This week, WPA spoke with Raquel de Anda, curator of recent exhibition The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art, and talked with her in depth about the show and her vibrant work as a curator and creative. 

Interview by Christopher Cunetto

WPA: Thank you for talking with us today! So, as someone based outside Washington, what was your process for finding artists who were working with the social practice themes you want to showcase?

Raquel: When I was here for The 5×5 Project I started to get a feel for the cultural landscape and I went to a couple openings and met some artists, but I didn’t really have that strong of a feel for it, to where I felt I could adequately curate and exhibition that was representative of DC artists. So, we decided to host an open call and through that we received over 100 proposals. The artists from DC other than Floating Lab Collective were chosen from that.

WPA: What were you looking for as you were going through these submissions?

Raquel: It was interesting to see what came in because even though the open call very specifically stated that it was a social practice based exhibition, and that we were looking for artists that were trying to extend beyond the studio to engage with audiences, there were a lot of artists who didn’t necessarily take that into account and who, you know, were showcasing, documentation of a project that they did, or paintings or…it was a lot of traditional work, great work, but didn’t necessarily fall within the lines of the theme for this exhibition. So even though we got a large number of submissions there were actually many that didn’t fall within the theme,., Of the artists that did work with social engagement, there were a lot of very strong works. It was great to see that these dialogues are occurring in DC.  As a curator who works outside of DC it was really an honor to be able to go through all of it and see what some of the trends are. A lot of people seem to be working with environmentalism, and there are a lot of people producing sculpture-based work in public spaces.

WPA: It’s a challenge to present in a museum projects where much of the actual work happens outside a museum or gallery setting. How do you present projects like that? How do you overcome the challenges?

Raquel: I think that this is part of the strength of the exhibition… what you see is something that happened in the temporary moment in another space. The exhibition is definitely documentation heavy, however, each piece has striking objects that reflect the actual project itself. For Miguel Luciano’s project, the kites on display are representative of his work in Kenya for SmARTPower, for Olivier Giron’s work developed in illegal dump sites, rather than transferring the full sculpture (which would have been impossible) we included smaller terrariums which he produces as part of this larger project. Lina Vargas de la Hoz’s piece is also a public piece, but the sculptural center of the work itself is a really striking object. So really, each piece ,even though it is documentation based, has a strong aesthetic aspect as well.

WPA: Is that something that you were looking for specifically when curating the show?

Raquel: Aesthetics are very curious to me. It’s completely subjective. In social practice based work I find that it is important to be able to represent a project that has a strong voice in public space, and when represented in an institution can hold its own as an object. This way people will be intrigued, called to bear witness to it reflect on the work,. And then, potentially envision what it was like when it was in the public space.  Rather than exhibiting photographs or video, I’m a fan of including objects and larger installations.  I find that sometimes viewers in galleries and museums will gloss past photographs, so I am often trying to find ways of creating depth within spaces.

WPA: With some of the projects in the exhibition, accessibility and the audience is a big concern. How have you taken this into account with how the work is presented?

Raquel: I think partnerships are really important. With Miguel Luciano’s piece I knew immediately that I wanted to partner withCulturestrike.  I hoped to have them put us in touch with other immigrant rights based organizations in DC that wouldn’t otherwise be connected to a museum. Mark Strandquist wanted to work with a number of different organizations involved in education, homelessness, and a variety of different social concerns .  This is at the core of a lot of works in the exhibition: trying to see how we can build as many entry points into the institution as possible, so that we may invite viewers who wouldn’t otherwise to come to the show. Or, who might be interested but might not feel like it is a place for them. One of the reasons why I love public work so much is because of its’ immediacy.  It’s refreshing. with an exhibition, , within four walls, you need to feel comfortable enough opening the door, walking in and spending 20 minutes to two hours of your day within that space. So that was something that we were wanting to do.  Figure out how many individuals within the DC area we could partner with, and through those partnerships create a more extensive audience.

WPA: Do you think the work in The Ripple Effect depends on everything beyond the object or do they stand alone?

Raquel: I think the work stands alone really strongly, actually. There is a need to be reflective. Take the Ghana Think Tank video: you need to actually watch the video in order to understand what is happening with the project. You can read the “no loitering” signs and get an idea of how they were created but in order to really understand the piece you need to sit with the work for a minute.

WPA: So based on all these partnerships, what have your experiences been like here in DC? What are your impressions?

Raquel: You know what surprised me? People said that a show like this hadn’t been done before in DC. I don’t know how true that is, but I’ve heard this from a couple of different people. I find it surprising because of the proposals that came in.  A lot of artists were working along the theme of socially engaged work.

I think that there are a lot of great organizations in DC that are working at a grassroots level and from an alternative artspace focus.  There is a lot of really young engaging energy here. DC is a really highly educated city, it is also sadly very segregated, which I came to realize during The 5×5 Project.  I think that a lot of artists are working against that.

WPA: Do you think people were surprised by the scope of peripheral projects and events that were happening along with The Ripple Effect?

Raquel: I think we are used to seeing objects on walls. To being passive and being told what to look at. It’s refreshing to walk into a space and choose your own adventure. To be taken to other moments in time, and then reflect upon environmentalism or homelessness or immigrant rights.  Work like this opens up space for other dialogues.  This is a movement within the art world that really excites me. People who are building arts practices with a variety of other disciplines. Art holds is the power to question, to play with grey space. Artists don’t always have the answers but we can play with potential.

WPA: What was it like to work wit Floating Lab Collective?

Raquel: I actually met them in Colombia for the MDE11 Encuentro arts festival. They developed a piece there that I was really impressed by, called the Collective White House. I was immediately impressed by their ability to engage with a huge array of individuals. Really the program that they did took so much dedication…even just logistically. After meeting them in Medellin, they invited me to be a part of The 5×5 Project. They’re great investigators. They create these momentary experiments and can effectively play with space to create these temporary locations for dialogue.  The work they are doing is really unique. When we were developing the exhibition I realized that The Floating Lab Collective had this mapping project that they were already developing but needed a little bit of help to get off the ground. It was a perfect fit for the exhibition. They’ve produced a counter-cartography device which has mapped DC through the seven dots the word “why” in Braille produces.  The group went from point to point asking people along the way for a question that begins with why and then produced an installation for the exhibition with their results. The strength of that project is that it begins with questions rather than assumptions and begins to create an idea of place through these results. It’s step one in a much larger process of investigating the potential of maps.

WPA: What projects are you working on now?

Raquel: Its such a huge project! I was funded by NALAC, The National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, to develop an international project that builds solidarity and awareness,to a mining situation that is happening in a place called Wirikuta - a sacred sites for the Huichol Indians. The Huichol Indians are an indigenous group that reside in central Mexico.  This sacred site is also where they source peyote, which informs their entire culture. A Canadian mining company is currently purchasing mining consessions for the site, which will be of extreme detriment to this entire culture. There is a large group of individuals, NGOs and non-profits who are trying to preserve the area. It is also shortlisted for inclusion as a UNESCO world heritage site.

I am partnering with a variety of different organizations to develop a series of panel discussions and an exhibition about this issue in San Francisco.  Within Mexico we are developing a series of workshops with artisans around innovations in design. We will be designing a series of contemporary, design based objects to be sold online, including traditional symbolism and designed in collaboration with local artisans. Designer, Gustavo Frike will partner with indigenous groups to design contemporary items through his project called blackbox. Really, it is an attempt to build international solidarity.

WPA: And to keep this site intact.

Raquel: There’s just so many different layers along the process of research that keeps presenting themselves. One thing we realized is that there is saturation in the market of items made by these regional artisans.  As a result it is really difficult for artisans to survive and make an income. Individuals who have been displaced and move to the city… what they have to survive off of is their artisanry. But now there is an oversaturation in the market because what is being produced is very similar. So we are producing a series of workshops to encourage innovation within this circuit.

WPA: So this is about building new means for these people to enact a livelihood through their craft.

Raquel: Right. It is an issue of sustainability. There is a shift in the market that is happening,,  And also a resurgence in purchasing and valuing the handmade. So we are playing with this trend.

WPA: So people will be able to buy these objects online?

Raquel: Yes – they can be purchased online, with proceeds returning to the artisan. The initial website will be up in February and we expect to have everything ready by the summer for purchase.

WPA: What are you heading toward after this?

Raquel:  I’m moving to Mexico City at the end of January to be closer to the project.  While living there I’ll be developing a series of interviews for specifically around artists who are engaging in public spaces or who are starting their own artist run spaces. I’ll be developing a series of six interviews, working on the project in Guadalajara and applying to graduate school! We’ll see who wants me!

WPA: Do you think that artists have a responsibility to engage socially, in the ways we’ve been talking about?

Raquel: You know, if it is your calling then it is your calling. If you want to paint representational work, and you are good at that, and you enjoy doing it, by all means: follow your joy. I do think there are larger issues at play in the world and very serious conversations that are happening.  If an artist finds that he or she is motivated to help develop conversations about these things, they hold a very powerful tool in their hands, and they can hone the art of playfulness. It isn’t just about giving a voice to the voiceless but it is about rethinking, it is about playfulness, it is about trying to figure out what our role is. Culture is constantly shifting. Artists are at the forefront of this. I don’t think that is a duty, per say, but if an artist feels moved to do it – if somebody who is creative feels moved to do that – by all means. There are so many different outlets. It’s a philosophy, a mindset.

WPA: Thanks for talking with us today! Very interesting work.

Raquel: Yeah – it is fun to talk about. Important stuff. Thank you!

The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art is on view at Art Museum of the Americas through January 13, 2013.

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December 13, 2012