The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art, an upcoming exhibition co-sponsored by WPA and Art Museum of the Americas, presents artwork and projects that are inspired by interaction and participation. Many of the works are collaborative and all of the works presented serve as points of departure for a variety of socially-minded themes: social justice, immigration, or environmentalism, for example. 

Multi-media artist and curator Mark Strandquist will be presenting his project Write Home Soon in conjunction with The Ripple Effect, opening October 25 at the Art Museum of the Americas. He describes his work as being decidedly social and believes that physical spaces are imbued with meaning increasingly as individuals and communities act on, create, and define them.

Write Home Soon embodies this philosophy; the project consists of postcards displaying written descriptions or memories associated with spaces lost. Strandquist deploys the work through workshops, partnerships with community organizations, and street canvassing where he, in a variety of ways and settings, explains the project to potential participants. He describes the origin of the project, “When I was in High School I started working with two local social justice groups: Positive Force DC and We Are Family.  My work with both groups put me in contact with senior citizens living in Sursum Corda, North Capitol, Shaw, and Columbia Heights.  Many of these seniors lived in Washington, DC during segregation, unequal schools, and continue to deal with proper access to food, quality housing, et cetera…only now to struggle to retain their homes and communities due to gentrification.  It blew me away. What happens when these histories aren’t recorded?  If these memories aren’t in our museums, libraries or textbooks how do we learn from them?  I think all of my work attempts to deal with these issues.” The project, he continues, is in part meant to encourage the sharing of authentic experiences and allowing that act and its outcome to shape the future: “Our society simply rarely listens. What I'm interested in is questioning how our libraries, museums, and textbooks would differ if they reflected the visions and memories of our local populations.  What interactions, challenging discourse, and participation would these transformed spaces foster and allow?”

Some critics of social practice conclude that work often becomes co-opted by a sort of entertainment economy, robbing the work of its perceived place outside an art economy and the reverence or meaning that place can bestow. Strandquist sees his project as existing tangentially to those concerns, and emphasizes that the work is as accessible, communal, and public as he can make it. “I’m certainly drawn towards emphasizing participation, lack of authorship, avenues for empowerment and individual association, but I’m also painfully aware of the limitations of any project. I’m really interested in working collaboratively to re-define public space. This project has been completely free for all participants in hopes of making it as accessible as possible. While the project attempts to create a very public space where anyone, regardless of class, identity, or what side of the Anacostia they live on, they can share their stories. It is important to not commodity anything in the project.”

Some of Strandquist’s experiences during Write Home Soon have uniquely demonstrated the transformative power of socially engaged works and the specific impact that the project has to potential to create. “The postcards are all anonymous, so not only can participants safely purge, condemn or open up, but the of lack identity and authorship allows for those viewing the exhibit to create their own meanings and associations.  You look at a card and you can think; ‘This could be my mom, my partner, or a friend from second grade’… its really important for the project to allow space for these associations.” Says Strandquist. He continues, “This project has been incredibly humbling.  So many amazing individuals, groups and organizations have opened up to share their memories or confront their pasts.  A woman gave me a hug the other day because the postcard gave her a chance for the first time to discuss her father’s loss of memory, his inability to recognize her, and his death.  She was crying…it was such a rare, raw and human moment.  Something, as a photographer or filmmaker, which I’ve traditionally been, I didn’t think I would ever experience. The form and function of Write Home Soon attempts to foster a level, and more importantly, a quality, of participation and engagement that challenges and showcases our collective alienation — from each other, from ideas and definitions of place, and from the ‘art’ that we are rarely able to interact with. I think so many problems in our society exist because we're alienated from each other. This is a very small step towards combating that.”

Mark Strandquist is a multi-media artist and curator currently based in Richmond, Virginia. Postcards from his project Write Home Soon will be on view as part of The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art, co-presented by Washington Project for the Arts and Art Museum of the Americas, opening at Art Museum of the Americas on October 25, 2012. 

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October 18, 2012