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Beyond Gestures in Socially Engaged Art

Community processing and 'A Color Removed'

On November 22, 2014, in Cleveland Ohio, Officers Frank Garmback and Timothy Loehmann responded to the dispatch of a young man pointing around a gun outside the “Cudell Commons,” a public recreation center in a largely African-American neighborhood tense with gun violence. The dispatcher neglected to emphasize that the caller said that the gun was “probably fake.” I would like to thank Amir Berbić, Billy Lennon, and Daniel Robison for feedback, Misty Morrison for perspective, and Patrick Gilger, S.J., for considerable thought and criticism.

As the car came in, the officers reportedly shouted through their partially opened windows at the figure to show his hands. The cruiser sped over slick ground, skidding much too close to the where the African-American [1] figure stood. The passenger side door where Loehmann sat was at point blank range. Loehmann, a 26-year-old, white officer who did not come from the neighborhood and who had a history of poor performance, exploded out of the passenger door, unloading two bullets in less than two seconds from the door’s opening.

There, on the ground, lay Tamir Rice, suffering from an abdominal wound. He was only 12 years old and tall for his age. He’d been playing with an Airsoft pistol his friend had given him, its orange safety tip removed so that it looked “grown up.”

***

That same Fall on the other side of Cleveland, a community group called “The Ethics Table” was discussing the Ferguson uprising and the militarization of the police in the United States of America. They drew connections with the case of officer Michael Brelo, then on trial for his role in the slaughter of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, two Cleveland residents who, unarmed and fleeing by car, were killed when 137 rounds of police ammunition were emptied into their car. Joining in the Ethics Table at that time was one of Tamir Rice’s cousins who worked at University Hospital as a janitor, across the street from the room where the group met every other Wednesday over lunch.

The Ethics Table is a community group that discusses moral, ethical and political topics in the University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland. It’s open to everyone and over time has been diverse in every way. The Ethics Table is a place to talk with others about how to live well or justly, a place where one can question; where one can learn how to hold together complexity and disagreement.

Around the time of the group’s final meeting of 2014, Tamir Rice was buried. His cousin was present that day at the Table. During the course of the conversation he broke down in grief. The group held the silence with him in solidarity.

I was there, too – pained, sad, and outraged. How should we listen to each other in a society where fearful and prejudiced reactions result in people’s deaths?

Enter art

That year, the Ethics Table was readying for the 2015 Beamer-Schneider Lecture in Ethics, Morals, & Civics. Normally a spoken presentation combined with a workshop, this year would be different. The socially engaged artist Michael Rakowitz had been invited to propose a participatory, community art project – not just a spoken presentation. What would he ask us to consider doing?

With recent solo shows at the Tate Modern, a retrospective at MCA in Chicago, and an upcoming show at the MoMA in addition to his fourth plinth sculpture in Trafalgar Square, Rakowitz is a popular figure in the field of socially engaged art today. Visiting Chicago in 2013, I asked Rakowitz to propose a participatory art project for Cleveland rather than lecture, and, if amenable, to begin doing so by extending the Ethics Table’s dialogue. Rakowitz agreed and said, “Send me everything you can about what is going on in Cleveland.”

I included Rakowitz in biweekly digests of the Ethics Table, texted, and called from time to time. When he heard that the relative of Tamir Rice was a participant and had been overwhelmed with grief during the December, 2014 meeting, Rakowitz was moved. He responded with A Color Removed.

Rakowitz’s reply in 2015 began a process. Socially engaged art is often a process where everything that happens along the way is part of the art, for better or for worse. A Color Removed asks Clevelanders to remove the color orange from their lives while reflecting on who has and who doesn’t have protection and safety. Removing orange comes from the infuriating claim that Tamir Rice was shot because the orange safety tip of his toy gun had been removed. Having been removed, the objects are then placed in specially designated bins around the city along with notes explaining what they are and why they were removed. These same objects are to be gathered for exhibition. Over months, the exhibit room is meant to build up with thoughts about safety, social justice, and the meaning of color. The spectacle is only a residue. The main work is to be done by the community – a slow-moving protest and a philosophical act.

The process of A Color Removed took a long time to gestate, due especially to consideration of the Rice Family and issues I will examine shortly. The Beamer-Schneider Professorship in Ethics, the Ethics Table, a related community group, the Moral Inquiries, and artist Elaine Hullihen kept A Color Removed going until joining a local arts organization in 2017. The arts organization, SPACES, proposed the project as a “cultural exercise” for the first Cleveland triennial this past summer. It is here that the project took the form of more conventional, spectacular art as seen in museums.

Imagine walking into the exhibit. A Color Removed is a process, and the process begins with the socially fraught meaning of color. Thus, as you enter the exhibition, you encounter the works of four African-American art makers (one a collective) from Cleveland. Back in April, they claimed that the project didn’t involve Black people. A Color Removed immediately moved to include them. Now some of the most powerful images of the exhibit are the portraits by Amanda King of Black women in Cleveland, including Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice, in a local beauty salon. M. Carmen Lane’s indigenous and Black sculpture of intergenerational trauma is soul-calling. What would Tamir Rice have felt?

Tamir Rice loved art, and his mother is starting an arts and culture organization in his honor as an after-school enrichment program for inner city youth. Thus, fittingly and bitterly, it is only after you pass through artists of Black Cleveland that you come to the original part of A Color Removed from 2015. [2] In the main gallery space, the orange objects are arranged by groupings in a room with an oblong table at its center. This central table is the setting for social interaction and political re-education, the place where persons build community through dialogue. Around this table, the project claims, “fearless listening can enable fearless speaking.” The point of it is to hold each other’s fear courageously – and to witness.

A Color Removed is a participatory process aimed at opening up dialogue. It’s not just pictures on walls. Thus, dialogue is important to its art. Although the project was meant for all of Cleveland as a public art project, there was an exclusive dinner in the artistic space itself to kick the installation off. Composed perfectly of Black and white participants, attendants at the dinner included Samaria Rice, Rakowitz, members of the Cleveland art world, and the reviewers of the project for both the New York Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Cooked mainly by Rakowitz, his assistant and the writer RA Washington (who is one of the four Black artists at the installation’s front-end), the dinner featured dishes made with dates – tameer, in Arabic, a part of Rakowitz’s Iraqi-Jewish heritage. Then, over this summer, SPACES organized several panels on intersectional safety, and a few artists and community groups signed on to use the space. The panels were framed as expert panels speaking at people. They were well worth hearing, but dialogue didn’t structure them.

The importance of plain collaboration

A Color Removed sounds wonderful, but it lacked moral integrity. [3] This undermined its claim to be good socially engaged art, because in socially engaged art process matters more than the art product in the gallery. And while Rakowitz has done work that seems powerfully thoughtful in the past, in this instance he did not live up to the ideals of the field or of his past work. Instead, he (1) appropriated other people’s labor and (2) operated in an arbitrary manner that threatened the viability of the project and, at one point, the entire summer programming of the arts professionals working with him.

(1) He appropriated other’s labor by asking locals to do the hard work of research and organizing, rather than going out of the way to do it himself. For instance, from 2015 to 2018 there was a major concern within the project that the Rice family hadn’t been more deeply involved. But Rakowitz didn’t hit the streets to earn the trust of the family, instead leaving that up to others. During the long preparation process, from 2013 to 2018, much thought was given, public reflections written, phone calls placed, and organization explored by others until the art project could be realized with the support of the Rice family. This effort was not recognized and is invisible in the final installation and its gallery guide.

(2) Rakowitz’s arbitrariness damaged the social and relational nature of A Color Removed. This came to a head when, facing frank and heartfelt criticism of his dynamics in March of this year, Rakowitz threatened to withdraw from the project rather than address the criticism. Although he spoke about accountability in art, Rakowitz was not himself personally accountable and was willing to let others with whom he worked suffer as a result.

Sticking with integrity through a process of socially engaged and communally generated art is admittedly challenging. But when labor is appropriated and arbitrariness trumps collaboration, the quality of the work will often suffer. This was certainly the case with A Color Removed’s exhibition. In the end, much of the art was completed in a slap-dash manner resulting in an intellectually sloppy gallery. The artist recycled past work as an ornament of the present, making hasty associations with gun violence that piled trauma on top of trauma. There was a minimally researched showcase with a brief history of toy guns in the U.S., a life-vest from a drowned Syrian refugee, and a video of Israeli military oppression in Palestine. The gallery overloads the viewer with trauma connected everywhere, thereby repeating trauma behavior.

Rather than being a plain collaborator, Rakowitz behaved like a person with special privileges, even a corporate manager. He drew credit up to himself while pushing work down to others to do and was neither reliable nor clear in communication. This is especially problematic when one has made one’s name as a socially engaged artist. A Color Removed aimed to be communally-generated art, issuing in transformative dialogue and everyday philosophical acts. It was proposed as an ethics project, and it took its central metaphor – that of “being the table” – from the Ethics Table.

The social form of practical compassion

As an exhibit, A Color Removed circles a table. This is the Ethics Table. And it is your kitchen table. The gallery guide describes the project itself as “be[ing] the table” – the table for difficult conversations and the table for proactive next steps in the community. A Color Removed circles a table because it sought to be art that expanded the social form that had been its cause. But it’s only when the practices of community discussion are involved that the project’s aesthetic form and its socially engaged purpose fit. They build out the “table” and extend it into the city through aesthetic permutations. Without that missing piece, the project – for all its spirit overloaded in intergenerational trauma – becomes inert.

Compassion is not primarily a gesture. It is a sustained and morally accountable process that restores society by addressing the moral harm done to others. Compassion appears when people can understand suffering together, make hardship life-size, maintain contact with one another; and where mutual presence can be made human. These things take time, talk, reflection, and being-with among many other things. They take personal accountability too. Community discussion – not artistic spectacle or aesthetic gesture – helps with them all. A discussion is not a message aimed at people. It grows with people as accountable equals squared up to one other in relationship. In a space of moral equality, community discussion allows people to transform pain rather than transmitting it.[4]

You can’t avoid a failure back down the line. The relationships have to be developed consistently, inclusively, and slowly – without making an exception of oneself or managing things for a spectacular result. Instagramming pictures of orange objects isn’t the same as having a hard and human talk. Going to an organized panel where you listen to experts is not dialogue. Neither is grooving dancing (although it helps). And in part due to Rakowitz’s failures, A Color Removed missed the interpersonal task of working through conflict and disagreement. The social engagement of a community actually communicating and growing together was removed.

I find, oddly, hope in this critical conclusion. What A Color Removed missed is simple and humble: engage as equals always, shun vanity and gesture, and develop practical compassion by building in the time and space for people to communicate and to transform their relation with each other through moral accountability. [5]

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. Two recent books related to social practice art are The Wind ~ An Unruly Living and Solar Calendar, and Other Ways of Marking Time. He has previously written the essay “How to do Thing Without Words” at Public Seminar. His next books are Involving Anthroponomy in the Anthropocene: From the Colonial World System to Community, Accountability, and Disagreement (Routledge 2020) and A Politics of Wonder: On the Conditions of Democratic Life (Bloomsbury, 2022).

 


[1] I use “African-American” to echo a demographic study and “Black” when I believe that the tradition of Black Power would be invoked by the people being described.

[2] In the gallery’s front, Amber Ford’s spare photographs of harmless objects associated with the death of Black people by the police further prepares the viewer for the trauma of Tamir Rice’s killing.

[3] What follows is an interpretation of events as I witnessed them or as I was told of them by first hand sources; evaluations are my own opinion.

[4] Cf. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality , Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008, chapter 2.

[5] Tamir Rice’s mother brought a relationship into the project at the last minute that was always crucial. If the project helps establish the Tamir Rice Foundation, if it contributes to the momentum and richness of art education for Afro-American youth from within Cleveland’s formerly red-lined areas, then it does something real and important. But this consequence does not rationalize unaccountable practices.

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Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

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