The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
Artist as Activist in Select Works by Swoon and Tomás Saraceno
By Susan J. Erenrich and Anu Mitra
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Anu Mitra has a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York. Since 1988, she has worked at the Union Institute & University in various administrative and teaching capacities. Since 2000, she has served as faculty in the Graduate College of the University. She has also taught at Yale University, Antioch College, Empire State College, and Sichuan University in China. Her areas of scholarly research are design thinking; visual culture and leadership development; social justice theory and practice; and arts-based practices in organizational settings.
Welcome and Happy 2019! The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner has another exciting year planned for ILA members. Approximately, fifteen authors from around the globe, have committed to sharing their stories, vision, scholarship, and models of arts-centered, bottom-up leadership with us.
We are kicking off the season with a guest column penned by Anu Mitra, a chapter author in our Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change book, published by Emerald as part of the ILA’s Building Leadership Bridges series. In her piece, Anu compares and contrasts the fine art of two cultural activists — Swoon (née Caledonia Dance Curry) and Tomás Saraceno. She sheds light on how they “engage, provoke, incite, agitate, and, in the end, build jobs in communities, invoke respect among diverse groups of people, and nurture harmony in the natural order of things.” Furthermore, Anu believes Swoon’s and Saraceno’s art-making is “synonymous with creating a better world in measurable ways, involving all of us together, or as many as are needed to get the raft to float or the flying machine to soar in the air.”
I hope readers enjoy our 2019 line-up as we continue to blaze trails in this previously underrepresented leadership phenomenon. We wish you a happy, healthy, and prosperous year.
Artist as Activist in Select Works by Swoon and Tomás Saraceno
By Anu Mitra
W.E.B. DuBois famously advised the curious intellectual to: “Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context, so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other” (Dechow, 2015). It is in the interest of maintaining this simple flow of mutuality and empathy that artists like Swoon and Tomás Saraceno reach out to their worldwide audiences. They engage, provoke, incite, agitate, and, in the end, they build jobs in communities, invoke respect among diverse groups of people, and nurture harmony in the natural order of things. Their ability to perform, enact, engage, create, and catalyze speaks to their roles as entrepreneur/activist/leader — roles into which they fit uncannily and naturally. For them, art-making is synonymous with creating a better world in measurable ways, involving all of us together, or as many as are needed to get the raft to float or the flying machine to soar in the air.
In the name of art that speaks of a larger purpose, Swoon and Saraceno both breathe vitality into a series of actions that bring “theory into being” (MacKenzie, 2007; Callon, 2007). Both are meticulous students of the arts and sciences, insatiably obsessed with how to compost waste on a raft that journeys over great distances or how to track the rhythmic movements of arachnoids who are privy to an inter-species concert. Both are involved in practices that are carefully choreographed and conceptualized in order to jumpstart a set of desired meanings or expectations. Both artists assume an aspect of performativity through which they exercise their full artistic and human potential. In my essay, I examine insights on the objective outcomes of the street artist/activist, Swoon, and the architect/scientist turned artist/futurist Tomás Saraceno. They are instrumental in bringing ideas into intentional action in order to bring about radical change in themselves and in society. Both are in search of a harmonious world order where human beings, irrespective of color, race, gender, and other categorizing factors, can contribute their expertise to improve the condition of their world. Both artists have demonstrably moved out of the confines of what an artist does to a larger definition of the impact that an artist can intentionally orchestrate during and after their art-making practices. Both are committed to breathing significant change into the structure of how things work on an existential as well as planetary scale. Running parallel to the trajectory of an informed leader, Swoon and Saraceno serve as agents of social action, engagement, and exchange.
The street artist Swoon, born Caledonia Dance Curry in 1978, works primarily with drawing, printmaking, site-specific installations, street interventions, and performance and community-based projects. Since 2010, her work has become increasingly political in motivation, with Swoon blurring the line between artist and activist. “The walls of cities should be a public sounding board, a sort of visual commons,” she emphasizes, thus underscoring the notion that as an artist she is less interested in representation than in literally wanting to become a part of the world that she is creating. By bringing her art into actual enactment that improves the lives of many others, Swoon rewrites the manifesto on the social conventions of art-making and art-viewing. She proposes instead that art-making is best viewed “as sites of inquiry between the artist, artwork, viewer and setting” (Jagiello, 2017).
In this section, I highlight three of Swoon’s large-scale collaborative projects that continue to live beyond her direct involvement. These three undertakings span eleven years and three countries and employ art as a catalyst for unconventional community building and civic revitalization. The endeavors are characterized by an aspirational and inclusive approach, running counter to the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement, and tending toward the DIT (do-it-together) approach. In this way, Swoon runs counter to the idea of artist as solitary genius and, instead, creates a platform where all types of influences come together in the name of honest engagement.
In one project, she gathered an eclectic crew of artists, educators, musicians, farmers, architects, and engineers (Jeff Stark and John Rinaldi were especially key at the inception of the project) to build a series of rafts that served as “swimming cities” that were as much performative armadas as sociological experiments. She explained, “I wanted to build a floating microcosm of all that I held dear…I wanted to live on a honeycomb of junk rafts, grow food, compost our waste, build our own motors that run on grease and learn how to live in a different way than the systems we know now.” Pioneering a 21st century version of a life lived cooperatively rather than competitively, Swoon’s message is spread via workshops, performances, shared meals, zine libraries, and a collection of artifacts gathered along the way. Miss Rockaway Armada evolved into a 110 feet of “junk raft” that floated 800 miles over the Mississippi River; the Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea was a collection of seven rafts that floated down the Hudson River, whose waters switch direction twice a day; Swimming Cities of Serenissima floated across the Adriatic from Kaspar to Venice, crashing the Venice Biennale and overcoming police warnings to sail down the city’s Grand Canal. Her installations are meticulously planned with precise scale models for the rafts, which are officially registered as water-worthy rafts ensured by architects and engineers. As models that elicit curiosity, wonder, and post-urban possibility, she comments of the project, “I could feel…we were changing lives in some modest but stubbornly glimmering way.”
In Cormiers, Haiti, Swoon married art with human rights and civic revitalization by creating a gathering space of interdisciplinary collaborators, materials, and aspirations. The Konbit Shelter Project was developed in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. Swoon worked with architect Nadir Khalili’s pre-engineered humanitarian designs, which were woven into the design and practices of her own engineers, to develop the Super-Adobe construction method. (Khalili had passed away by 2010.) The Super Adobe method utilizes local materials to create structures that are earthquake resistant. With the help of Haitian farmers and artists, the team created jobs that returned a sense of hopefulness to the community. The project began in 2010, as a quick response to the ravages of natural disaster, but has evolved into a long-term commitment for Swoon and others — this is a typical trajectory for her ideas.
Swoon’s projects are financed through the sale of her work. “I think of money as a verb,” she said, “because you have it and it has to go out in the world to do things.” Other artists who pulled together around the projects, donated art to fundraising auctions as well.
JR, the French artist and TED prizewinner, is impressed by her ethos. “The fact that she does it the way she does, and just struggles her own way” allows her “complete freedom” as an artist. “She has always managed to have some social impact with her work and at the same time stay an artist, not an activist,” he stated. “That’s very rare.” For Swoon, art is a way to process monumental change on a global and personal level.
In New Orleans, Swoon helped create a village where each house is a musical instrument that carries a message about a community in rebirth. The Music Box is an ever-evolving musical village that celebrates New Orleans' rich musical and architectural history. In 2011, New Orleans Airlift invited Swoon to create a sculpture in a condemned shotgun house in the Bywater section of New Orleans. Looking to synthesize and celebrate two of the most remarkable aspects of New Orleans culture, Swoon began with a sketch of a playable musical installation built within the architectural elements of the home. Working closely with artists Delaney Martin and Taylor Lee Sheppard, this vision expanded to become a fully-fledged musical architecture for New Orleans.
In 2011 Martin curated and creatively directed the Music Box Sound Laboratory, a small village constructed by over 25 artists, containing musical instruments embedded in the floors, ceilings, walls, and staircases. This radical reinvention of the musical instrument and the musical stage hosted performances throughout 2011-12 with musicians and composers from all over New Orleans and the globe collaborating to bring forth surprising and joyful experiences, drawing 15,000 people in the first nine months of the project. The Music Box continues on with the belief that generating true experiences of surprise, wonder, and tactile joy can be a tool for the expansion of hopefulness.
In each of these three projects, Swoon served as the hub and spokes of a wheel, advancing human rights, social justice, and civic revitalization. She used art as a catalyst to connect a city and its citizens and to bring attention to important political causes, all premised on the idea of belonging.
Tomás Saraceno has post-graduate degrees in architecture and has worked with the International Space Studies Program at NASA. Inspired by his mother, who is a biologist, Saraceno received the Calder Prize in 2009; is known for collaboration with scientists and has worked with MIT students to create some of his work; has shown in international solo and group exhibitions at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2015 and 2018), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2012), Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City (2011-12), and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2011-12); and has won a world record for creating a human lifting device that does not use fossil fuels. Born in Argentina and trained as an architect in Buenos Aires and Frankfurt, Saraceno is often associated with the great experimental thinkers that exploded the boundaries of architecture in the mid-twentieth century. Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, curator of Saraceno’s show that ran at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, closing January 2019, said: “He’s a great artist, comparable to Marcel Duchamp or even Leonardo da Vinci, who always thought outside and combined disciplines.” He is someone who “proposes art that is inclusive and not exclusive.”
Saraceno’s training in the sciences allows him to deploy knowledge from engineering, physics, chemistry, aeronautics, and material sciences in his work of building an alternative city that will not be dependent on the earth’s resources. His experiments in art allow him to create (often with trash bags) inflatable and airborne biospheres with the morphology of soap bubbles, spider webs, neural networks, or cloud formations, which are speculative models for alternate ways of living. He cultivates spiders from all over the world to study, in situ, their web-making activity, which serves as a template for how he binds together these floating spheres. He also stages interspecies salons, where well-established musicians hold concerts for his spider population. Their web-making practices are seen to become increasingly more complex and vigorous in the days immediately following the salons.
Saraceno’s artworks are inspired by the flying machines designed by Alexander Graham Bell. In the simple use of repetitive patterns, Saraceno constructs tetrahedron-shaped kites to maximize the surface area and minimize the weight of his floating cities with the goal of carrying man and motor into flight. Using Graham Bell’s framework, Saraceno revitalizes the design with contemporary technology and materials. Solar Bell is a prototype towards a much larger and inhabitable platform-kite and a study in the possibility for a flying kite plaza, fully lifted by the power of wind alone.
Saraceno’s sculptures are prototypes for floating, portable alternative environments to address humanity’s real problems like overcrowding and scarcity of resources. His work “defies traditional notions of space, time, gravity, consciousness and perception ….each work is an invitation to conceive of alternative ways of knowing, feeling, and interacting with others. Above all, the works show us that the possibility to transform the world is always within reach for those who are ready to collaborate in its design and construction” (Alonso, 2015). The principles that Saraceno relies on such as “participative actions, co-creation and do-it-together practices, make this future society less apparent as complex body of entangled social, political, and economical, and more similar to a cyber-network, driven by an artistic…artifice” (Alonso, 2015). Tomás Saraceno’s immersive installation conjures an era in which humanity ceases to negatively impact our planet’s fossil-fuel resources, and instead becomes airborne in collective sustainable environments.
Stepping beyond the framework of artist, entrepreneur, leader, and/ or activist, both Swoon and Saraceno have taken on the challenge of pushing the limits of human innovation. As a result, they are viewed as entrepreneurs with a mission --to bring the rest of the world onboard for the adventure.
References & Additional Resources
To learn more about Swoon, please visit: https://swoonstudio.org/
To learn more about Tomás Saraceno, please visit: https://studiotomassaraceno.org/
Alonso, Rodrigo. (2015). Wall didactic at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Callon, M. 2007. What Does It Mean to Say That Economics Is Performative? In D. MacKenzie, F. Muniesa, & L. Siu (Eds.), Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dechow, S.L. (2015). “Begin With Art.” The Listening. 2 September 2015. http://welcometothelistening.org/blog/2015/8/26/begin-with-art
Jagiello, Jolanta. (2017). Performance, Exhibitions, and Performativity, AoMO Conference 2018 didactic.
Lamarche-Vadel, Rebecca. (2018). Quoted in Kimberly Bradley’s “Air, Dust, Spiders and Other Masterpieces,” in The New York Times, October 21, 2018, pp. 18-19.
MacKenzie, D. 2007. Is Economics Performative? Option Theory and the Construction of Derivatives Markets. In D. MacKenzie, F. Muniesa, & L. Siu (Eds.), Do Economists Make Markets?: On the Performativity of Economics: 54-86. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
All photos used with the permission of Swoon Studio.
Boat Photo Credit Tod Seelie.