On a rainy Saturday afternoon I met Sean Starowitz in Kansas City at ‘Talk Shop’, the temporary cultural center he co-runs, which was hosting an exhibition of the ‘Langston Hughes Club’ (a photography group that is made up of members of the fast food workers collective Stand Up KC). It was an incredibly refreshing experience after walking into many white cubes. Here were photos depicting the lives of workers by workers with arresting results. Starowitz was there talking about the work and engaging people that entered the space. He described himself to me as a bread baker. As I discovered he is also a collaborator, organizer, teacher, curator, fundraiser, facilitator, and artist with a diverse and committed practice. We also talked about the role of the artist in the community and the critical problems of that position when attempting to instigate real change. Below is an interview we did at another of his collaborative projects: ‘Bread KC’—an event raising money for the arts in Kansas City
Steven Duval – In the documentation of your project ’Byproduct: The Laundromat’ you have a photo of a t-shirt that says ‘I had a token conversation at an invisible venue’. It reminded me of Gregory Scholette’s use of the physics term ‘Dark Matter’ as reference to a cultural sphere that is everywhere but goes unseen. How does visibility play into your activities?
Sean Starowitz – That’s a great question and I was super informed by Gregory’s work when I was in undergrad, actually my studio thesis was on Dark Matter and Everyday practices.
I tend to think of myself as a quilt maker and table designer – though I’ve never made either of those objects, per say. My approach is to thread individual patchwork squares together and try to figure out what the shape and design of a table is. I think that is one of the great challenges of our time – How do we create spaces/environments/projects that are inviting, and participatory? How do we invite people not only to the table to share something but also offer their insight, opinions and ideas? Those spaces seem to be far and few between these days. I like to think of my work as the common thread that stitches a project together or the table that everyone sat down at to have a meal.
I know that sounds like an invisible practice but it’s not. (Full discretion – Image is by Invisible Venue, a socially engaged art project run by Christian Frock who I believe shares similar ideas of visibility). I don’t think you can totally erase the artist’s presence from any project, even though many Socially Engaged Art Practices make that claim. I don’t see it enough or used appropriately. The projects and practices that I’ve been involved in, organized, or directed have been crafted by many collaborators, partners and participants. It’s always difficult for audiences to understand that. I do nothing alone, and no artists have ever done anything alone. I hope that my practice illustrates healthy and collaborative approaches in art-making, urban issues, community building and hopefully creative gestures to complex ideas.
I also think that each project having its own identity is key, especially in relation to the problem of artist visibility. I tend to hide behind sigils, logos and strong graphic images, if I may say so myself, because I’ve worked with great graphic designers over the years. In KC, many folks might not know that I’m behind a project as “Sean Starowitz” but they’re more than likely aware or heard of BREAD! KC, Byproduct or Talk Shop…It allows for collaborative authorship, and participation, and just maybe a new way of working or engaging within a community. Somebody said to me recently, “Are your fingerprints on this?” and I found that to be really flattering and something I’m striving for. It’s there if you want to find it.
S.D. One of the things you mentioned when we met at the ‘Talk Shop’, where the Langston Hughes Club were showing their photography in the exhibition ‘I, Too, Am America’, was the importance of acknowledging power relations especially with regard to ’socially engaged’ art practice. The positioning of the artist/curator as the central author or as facilitator/collaborator becomes crucial here. How did you deal with that power dynamic when working with the Langston Hughes Club where empowerment and self-determination is central to their work?
S.S. Full Disclosure: I merely provided a venue for this project. Stand UP KC and Langston Hughes Club are self-sustaining in their own efforts.
Well, I think we can scale back this question a bit. The problem with certain projects and processes that occur within “Socially Engaged” Art (SEA) is that there tends to be a top-down approach either through an institution, organization, or by the privilege of an artist. This can be very problematic and really makes me question this whole entire field. Is it possible to have social change without some form of social exploitation and individual artistic glorification? To me this is the kind of question we need to be asking in the field.
I think Langston Hughes Club (LHC) challenges this question at its core and marks a radical shift in the power dynamic between labor reform and artistic practice. LHC is not an exhibition of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist documenting the lives of fast food workers in a “poverty porn” sense, or the controlled frame of poverty in America through the lens of the media; rather, the workers are telling their own stories, with their own voice and through their own frame of reference. The LHC has been in control of the project, not a curator, or photographer. Stand Up KC does a wonderful job of making sure the workers are interviewed not the organizers, and that they’re the face of the movement. It’s truly humbling and empowering. You don’t see this way of working often enough in the contemporary art world or SEA practices, nor do I think they really care about this type of work. It’s about museums playing middlemen for dealers and collectors and where they can “park their money”…
The hope is that by asking these hard questions of SEA we can get to a place where artists and cultural workers can meet people and communities where they are, rather than coming to the table with a fixed idea. But as always, there has to be a connectedness. A true relationship has to be built and may not have an end goal in mind. When working with different communities audiences and collaborators, for me its important to leave my experiences, knowledge, and expertise at the door and actually try to engage with people. Hopefully, in that process we’re able to create something new together, alongside one another and that’s the space where you truly shift power dynamics.
S.D. I think you make an excellent point about the glorification of the artist and it brings me back to a comment that Ian Burn and Karl Beverage of Art & Language made about Carl Andre and Robert Morris’ activities in the Art Workers Coalition – “the split between art and real problems emerged in the 1960s in an essentially apolitical and asocial art – to the extent that, for most artists, political engagement meant moving to an extra art activity.” Perhaps suggesting that their labor was no longer present in their work and was now displaced onto their personal identities. Ian Burn also talks about the deskilling of the artist in the 1960s. When I look at your pop-up bakery project, ‘Fresh Bread’, your labor and skill is very present but as an artwork it is also a representation that you, as author, are also present in. Do you think that calling your activities art hinders your ability to be an effectual force for change or can we, as Tania Bruguera says, ‘put Duchamp’s urinal back into the toilet’ and make art useful?
S.S. I think this is a very important question to keep asking artists who engage in this type of practice. For me, to be frank, I think that every system is broken and we need creative gestures to re-imagine them and who better than artists. Art has the ability to be multifaceted, and its capacity to communicate plural meanings gives real power to cultural actions. Artists can transform dissatisfaction with the world into an image of something better, and it could be this imaginative transformation that leads us to hope and rejuvenation. Antanas Mockus, the philosopher and educator who became the Mayor of Bogota re-imagined civic politics with creative gestures. For example, to increase public safety his office hired mimes to act out the proper ways to cross the street, within three years pedestrian fatalities dropped by 50% further due to the violence vaccine program his office enacted pushed homicides rates to fall 70%.
I think calling it art allows for a greater depth of exploration and consideration. I know it’s a bold thing to say art and consideration in the same sentence, when arts funding is at an all-time low, and we are constantly at war with people’s couches and Netflix accounts. For example, ‘Fresh Bread’ was shut down on its third pop-up by the City Health Department. While the city was shutting me down, the folks that were in line were tweeting to the City Manager and Mayor Sly James. No less than 5 hours later, I was having a conversation with Councilperson Cindy Circo and City Manager Troy Schulte about the project, all while eating the different types of bread offered through the stand. By the following Monday morning a few emails we’re sent and within 3 weeks Fresh Bread was back up and running and allowed to pop-up anywhere in the metro area. I think the reason why the City Manager and Councilperson Cindy Circo were so willing to hear me out, other than the great tasting bread was that Fresh Bread is a creative gesture to a complex problem we have in the city. Fresh Bread wasn’t a bourgeoisie hipster venture; rather it was having a larger dialogue about food access and vacancy while also literally breaking bread with others.
Once again, art can take us to places we haven’t been before and it can give us the space we need to reflect and understand. I think that maybe the historic path of the artist has been blinded by our current market-based economy and our failures in art education. The power of art to affect public opinion and organize has been displaced by the many historic events around the world that try to silence artist. Arts and culture are usually the first to be censored, removed, or suppressed. I believe this way of engaging and working provides voice to multiple perspectives, it naturally draws out varied forms of response through reflections, discussion, and debate. You know the sort of things that are elemental in a healthy democratic system. Artists, cultural workers, poets, writers, singers, musicians, performers, dancers, and chefs (among countless others) can be the “canary in the coal mine”. I think we need song more than ever, we need poetry more than politics, and we need artists to hold up the mirror and provide the space for deep reflection. To quote my dear friend Peter Sellers, “Music is about everything we’re hoping for and that’s not here yet, and music is here ahead of time to tell us: it’s coming”
So to answer your question yes to more useful art, please.
If you would like to know more about Sean Starowitz and his activities please visit www.seanstarowitz.com
Stand Up KC and the Langston Hughes Club