Social Artmaking at Columbia, Reflections from Chris

A couple of week ago, we had our weekend long class on Material Social Practices with Fereshteh Toosi, which was very much of an experiment in itself. 
The first evening, Fereshteh gave us a nice overview of social practice art practices, which are non-traditional art projects that involving community organizing, public art, temporary art interventions, more long-term creative placemaking, and more.  One of my favorite examples was the Soil Kitchen group which seeks to cultivate a better future, not only through installing raised beds, but working to build up soils, and identify ways to remediate contaminated urban lands. 

The subject of social art practices is a fascinating and constantly changing one, that could make for a great semester long history or theory graduate course.  One tricky aspect of the course was the short one weekend format, which doesn't quite match the long-term nature of many social arts projects.  Fereshteh did a lot to counter this by sending an in-depth questionnaire about the interests and backgrounds of the students, assigning readings for discussion, and creating this class blog developing the conversation over a period weeks. 
While I kind of thought our class would have more of an influence upon the future of the Papermaker's Garden, Columbia's plans for the space, which are already pretty well set.  It was cool to see that this student initiated garden has sparked real interest amongst the college administration, with major renovations coming this summer.  We did still brainstorm about other suggestions about this space will function when more garden beds and a performance space are added.

We were still eager to do what we could to "activate the space" in the course of the weekend.  Most of the rest of the weekend, our class discussed what changes we could make, given the time, materials, and skills available.  There really is no recipe for collaborative art making.

In any group, there tends to be people with strong ideas and others who can build a consensus between individuals with differing visions.  Our group had more consensus builders than folks with strong opinions about what to be done.  So it took awhile to pin down what we wanted to do as group. 

It did feel good to get out into the space and start working on our rock arranging and ribbon tying, with the properties of the place and the materials providing further direction on how to proceed.  The evolution of the placement of the rocks from radiating circles to undulating ridges to the using twine to have the stones begin to ascend the fence was an example of how the aesthetics developed over the course of working in the space. The way the ribbons (and their corresponding shadows) vibrate in the wind, creating an almost psychedelic visual effect also was a nice surprise.

I feel that we were able to go a long way toward activating the space in just a few hours of cooperative (and hard work).  I am glad that we have brought more interest in this space. I am still not convinced that limiting the color palette mainly to blue was the best choice.  I think that large community spaces, especially gardens, are more interesting with a more diverse array of colors and shapes than the more restrained use or color and cohesive placement forms that more the group seemed to favor.  Nevertheless, I am always inclined toward exuberant color and, within groups, it is not so much about the ideas of individuals as finding a path that everyone can support.

All in all, it was an interesting class.  I am very happy to have gotten to collaborate the fascinating group of artists involved.  I do believe we all came away with more thoughts (and questions) about social arts practice to take forward.

Material Social Practice Reflection Paper

Hello Everyone,

It was a pleasure to spend time with you all in the paper makers garden.
Here are some of my day to day thoughts on the Material Social Practice workshop.

Friday got me really excited about the project. We had read some readings related to public/community art and then we looked at examples of what other people have done in public spaces to show us what some possibilities were. I was inspired and ready to come back Saturday and get started.

It was time to start. Deciding what we were going to do was, in my opinoin the most difficult part of the whole workshop. We could do anything in the space, and it was now time to choose what we were going to do.

Fereshtah lead us through a series of questions to generate ideas for possible projects. This was good. It got ideas out on the table. After that, we looked at what we had and we tried, as a community, to figure out what would be the best course of action. This didn’t go as smoothly as I might have imagined. I think that was because we were trying to figure out how to make sure that we implemented elements of everyones ideas. We needed to just choose something and forget about the other ideas no matter how interesting they all might have been.

After five hours of discussing our possible project, we decided that we wanted to communicate that this space was used and usable. We were interested in simply activating the space to encourage the community to consider “unused” spaces as possible locations for creative expressions.  We also decided to work with materials that were already on site—like rocks and gravel—and materials that we already had—like ribbon, string, and zipties.  The materials we descided to work with was the gravel in the space, spray chalk, zip ties, and ribbon.  We decided to split up into two primary groups (rocks and ribbons) and for our last hour together on Saturday, we decided to go to the Papermaker’s Garden and just begin experimenting with the materials. It was good to finally get out to the space.  In retrospect I think we should have thought more about what the paper makers garden was (it’s more than an empty space) and that might have discouraged us from filling the space with the plastic ribbons.

I think as far as working to finish what we started is concerned Sunday went really well. We had a better idea where we were going with the piece and spent the remainder of the day finishing up our installation. People walking by frequently stopped to ask what we were doing.  Someone even took a picture for us from their highrise apartment to give us a bird’s eye view of what it looked like.  We as a team got together every once in awhile to touch base and decide, as a group, what needed to get done. By 4:00pm on Sunday, we finally finished. The act of collaboration was a rewarding experience for me, and I believe through this experience I learned a few new strategies for working on creative endeavors with larger groups. I think in the future it will be important for me and other similar groups to consider more thoroughly, the significance, history, proposed function of the space to inform what kind of work we make in the space.

Ribbons and Rocks

Within our initial classroom discussions, it became very clear that everyone wanted to walk away from the weekend having accomplished something tangible (I surely did!), while at the same time we each expressed wanting to do/make something more lasting. That said, my main frustrations from the weekend concern time management.  I think that a class like this would greatly benefit from a re-arrangement in scheduling.  Rather than meet for a Friday, Saturday, Sunday stretch, I feel we would have accomplished more had we met for a few consecutive Saturdays or Sundays.  Or even once a month for three months?  I think that by allowing for all of the information/questions and general brainstorming to soak in, we could return each weekend with clearer minds and goals.  This would in turn allow for a more cohesive game-plan.

The back-to-back brainstorming sessions got long, and I think we all got weary from sitting inside the classroom.  While the weather wasn't exactly our friend that weekend, I was really happy to be outdoors working in the space with everybody when it finally became time to migrate to the lot.  I loved arriving to the space and partaking in activities like walking around the space only looking up, or laying on the ground with eyes closed to concentrate on the sound elements.  At some point I decided that I wanted to be doing something with rocks, and stuck a few in the fence.  

The next day things really got rolling. Folks with an interest in working with the ribbon went to town laying out their tape lines and the rock people began to sort, stack and chalk-spray small and larger rocks.  While Chris and Kathi worked on the inner rings, Heather and I worked in the outer realm, eventually winding our rock lines up into the fence.  As we wove the rocks up into the fugly chain-link fence, I kept thinking about how I really enjoy putting things in places they don't belong.   To be able to use an element natural to the space, I felt that this installation was in line with the values of the Papermaker's Garden; and I like the idea that the rocks are trying to escape over the fence.  Bigger and better things are moving in - the groundbreaking for this space is set for this summer.  That said, I was very okay with making "permanently temporary" installation work.  In addition, I loved looking up from what I was working on every few minutes and being able to see the space slowly come to life.  When we left on Sunday, I felt like we had accomplished a main goal we set out to fulfill: and that was to activate this space.  To get bodies inside the lot working on art.  Done and done!

Since the workshop I am thinking a lot about how those of us working at CBPA can utilize students' brainstormed ideas:  farmer's markets, apiaries, bird feeders, student programming, movie projection nights, live music, art installations, etc. I wonder what I can do to help bring these to life.  It's really important that we program some annual Columbia-wide events in the space, as well as find ways to incorporate the local public.  I've gotten a TON of positive feedback regarding our work, and I've definitely noticed while walking by that almost every pedestrian turns their gaze towards the space.  Go team!  


Permanently Temporary / Weekend in Reflection

The best way for me to begin this reflection is with the response I give to anyone who asks about how this class was. "Who Goes There?" was an experience of the difficulties that come with collaborations organized around non-specific, but very specific goals. This is a familiar place for me after my work with a print cooperative, and it is often a very frustrating place to be. It is an important experience to have though, because when trying to address--and even change things that often are really larger than us---one can get lost in idealism. Those ideals motivate us, but have to withstand the pummel of the bureaucracy that often stands in the way of them being accomplished. 

In our case, these occurred when we discovered how much had already been set in motion between our enrollment in the course, and the day we walked into class. I think it's important to address the "non-specific, but very specific goals" nature of the class. Obviously it reflects the conflict inherent in "permanently/temporary" but it reflects this "what we knew, what we discovered, and how we could work with it."
  • We knew we could activate the space by way of installation. But we didn't know how long, with what material, and in what ways we could do it without causing too much of a fuss with powers that be. 
  • We had great ideas for future use of the space (apiary, composting, workshops and classes, communal spaces within the space). But again, decisions had already been made on how to change the space, and how that activation would be done.
  • We wanted to actively engage with the space through installation, but our materials had in some ways been determined, but we didn't have to use them, but they were there. 

Although I grew weary of discussions along with the rest of the class, it was only because the class time began to feel much too small to really get at the issues you find outlined in our posts. I think there was the lingering push to actually activate the space over the weekend that resulted in the installation you see now. However, just as our discussions in the classroom remained unresolved and saturated with conflict, in some ways, that disparity extended into what was done with the space. 

I think what is actually great about the class is the situation it presented is a real situation. I don't think there is ever an ideal collaborative setting or an ideal problem to address. Even the timeline is never ideal. And all things considered, as a group we exhibited our passion for this sort of collaboration and addressed a common desire: to activate a space we felt was inactive and reach out to the surrounding community. But I do think that some more direction needs to be provided on such a tight timeline. 

E.g. Give everyone a clean slate from the get-go; no materials. You have a space. Activate it. Look at it's potential as it exists and bring that front and center. Address larger issues, but don't get hung-up on them, as they exist regardless of what you do now, so do something, now. 

Biggest concern moving forward:
  • How do we communicate to the student and surrounding community what is going on with the space, how is it changing, and...
  • How can they participate? 
  • How can the collective 'we' use the space? (Who do we talk to? Who is in charge? How do we get the code?)

 It's been a while since the end of the workshop yet every time I take the train to or from school I eagerly await the short moments of when I get to see the garden from up above. I think what I am left with most is that this space has the potential to create a place that can really lessen the insular sometimes disjointed setting of Columbia, while at the same time engage the general public that lives and moves around it everyday.

listing reflections fragments and thoughts

  • how to bring attention to a space by just being in it, no matter what the end result was the physical movement became the "art". 
  • what was left becomes the archive and documentation of the group process
  • biggest distraction was the temporariness of the space, we got stuck on what could or should happen, and lost focus on what was actually happening in the space
  • more focus on the space as it was I think would have helped bring forth a stronger aim or goal for what action or message we wanted to say
  • since the workshop ended I was interested in how long the installation would last. Before it was cleaned up the other day, I  liked how the ribbons were starting to decay and break form. To me they seemed to  mimic and mix into the lines of the rocks

lingering question
  • who has access to the garden,can it become open to more than just a few who know the code?
  • if students wish to use the space to create ongoing programs or events who is in control of what happens inside the garden?

lastly thanks to all who took pictures, I really enjoyed seeing the progression of what we did over the two days.


Just a couple of more pictures and a another video...

A Week after our workshop, it is finally getting warmer and the plants are starting to catch up....


Reflections on a chilly and constructive weekend (Kathi)

Reflection/Response: Who Goes There? Material Social Practices    (Kathi B.)

One of the main reasons I enjoyed the three day one credit workshop "Who Goes There? Material Social Practices" is because of the individuals in the group. As is the way with most of the InterArts grad students, the group was comprised of active and expressive individuals, all of whom are experienced with and interested in working collaboratively in service to a higher cause.

This course presented some interesting ideas on the rapidly changing landscape of public art and arts activism. The readings referred to a number of projects in the U.S. that created real change in an environment or community. In those instances, the concept of what kind of change was needed was present before any ideas of implementation were in place. This enabled the participants to join in to work for a cause and help in any way they were able to. 

In our case, the course was devised with the main element of implementation in place first: the Papermaker's Garden. Parameters of its current usage were already in place, but on hold due to the season and weather. Future upgrades, uses, and the buildout, were being discussed, and ultimately decided upon, in separate meetings at the college administration level. Our class was on the way to dreaming up many different uses for the garden, as well as explorations of community involvement and sustainability/environmental, but there was no way for us to implement most of the ideas we came up with. 

A few major issues impeded our progress: lack of water and electricity in the space; restricted access to the space and a locked gate on the chain-link fence surrounding the space; lack of implements to work with the existing environment on the first  and second days; the inverted nature of the garden's status in relationship to the course's directive and mission. Ideas of creating projections, using sound and lighting, or making the space more user-friendly (more green space and places to sit) were dismissed by the group once we realized the limitations. The additional late-breaking information about the landscape architectural plans that had already been approved by campus administration put a damper on our group coming up with additional innovative ideas.

Using the second part of the class time to work with the tools, supplies, and environment that was actually available to us was a nice release from the fact-finding and idea-generating activities we had done earlier in the classroom. Although severely restricted in our materials, the group pooled their own personal resources as far as tools, and worked together to decide on small details that contributed much to the cohesiveness of the final installation. Having rocks and gravel as a primary building material was almost ridiculous, but with the group's positive and can-do attitude, the self-styled "Team Gravel" was able to rearrange and sculpt the rocks and gravel into interesting and eye-catching swirls and ribbons. The dendritic growths created by Heather and Jillian, that were made to climb up the reviled chain-link fence were especially effective, and will certainly draw attention to the space ("How did they do that? How did they think of that?!").

I do feel a portion of the brainstorming time could have been directed more into researching one or two of the group's "pie-in-the-sky" ideas, and preparing a proposal report to hand over to the college committee that is directly responsible for the final architectural plans that were recently approve. Examples of this include adding seating areas, devising easy to allow community access and use, and researching how an apiary could be incorporated. Our group also noticed a number of things about the site that did not seem to be reflected in the final plans or renderings. It could be helpful for our observations to be passed along to the powers-that-be. 

~Lack of electricity and water access in the space: How will this affect the plan for increased garden beds and a concert/presentation stage? 
~Constant surrounding noise from the elevated train, hotel HVAC exhaust fans, traffic, etc.: How will possible concerts and presentations on the stage be audible if surrounding noise is overwhelming, as it often is? 
~How will adjacent residential neighbors react to the proximity of a concert/presentation stage?
~The one sign on the property talks about an active composting practice being set up. The committee should actively research how to make this a reality, and not be bogged down by imagined "sanitation problems." The college already has a composting program in effect, and it should be linked to the garden's expansion and use.

Overall I am glad I was part of the short-term activation of this space, making it a bit more interesting, colorful, and presentable for the upcoming Manifest celebration.


Reflections [from Megan]

Reflecting on material social practices  //  Megan

I didn’t see that many of the in progress photos as we were working, but I visited the blog and checked them out before sitting down to reflect in writing.  I’ve decided that the most brilliant result of our work lives in those photos.  In hindsight, I wish we had focused more on the capturing of our presence through a series of still images. 

I mentioned before beginning work on Sunday that the most encouraging aspect of the experience for me up until that point was the cultivating of positive energy into the space.  Sure, we spent lots of time talking about what we would change and discussing what was already planned to change.  Then, we walked away from that line of thinking and set to working in the garden. 

I am biased, because I believe that effort is the greatest gift.  I think putting one’s energy to a thing is a compliment.  I also think it is the best way to feel connected and to learn.  For all of those reasons and more, it was good to just work. 

Unfortunately, there was a disconnect between the amount of time we spent discussing interests, possibilities and goals vs. the amount of time spent implementing those goals.  It would have been more gratifying to work toward something specific (especially since we discussed that idea at length).  In reality, our efforts felt more like a culmination of what was easily possible.  Here, we have these supplies and this amount of time.  We have these restrictions and these skills.  Restriction and ease joined forces and our boundaries were set.  Everyone seemed strangely accepting of the non-plan plan.  It was a docile group.  Again, we were just happy to get our hands dirty.

Now, I’ve had a few days to step away. . . and I see these photos.  In my mind I see more of them.  I want  a series of higher quality shots.  I respond to the color contrast against the grey block urban landscape.  The tape material feels less like plastic in the photos and more like a rupture of the familiar.  The long lines of color elicit questions about depth and distance; familiarity and imaginary.  The shots of space + color tape + people seem strangely out of time.  I imagine more photos of guests invited in for a moment.  There is a video of the fluttering tape and a passing train.  The train could not be better choreographed.  The transient energy, strange ideas and effort enacted. 

PICTURES and then some


Process Photos

Hi all, I thought you might enjoy some snapshots from last weekend's workshop sessions in the field.

Of course, we had some intense classroom sessions too, which included inventing 
new, super-energy-awakening snack inventions, which helped us with the outdoorsy work!
And, it's fun to see the detailed work being done....


As well as the final view from above on Sunday.


Saturday 20 April: deciding on a plan

AM: brainstorm, site visit, commit to a plan
12:30 brown-bag lunch
PM: materials testing & work time
keep working OR go to the use less / do more event

People’s Atlas (Cristina)
geo-caching (Kathi)
Columbia College history, Future Farmers Soil Kitchen, Derive app, Use Less/Do More (Fereshteh)

What we know:

We can keep certain “installations” up until/during/at Manifest - We will need to coordinate with other PG Manifest activity.

Alterations in the PG space are welcome as long as they can be removed after Manifest (leave no trace).

Urban intervention and mark-making without a permit is not condoned by the school.

With all this in mind, what actions do we want to do this weekend?

speculative actions – doing something to challenge assumptions
Create imaginative proposals for possible future uses and activities for the Papermaker’s Garden


pre-emptive actions – doing something to set a positive example
Create temporary interventions and small-scale improvements to demonstrate and communicate needs and desires

“immaterial” performances, walking tours, radio broadcasts, video projection, etc


“material” fence decor, painting rocks, mud graffiti, etc

Writing exercise:

Considering our dialogue up until this moment, what is the one thing it’s important for us to accomplish this weekend?

A list of possiblities brainstormed previously:

bird feeders, bee hives, food market, bat shelters, bee houses,
more stuff like reflectors on fence, benches, hammocks, water fountains, garden gnomes, more trash bins, more signs, vegetable plots, furniture, painting rocks, pulp painted onto rocks, make info fliers to update campus about changes, sign to identify plants, mission statement for garden, more transparency and communication to the students, garden newsletter, clean up days, zen rock garden, composting, mailbox, geocache & letterboxing, wayfinding signs to CTA, event kiosk, chess tables, share more info about plant+paper connection, seed paper strips

lunch break

Identify an issue or question to address through the work. What is the content/subject matter? What do we want to communicate?
The space is used and usable. Has been and will be used.
Sign says so, but the space does not say so. Too much text.
The fence communicates lack of use. A blank space. Communicates waste.
We want to communicate possibility. Agency. Space/place has potential.
Community and sustainability.
How should we best use the space in short-term? How does this translate to other empty space in Chicago? 
Activating a space will inspire other people to do it too.
Invitation to solicit help & volunteers.
Whimsy and joy.

What are we making?
text from gravel
    -tossing rocks
    -wishes on rocks
sound sculpture
fence weaving
[[interactivity]] --  [[ground - horizon - sky]]

Do we work in teams or sub-groups?

What media/materials do we use?
whimsy as a material - not didactic, institutional, or commercial
sign to solicit interested people

What is the goal?

Who is the audience?

How do we expect them to respond?

What is our timeline?

How will we know if we have succeeded?


Friday 19 April: generating questions


Where will the beds go during construction? Find another lot & temporarily move there?
How will the space be managed?

Where is there storage space?

Why aren't there any tables?

Who will get to use it?

When and where can the garden infrastructure accommodate the use of repurposed & reclaimed materials? 
Where is the PG identity in the new plan?
What does the fence communicate?
Why is there a fence?
  • Fear of theft
  • Security concerns
  • Maintaining clean space costs money
  • Prevents loitering  

It would be great to have some ideas to hit the ground running for programs when the garden is finished construction

What is the process to obtain permits for selling food or do public performance, etc?

What does the city's new cultural plan say about this?

How does the energy from one project (like the garden) feed into other projects (like the poetry)? How do the energies inspire and flow?

Do something for Manifest!

Student populations have quick turn-over. How do you pass along the engagement, excitement and knowledge in the space?

Faculty are here longer. Put out a call for proposals to make curriculum to engage the garden.
What about other departments? How can we get to them and ask for their ideas?

R25 politics. Campus spaces are sometimes dominated departmentally - departments are territorial. How do you avoid a power-grab?
Great way to have interdisciplinarity in action! 

Papermaker's Garden proposal was strong because it was tied into curriculum and that it would be inclusive to entire college community.

Plan annual events that people will anticipate.

Create an open house events for people to tour the space and think about how to use this space in their courses.

We need outreach to educate the faculty, staff, students about possibilities in the space

Papermaker’s Garden Club?
Downside of club is lack of continuity.

Arts management students could be engaged to program the space. 

What is campus like in the summer? Who is around?
Is there a potential for year-round use?

What do we do about electricity?
Can we do some alternative energy? Solar panels? Windmills?
Where is funding coming from?

Are there external sources of funding?

Could the college offer internships or college credit to manage this space? Undergraduate Research Initiative (URMI)? Center for Community Arts Partnerships (CCAP)?

How do you get the community involved in Columbia’s aesthetic?

Who is the community?

Why do we need a Wabash Arts Corridor? Who benefits? Who is left out or does not belong (...yet)?

WAC = buy-in from community because it helps clean up the neighborhood

What does politics of belonging mean in a private space? What does that look like? What are good examples?

How can we engage the public in a private, institutional space?

Who are the neighbors and how will they be involved?
What are effective and creative strategies to engage the local community?

What’s the place of the artists’ hand(s) in these community projects? 

How can we have public art as action and still have businesses and institutions like Columbia feel like they get their deliverables?

If this space is permanently temporary, what happens when people grow to like this space and they decide to build the student center? This may be a reason why public input was not solicited - people become attached.


What is the history of Columbia?
History of the neighborhood, of the buildings?

How do we include stories of identity, politics, and history in our art work? Do you agree with Bedoya that it is important to do so? How do we include a sense of belonging through the work we create this weekend, and/or the future of the Papermaker’s Garden?

What is the difference between “placemaking” described in the Bedoya & PPS articles and the “social practice” described in the NYT articles?

What are the similarities & differences between creative placemaking and the changes taking place at Columbia via the Wabash Arts Corridor and the Papermaker’s Garden?