I began my own investigation into models of socially engaged art and its processes shortly before graduating with an MFA from the Meadows School of the Arts in the spring of 2011. Creative Time, a nonprofit organization that works to coordinate and fund socially engaged art projects, workshops, and events, had visited Dallas as a Meadow Prize Winner Recipient to determine whether and how members of the Dallas art scene could potentially initiate socially engaged projects within a diverse range of communities, institutions, and non-profit organizations and that would address issues specific to the context of these sites and its inhabitants. When Creative Time released their report calling for community building, development of artist residency programs, and the formulation of sustainable projects, many panned the document as being too vague while others complained that it outlined what many within the Dallas art scene already knew. A symposium introduced local attendees to a variety of national, regional, and local socially engaged artists and opened up the dialogue further through presentations by Rick Lowe, Mel Chin, Laurie Jo Reynolds, Tom Finkelpearl, Wanda Dye and Jason Roberts. My own work developed from meeting Cheryl Mayo-Williams, Executive Director of the West Dallas Community Centers, who spoke of her organization during the symposium. Since then, we have developed a working partnership between the Meadows School Division of Art and the West Dallas Community Centers through an artist’s residency at the Bataan and McMillan Center in West Dallas, a cultural-enrichment program addressing both social and academic issues encountered by the students who visit the centers on a daily basis, and an introductory course in Art and Social Practice at Meadows that facilitates a practicum for undergraduate students to take on an experiential learning opportunity through their engagement with the two centers.
For the past year I’ve also come across other organizations that have been working along the lines of socially engaged work in one capacity or another; many of which were overlooked by Creative Time. Janeil Englestad’s Making Art with Purpose, La Reunion, Big Thought, Jason Roberts with Better Block, Cynthia Mulcahy’s Square Dance and 1700 Seeds, the Artist’s Quarters at South Side on Lamar, and of course Las Manos Negras headed by Scott Gleeson and Dane Larsen. Gleeson contacted me this past summer extending an invitation to participate in his project in some capacity. Although I was excited to hear about his project, previous commitments and a busy schedule kept me from participating in the dialogues that have taken place since between his team and the immigrant day laborers they’ve interacted with. He contacted me once again in early September to determine if I would be willing to write this essay for his exhibition catalog. Despite a busy schedule, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to meet with Gleeson to discuss and write about his project. As the son of two immigrants, one of which crossed the U.S./ Mexican Border as an undocumented worker several times before finally gaining citizenship, I was interested in the development of the artists’ relationship with the day laborers at their site, the stories they shared, and the growing pains Gleeson & Larsen went through as the project continued to develop. From an artist’s perspective, I found their work was raising some interesting questions that dealt with concepts of accessibility, audience, authorship, artistic autonomy, and whether this type of work can be situated as a work of art among the multitude of art practices that have already been consumed by art institutions such as museums, galleries, and academies. Unsurprisingly, all of which are issues that I continue to grapple with in my own projects and social interactions.
Gleeson & Larsen initiated the project by focusing on a single group of laborers that congregate around a convenient store close to his home and specifically address the issue of wage theft encountered by these men while seeking work. It’s evident through shared stories and observed group dynamics that Gleeson & Larsen have gained access into a highly ritualized micro-culture existing within the confines of a convenience store parking lot. On the surface, these laborers seem to identify and understand each others plights as undocumented immigrants. Through their conversations and observations they found that even within this small group of men instances of factions or cliques forming was not uncommon. While they have not yet determined what causes these factions to form, they believe that the use of pseudonyms by many of the laborers has led to a form of group tension where their familiarity with each other is disquieted by the fact that their names, a basic method of identification, are in constant flux. This places the men in a situation where they can’t truly exist as themselves; one name at home, one name at the waiting site, and another for each potential employer who may hire them.
Even more surprising was the realization that most of these laborers were being robbed of their wages by contractors who themselves were Hispanic. The narrative of labor victimization at the hands of the Anglo 7 contractor, heard so many times while living on the border, is derailed by this nuance. Growing up in the border among undocumented, newly documented and assimilated immigrant populations, a definite hierarchy can be observed where those who are a level above newly arrived immigrants utilize their own social standing as leverage to position themselves at a higher rung on a ladder of their own making. An immigrant who has gained citizenship may belittle those without documents or undocumented immigrants who have acquired material wealth may belittle undocumented immigrants who have little to show from their immigration into the states; longevity often times dictates a form of social seniority. While this is certainly not the case in every community composed of immigrants, it is an observable group dynamic present within the border. What I find interesting is that a similar dynamic is taking place in North Texas as it does in the Southwest. The assumption that identifying with one another as Hispanic is somehow facilitated by existing in a culturally diverse city like Dallas is now turned on it’s head.
To further illustrate these hidden dynamics between the laborers and their employers, Gleeson points at another interesting story told by one of the few documented laborers at the site. His story tells of a single experience where an undocumented contractor flipped the script and kept wages owed to him and followed up by using his own undocumented status to keep him from reporting the theft. The undocumented contractor placed him in an uncomfortable situation by first pleading with the him to consider his family and the possibility of the destabilization that would occur should he be deported. When his interaction with the contractor got heated and tensions rose, the contractor exposed a pistol he had been hiding on his person. The polite pleading revealed itself to be nothing more than a veiled threat of violence that sought to silence the laborer. This leads one to speculate about the circumstances and motivations that led into the exploitation of this worker by the undocumented contractor. Could it have been a behavior learned from his own experiences as a laborer; a twisted mimesis applied to a worker that at one time may have been undocumented and could readily relate to the destabilization suffered by a family unit when confronting deportation?
Gleeson & Larsen have encountered frustrations along the way; many of which are due to the nature of the work itself. He readily admits that their original model for engagement has gone through several transformations and continues to evolve as the relationship between the laborers and his team continues to develop. He has been met with lack luster responses from agencies failing to meet their own mission statements in assisting undocumented workers with some of the issues they encounter at the work site. This brings up questions of the problematic assumptions made about accessibility. Particularly is the assumption that a service is accessible simply by existing within a given site or institution without taking into account problems that arise from lack of transportation, time, geography, or a lack of knowledge of services relevant to the issues these laborers face. While they have made some headway, Gleeson acknowledges that many of the issues arise from these agencies themselves when information is not readily available or agents are not properly trained or informed on the services the agency provides. In identifying these problems, Gleeson & Larsen have been able to facilitate conversations between the workers and these agencies, both locally and regionally, and have seen some success as they currently have one U Visa petition case, five wage theft cases, referred a sixth, very serious wage case to Equal Justice Center, and one case of police brutality.
Along with the written and audio documentation of these conversations, the artists also fabricated nomadic micro-monuments to the laborers themselves. These sculptures take on the form of re-purposed antique lunch boxes that in turn, along with it’s contents, serve as a signifier for the day laborers and their experiences; a compilation of portable archives collected through their interactions. This happens at both a symbolic and literal level. The association to the hands and its connection with labor is evident in the lunchbox and its contents. Within the lunchbox, beautifully crafted wooden tool boxes hold an MP3 player with recorded interviews, printed material, and small clay sculptures formed by the gripping hands of the laborers themselves. The collaborative aspects of the these archive lunchboxes legitimizes the laborers and their experiences, giving them a conduit and providing access to their stories for those who will encounter these sculptures. At the same time, the lunchboxes are charged with metaphorical and allegorical meaning by the laborers themselves. Gleeson stated that the composition of the lunch box archives were well received by the day laborers. Although he is uncertain whether the laborers understood the work on a symbolic or conceptual level, he mentions that they understood the boxes as an act of goodwill and an opportunity to tell their stories on their own terms.
Considering that these lunchboxes will be situated within a gallery context may prove problematic. A primary concern would be determining how the reading of these archives is affected by the context of the gallery; particularly one located within an educational institution. What does it mean when these stories are 8 being shared within a site that is not necessarily accessible to the laborers who are telling the story? Will the focus be placed on the objects utilized to illustrate their plights or the stories themselves? Could the possibility of situating an exhibition or event closer to the laborer’s waiting site been more effective in conveying their narrative? If so, would this possibility have negative implications for the laborers? Would the laborers, understanding their own undocumented status, show up to this event?
As socially engaged artists, we often find ourselves confronting these questions. The ideal situation would allow for this work to take place between the artist and the community being addressed. It is difficult to convey the entire project when so much of it deals with a direct process of collaboration and where small triumphs take place over an extended period of time. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world and we must also confront the realities of carrying out this work in a city that has it’s own idea about what art may or may not be. There are potentially positive reasons why some of the concerns with the problems encountered in situating the archives in the gallery are somewhat eased. Primarily, it will allow an audience of students, instructors, and artists access to a model of artistic production that is scarce in this city. Specifically, it may provide a form of affirmation for student artists interested in the sociopolitical dynamics confronting our communities at this point in our history. It is no secret that a dogmatic formalist stance has plagued art schools throughout the world with anti-political sentiments, relying instead for social commentary to be embedded and hidden within conventional modes of representation legible only to those with a knowledge of art and its history. Artists have utilized their work to confront and critique what they perceive to be social ills while simultaneously failing to turn the critical lens on their own practice to ask, “Is this the most effective model for the transmission of meaning.” While the mention of politics may bring back memories of the confrontational, politically charged works of the 1960’s and 70’s, this type of work allows the artist to understand how (P)olitics function, what the relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit may be, individual / group motivations, and becoming literate in deciphering the rhetorical layers of social constructs that may negatively impact certain groups and demographics. The altruistic tendencies of this kind of work are secondary to the genuine interest in research that raises questions on whether or not art/artists are capable conduits for positive social change.
Placing Gleeson’s work in a gallery context can serve as a reminder to artists, students and established alike, that art is a way of finding nuance in the static; evaluating and responding critically to our current social conditions. Most importantly, this work reminds us that the essence of art cannot be constrained, limited, or developed solely around the accident of a given medium. The collaborative nature of the work demands a shared authorship that raises questions and points at misconceptions associated with the mythology of the autonomous artist striving to develop their own “unique” personal vision. It reminds us of the importance of the individual to the integrity of a given community and the importance of the community in the formation of the individual. It illustrates how our autonomy goes only as far as the society that we live in allows for and that artists are not immune or invincible against those social forces influencing us on a daily basis. This work forces artists to identify and recognize the complex layers of audiences that may encounter our work within diverse contexts such as galleries, printed materials, conversations, or direct engagement with the community in question.
In reviewing Gleeson & Larsen’s project it has become evident that what may have started as a project conceived around the parameters of a grant application has now evolved into a committed partnership between two artists and the laborers they have interacted with for this project. This project and others like it provide some nuance for an art scene that still hasn’t solidified it’s own identity and is grappling with it’s own notions of community. It is my hopes that Gleeson & Larsen become active participants in these dialogues and that the conversation continues on to those who may provide a source of funding for these types of highly collaborative and largely ephemeral artist driven projects. The question of sustainability, with relation to both time and money, needs to be addressed and we should welcome interested philanthropist, established nonprofit organizations, cultural institutions, and local government leaders into the conversation. Dallas is ripe for this form of artistic production and a nuanced form of social/public engagement. How the Gleeson & Larsen’s project will continue to develop and how his project will be received has yet to be determined, but these artists should be recognized for heeding and taking on a difficult challenge within a city that is largely unaware or momentarily indifferent to this form of artistic production.