Chinatown North, map with annotations of various names / nicknames for the neighborhood. Courtesy of Dave Kyu.

Chinatown North, map with annotations of various names / nicknames for the neighborhood. Courtesy of Dave Kyu.

Asian Arts Initiative is a multi-disciplinary community-based arts center in Philadelphia. The organization’s current programs include a public performance season, a gallery exhibition series, artist residencies, and youth workshops that focus on telling the stories of Asian Americans and the diverse communities of which Asian Americans are a part. Prompted to relocate due to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center five years ago, Asian Arts Initiative is now in a new home at 1219 Vine Street, and developing its building as a multi-tenant facility to serve as an anchor in the development of the Chinatown North neighborhood. 

ArtPlace’s grant will support Asian Arts Initiative to renovate the third floor of its building to create more artist studio space, as well as support the inaugural year of a Social Practice Lab through which Artists-in-Residence will work in partnership with a diversity of residents and neighborhood organizations to create projects – which could be at public sites including storefront windows, restaurant tables, an outdoor plaza, a viaduct tunnel, a parking lot—and contribute to shaping the vision of the neighborhood’s future.

ArtPlace interviewed Nancy Chen, Public Programs Assistant, who coordinates the Social Practice Lab and the diverse range of visual arts and performance-based programming at Asian Arts Initiative.

ARTPLACE: What are some notable highlights or challenges from the organization’s recent projects?

CHEN: As part of what we have deemed the “research phase” of the year-long residency, this fall (September through November 2012) we’ve asked the Artists-in-Residence to conduct at least 20 hours of observation or community service with organizations of their choosing within our immediate neighborhood of Chinatown North. We recently convened a check-in meeting with the group of artists to touch base with us as well as each other on where they are with their community research and project development.

Based on the conversations during the meeting, it seemed that most of the artists are still grappling with some critical questions around defining “social practice” and how they align their own creative practice with a socially-engaged creative process. Examples of the questions that the artists are asking include: 

-What issues will I address and what are the needs of community?

-Can short term projects have long term impacts?

-Can social practice art narrow the gaps and transform relationships—taking into account inherent racial / social / class tensions that exist?

-Can social practice art be divorced from social activism ?

The fact that the Artists-in-Residence are grappling with these critical questions is symptomatic of a larger, challenging and vital discussion that exists around defining the field of “relational aesthetics” / “socially engaged art” / “social practice” in general. Emerging from the Artists-in-Residence meeting, we realized the need to provide the basis for an ongoing critical discussion that would both inform the artists’ project design as well as our own organizational approach in using art as a point of entry to creative placemaking and to taking an active role in addressing our community dynamics.

We touched base with our Social Practice Lab guest curator Aimee Chang and documentarian Sue Bell Yank who advised us to assign Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook as critical reading to frame our next check-in meeting. Helguera’s book provides a great introduction to socially engaged art and includes salient points that we think will prove to be helpful in guiding the artists as they formulate their project ideas:

One factor of SEA [Helguera uses this abbreviation to refer to “socially engaged art”] that must be considered is its expansion to include participants from outside the regular circles of art and the art world…the more ambitious and risk-taking SEA projects directly engage with the public realm—with the street, the open social space, the non-art community—a task that presents so many variables that only few artists undertake it successfully. Currently perhaps the most accepted description of the community SEA creates is “emancipated”…this means that its participants willingly engage in a dialogue from which they extract enough critical and experiential wealth to walk away feeling enriched, perhaps even claiming some ownership of the experience or ability to reproduce it with others. (Helguera, p. 12-13)

In considering that passage, it feels relevant not only to our Social Practice Lab but also to Asian Arts Initiative’s broader organizational goals of serving as a neighborhood cultural anchor and bringing together diverse constituencies in neighborhood visioning and decision-making processes.

Chinatown North, map with annotations of various names / nicknames for the neighborhood. Courtesy of Dave Kyu.

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