Locating a temporary common space: CoLab and cultural exchanges in Weedpatch
Gillian Whitely discusses the work of CoLab - the artists collective comprising Heather Connelly, Jo Dacombe and Jayne Murray - and their work within Weedpatch, an indigenous community in Southern California.
He vivido aquí en el Norte como 5 años
Trabajo en la uva, algodón, amarre, mandarinas
En donde aya trabajo ahí voy a trabajar
I've lived here on the north side about five years
I work on grapes, cotton, amarre, tangerines
Wherever there is work I go to work 1
In November 2006, CoLab – an artists collective made up of three British Midlands-based artists, Heather Connelly, Jo Dacombe and Jayne Murray - spent four weeks working amongst the diverse migrant and indigenous communities of Weedpatch in Southern California on their public art project 'Incubate', (2006). In a community with three languages - Mexican-Spanish, Mixteco and Anglo-American - CoLab faced the complexities of practising in the public realm at the intersection of place, ethnicity and identity.2 They quickly identified 'language' as the key site of cultural contestation and it also emerged as the prime site for their own artistic explorations and interventions.
Besides revealing the rich fabric of local transitory cultures, the resulting artworks and events which CoLab created onsite - largely based around the gathering, telling and translating of stories - highlighted the problems and paradoxes of migrant communities and their popular perception. Also, in a small way, the CoLab project incubated a mutable 'temporary common space' which facilitated dialogue within the community itself. This resonates with the ideas of Patricia Phillips who has written extensively about the contested definitions and practices of public art. She has advocated public art practices which are provocative and investigative, practices which create a psychological as much as a physical space – a 'forum' for dialogue and multiple voices. As Phillips has argued,
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'…a public art that truly explores the rich symbiotic topography of civic, social and cultural forces can take place anywhere – and for any length of time…[it] would create the forum for the poignant and potent dialogue between public ideals and private impulses, between obligation and desire, between being of a community and solitude….'3
CoLab and the public realm
CoLab came together through a common background in practising in the public realm and a shared interest in developing alternative approaches and strategies for working with communities. There are plenty of historical precedents for collaborative and collective approaches to working in the public realm: in the 1960s and 70s, there were a range of groups working in this way, such as GRAV in Paris or Eventstructure, working across Europe. Since the 1990s of course, writers and critics such as Nicholas Bourriaud have identified contemporary contexts for participative art-making – 'relational' approaches – and there is a currency of interventionist models for public practice whereby artists produce temporary or ephemeral artworks both with and in communities. A critical debate about these new forms of public practice has been generated, particularly since Claire Bishop's article on the current 'social turn' was published in Artforum in February 2006 - and Dialogue No 5 'Burning Public Art' made a significant contribution to this debate. Inevitably, 'engaged' forms of practice will vary widely in terms of values, aesthetic and motivations - and the activism versus aesthetics debate is a tired one - but it is important to balance this against the contribution which particular practices have made to communities and the shaping of places and environments.
The artists collective, however, is particularly interesting because of the unusual working method and approach they specifically adopted in the 'Incubate' project. With a shared ethos and commitment to 'process' rather than 'production', they aimed to use their practice to initiate art-making which involved community ownership without being 'community art'. Their aim was, as Jo Dacombe commented, to 'use art as a vehicle through which to engage with people and place'.4 For her, it was 'about re-engaging with the familiar…finding a way that our work would be communicating with the people and the place…and re-engaging them with their place…'
CoLab set themselves the challenge of going to a place as 'cultural outsiders' with the idea that, through dialogue and interaction, they would research, engage and respond in a way that seemed appropriate at the time and with no pre-conceived ideas about what that might be. For Murray, the project was about 'learning through difference – cultural, social and material - by practising in another place.' In effect, CoLab's aim was to engage in transcultural exchange as a form of practice.
Adopting the research methodology of the 'laboratory experiment' was particularly important for the group. This was partly based on the 'experiential' approach which two of the artists had taken in an earlier public art and regeneration project in Corby, but it also echoes the strategies of other contemporary artists such as Andrea Zittel.5 Drawing on scientific practices and 'action research' models, the Incubate project was set out in a series of planning documents whereby the artists discussed their aim of 'testing a hypothesis', evaluating findings within a live situation and intervening and collaborating in a specific environment. Echoing Miwon Kwon's writings about the development of new forms of site-specific work which embrace discourse6, one of the key motives of Incubate was 'to generate a discursive environment' through creative means.7
Selecting a 'site of international insignificance'
Incubate was set up through an advertisement placed in the art press in which CoLab sought invitations from individuals or communities who considered themselves to be a 'site of international insignificance'. In exchange, CoLab offered to spend time researching, responding and creating work in the host community or site. After receiving a range of 'invitations' – from alternative gallery spaces and organisations across Europe and the US – CoLab selected Arts Council of Kern's (ACK) invitation to Weedpatch community in Kern County, California (see kernarts.org) and sought and secured financial support from Arts Council England (ACE).
The paradoxical nature of Weedpatch and its claim for 'insignificant' status particularly appealed to CoLab. The historical, cultural and social composition of the community is complex and contradictory. Whilst ACK provided the institutional framework and organisational support, with limited resources and geographical isolation, they were interested in developing how they might deliver and support a public art which went beyond traditional forms of practice. Consequently, ACK gave CoLab an enthusiastic welcome as they anticipated that the project might initiate new ways of thinking about public art in the region.
Weedpatch's 'insignificance' – or at least its marginality - was underlined by social and economic impoverishment as the area has been inhabited and colonised by different groups of migrant workers for decades, many of whom continue making the familiar journey from migrant accommodation to trailer parks and, finally, houses.
On the other hand, Weedpatch holds an enormously significant and symbolic place in American social, political and collective memory as it was immortalised in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath published in 1939. Between 1935 and 1940, over one million people left their homes in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri where shifts in land ownership and the changing nature of agriculture were exacerbated by the 'Dust Bowl' conditions. Families travelled hundreds of miles along Route 66 to seek work in California and many of them ended up in the Arvin Federal Government Camp, renamed by Steinbeck as 'Weedpatch'. Life in the one-room tin cabins and tents was difficult and the 'okies' were ridiculed and marginalised but, with the passage of time, that history is being reclaimed and appropriated. The original Weedpatch Camp and School have acquired heritage status and a collective pride is expressed through events such as the annual Dust Bowl celebration – although, importantly, not all current residents associate or identify with that history which many perceive as 'white'/North American heritage.
A key issue for CoLab in selecting a site with such a history was to get beyond its literary connections and attempt to approach the place with no agenda in mind - to work with the community as it is today - a small town of around 2000 people living in 13 streets. Some wooden buildings from the original camp, post office, community centre and library have been restored and relocated in an area designated as 'historic'. Other wooden buildings that were originally sited in the camp can be spotted around the town, moved reused and rebuilt. The previous life of the place remains embedded in the environment with, for example, retrieved fragments of old linoleum and wall coverings often incorporated into later buildings. In the new migrant accommodation Sunset Camp, the buildings are now adobe; duplexes have replaced the tin cabins. Now the camp houses a new wave of migrant workers as Mexicans precariously seek a new life of prosperity in el norte.
Working In Weedpatch
From the start of their four weeks' residency, CoLab identified a number of unanticipated problems – an early task was identifying the place and locating 'the community' itself as they found themselves in a place with no sign, no community centre and no central meeting place. The lack of communal signifiers and the fact that there was no place for social exchange or cohesion proved to be key obstacles. On the other hand, these were also crucial factors in influencing the activities and outcomes of the project as CoLab quickly identified that there was not one but a number of communities.8 Gradually, Weedpatch revealed itself to CoLab as a range of largely separate communities each with its own language, cultural and popular memories, histories and practices. Given the time limitations, finding a way to work in an inclusive and creative way with this heterogeneous community of Oaxacans,
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Mexicans, Mixteco-speakers and various generations of migrant workers – and without a translator or any immediate means of solving the issue of communication - presented a considerable challenge.
The diverse range of indigenous and second languages also offered a fertile source of cultural and social signification. In 'Perfidious Fidelity: The Untranslatability of the Other' (in Global Visions, London:Kala Press/INIVA, 1994), Sarat Maharaj has written of the complexities and richness produced in the process of translation – meaning and nuance is sometimes lost and distorted but it also creates the potential for cultural gain and exchange. In focusing around language and story-gathering through offering the community an open-ended story recording service, the 'Incubate' project exemplified some of Maharaj's points. The hybrid and segregated nature of the communities emerged through the complex processes of multi-lingual translation. With the assistance of local residents and translators, some individual stories were translated from Mixteco to Spanish to Anglo-American, others from Spanish to Anglo-American or from Anglo-American into Spanish and then Mixteco. As a purely oral language with a limited range of
vocabulary, Mixteco posed particular problems for translators. In cases where there is no Mixteco equivalent for a word, this has resulted in the inventive creation of hybrid expressions or elaborate descriptions. CoLab found that the shifts of meaning and misunderstandings resulting from this multi-layered process were uncontrollable and unpredictable but they were also an enriching and revealing aspect of the project. Any transcription 'errors' resulting from oral translations were purposefully retained and these 'slippages' formed an integral aspect of the project.9 As part of CoLab's stated commitment to 'giving something back to the community', an audio-visual installation resulted. From the individual recordings, a Weedpatch story - 'Meanings Significado' – was threaded together into an image-text-sound work on CD. (Audio clips from the stories of Victoria, Julio, Maria, Josefina, Earl and El Ranchito can be heard on the CoLab 'Incubate' project archive pages at longhouse.uk.com)
The month-long project culminated in the presentation of 'Meanings Significado' at two different events in Weedpatch. A participatory plenary symposium was set up by the Arts Council of Kern; attended by various project partners, academics and representatives from the local press, it facilitated an informal discussion of the process and outcomes of the project. Also, a separate celebratory community event enabled local artists, storytellers and - most importantly - the residents of Weedpatch community to come together and listen to each others stories at 'listening posts'. This exchange of stories was particularly important as it initiated a cross-community dialogue which, it emerged, had rarely occurred previously. Released from the barriers and hierarchies of language, the project facilitated cultural exchange amongst the host community in a number of interesting and unexpected ways – a 'temporary common space' was created.
Return, reflection and response
Since the 'Incubate' project, the three artists have found different ways of responding to their own experiences in Weedpatch. After reflecting, the individual artists are making work that both disseminates and responds to what happened with a range of transcultural explorations, conversations and connections. Working as a collective, they are committed to the dissemination of their 'laboratory' findings, but, whilst cultural exchange remains a common concern, they will be translating their individual experiences and ideas into different locations, formats and media. Three particular events, each with a different focus arising from distinct issues raised by the project, have already been organised for the East and West Midlands. The first event in Leicester - Interchange: Cultural Exchanges in the Public Realm(June, 2007) had an international focus. It aimed to bring together artists and urban designers to consider the interaction and inter-relationship of communities of different, often migratory, cultures with the built environment. The event contrasted CoLab's experience in Weedpatch with the 'Interval'project in Australia, reflecting on international experiences that take us outside of our 'comfort zone' and require cultural exchange in new places. It also addressed how artists can facilitate and articulate the stories and experiences of ordinary people and contribute to defining a sense of place.
|For CoLab, one of the difficulties about working in Weedpatch was the absence of public space where people coincide, to share and learn – so the value of public places was the focus of another event in Rowley Regis, in the Black Country area of the West Midlands. Murray's project, 'Missing you already', a one-day event held on 7th July 2007, highlighted the ever-shifting ownership and roles of public places as they change with the times. One hundred people who live or work in Rowley Regis were asked to respond to questions about a public space they would miss. Seven of these spaces were then experienced and celebrated on a walking tour (with picnic), with a community centre as the final destination for an informal discussion. En route, participants encountered follow-up work by the other artists. Dacombe's installation, 'Interruptions', representing one of her 'journey-stories', makes oblique reference to what she refers to as the 'remoteness of the Weedpatch || || |
experience'. The embroidered ribbons in the work are a metaphor for remembering and forgetting but they also refer back to the mnemonic devices used by ancient Aztec cultures. The threads also represent the start-stop journeys and unending stories of ordinary lives. For Connelly, an artist whose practice has most recently been focused on narrative and sound, the most interesting part of the Weedpatch project has been to reflect on the complexities and richness of the languages she encountered there. In her audio-visual installation, 'Translating Weedpatch', Connelly explores some of the issues and discourses raised by translation. It brings together multiple characters and narratives, providing an experience of the emotional expression, textures and rhythm of the various languages of the people of Weedpatch. A third event focused around the issue of migration is planned for Autumn 2007 in Lincolnshire. In this, CoLab will be taking part in a seminar workshop which will form part of the regional network, 'Making the Connections: Arts, Migration and Diaspora'(see lboro.ac.uk)
One needs to be cautious about claiming that art projects can affect or develop cultural exchange – as Patricia Phillips commented in the 1990s, 'public art cannot mend, heal, or rationalize a nostalgia-driven desire to return to less volatile times.'10 Furthermore, the public art 'mantra' of culture-led regeneration dominated the 1990s but the relationship between public art and regeneration is problematic and complex: art is not, and should not be, a substitute for social work. A positive outcome of the project has been the involvement of the Arts Council of Kern County in different approaches to public art and the project in the West Midlands aims to develop and continue that relationship. 'Incubate' explored the intersections of language, culture, history and politics in relation to the particularities of place – but it also raised generic questions which the three artists will continue to explore in different locations and in different formats and places.
For a brief moment in Weedpatch, CoLab explored the gaps between language, meaning and understanding. They engendered a 'temporary common space' in the absence of a material/physical one for cross-cultural dialogue between immigrant communities on the borders of Mexico. Alongside the cross-cultural aspects of the Weedpatch project, CoLab's work connects to current questions about the contested nature of public space, its value and ownership. Perhaps Colab's project might be viewed as an example of 'dialogic art', the new category of public practice that Grant Kester writes about in his recent book, Conversation Pieces (2004) (see Alison Green in Dialogue No 5 April-July 2007). 'Incubate' certainly highlighted the multiplicity of the Weedpatch community supporting Kester's argument that communities can be based on identities that are 'in negotiation'. Above all, 'Incubate' can be allied to Patricia Phillips' ideas on 'public art as a sign of life', it engaged with a wider re-thinking of what constitutes art in the public realm and underlined the vital and meaningful contribution that art practice can make to communities.
'Public art is about the free field – the play – of creative vision. The point is not just to produce another thing for people to step back and admire, but to create an opportunity – a situation – that enables viewers to look back at the world with renewed perspectives and clear angles of vision.'11
More information on Jo Dacombe
More information on Heather Connelly
This is a shortened version of an essay commissioned by CoLab. 'Incubate' was funded by Arts Council England, West Midland Initiative (artscouncil.org.uk) and a NAN bursary (The Artists Information Company) New Collaborations Award (a-n.co.uk). It was hosted and funded in kind (accommodation, materials) by the Arts Council of Kern (kernarts.org). The project was also given support and assistance in Weedpatch, particularly in relation to translating Mixteco, by Unidad Popular Benito Juarez (upbi.org) . An expanded version will be published in 2008 in Holly Crawford (editor) Artistic Bedfellows: Histories and Conversations in Collaborative Art Practices (University Press of America Inc.)
1. From Maria Sanchez Cruz's story, recorded, translated and featured in 'Meanings Significado', as part of Incubate – a project carried out by CoLab at Weedpatch, Kern County, California, 28 October to 5 November 2006.
2. Mixteco is an ancient indigenous language from the Oaxacan region of Mexico. As it has no common written form, it is largely an oral language with a limited vocabulary. The Mixteco community in Weedpatch originate largely from one particular Oaxacan village, San Juan Mixtepec.
3. Patricia Phillips, 'Out of Order : The Public Art Machine' Artforum, Issue 27, December 1988, pp. 92-97. For a more recent text, see 'Public Art: A Renewable Resource', in Malcolm Miles and Tim Hall (eds), Urban Futures, London: Routledge, 2003.
4. All artists' quotes are taken from author's interviews and communications with CoLab, April 2007
5. In summer 2006, Jayne Murray and Jo Dacombe worked on Thinkspace – an urban regeneration projectdevised and set up by Jo Dacombe, based in the ex-steel town, Corby, Northamptonshire. The project is ongoing and can be followed at thinkspace.org.uk. For further information email Jo Dacombe at email@example.com
6. Miwon Kwon, 'One Place after Another : Notes on Site Specificity' in October, No. 80, Spring 1997, pp. 85-96.
8. Author's interviews with Connelly and Dacombe.
9. Stories were told by Maria Mares, Dalia Villalon Jeanette Dhaliwal, Wade Meinke, Emma Worley, Pamela Worley, Barbara Worley, Julio Hernandez Cruz, Maria Cruz Sanchez, Mr. & Mrs. Bobadilla, Marco Antonio Garcia Vega, Cruz Ramos, Victoria and Domingo Medina, Juan Lopez, Earl Shelton, Mattaeo Velazco, Josefina Rojas, and Evonne Dunlap. Stories were recorded in Spanish, English and Mixteco and translated by Rosa Lopez, Hector Hernandez, Guillermina Sanchez, Patti Ramirez, Cruz Ramos and Roberto Escudero.
10. Patricia Phillips, 'Public Construction' in Suzanne Lacey (ed), Mapping the Terrain; New Genre Public Art, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995, p. 70
11. Ibid. p.70
Gillian Whiteley, 2007