This is an early draft of an essay I am writing as reflection on my role as Artist-Ethnographer for Boston Creates, Boston's cultural planning process, from July - November 2015.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Reflections on my time as a Boston Creates Artist-Ethnographer
What is an artist but someone who has been authorized to live in the cracks, to explore the spaces between and around conventional identities, roles and occupations?
While others working for Boston Creates had more task-specific, delineated roles, my directive as Artist-Ethnographer was open-ended: to “reflect and interpret” the community engagement process.
My three months as one of the City’s Artist-Ethnographers was full of new experiences: the long, challenging arc of an open-ended creative process paired with rock-solid support of a cohort of artists; unique insight into a citywide planning process; the opportunity to expand my own artistic practice to include breadmaking parties and a visual art installation; and the chance to tap into my diverse networks of fellow artists, across disciplines.
The process was whirlwind, full of potential, scary, and exciting. I loved being a part of an intimate cohort of brilliant artists, co-creating a safe space to explore ideas, probe, question, and receive and give constructive feedback. Kate, Maria, Heather and Leo were inspiring with their different perspectives, and provided an anchor community for a project that could have otherwise overwhelmed with its open-endedness.
I developed a citywide perspective. My experiences in Mattapan and Dorchester, and the all-city youth meeting, led me to deeply question the racial and economic disparities of our city, and the class privilege that informs my own ability to be a free-lance artist and classically-trained violinist. On the other hand, taking on a citywide perspective also validated the role of the individual artist for me in a new way. While non-famous or unaffiliated working artists may struggle as individuals for financial stability, and recognition, it became clear to me that from a citywide view, having a strong community of working artists is essential to any city’s cultural life. For the first time in my life, I felt a bit proud to be a non-famous working artist!
However, I was also drinking up the benefits of City affiliation, and enjoying the doors this opened. And as one of just five artists being paid to be a part of the process, I was eager to leverage this privilege to help bring more artists into this process.
At Boston Creates meetings in Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, I was inspired by the people who came – many hardworking folks from community and arts organizations – but I was also curious and concerned about the folks who were not at the meetings.
I wanted to make sure that individual freelance artists, as well as seniors, veterans, and the homeless community (to name just a few) were being informed of, and included in, this process.
My first act of “interpretation” was a re-interpretation of the community engagement meetings, reshaping them as 1) concerts interwoven with conversation for seniors and members of the homeless community, and 2) a series of breadmaking parties for artists.
Artistically, I was interested in how different contexts could encourage conversation and influence who was in the room. By billing gatherings as parties or concerts, would different people show up than the usual characters who would attend a “meeting”? Could the power of artistic engagement – fun, physical and creative activity – enliven the output of the conversation?
I tested these questions in two ways. First, in community concerts with Guatemalan guitarist and singer Cesar del Cid and myself on violin, I interwove the planning questions between songs in concerts at a Jamaica Plain senior housing complex and a South End homeless center. The power of Cesar’s music and his gorgeous voice, with songs from all over Latin America, brought instant smiles, sing-alongs, and dancing sways to the audience. With the ice broken, we found folks excited to talk and share with us their ideas.