I’ve been very fortunate to work in the broad and expanding field of public art for more than forty years. I’ve learned that public art isn’t an art form; it’s a field of inquiry, like medicine or science. Artists of all stripes are experimenting and testing theories of cause and effect in the public sphere. They treat the city like it’s their laboratory, a venue for all kinds of creative experimentation.
The project 122 Conversations: Person to Person, Art Beyond Borders by Anne Labovitz is a new kind of experiment involving a six-venue, international touring exhibition; participatory interventions inside and outside the gallery; dialogues and discussions with more than 2000 participants; documentation, video, and importantly artworks sited within the public realm. Public art, as a practice, offers unlimited opportunities for collaboration, for ideas that shape our built and social environments and efforts that influence change—locally and globally. Artists are no longer relegated to working in isolation or simply plopping personal expressions in public spaces. Today, artists can write their own job descriptions, follow their personal passions, and collaborate with anyone and everyone. From earthworks and wrapped buildings to bridge lighting and flash mob events, artists are redefining what public art can be every day.
Public art is evidence of our shared humanity. Over the past two decades, the field has evolved from art in public to art by, for and about the public. It’s less of a monologue and more of a dialogue. Public artists, in a sense, custom curate experiences for us. It’s a kind of creative caring for daily life. Social practitioner Jen Reyes describes this type of work as “a lived practice.” This dialogical and situational practice is embodied in Labovitz’s art. Her work is reflective of a creative, reciprocal relationship between herself as the artist, the physicality of the artwork, and the engagement of her audience/participants. She has learned to tap into and trust her intuition, and let her insatiable curiosity tell her where to go, what to do, and how to navigate new territories. 122 Conversations highlights Labovitz’s many connections to place and conveys her urgency to visually manifest these connections. During one of several interviews I had with Labovitz, she told me “My artist friend Harold Adams, who is 94, said if you have an idea in the studio you have to do it. Period…. It is like you are bound in a certain way to try it.”
Working more publically and intuitively—without a roadmap or a compass—hasn’t deterred Labovitz. In fact it seems to be one of her key motivators. She has expanded her practice beyond painting, drawing, printmaking, experimental film and participatory performance art. She’s moved beyond exhibiting her works in galleries and museums, and now considers public spaces as fair game. At the core of her work, however, is her fascination with people, and the human experience.
New Approaches in Public Practice
With 122 Conversations: Person to Person, Art Beyond Borders, Labovitz dives head first into the big world of public art and the field of socially engaged art. Working within these realms, she utilizes social practice methods such as dialogue, co-creation, and participatory actions, while also including quiet moments of reciprocal connection and gestures of generosity as part of her work. Text and dialogue are built up over time, and through discussions, with participants. In this way, her work is a very social, dialogical practice; the process is the art as much as the actual artwork. Yet, for Labovitz the beauty of the final artwork is vital. “I think aesthetic is really important…beauty is primal,” she explains. Indeed, the work is not just beautiful; it is seductively engaging.
In essence, Labovitz’s work is about connections and visualizing dialogue. Her keen sense of observation and ability to relate to practically anyone has allowed her to put herself in a room of strangers from literally anywhere in the world. She puts everyone at ease, engages in conversation, joins in artmaking, and shares stories. Labovitz uses her art to build community and bridge divides. As with her portrait paintings, in which hand-written quotes drawn from her subjects are embedded, words play an integral role in her art—even if they aren’t meant to be read in the traditional sense. Here, the words inform the art, and the art of conversation takes center stage as her primary medium. Feminist art history teaches us that dialogue can be a powerful method of engagement. Suzanne Lacy’s Whisper, the Waves, the Wind (1983-1984) was a project where the artist worked with 154 older women in a public art intervention on the beaches in LaJolla, California. Sitting at white cloth-covered tables, they discussed their lives, their relationships, their hopes, and their fears. Similarly, Labovitz engaged in intense Skype discussions with participants who discussed their lives and the common bonds they shared with others around the world. Recorded conversations were then played over and over again in her studio as Labovitz created the scroll paintings.
With 122 Conversations, Labovitz shifted her practice to include not only painting and mark making (with nods to traditional mediums and genres) but also to social practice, specifically the facilitation of shared authorship, dialogical processes, and sociopolitical gestures. In this work she allows—as well as encourages—her subjects to co-create elements of the exhibition. Over the course of the project, her subjects/participants/viewers grew in number and in scale—from individuals, to communities, to cities, and in this case, a cohort of cities around the globe. This convergence reflects a shift in conventional thinking of public art practice—one that is both inside and outside the gallery space.
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally—Sister Cities
Many community-engaged artists and creatively minded activists embrace the idea of thinking globally and acting locally. Important and universal ideas are often investigated while local sociopolitical and historical contexts are negotiated. The 122 Conversations project exemplifies this global/local notion. Labovitz grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, a place she refers to as “geographically isolated, with limited exposure to languages, cultures, and lifestyles different from my own.” Her original idea was to travel an exhibition of her artworks to Duluth’s Sister Cities, but she soon realized that “it must be about the inhabitants of each city for it to be relevant.” She then approached Sister Cities and Tweed Museum of Art to be partners in a different kind of project—one that connected communities in evolving gestures of creative dialogue.
Duluth has a combined 122 years relationship with its five sister cities—Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan; Växjö, Sweden; Petrozavodsk, Russia; Thunder Bay, Canada; and Ohara-Isumi City, Japan—hence the title 122 Conversations. Duluth’s Sister Cities International seeks to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation—one individual, one community at a time. Their mission resonated with Labovitz, given her belief that art can be a catalyst for positive social change. “The act of making a genuine, heartfelt connection with a stranger is essential.”
Labovitz embraces what many artists have historically undertaken—engaging in a creative, international exchange. Such mechanisms within art history include not only Sister City exchanges but also artists’ residencies and U.S. government-sponsored cultural diplomacy exhibitions extending from the 1930s to today. Not surprisingly, Robert Rauschenberg’s 1980s Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) project influenced Labovitz’s project. Elsewhere in Minnesota, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have engaged in art exchanges with their respective Sister Cities going back as far as the 1980s. Indeed, since 1956, when President Eisenhower initiated the Sister Cities program, it has generated one of the most impactful, yet overlooked, cultural exchange initiatives in our country’s history, and typically results in projects sited in public spaces.
Gift Giving as Art
The late Larry Harvey, visionary founder of Burning Man, an outrageously artful, temporary community that convenes annually in the Nevada desert, once gave a lecture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “In Bohemia,” he declared, “in the natural world of the artist, there exists an economy of creative abundance, because this is a world of gift giving. At the same time, we’ve taken the playfulness of art and defined it in terms of social utility. We’ve always encouraged forms of art that convene society around themselves…A more potent organizer of human communities is hard to imagine.”
Labovitz’s practice embodies the idea of creative abundance. She is intensely interested in the notion of a reciprocal exchange—visually, emotionally, and psychologically. She also always includes a type of take-away, or what she considers is a gift, for participants and often viewers of her work. Like the artist Félix Gonzélez-Torres, who would invite viewers to take away with them a piece of paper or a small hard candy as part of his exhibitions, Labovitz is interested in creative exchange as well as generosity.
Again, similar to Gonzélez-Torres, she’s also interested in artworks that embody relationships. Following her extended online Skype conversations with ten individuals from each sister city, Labovitz strived to interpret her engagement experiences and created artworks as gifts to each individual as well as each community in return for their time and their stories. “When I made these paintings—in my heart, in my mind, or in my body—each piece was conceived as a gift to that city. I am bringing something that is like a hello or a welcome to a friendship and it should feel that way. That is important to me. So that’s how I created them, knowing I had to remain true to those interviews. I listened to them more than five times and ruminated over them. I love those interviews because I would listen and write what they said over and over. And it’s because there was this spiritual moment where people shared themselves in a beautiful way. They really wanted to be a part of something and that tells me people want to—we want to—be together, you know, as human beings. Without exception, people were so eager and wanted to be involved and participate and share, and it’s moving. So, for me I felt like I owed them something.” This urgent need took the form of “gratitude paintings” and Certificates of Participation.
Lewis Hyde, in his book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, states: “A work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two ‘economies,’ a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.” For artists working in the public art field, the notion of giving back or gifting is quite familiar. After all, we don’t think of public art as something that’s for sale; it’s freely accessible to everyone. There’s no price tag on a work of public art. And, to a great extent, public artists value working in communities as a way to make a difference in the world, rather than make a profit. With 122 Conversations, Labovitz clearly taps into the gift economy and a currency of kindness. There’s a cause and affect phenomenon involved with offering a gift, inviting strangers to take part in a public art project, or facilitating a group activity. It invites reciprocation and inspires participants to further share with others, thus generating an energy that multiplies exponentially.
Like Gonzélez-Torres, Labovitz uses malleable variations of installations, meaning there can be multiple ways the exhibition can be set up. These public interventions—some more public than others—were site specific, intended to respond to contextual considerations. In response to each of122 Conversations’ six venues, each exhibition was different and responded empathetically to each place—in relation to people, the space, and logistics. For example, in Iraqi Kurdistan and Russia, a volunteer courier brought the work. In a way, the specificity of each installation was also a gift—one that is created especially for that place.
The notion of multiples in Labovitz’s work—for example many pieces were sent in suitcases—recalls poignant works from the Fluxus movement, a forerunner to social practice, and Gonzélez-Torres’ method of art making.These are traveling gifts that facilitate connection. Labovitz explains, “I document human connection, dialogue, and relationships, always considering the notion of temporality.” In public practice, community engagement and conversations are an important currency. The “artworks” are more often evidence of the process, documentation, recordings, transcriptions, and translations. In this way, the artwork goes beyond time and space or place to a site of healing.
Conversation as a Process for Healing
Through her interviewing process, and the labor-intensive artmaking that followed, Labovitz sought to discover common ground and share her discovery as a means of healing, bridging divide, and forging new alliances. Supported by overwhelming evidence that the arts contribute to individual and community well-being, 122 Conversations ambitiously posits that this can happen on a global scale.
I find Labovitz’s methodology compelling and refreshing, allowing each successive engagement and the people who participated to inform the artmaking and the planning for the next engagement, a kind of iterative, improvisational, gestural style. The artist allowed each situation to inform the creativity she would apply. “In a certain way,” she said “you have to be agile in your thinking and your process.… As an artist, you can’t control what is going to happen. Even losing the work. For example, when it went to Iraq, I thought it will either come back or it won’t. It will be part of the story no matter what.”
Community engagement as process was embedded in Labovitz’s 122 Conversations. The work made up of markings, words, handwritten transcriptions of interviews in their native language—all packaged to fit neatly within a specially designed suitcase for traveling (complete with instructions). She developed aprons for use at the artmaking workshops, allowing each host community to get fully engaged, participate actively in the project—kids got to interview each other, for example—make their own art, wear the art, and carry small squares, or tiles, of their art with them, dispersing the project in unexpected and sometimes surprising ways.Labovitz explains: “I interviewed a person from Iraqi Kurdistan who spoke about bringing a friend of his with him in his pocket, and how important that was for him because that’s how they could be together because they were separated, by war… so it’s like having people in the pockets [of the aprons] and I just love that….
“In places like Kurdistan, where I knew there was strife and people were fighting for their lives, I felt compelled to show people that someone cared, like you’re belonging to something, with intention and friendship and love,” Labovitz explains. “So I just poured everything into it, and when the suitcase was opened, there was this woosh of color and it felt alive.”
There was an evolution to 122 Conversations, from Labovitz’s first trip to the last; modifications, adjustments, and improvements were made along the way. There was a mix of scale, from intimate tile making to the large hanging banners displayed in public spaces. The banners, likewise, grew in scale. By the time the project got to Japan, the banners were 35 feet long, offering a dramatic enhancement to a public building.
As with most community-oriented art practices, artists continually reflect on process, engagement, and the manifestation of their work. In addition to all the conversations Labovitz has had with others, she was openly having a conversation with herself. “In a sense, you are holding up a mirror that you are allowing yourself to see what you are doing through other people’s eyes—through their own lenses, through their own values, through their own issues they’re dealing within their community.”
Labovitz is an artist who likes to throw herself into new situations. She embraces the unknown as an opportunity for rethinking and renewing. With 122 Conversations, she taps into the global interest of participatory culture. People don’t want to passively witness art; they want to actively participate in it. They want to help create art or interact with it. This inclination may be a reaction to today’s isolating technology, but more so, I believe, it’speople’s desire to connect with each other on a more human, authentic or personal level. Artists like Labovitz are making a difference in the world with their creativity. This difference making only comes about once the artist taps into their own humanity. “I need to be together with myself, my art, and with people because I have gifts as a human. I love to make people feel good, so why wouldn’t I use that in my own practice? … The world is pretty small,” says Labovitz, in hindsight.
This is the kind of thinking that sustains me today. I would argue that, with artists like Anne Labovitz, the world will grow even smaller and the bonds that connect us will overpower any differences that divide us.
Jack Becker founded Forecast Public Art in 1978, and now serves as director of Forecast’s Creative Services program. As a public artist, administrator, and veteran consultant, Jack specializes in developing projects and plans for communities large and small. He especially enjoys projects that connect the ideas and energies of artists with the needs and opportunities of communities. He has organized more than 70 exhibitions, 50 publications, and numerous special events. Becker received a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, studying under such artists as Siah Armajani, Kinji Akagawa and Andrew Leicester. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he also studied there at Washington University and Webster University, as well as the Croydon College of Art and Design in Great Britain. Widely acknowledged as a leader in the field, Jack is the founding publisher of Public Art Review. In 2007, he received the Public Art Network Award of Excellence from Americans for the Arts, and in 2014, he received a lifetime achievement award from the College Art Association, through their Public Art Dialogue program.