnerships between the University of Pennsylvania and its surrounding community, The Rotunda is a community gathering place for the promotion of arts and culture.”

What distinguishes Collective Imprints from most murals – a distinction especially relevant in Philadelphia, the mural capital of the world – is that it is not a paint-by-numbers project. Rather, all ideas are generated and converted into visual artwork by the participants. “We want people to broadcast here,” said Executive Director of The Rotunda Gina Renzi. “We want to know what they think of this city, what it needs, what their street sounds like on a Saturday night, and what The Rotunda’s commitment to community-based programming means to them.”

A Critical Approach
Community artists are often considered artist-activists, artists who use their craft as a tool to promote a certain kind of social change. This approach regards their art as purposive – hinging on and limited by its political concerns – and thus unavoidably suppressed, albeit in the name of reform. Rather than viewing arts-activism as merely diluted art, however, I argue that the artist-activist should instead be seen as a synthesizer – an artist and an activist – for although the two roles are inextricably linked, they are nevertheless two distinct, discrete roles.

To properly mark this distinction, community art demands critical assessment from two different angles: (1) that which focuses on the participants, the art they create, how they create it, and the effects the project has on the communities involved, and (2) that which focuses on the artist facilitator as navigator and captain, coordinating individuals (of their own free, and generally eager, will) into a grand artwork of an eerily divine scope and stature. The first approach is more apparent, more discussed, and, unfortunately, more often a reason for community art’s silent dismissal from the higher ranks of the art world. What many fail to see, however (the view through the second lens) is the artist facilitator as an artist crafting his medium – human beings. Community artists are sociologists, certainly, but they also extend beyond the reaches of sociology, for their work is an actively engaged, real-time, non-analytical, non-repeatable practice. Community arts, then, can be seen as a humanist extension of process art, for in their work, the facilitator’s people and management skills are his or her artistic skills, the very happening of the project the piece itself.

Collective Imprints: An Experiment in Democracy
Bill came to each session with a different instrument – one week a banjo, another week a zither, yet another a balalaika customized with parts from a sitar. He told us how he built instruments, how he engineered instruments, how he collected instruments. And while he was one of the few participants to come to almost every session, he never once touched the mural. Instead, he played, and he played wonderfully. While we worked on the panels, he transformed Collective Imprints into a concert.

Far from resenting or even dismissing the music, Schwartz – and the whole group – enjoyed and encouraged Bill’s playing. His music became ingrained into Collective Imprints, his contributions no more or less than anyone else’s, and it is this openness, this egalitarian stance towards people and their ideas that truly defines the project. Collective Imprints is space – physical space, social space. It is a weekly time and location and community that anybody can take advantage of any way they like. Most people do, in fact, decide to work on the mural, but if they choose otherwise, they are no less of a participant.

One week, a school teacher brought a group of students from low-income, high-problem homes to Collective Imprints, and one of the boys spent the two hours sitting by himself in the corner. He wouldn’t introduce himself during the icebreakers, he didn’t participate in the discussions, he didn’t even sit with the group.

And it was completely okay.

Nobody coerced or pressured him to participate; he wanted to sit in the corner, and so he did. “Who knows what he’s gone through today just to get here,” Schwartz remarked after the session. “This is a safe space, and that’s how he chooses to express himself.”

Another week, a different teacher brought a group of high school girls from North Philadelphia. Most of them spent the time chatting, but one girl sat to the side and drew a detailed boom box with a winding stream of musical notes going into the left speaker and out the right. Schwartz encouraged her to transfer the image onto one of the panels, and after feebly protesting, she took a seat in front of the boards and began to draw. Another woman was drawing a winding bike path on the same board, and soon their sketches began to overlap and intersect. They decided to work as a team – while some of the other high school girls stopped chatting and started listening to their iPods – and after an hour of collaboration, the two had fused their ideas into one inspired image. The boombox became a building with a group of dancers bursting through its cassette-deck doors, and the bike path – now with both bicycles and musical notes – winded through the building’s speakers. In the open space of Collective Imprints, these two strangers – a black teen and a white adult – were free to work together, and the inventiveness of their joint effort testifies to the potential of such freedom.

Such space, of course, does not just happen, does not exist solely because a group of people are in a room. The space is organic yes, but it is certainly not spontaneous. It requires maintenance and preservation, constant attention but not too much attention, a direction firm enough to ensure its sustainability but also open enough to ensure its sustainability. In short, it needs a gardener, and this is Schwartz’s role as artist facilitator. He cultivates dialogue and fosters creativity, all the while ensuring that his plant – the project, the mural, the participants – continue to grow. Schwartz nurtures people, but to best appreciate the theoretical implications of his work, I find it useful to begin by looking at another community artist.

Tim Rollins Plus K.O.S.
Two artistic practices take place in the Art of Knowledge Workshop: that of Tim Rollins, and that of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. The latter, a collaboration between the artist Rollins and the “learning-disabled” Kids of Survival, is more evident, more approachable, and more acknowledged. The group reads literature from the Western canon, from The Wasteland to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, discusses their reactions, and transfers “these fragments of literary criticism […] onto the large, flat grid, or field, of printed pages” (3) (Tim Rollins + K.O.S. cover their panels/boards with the pages of the book they are exploring).

This side of the workshop – the art of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. – can be seen as the activist side, the political side, and we can easily compare it to Collective Imprints. Both collectives discuss their ideas, distill these thoughts into images, and combine the different pieces into a cohesive whole. One aspect where the two differ, however, is that Rollins brings art to the socially disadvantaged; he provides a legitimate voice to those whose voices are all too often considered illegitimate. In this respect, Tim Rollins + K.O.S. has a greater immediacy, urgency, and sentimentality. Schwarz, on the other hand, gives a voice to those who have been delegitimized for entirely different reasons. The participants in Collective Imprints are not marginalized because of who they are, or how they are (after all, the group is an almost-close-to-representative cross-section of the sixth most populous city in the United States), but rather because of where and when they are.

Tearing Down the Art-Industrial Complex
During one of the earlier sessions, I admitted to Schwartz that I dislike drawing. I told him that whenever I try to draw, or map, or chart my ideas into something visual, I feel like I run into a brick wall. I’m an okay thinker, I said, but when it comes to the visual creative manifestation of my ideas – nothing.

I’m not sure what I was expecting him to do, how I anticipated he’d advise me. I assumed it would be an art lesson, a basic drawing tutorial, maybe even a concession that some people just aren’t visual artists. But instead of teaching and instruction, he offered me a diagnosis and a prescription.

We performed a few technical exercises designed to separate my hand (and the act of drawing) from my mind (and the act of thinking). And after just a few minutes, Schwartz told me the problem – I was too critical, too analytical, too concerned – not even concerned, but obsessed – with what the final image would look like, that before I even picked up my pencil, I had already stifled my imagination.

And he was right. (4)

Schwartz explained that this blockage is the result of what he calls the art-industrial complex, so named because the primary focus is on the finished product, the final piece. Creativity is not an innate talent, but rather a skill to develop, and the art-industrial complex suffocates that development. Instead, Schwartz argues – and this is a crucial component of Collective Imprints – the emphasis should be on the very process of creativity itself. To move towards a more egalitarian society, we need to unlock people’s imaginations, free their minds to envision that such a society could even exist.

The first step to accomplishing this is to unshackle individuals from the confines of that complex, to generate a democratic space free of social, political and economic barriers. And this act of generation brings me to the second artistic practice that happens in the Art of Knowledge Workshop.

Tim Rollins Minus K.O.S.
Tim Rollins + K.O.S. should be considered a work by Tim Rollins. For, as obvious as this claim may be, such a collaboration does not just materialize. From the bureaucratic side of organizing the collective to the pragmatic side of organizing the kids, the very existence of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. is, I believe, a work of art.

What makes the analysis tricky, however, is this: I imagine that Rollins faces any number of issues on any given day when working with his students. I am sure that he has to coordinate, that he has to respond, that he has to maneuver, and while all of these actions are his artistic practice, none of them can be appreciated from an outsider’s perspective. I know that Rollins has to be a captain, but because I am not a part of his team, I can only speculate as to the nature of his leadership (i.e. his art).

Collective Imprints: An Experiment in the Arts
That insider’s perspective, then, is the view through the second lens, the approach that regards the method by which Schwarz guides the group as a processual artistic practice. I can appreciate it because, and only because, I am a part of it, for the work defies any form of documentation. The mural itself is, in many ways, simply a residue of the process – the final product, as it were, deserving secondary attention at best. Photographs miss the interactivity, description misses the vitality, even a video of the group dynamic falls short, for anybody watching would only be seeing somebody else participate in the work.

This evasion of, even indifference to, formal recording comes as no surprise because Schwartz’ work is born of a different artistic framework than that which values documentation. Collective Imprints is not a piece to be seen, or to be understood; it is a piece to experience, and it is this human element – the inconsistency, the unpredictability, not knowing if enough people will show up one week to even have a session – that gives it its life.

An Undocumented Artist?
This inability to document the project ultimately leads to perhaps the most pressing issue – what does Schwartz, as a fine artist, sacrifice to do a project like Collective Imprints? Or, in his own words, “can [this] process produce aesthetically pleasing results?”

These are the primary issues facing community arts today, and they address the necessity of striking a balance between the creative process and the finished product. Community-created murals are often criticized as looking “amateurish,” but is this really such a criticism? A final-product approach to art leaves little room for anything that looks crude, unsophisticated, or disproportionate. But when the finished piece is seen as the result of a certain kind of process, the irregularity in a mural comes to mirror an irregularity in society. A defect here, a peculiar combination there – these deviations from the accepted vocabulary come to signify more than simple visual images. In so doing, community arts can then force us to redefine our aesthetics, to align them not with an institution but with ourselves. As Danielle noted during Collective Imprints, if we’ll allow it, community arts can force us to use our brains.

1. Leading Through Practice. March, 2007. Accessed from
2. The Rotunda presents over 250 events annually, ranging from rock, electronic, jazz, and hip hop, to music from around the world, ambient, activist, spoken word, theater, panels, film, exhibits, dance, education, and various experimental forms of art and performance. National acts often perform side by side with local artists, illustrating Philadelphia's eclectic and robust music scene. As an alcohol-free, smoke-free venue, The Rotunda provides a critical social alternative for all ages, and opens its doors to the public [usually for free] for cultural events as well as a meeting, rehearsal, classroom, and workshop space for various West Philadelphia and citywide organizations, after-school, and youth programs.
4. A tangential, anecdotal, but still very-much-related aside: My first (and only) memory of trying to draw is from when I was six or seven years old. I remember it vividly – I wanted to draw a sunset I had seen on the beach in Florida. The image was crystal clear in my head (and it still is), but I struggled to put that vision onto paper. It’s not my happiest memory, to be honest – it ends with me tearing paper and throwing markers, but I’m sure that the clarity with which I still recall it indicates the magnitude of its impact on my psychology. When Michael diagnosed my hyper-criticality, it was the first thing that came to mind.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Day 6: Collective Design

Today we continued to develop the layout of the project, transferring ideas to panels and painting in lines. The project is really moving along nicely, with many ideas and stories being combined and developed. We also talked about symbolic color and reviewed basic color theory.

Here are some images Bonnie gathered that are being used as source material for one panels. They represent they a few of the many things that happen at the Rotunda.

Next week we will be using music to help design the rhythm and tempo of the work.