Artists from four regions across the United States — and counting — are harnessing the creative power of regeneration to connect our communities to the past, present, and future.
In biology, “regeneration” is the process by which damaged or missing cells, tissues and organs regain their full functionality in plants and animals. In the art world, the term is broader, with many potential forms and meanings taking shape in the arts today (think Donna Haraway’s thoughts on cyborgs, cells and mutation, as well than on “urban regeneration”, where art often plays a role). In light of the past two years, there is perhaps no such poignant – and urgently needed – example as the Artists at Work program.
Launched with the support of the Mellon Foundation by The Office Performing Arts + Film, a cultural production company based in New York and London, the principle of Artists At Work is simple, but uncommon: the program pays emerging creators a living wage (with benefits, to boot) for up to one year. Their job description? Make beautiful art and use that art to activate and inspire a community.
“It’s just unheard of in my field,” said Simone Immanuel, a writer and performer hosted by the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. “When you’re constantly preoccupied with finances or other jobs, things that aren’t related to what you feel called to do, that take your practice away.”
“I deeply appreciate that the Artist-At-Work program is centered on the belief that artistic work is valuable and essential to society.”
‘The Care We Create’ mural by Audrey Chan on the facade of the ACLU of Southern California offices in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Elon Schoenholz.
During particularly difficult times, the misconception of art as a luxury can destroy the livelihoods of thousands of artists, and Audrey Chan, a Chinese-Taiwanese American artist based in Los Angeles and in residence with the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum, puts it into perspective: “The pandemic has revealed so much about which work is valued and protected and which work is unpaid or underpaid…Even if the economy “recovers” and “reopens”, we must resist the status quo which has reinforced these inequalities.
“I have a long-standing interest in the history of the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Art Program,” Chan continues, invoking the New Deal-era predecessor to Artists at Work. This concept, rewired and revived after the Great Depression, now offers a new generation of artists work and pay while facing yet another seemingly insurmountable crisis. “I deeply appreciate that the Artist-At-Work program is centered on the belief that artistic work is valuable and essential to society.”
Growing up in suburban Chicago, Chan’s childhood was filled with WPA murals. At school, the post office, and other civic sites, she would see murals depicting idealized scenes of the United States, including depictions of colonizers and missionaries with BIPOC genuflecting at their feet. “While I appreciate the WPA’s historically progressive agenda in supporting creative work,” she says, “I feel called in my public artwork to create an iconography of social realism that reflects an America that centers communities and culture on productivity and industry”. .” As the storyteller of this chapter in American history, Chan is among those who erase the mistakes of the past, engendering alternatives to the dominant myths of American identity.
Chan accomplishes this narrative expansion in tandem with Asian American artists and organizations that harness cultural power for social progress. Installations and a poster awareness campaign in the spirit of Artists At Work’s predecessor are woven into the tapestry of public artwork. “We are joining forces to develop a multifaceted project centered on what ‘vocabulary’ can mean in the context of the diverse AANHPI (Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander) community and its relative invisibility and self-effacement in American culture.
“Regeneration has the ability to heal the land, to heal our communities and to heal ourselves.”
“Pile 2 patio”, a mulch sculpture and community project, part of Maru García’s Radical Propagations / Propagaciones Radicales exhibit at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, CA. Photo courtesy of 18th Street Arts Center.
Maru García, a Los Angeles-based transdisciplinary artist and researcher whose environmental-themed work is based at the intersection of art and science, embodies the regeneration that Artists At Work has offered to herself, her community and the world at large.
“Just as a plant can be propagated by cuttings that can be replanted and encouraged to take root in new soil, this exhibition includes the work of artists and activists whose practices focus on division and sharing – about creating spaces for regeneration and resilience,” she says. of Radical spreads, the project she set up with the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, California. “Regenerative practices provide methods for building relationships and community from the bottom up. Actions that seem tiny, when propagated by these means, reach a reach that aggregates and develops deep, interconnected roots.
For Chan, regeneration manifests as a way for people to be “open to the symbiotic and porous relationship between past, present and future”. Taking on the mantle of her ancestors (Maya Lin, Barbara Kruger and Faith Ringgold are among her inspirations), she sees history as active and pervasive, influencing the systems that govern and constrain our movement within society. “If I can inspire someone in future generations to believe they have a valuable perspective to share with the world, then I’ve done my job,” Chan says.
In their performances and autobiographical writings, Simone Immanuel constantly searches her own memory bank. In their instance of regeneration, the past takes on new forms. A 2012 study by Northwestern Medicine found that when recalling a memory, the brain produces a less accurate version of events each time it is recalled. Immanuel embraces these revisions and inaccuracies: “In my work, I like to show that all memories are true, even those that are reconstructed. He leaves [audiences] wondering what the real memory is.
“I want to help confirm the dreams of others, while gathering and listening to every voice.”
Simone Immanuel (center) in “7 Minutes” at the HERE Arts Center in New York. Photo: Juliette Cervantes.
One particular memory that Immanuel traces, individually and collectively, is the Trème neighborhood of their hometown of New Orleans, a famous seat of culture and the arts for the black community. Celebrated as the birthplace of jazz and host of Mardi Gras festivities, it has established many fundamental cultural touchstones for the arts today. But gentrification, and in particular a highway that threatened to destroy Trème’s rich life and creations, has been transformed by a combination of art and entrepreneurial thinking. “The spirit of art will last forever. Now, under this highway, there are barbecues, bouncing parties, party buses, car washes – there is a community there,” says Immanuel. They also hope that a thriving artistic community will have an impact on political issues.
“I think one of the main purposes of art is representation. It was rare to see me growing up in art,” they recall, quoting the TV series Laid, about trans women of color in the New York ballroom scene, when they thought they could become actresses and writers. “I want to help confirm each other’s dreams, while gathering and listening to every voice. Seeing each other is a way for all of us to have a conversation. Let’s get everyone in the room. Let’s change some shit up.
García studied chemistry and biotechnology in college due to a desire to better understand the ecosystem of which it is a part and to prevent its further degradation. But, she encountered far too many obstacles in her field: “I was trying to learn ways to really solve the problem, not just analyze contaminants in a laboratory.”
García’s art combines research, installation, performance, sculpture and video, usually with organic material at the center. In a world where many systems are focused on extraction, she is aware of the need for a practice that goes beyond “sustainable”. “Regeneration in general can make you see that the systems we are part of have the ability to bring life back.” Indeed, García mounts education-based community events that incorporate sensory and experiential components for visitors, including spreading plants or interacting with mulch sculptures. “I impart scientific knowledge as a source of empowerment for people, to teach them to do things themselves,” she says of her weekly eco-events at the 18th Street Arts Center. “Although we’re never in a situation where we’re exactly back to where we were – we’re evolving every time – I still believe that regeneration has the ability to heal the land, to heal our communities and to heal ourselves. .”
By helping to regenerate individual artists and the communities they live in, Artists At Work could end up creating a whole new deal for the 21st century. May history show that its impacts endure well beyond the crises that triggered its origin.