The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley will present the symposium Location/Translation: Art and Engagement from the Local to the Global on September 19, 2012. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, the speakers have been invited to respond to the questions “What does ‘local’ mean to you? How does it get utilized in your work, if at all?” This posting is by Sanjit Sethi,  Director of the Center for Art and Public Life and Chair of the Community Arts Program at the California College of the Arts.
Sanjit Sethi

A few years ago the Center for Art and Public Life facilitated a collaboration between a ceramics course and the design group Rebar to create nesting modules for a species of concern on an island off the coast of Santa Cruz, California. The project was very specific in nature. The birds: Rhinoceros Auklet. The concern: nests being crushed by large elephant seals and sea lions. The material of choice: the pliant and durable medium of ceramics. The location: Ana Neuvo Island. This project emphasizes the local – a specific animal, a specific geography, a specific threat, a specific medium, and a specific solution. And yet through its specificity it had universal implications. It demonstrated that craft mediums have an important role to play in socially responsive projects, and provided a model for solutions around habitat restoration and strategies to address problems for other species of concern. The local had the potential to reach a wider, even global, audience.

What interests me most about working with diverse communities and individuals, such as those involved in the Ana Neuvo Island project, are the questions that arise at the start of these endeavors. These collaborations and interactions often require a great deal of research to discover unseen, hidden, or overlooked components of a story, an issue, or a history. Through this forensic methodology and the subsequent exchanges of information and values the project starts to achieve depth and relevance. Establishing what matters, why it matters, and how it matters is essential to the success of the collaboration and the end product. One of the many things that matters is the local in as much as we need to ask ourselves “why here and not there?” and “how can we ascribe a geography around a project that is based in a specific locality and region?” But, the local is meaningless without considering other things that matter. History matters. Community matters. Socio-economic identity matters. Ethnicity matters. Language matters. Context matters.
Four years ago I completed a olfactory-based memorial in Memphis, Tennessee, the Kuni Wada Bakery Remembrance. This project was the result of research I had done involving the shutting down of a local bakery following the start of World War II. The burst of xenophobic rage that caused a specific community to take specific action on a specific bakery at a specific location had unintended consequences well beyond its specificity. In creating this memorial I interviewed numerous elderly members of the Memphis community who remembered the bakery and spoke of it longingly. Through those conversations it became apparent that in particular these individuals missed the donuts and cinnamon buns that the bakery made. It wasn’t enough for me to create a memorial that pumped out the smell of a generic bakery, but rather I needed to come as close as possible to honoring the specific smells associated with this bakery. In this project it was impossible for me to separate the idea of the local from memory, from history, from nationalism. In the end, the concept of the local offers only one set of variables, which without other factors (community, language, etc.) would be akin to trying to establish location by only providing longitude without latitude.