Creating Technology for Social Change

Art, Community and Creative Action – Lunch with Mel Chin and Rick Lowe

This week the MIT Office of the Arts is hosting kick-off events for Artists-in-Residence Mel Chin and Rick Lowe. Both artists are renowned in the field of “social practice” which conceives of art-making as an activity that can be participatory, social, community-oriented and engage many fields in and outside of the arts. For example, Rick Lowe is the founder of Project Row Houses which is an arts and cultural community located in Houston, TX. Originally motivated by wanting to preserve informal architecture from gentrification and demolition, the project has grown from a single block to encompass six blocks, 40 properties, an artist in residence program, gallery spaces, a park, low-income and commercial spaces and seven houses for young mothers. It might sound alternately like an urban planning project, a grassroots activism project, a capacity-building project, or an arts program. And it is all those things. But it also brings a creative, artistic sensibility to building strategies (spatial and programmatic) for community engagement and empowerment. 

The Center for Civic Media hosted Mel Chin and Rick Lowe for a work-sharing lunch today (Wed, Sept 26th). Many of us are interested in creative strategies for engagement and community building with media tools. (For example, the project Vojo which is a microblogging platform that anyone with an SMS cell phone can use to tell stories). 

So today we convened a group of around ten students from the Media Lab, DUSP, ACT and other programs who were interested in sharing work-in-progress with Rick and Mel. Each student did a 5-7 minute presentation of a work-in-progress and finished with outlining challenges and a couple of questions asked to the group.

For example, I discussed my project with Ofelia Rivas called Erase the Border in which we worked with Tohono O’odham youth to metaphorically erase the border wall that is in their backyard. I outlined the challenges of representing this for an online audience who is geographically remote and showed one direction we are considering which is making an interactive documentary about the action with the storytelling platform Zeega.

Becky Hurwitz demonstrated the Vojo platform and some of the groups that the Vojo team has been working with including CCTV and the Brazilian Women’s Group. Her questions centered around how to develop prompts so that people can contribute interesting stories to the Vojo platform, what constitutes an interesting story and how to engage people in an embodied way.

Emily and Rahul Barghava introduced us to their Data Murals project in which they work with communities to look at data around specific issues and then work to develop a collaborative process of representing that data in mural form. This could be a way of embodied engagement with data and also a way of educating a larger public about issues facing the community. Their questions surrounded the final form of representation and how to keep the data in the mural, so to speak.

Andi Sutton outlined a collaborative project called Marsh Radio Island she is working on with artist Jane Marsching to install creative field stations in Boston salt marshes to help remediate and nurture the ecosystems being destroyed there. They hope to incorporate pirate radio stations, communication mechanisms between Boston communities in flood-risked areas such as Dorchester, Chelsea, East Boston. This creative & botanical intervention seeks to seed a tangible, empathetic stewardship relationship between urban communities and the harbor landscape and de-mystify climate change adaptation techniques. Andi posed the question of how we assess impact in both biological and human-scale time. 

Giacomo Bruno Castagnola Chaparro called to our attention the idea of “Loitering” and how there is no equivalent term in public space. He showed us movable benches he developed for public spaces to enable people to sit and loiter where there is no seating.  Additionally, he showed images of some of the interstitial spaces in Cambridge owned by MIT where some kind of creative intervention might be possible (for example between he UHaul company and the MIT storage building on Mass Ave). His questions were around what’s possible given administrative structures and what kind of intervention might be most useful for these spaces.

Finally, Sophia Brueckner showed her work to make her computer sing. She programmed the native Mac text-to-speech voices to sing in a chorus, first with 10 voices and then with 30 voices simultaneously which vary and interact with each other in various ways. The overall effect was definitely non-human but sounded like it could have been a horde of insects humming and buzzing together. Her questions centered around how important it was for the audience to know how something was done technically vs absorbing the emotional impact. 

After the presentations we had a wide-ranging conversation that connected many of the questions raised by presenters including documentation, questions of data and scale, questions of time and impact and how, for heaven’s sake, we could form our own MIT Loitering Club.