Creative Time 2013: Hannah Merriman

On October 25 and 26, the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley and the California College of the Arts are partnering once again to host a live-streaming of the Creative Time Summit, an annual conference in New York that brings together cultural producers–including artists, critics, writers, and curators–to discuss how their work engages pressing issues affecting our world. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, attendees have been asked to submit a paragraph that touches upon the topics relevant to the summit’s theme: Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century City. This posting is by Hannah Merriman, artist and educator.
“An artist organizes a political rally about a local issue. The project, which is supported by a local arts center in a medium-size city, fails to attract many local residents; only a couple dozen people show up, most of whom work at the arts center. The event is documented on video and presented as part of an exhibition. In truth, the artist can claim to have organized a rally?”  This is one of the provocative questions that Pablo Helguera raises in his book Education for Socially Engaged Art.  How should we evaluate the success of social practice art projects?  On their aesthetic merit or their social agenda?  These are crucial questions for those of us who aim to have a social impact our creative work.  Is it important to clearly defined goals at the outset or a project or is an art project more like a living entity which should grow and change depending on who is participating?  I often hold up Lily Yeh’s transformative work as a one of the most inspiring examples creative placemaking.  Her collaborative methodology allows everyone to have a sense of ownership in the process which in turn makes the new space truly communal – not the work of a single artist.  She also seems to be working outside the confines of the academic art world and liberated from some of the critical theories that might seek define or narrow her approach.  For me, she is the model of a socially engaged art practitioner who’s work embodies a courageous ethos of collaborative making – a shining example for those of us who fear getting caught up in theoretical “rallies”!