Reimagining the Urban: Ying-Fen Chen

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center co-sponsored the Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space on September 30, 2013. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Ying-Fen Chen, a PhD student in Architecture at UC Berkeley.
Keyword: A Vision of Site-Responsive Arts Collaborations in Communities
It had been a blue Monday for me before I arrived at the symposium, Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space, at noon. I had just finished a class in the morning and was still suffering from the flu. In the crowded auditorium, there weren’t many seats left, but I found one next to a stranger. After brief introductions, I lapsed into silence and wished the symposium end soon that I could go home to recover from my virus. Ten minutes later, in the third section of the day, I not only knew the name of the stranger near me, but had enjoyed a stimulating conversation with her about her vision—site-responsive community-led arts collaborations—against the gentrification phenomenon in Bay Area.
Raquel Gutiérrez is a manager for IN COMMUNITY Program of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, facilitating community collaborations through the arts in SOMA, Mission, and West Oakland. Sometimes, she introduces artists to the communities, and sometimes, her group works with the residents, using arts to represent the minor ethnic groups’ histories, to bridge differences among multiple groups within a neighborhood, and to create a public space for the community. It seems a promising vision for combing arts and community work, avoiding a way that arts are often used by the capital in gentrification process. However, given my previous experience as a participatory planner in Taiwan, I know that the participation of arts in community often faces several problems, especially in low-income or minority communities: some selfish-interested artists easily get into conflicts with residents; arts may become a gate keeping some residents away who believe they cannot participate in the program without enough previous education; the sometimes ambiguous role of major actors can influence the result of the program, deviating from the original goal and undermining the community; the ownership of the arts after the program also brings different impacts to the community. Arts are a useful tool in community work, but we need to carefully consider these possible difficulties before we naively jump into the collaborations as an organizer, an artist, or a resident.
Accordingly, in Raquel Gutiérrez’s vision, the concept of “responsibility” is the most important factor in the success of the collaboration of art with communities. Although the way of being responsible is actually based on individual organizer, having no approach to follow, I still appreciate that Raquel tries to bring this concept and its practice to her vision of community work. But, more discussion and informed application is needed to develop and share this concept. Then, a promising and alternative role of arts will actively participate in community collaboration to achieve the goal of creating a livable urban space without the dominating influence of gentrification.