Artists are the People in Your Neighborhood

By Elizabeth Hamby for NAMAC

The narrative of artists in neighborhoods often follows an arc that goes something like this: artists, in search of space to live and work cheaply, move to an industrial/low-income/out-of-the-way neighborhood. Real estate values rise, and all of a sudden the industry/low-income housing that made the area affordable, disappear, people are displaced from neighborhoods where they’ve lived for generations, and national chain coffee shops open up on every corner.

Meta Local disrupts this narrative by using community engagement as a vital strategy to develop projects collaboratively with our neighbors. We use our artistic practice to amplify the work that is already taking place in our community, bridging the gap between art, activism, everyday people, and the environment.

Meta Local is the collective practice of Hatuey Ramos-Fermín and myself. Hatuey and I are partners in both life and art, and Meta Local contains our work, which is grounded in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx, where we live. Together, we investigate the dynamics of urban spaces; exploring the histories of buildings and neighborhoods, and tracing the flows of people, ideas and products. We combine documentary strategies with performance and fine art, in order to articulate concepts of origin, and the sense of place.

Often, artists whose work deals with community engagement grapple with the challenges of working outside their own community. Urban Bush Women, creators of dance and community talk elegantly about the work of “Entering, Building, and Exiting Community.” This is important work. But I also wonder about the day-to-day life of being an artist in our own communities.

I’d like to share two of our ongoing Meta Local projects as examples of how we define and create engagement in our own community.

Boogie Down Rides is a bicycling and art project that started in 2012. The goal of the project is to create a culture of bicycling, and build a diverse community of cyclists in the Bronx. By creating and celebrating active transportation, Boogie Down Rides increases awareness of bicycles as a mode of transportation and recreation, promoting safe cycling and bridging existing efforts to expand cycling in the Bronx.

“Bicycling is Art,” is the tagline of Boogie Down Rides, highlighting the aesthetic, as well as political function of creating a visible bicycle culture in a borough that struggles with disparities in health, infrastructure, and income. The project brings together artists, activists, public health workers, advocates for safe streets, and everyday folks who like to ride their bikes. It has also sparked a local conversation about who rides bikes in the Bronx, and the barriers that keep others from joining in. This dialogue, which often takes place at stop lights and street corners, is the link between art-making and place-making that is the crux of our practice.

Mind the Gap/La Brecha considers the relationship between the neighborhoods of the South Bronx, and the surrounding waterfront. As part of the Laundromat Project’s Create Change Public Artist Residency, this project was stationed at the Blue and White Laundromat on East 140th Street in the South Bronx. Collaborators included James Rojas, an artist and urban planner who helped us design an interactive 3D model, local community groups, such as South Bronx Unite, who are advocating for more South Bronx waterfront access, and the everyday people of the neighborhood who shared their visions, fears, and aspirations for the waterfront.

Hosting this project at a laundromat helped to broaden the constituency of the conversation about the future of the neighborhood’s waterfront access beyond those activists and organizers, including children, parents, elderly people, and others who are not typically able to attend community meetings. By facilitating storytelling, working with interactive models, and creating an “Ideal Waterfront” photo booth, our project created a space where art-making was a living thing — contingent on the relationship between people and place that constitute the neighborhood.

It is not strange that community engagement in the arts is becoming more visible in the broader art world. In a moment characterized by startling inequality, global crises, and threats to civil liberty, artists are compelled to respond to complex problems with projects that seek to not only articulate the conditions of everyday life, but to engage them head-on. Art-making requires sustained attention, both stubbornness and willingness to change,professional amateurism, and deep engagement. It requires collaboration across disciplines, and a long-term perspective that pays close attention to the present. In short, the practice of art-making is well-suited to the task of confronting social and political climate that is more and more often characterised by fear and fraction.

Conversations like artsENGAGE are important in the midst of this practice because this work is not easy, but also because we are the constituents of the community of practitioners, working to articulate the terms of our engagement. We are storytellers, visual artists, media makers, and administrators, and we are also the people in our neighborhoods. This salon has presented powerful examples, and raised important questions. I hope that it is the beginning of a longer conversation that can sustain the work of the participants, and support the creation of new, powerful work.