Friday, February 22, 2008

Curating the Urban Environment

I have a feeling I didn't just make that catchy title up off the cuff. I probably read it somewhere before, maybe in one of the books on Urban Design and Landscape Architecture stacked on my desk perhaps?

There is nothing the Atlanta creatives love more than discussing the future of architecture and urban planning in this city. It's kind of hard not to see a show about it really, in fact there is an entire series of events that "examine the real and imagined nexus of art, architecture and urban design" happening right now called Re/constructing Atlanta.

The beltline, going green, revitalization of downtown, buzz buzz buzz. It's exciting, I've got four massive cranes precariously looming too near my building as I write this. If I had money I'd snap up a little house and go Frank Gehry all over it too. Atlanta is a city preoccupied with the future but also, maybe, hopefully, beginning to appreciate all the history and trees she's got.

And so the timing of artist Rick Lowe's invitation to speak Georgia State University is pertinent to what Atlanta faces now as it develops forward and if Lowe's mission could influence the priorities of this city it would be a very good thing. Lowe spoke specifically about Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas under the equally catchy title "Sculpting the Built Environment."

It's good fodder for the copywriters really, how about Sketchy Area Ripe for New Artist's Sketches? or Gutted Buildings, the Armatures of the Future!

Inspired by Joseph Beuy's notion of "Social Sculpture" Lowe wanted to push his racially focused political/social artwork to a more interactive level, wanting it to, in effect, "mold the world around us." In the very early 90's Lowe was interested in an area of Houston, TX called the Third Ward and especially in a block of 22 abandoned shotgun houses, built in 1930, that had fallen into seeming disrepair, having become a dangerous "hotbed for criminal activity" and slated to be torn down.

The area has a rich history as a strong black community and inspired by painter John Biggers, well known for his work about the shotgun house communities, Lowe began to reconsider the future of the row houses in the Third Ward. Biggers believed there were four qualities necessary for a strong and fruitful community 1) good and relevant architecture (with courtyards and porches being essential for socialization) 2) inclusion of art and culture 3) education 4) social safety net (compassion and helping others)

Long story short, which most people already know and it's told far better on their website anyway, what began in '93 as Lowe and fellow artists going into the area with a gorilla art strategy of fixing up the houses to show art and enliven the community, snowballed into a much larger, financially sound, community effort.

The houses proved much easier to renovate than previously estimated, costing around 5k each, and as momentum picked up different arts organizations and community groups began sponsoring houses and volunteering labor. The area went through an unpredicted transformation and out of the 22 houses, 10 are utilized as exhibition spaces for visiting artists, 5 are used for educational program for kids in the neighborhood, and 7 are transitional housing for single mothers. Following Bigger's theory on the essential components of a community, the Row Houses gave the entire Third Ward neighborhood a new confidence in the revitalization of their community and gave Houston an incredible site for experimental and interactive art by artists from around the world.

What really struck me in hearing how all of this conspired was the ebb and flow, the finicky nature, of development and the power of creativity. In many ways the Row Houses Project is a simple idea, pushed into existence by a group of enthusiastic artists who had little knowledge of how to renovate a neighborhood or what they were on the cusp of creating. The fact that an area of homes can evolve from a tight-knit social group into impoverished, dilapidated homes, only to be revitalized by the presence of art and volunteers, says a lot about the nature of people and our society. How can the identity of places change so quickly? Respond so easily to external variables? There is a definite history to the Third Ward with people firmly rooted to it, and yet the ebbing and flowing of a place cannot be contained or controlled by its residents. Though the precarious personality of any place seems to always flourish with the presence of art.

The new battle in the Third Ward is not against termites and drug dealers, but encroaching developers. As the area has changed and found itself surrounded by gentrified neighborhoods, medical centers, and universities, the land is quickly becoming expensive and coveted. And so what began, arguably, as an art project for Lowe and his compatriots has turned into a real estate battle. Forming the Row House Community Development Corporation, the organization now aggressively buys up land in the Third Ward to preserve it for the black community living there. A modern interpretation of the Row House, designed by students at Rice University, are now being built on the purchased land and rented out at reasonable rates. It's a different strategy to resist the tide of gentrification and rising land values.

It's an amazing thing that the Row House Community Development Corporation is doing, it's a fight that ought to be happening in more cities, and I was reminded of Atlanta's predicament throughout the talk. As the inner city gentrifies at a shocking rate the ability for lower income people to get homes, or stay in their homes, becomes increasingly difficult, and this includes the creative class. Finding cheap studios and exhibition space is incredibly difficult already and the artists of Atlanta need protection. While the problem is not as extreme here as it is in cities like NYC or San Fransisco, it doesn't require a lot of imagination to see this is the direction Atlanta is heading and as Project Row Houses proved, the presence of art does vastly improve the communities which uphold it.

As the talk began to focus more on the goals of the Row House Community Development Corporation Lowe really began to seem more in the role of socially conscious developer, historical preservationist, social worker, and art curator than artist. It was a question nagging me all evening, was Project Row Houses, in itself, art? and was Lowe in the role of artist? The longer the talk focused on the specifics of land values, mortgages, renovation costs, and past exhibitions, the more I admired the magnitude of the project but the less I saw Lowe as an artist involved in "social sculpture." If that label is applicable here then aren't all art galleries dabbling in an artform called "commercial sculpture"? This leads me into the blurry no-go area of defining art, but while I listened to Lowe, I began to wish the audience consisted of less people in the art community and instead more developers, urban planners, and city officials who could learn a lot from Lowe's venture.

There was a reception afterwards in the GSU Gallery. Artists Kevin Sipp and Stan Woodard and curator Louise Shaw pictured above. I also had a chance to walk through the "Re/constructing Atlanta" show currently in the gallery.

Pandra Williams had an interesting piece illustrating the Hurt Park Native Plant project she is currently involved in. In Hurt Park, a small park downtown in the GSU campus, Williams and others are using native drought-tolerant plants to create an ideal model "for returning the native forbes, or plant species, to Atlanta" that were wiped out in the 19th and 20th centuries by farming and development. I especially liked the set-up in the windowless gallery space of using a light box to feed the plants. It's a simple enough concept that could be utilized in many business and public spaces that do not get much natural light.

Artist Allison Rentz had the note-worthy makeup of the evening. I have always wondered why women, who have at their disposal make-up in a myriad of bright colors along with little brushes in all shapes a sizes, never approach the application of make-up with the zeal of say, Elizabeth Murray? or Helen Frankenthaler, or even better, Cicely Brown? but then again, Rentz reminded me I could paint my own face if I felt so inclined, and considering I barely get out of the door fully clothed, I don't see that happening.

There was also a nice installation by Ed Akins II and David Green called "Imago: The Last Stage."

In thinking about the proposed Beltline, the artists created this installation to "act as metaphor for the intersection of our intentions upon the earth and the earth's response."

The show is up at GSU's Welsch School Gallery until March 8th, 2008. Check it out.

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