Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this trio of terms: the public, the social, and the community. As I divide my days with periodic bouts of doomscrolling, parsing out of press statements from federal, state, and local authorities, and toggling between tab after tab of news reports, opinion pieces, and zeitgeist commentaries, these terms are hard to escape. We are living through a “public health crisis” and are asked to make sacrifices — perhaps most notably “social distancing”— in service of the “public good” and limiting “community spread.” But as an art historian, writer, and very occasional curator, these terms are never far from my mind: my research and scholarly practice traces the relationships between public art and social practice under evolving conditions of “community” during the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries.
At this point, to assert that we are living through a moment of unprecedented crisis is almost hopelessly banal. To this assertion I would like to offer the corollary that this is as much a crisis of the health of the body politic as it is a crisis of the health of the individual bodies within that which we call the public. Even before the most recent wave of protests recommitting the national conversations to the ways in which racist ideas and policies curtail the flourishing of black and brown lives, it was quickly becoming clear how the pandemic, in its disproportionate impacts on communities of color, contingent workers, and persons subject to incarceration and those without shelter, was insidiously amplifying generational inequities in both the political and aesthetic spheres.
The instinctual response to a moment of unprecedented crisis — this one no less than those preceding it and those that will inevitably follow — is too long for a return to normal. While I would never diminish the reality of this drive for any one individual, I would yet like to offer a challenge to the collective: Why settle for normal? For better or worse, we have been presented with an opportunity for a world-historical reset of structures of being both personal and political. While we could — and perhaps the path of least resistance may mean we will — respond to this opportunity by attempting to reconstruct these structures as they existed prior to February and March of this year, why not aim for something more perfect? Why build back inadequate and harmful structures when we could seize this chance to build back better?
I’m not so idealistic as to promise that public art and social practice could play a starring role in such a radical rebuilding project. As happy as I am to cosign calls for a new WPA (Works Progress Administration) — assuming that the reboot would be aligned with the imperatives of racial justice and correct for the pernicious racial discrimination written into much of the original New Deal legislation — I recognize the implausibility of such an initiative coming to pass under the aegis of a legislative branch stymied over the questions of whether those citizens at the most vulnerable end of the economic spectrum “deserve” not to lose their shelter or to be compensated for the total of their lost pay. Still, I would argue that this crisis and the opportunity it provides is one that beckons a consideration of the potential shift of our understanding of social practice and public art occasioned by this moment in which the “public” and “social” have taken on new meaning and relevance under the auspices of social distancing, public health, and the public good. Out of this crisis comes an imperative to reconsider who is included in and what is meant by the public, the social, and the communal in the theoretical frameworks and practices of public art and participatory democracy in order to address existing disparities and bring about more equitable outcomes in both arenas.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean when we say, “public art.” Back at the beginnings of the pandemic, as museums, galleries, and other conventional art-viewing spaces shuttered, there were scattered promotions of murals, monumental statues, and other traditional forms of public art as ideal objects of aesthetic appreciation under conditions of social distancing. Notions of “drive-by art” percolated into the conversation.
And yet, even before the most recent upswell of antiracist conversation and action demanded a reinvigoration of the long overdue reckoning of who we put on literal pedestals in our public spaces, it occurred to me that the model of aesthetic experience grounded in murals and statues may not offer the most comprehensive response to the challenge offered by the interlocking crises of our current moment. To my mind, what this moment offers are opportunities to redefine what we ask from public art: to think of public projects as vectors for coming together (as safely as possible, of course) as opposed to encouraging a model of solo engagement that doubles-down on our ongoing isolation. In a context in which the ethos of new genre public art, of relational aesthetics, of social practice — choose your own appellative adventure — of a mode of artmaking fundamentally concerned with convening community in shared space seems never more impossible, it also seems never more necessary as the social and political impacts on our communities become increasingly apparent.
The question becomes: How can we make productive work of a situation in which ideas of the public and community and the social seem more salient – -but perhaps also more under threat — than at any moment in our lifetimes? What might we ask public art to do as part of a sweeping project of radically rebuilding our social and political communities? What can public art do to support more equitable human flourishing now and on the other side of this crisis? What we need now and in the years of recovery to come is an art of communion, of coming together to recognize one another as equal members of the polis, of sharing, of community building, and of the dialogic practices that support such edifices.
Publicness — the state of being a recognized member of a social and political community — is a practice. The borders of the public are fixed but with great effort movable, intentionally opaque but in reality riddled through with what could become entrances. And an art that shapes itself as a visual and experiential call to collective action, to reexamining as a community our modes of living on our planet in the face of political and economic disparities both emergent and systemic, has a vital role to play in this practice of publicness, in this journey to expand the boundaries of who we recognize as entitled to all the rights, privileges, and protections that come with membership in the public.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mezaland. Organized by Buffalo-based visual artist, certified chef, and creative entrepreneur Alexa Joan Wajed to accompany the exhibition Open House: Domestic Thresholds by Heather Hart, Edra Soto, and Rodney Taylor at Albright-Knox Northland, Mezaland was intended as a curated dining experience, an evening of spontaneous performance, story-sharing, and conversation all in “an effort to bring people together, to change the conversation around food, to examine how food has such an impact on us and how food is impacted by trauma in our life, and to talk about how food determines our health and...how we come together with people.”
It had the catastrophic misfortune to be scheduled for Saturday, March 21, eight days after the Albright-Knox announced it was closing Northland for the foreseeable future.
Taking her cue from Heather Hart’s monumental gesture toward home and family, Wajed commented that, “the natural thing was a community cookout type of thing, a community event where again you have that gathering. It's kind of a free-flowing timeline of family togetherness.” As part of cultivating what she had hoped would be a familial, warmly communal environment, the artist was deeply intentional in shaping the guest list for the event. “The guest list was meant to reflect the community where Albright-Knox Northland is now situated, as well as ensuring community partners were represented. For this particular installation of Mezaland, it was important to have guests spanning generations to discuss the tradition, heritage, and history around food and health in the Black community.” After helping themselves to a selection of plant-centric offerings created by a team of local chefs including Wajed, Walidah Abrams of Katering Couture, Michelle Foster, Keith Fulcher of Breaking Bread BBQ, Reggie Ingram of The Manna Culinary Group, Chef Nikki of Sunshine Vegan Eats, Vivian Robinson of La Verdad Cafe, Rhonda Wells of Buffalo Plant Burger, and Harrita West of Park Vue Restaurant, participants were to sit down at long tables arranged around Hart’s Oracle of Conduction (2019) arrayed with prompts such as What’s your first memory of food? What about food makes you happy? What do you eat when you’re happy? When you’re sad? aimed at beginning to unpack how memories and past events narrate how we eat and with whom. Diners and conversationalists would be asked to sit beside people they did not know, and such prompts, beyond getting to the heart of one of the major concerns of Wajed’s artmaking, were also designed to facilitate conversation among these temporary strangers: “Everybody has an opinion about food. Everybody has a favorite food, and there's always some commonality around food. And many times we're brought together around food. So it's an easy conversation starter.”
As so imagined, Mezaland takes its place among a storied lineage of public art and social practice projects that reimagine the shared meal as a vector for creating and sustaining vibrant communities, joining the likes of FOOD (artists Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s restaurant-cum-community hub for the emergent artist community in Soho in the 1970s); Rirkrit Tiravanija’s various initiatives dating from the early 1990s to the present transforming galleries and museum’s into spaces to share freely provided sustenance; Michael Rakowitz’s use of food to challenge the binaries around belonging and enmity in projects including Spoils, a 2011 intervention where dinners at New York City’s Park Avenue restaurant were invited to eat off of plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palaces; and Enemy Kitchen, a collaboration begun in 2003 between Iraqi refugee chef and Iraq War veterans to share Iraqi recipes out of a food truck; and, most recently, Lauren Halsey’s community initiative to bring organic fruits and vegetables to some of Los Angeles's most underserved neighborhoods, Summaeverythang.
At its core, Mezaland is a radical reimagining of what a “community table” might look like and achieve — who is included in this community, how they are included, and how inclusion in this context might spur a reconsideration of equitable inclusion in other arenas, especially in access to food and wellness. It grew out of a series of multisensorial, multimedia gatherings that Wajed and her husband, the artist Edreys Wajed, organized at their Gallery 51 in the mid-2000s. Wajed’s practice is a generous, joyous artmaking that grounds itself in an ethic of the public practice of love through hospitality, of helping people access the sustenance both physical and spiritual that they need. “Food is a way that I can show my love and share my love for people as well as ingredients in what I'm working with,” she has explained. “In terms of the things that I like to do and the things that bring me passion and high energy, it's definitely sharing my gifts around people that I love and bringing people that I've just met together.” In a context of dramatic disparities in access to healthcare and wellness along racial lines — disparities that have tragically come into sharper focus as the pandemic disproportionately impacts Black lives — Wajed wants to explore fresh, nutrition-rich food as a route toward health. It is a solution, she recognizes, that is fundamentally complicated by the endemic presence of food deserts and by disparities in access to food that cut along these same racial lines.
While the pandemic ultimately prevented Mezaland’s full realization, experiences of the past several months have only underscored the key tenets of the projects for Wajed. “Mezaland is about so many other things, changing the narrative, changing our behaviors, changing the way that we think, slowing down. This pandemic has definitely, I think, changed a lot of folks in terms of slowing down, getting back to the kitchen, and wanting to cook, wanting to garden, wanting to prepare their own food. It’s amazing to see the transformation for so many people, but it's also sad to see, unfortunately, still some people being left behind.” Still, “as you tear away distractions and as you take away stressors and you're faced with yourself, you have to recognize and admit what is important to you. And during this time, we have an opportunity to understand health issues around this virus but also above and beyond. I think people hopefully have taken that opportunity to slow down to enjoy the blessing and benefit of being around your family and loved ones more.” On the other side of this crisis, Wajed sees a future for Mezaland, one in which a coming-together after so many months of needing to stay apart allows for a space to reconsider the connections between food, family, and home and how these have been reshaped by months in which all of us fortunate enough to have homes are spending more time there, and yet, at the same time, are more isolated from those friends and loved ones outside our immediate family. It is a future for Mezaland that recognizes the unprecedentedly important power of social practice to create and share a radically empathetic and inclusive vision of public, communal, and social space.
Emily E. Mangione is a writer, editor, educator, and very occasional curator based in the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee.