Initiating the GROUNDWORKS exhibition

Tim Collins and Reiko Goto

participants at 3R2N River Dialogues

Working at a planning scale, we have found there are limits to what can be achieved when working with overt dialogic intent. On our Nine Mile Run project (6.5 square miles) we were able to work in what we would call a deep-dialogue format, whereby we had a sustained discussion with members of the immediate (spatially-adjacent) communities along the area of development interest. As a result we took responsibility for expanding their interests and ideas about post-industrial public space, but asked them to set our research agenda, and make final decisions on the forms of the final proposal. Working on 3 Rivers 2nd Nature it at the scale of Allegheny County (730 square miles) it was clear to us that there were limits to our time and attention, this has resulted in a series of shallow-dialogues whereby we "parachute in" with experts and do our best to engage communities and nonprofit interests in the idea and experience of nature through on the river water-dialogues intended to initiate a discourse about nature as a post-industrial value worth of civic interest. This exhibition and catalogue were a response that evolved into the idea to extend our work, by asking artists to work at a community/municipal scale in specific communities in the Monongahela River Valley.

The Monongahela Conferences were developed as an evolving public-realm counterpoint to the Allegheny Conference[1]. Where the Allegheny Conference focuses on growth in the regions economy, the Monongahela Conference was to focus upon the regions public realm and its attendant ecosystems and human communities through art. These programs were intended to reveal the artists/designers role in the restoration of nature and communities in shared places. The program evolved from an initial Monongahela Conference with twenty-four international attendees discussing the role of artists in a post-industrial setting to a month-long residency program with twelve artists in 2004 that result in projects and inclusion in the GROUNDWORKS exhibition and catalogue.

The work of the first Monongahela Conference (October 2003) organized by Tim and Reiko and the staff of 3R2N asked three specific questions of all (artists, critics and theorists) participants. How do you do your work,? What are the goals and intentions? And, What are the methods and means you use in your work? This was primarily a closed, invitation only symposium. There were two public lectures. Dan Gretton and Jane Trowell of Platform spoke one night and Grant Kester, Suzi Gablik, and Malcolm Miles on the next at the Carnegie Museum of Art. On the third day of the conference we all went to the Braddock Public Library for a public discussion about art and change. A program which became a contentious subject of conversation by the participants who felt that 3 Rivers 2nd Nature had not lived up to the ideals of such a program. With too few community participants and too many non-profit interests from outside the community in attendance. The program, the artists written texts and my own review of the outcome is documented at http://moncon.greenmuseum.org/. Participants included: Jackie Brookner, NY, Angelo Ciotti, PA, Tim Collins and Reiko Goto, PA, Mark Dannenhauer, MA, Erica Fielder CA, Suzi Gablik, VA, GroundZero, PA, Helen Mayer Harrison, Newton Harrison, CA, Grant Kester, CA, Nicola Kirkham, U.K., Stacy Levy, PA, Tom and Connie Merriman, PA, Malcolm Miles, U.K., A. Laurie Palmer, ILL, The Persephone Project, PA, PLATFORM, U.K., Ann Rosenthal, MD, Temporary Services, ILL.

The second program was billed as "The Monongahela Conference II, on Post-Industrial Community Development: Art, Ecology and Planning with People Influencing Public Places We Care About." (June 2004) This was a month long series of residencies and public programs. Working closely with members of the team of advisors including Groundworks curator Grant Kester, Tim and Reiko with the staff of 3R2N identified seven artists that live outside Pennsylvania and brought them into the region to work alongside five artists living in the greater Pittsburgh region. The artists chosen were all known to be able to work within a social setting on environmental issues. They all had an interest and ability to work in a discursive planning manner and had previously produced a range of effective creative products. They had a range of skills, and approaches to the work, in keeping with our fundamental belief in diversity as a means to achieve success. This program was planned at two levels. First it was an assembly of like-minded art professionals who have sought an opportunity for serious discourse about theory and practice. Secondly, it placed sophisticated art and design practitioners in relationship to some of the most troubled eco-social environments in Western Pennsylvania. Everyone was given a simple charge - to initiate change. Participants were encouraged to make art works, designs, performances, and future plans with communities.

The 3R2N team developed political and non-profit contacts for the three teams working in Braddock, Homestead and McKeesport PA. Each team was given a public setting for their work managed by long-term 3R2N research associates Noel Hefele, Priya Lakshmi and John Oduroe and supported by outreach coordinators, recent CMU graduates Siobhan Riggs and Robin Hewlitt. In Braddock, the town council recommend the team work in the public library. In Homestead they worked out of the ArtSpace 303, the gallery of the Steel Valley Arts Council. And in McKeesport the office of the Mayor provided space in the lobby of the municipal building for the project team. Each site had full computer mapping, access to 3R2N data, and design support facilitated by the landscape architect, and graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania Roman Chiu. The teams were presented with contacts decisions makers and nonprofit interests, with the site managers and outreach coordinators responding on a daily basis for requests to organize, coordinate or document meetings. The actual engagement with citizens was a decision made on an artist by artist basis, with an ethical eye to the realities of their temporal commitments and their ability to enter into an honest and responsible dialogue. The teams were also offered the opportunity to take advantage of the use of a water taxi for an on the water experience. The Homestead gallery was used as a central gathering space each friday, with full team meetings to discuss the full range of success, frustration and challenge that typified the efforts. The meetings were opened to the general public for a discussion of the work at 6pm, with each team making a presentation in turn over three consecutive Fridays. In addition each team added materials on a week to week basis to an evolving exhibition at the gallery, which in the long run was actually poorly attended, and often misunderstood. The public programs on Friday nights usually resulted in a full house.

The entire program was an amazing challenge to develop and sustain, and it stretched the 3R2N team to the absolute limits of our abilities. Reiko attended to the deeply embedded and collaborative McKeesport team., while Tim worked with the more independent groups working with incredible focus and instrumental intent in Braddock and in relation to the Homestead/Hays area. Ultimately the nationally ranked artists living in the region were an essential path to helping the teams achieve an effective a responsible relationship to people in these communities. And as always they were ably facilitated in their interests by the 3R2N research assistants, fondly known as the "elves" because of the magic they weave with their computer design skills and their commitment to the work and the critical dialogue and sense of purpose we all shared. Participants chosen for the residencies included: Jackie Brookner of New York, Stephanie Flom of Pittsburgh, Helen and Newton Harrison of San Diego CA, Walter Hood and Alma DuSolier of Oakland CA, Jon Kline and Christine Brill of Pittsburgh, Tom and Connie Merriman of Pittsburgh, A. Laurie Palmer of Chicago, and Ann Rosenthal of Massachusetts/Pittsburgh.

The GROUNDWORKS Exhibition (fall 2005) Curated by Grant Kester with Patrick Deegan and Presented by the Director of the Miller Gallery, Jenny Strayer is an amazing overview of artwork that occurs at a planning scale with local social and environmental relevance and in our eyes, international consequence. Grant has also worked closely with an interdisciplinary team of authors to produce a robust intellectual framework of articles within which to consider this work. Jenny has crafted the exhibition and catalog with great insight and care. She is the women in charge of the crossroads, where everything comes to pass. She has been the first amongst us to laugh out loud at the mania of it all, and the first to hold us all to the realities and demands of the project. The exhibition does present the work of the 3 Rivers 2nd Nature team alongside our colleagues from the June 2004 residencies as well as amongst practitioners from Africa, Austria, England, Germany, India, and Japan who are working on environmental issues in cities, towns and villages at a planning scale.

It is our hypothesis that the lyrical and at times irrational approach of the avant garde modernists of the past century was a fitting response to a culture that was evolving along overt rational and obsessively quantitative pathways. Today that rational culture and its byproducts have an increasingly irrational effect on society and the environment. Our rational culture has gone awry, denying the science of climate change, ignoring the toxicants that accrue in the flesh of our bodies. Our leaders continuing to wallow in the industrial economy of carbon based energy despite clear limits and insane human and environmental impacts. Limiting development or recognizing any limits whatsoever, are against the dogma of the high priests of the economy. Mega corporations transform the earth, and there are legitimate questions about the power of nations to mitigate or stop their growth and impact. The role of the artist must shift in response to these global changes. (While staying aware of the challenges of scale.) It is our belief that the creative act must evolve with clear intent and real impact. You need to decide for yourself anything this applied can be art, and if it is not, what is it? And, in the end who else would, could or should be doing it?

We would like to dedicate the culmination of our effort at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry to Bryan Rogers, Joel Tarr, David Lewis and Indira Nair. Bryan gave us the opportunity and confidence to take on a life of research. Joel and David have carefully mentored us through the challenges of the life of interdisciplinary academia, while Indira has provided fundamental support for this work at every step of the way. None of this work was possible without their support.

[1] The Allegheny Conference on Community Development and its affiliates (Pittsburgh Regional Alliance; Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce; and Pennsylvania Economy League-Western Division) are working in collaboration to stimulate growth in southwestern Pennsylvania's economy and improve its quality of life.