Chinatown North Social Practice Lab

Asian Arts Initiative

Funding Received: 2012
Philadelphia, PA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
January 17, 2013

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 Gayle Isa, Executive Director of Asian Arts Initiative, who first became active in Chinatown through working on a documentary film about the community’s organizing efforts when a federal detention center was proposed in the neighborhood in 1993.

ARTPLACE: What is the biggest risk you've taken in your efforts? How did you get burned, or how did you prevail?

Isa: As with most artistic endeavors, the biggest risk we’ve taken has been entrusting and (hopefully) empowering our Social Practice Lab artists to design and carry out their projects in our neighborhood. Their residencies were launched with an intensive orientation retreat in September 2012, followed by a research period during which they were asked to conduct a minimum of 20 hours of observations or community service to help inform the projects which they will conduct over the course of the upcoming year.

We have purposely tried to encourage the seven teams of artists-in-residence with flexibility to change and experiment with different approaches or projects, emphasizing the notion of a true “lab” where not everything is necessarily expected to be a success, and where risk is inherent. Perhaps needless to say, many of their projects have shifted significantly from their original proposals. While still subject to change, their current plans include:

· Media artists Anula Shetty and Mike Kuetemeyer will build a solar powered kiosk that invites a diversity of community members to record their own memories and impressions of the neighborhood’s history.

· Building from his heritage as a descendent of Alessandro Volta, inventor of the battery, Ben Volta will work with a team of local students to use the electrical substation in the neighborhood to generate a public art installation exploring the literal and metaphorical themes of “energy”.

· Photographer and pop-up artist book creator Colette Fu is working with residents from Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a homeless men’s shelter located around the corner from Asian Arts Initiative, to create a series of public artwork honoring their personal stories and life perspectives.

· Inspired by interviews with a diverse range of community members, Dave Kyu’s work will address the multiple layers of constituents who call this neighborhood home despite the different names they may use—Chinatown North, Callowhill, Loft District, Trestle Town, or Eraserhood.

· The team of Laura Deutch / Lee Tusman / Kathryn Sclavi / Katya Gorker plans to design and operate a bicycle-propelled tea cart and host a series of events highlighting underutilized spots as potential public gathering spaces in the neighborhood.

· A musician and educator based in Austin, Texas, Steve Parker will partner with local students, teachers, and musicians to compose and perform original work inspired by the neighborhood.

· Independent radio producer and youth educator Yowei Shaw will create an audio playlist to be installed in unexpected corners of the neighborhood, featuring the sounds and stories of local residents and community members.

We expect all of them, and through their projects our larger efforts, to prevail.

Caption: Colette Fu, Hani Long Table Banquet Pop-up Book, 17”x25”x5”