My work centers on creating experiences in public spaces that tear down barriers between objects and viewers. I try to create pathways for “audiences” to become “participants” to become “artists,” by embodying a spirit of shared generation in every aspect of my work, conducting it like electricity in space where people can settle it deep into their bones, their soul.
Creating space for people to walk their road from audience to maker is embodied democracy to me — the power of the people. Public space is an expression of civic action that we can see, feel, and touch. To experience co-creation in public space is among the ways democracy starts to become part of our lived wisdom, rather than an abstract concept at arm’s length from our hearts, minds, and families.
I’m in solidarity with many amazing artists engaged in social practice who believe that the mainstream art world too often uses unbelonging to drive, and express, value: the rarer the object, the more financially valuable and less accessible it is. With only a small number of people and institutions — historically white male, Western, and guided by hegemony over diversity — continuing to decide for all of us who and what has value, we seek another way.
I became an artist by choice, but I became a game designer by accident. The last time I played a video game was 1989, and I didn’t think of my work as games until an expert in game design told me why my work fit. My commitment to games is because systems are the soul of my practice. Magical creativity can occur under constraints, or rules, and embodying the spirit of “play” allows us to experience constraint and take risks in a safer way. Games also create space for children and adults to engage equally. Age is another aspect of unbelonging that we accept more than we need to. For me, the concept of “game” is a philosophical approach to making, not a tactic to lure people to a lesson or message. Too often, “gamification” misses that difference.
Games can foster transformations, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to see micro-movements of change with the people I make for and with. One participant-creator told me that my game changed her life; another shared with me, a stranger, a secret that was causing her intense guilt; another surfaced a memory more than 60 years old. And many people have told me that my games have ushered in small self realizations. (Click here for a longer reflection on this.)
I was able to first explore measurability thanks to a commission by the Queens Council on the Arts in 2015, on the Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop farm. My goal was to understand how decisions inspired by creativity get carried out over time. What I found after contacting participants a year later is that art can help turn life itself into a work of art. And that may be a route to long term soul change.
The art market operates on an extreme & unregulated form of capitalism in which wealth and power are synonyms. In 2006, I started to get just how insidious the wealth+power dynamic was. Often Western white-male dominant, people with wealth set the prices, paid them, and profited from them the most. From Indian artisans getting pennies to craft work branded by companies, to Black musicians having their very voices stolen by record labels, small instances turn into billions in theft and appropriation.
This contributes to the wealth gap and racial wealth gap. It also means many cultural narratives are controlled by the wealthy — their biases, tastes, and ideas of value. In the end, we have mass subliminal and psychological bullying that might not be entirely intentional but is still very real: a small group decide who our role models are, who and what is beautiful and smart, and what our whole civilization should look like. We can choose movies or galleries, but may not be able to choose which commercials we see or which ads we walk past on the street.
After 2006, I started to look for ways out of this system by becoming a public artist. I also worked to find my way into organizations that would help me understand our financial systems — and had a little room for people like me who didn’t come with finance knowledge. But there is literally no escape. First, public and nonprofit funding aren’t always immune to capitalist dynamics. Second, I realized in 2017, after many conversations with Ernest, that centering public participation is not enough.
In democracy, asking for participation without accountability and understanding of its shared benefit runs the risk of becoming extractive, appropriating, and/or counterfeit. In theory, we should be facing those awfuls by building systems that center both justice and relationships. Same should go for embodied democracy in art. When an artwork becomes an act of participation and the people you create for are the center of everything, the artist is no longer the only “author.” How do we think about ownership when it’s actually shared with 3,000+ people interacting in what might be deep contribution AND fleeting moments? How do we develop authentic relationships while centering expansive public inclusion? And what happens if any part of it earns money?
We need new ownership models that turn viewers, into co-creators, into owners that could benefit from creative assets alongside creators and institutions. My work has been changing since 2017 to answer this call, and today it’s changing in and with the MJN community, an organization dedicated to making justice normal. From shifting to participatory practice in 2008 to wholly embracing public spaces in 2012, I hope to figure out how to practically reimagine and operationalize collective ownership, in research & dialogue by BIPOC and women creators, for BIPOC and women creators, that shows what alternatives could look like. Only after learning and listening can we demonstrate alternative ownership through future cultural assets embodying participation and justice.