Chinatown North Social Practice Lab

Asian Arts Initiative

Funding Received: 2012
Philadelphia, PA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
September 29, 2012

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: Is there a new challenge that engaging in creative placemaking presents for you, your organization and the artists who work with you? Are there new skills required?

Isa: First, we’re thrilled to announce the seven Artists-in-Residence who we’ve invited to work with us in the Chinatown North neighborhood over the course of the next year:

Anula Shetty / Michael Kuetemeyer are award-winning media artists whose work has been screened at MOMA, the Flaherty Film Seminar and film festivals and museums worldwide. Their proposed public art and online project will include digital media workshops with communities in Chinatown and Chinatown North, and will culminate in a series of interactive, 360-degree oral history panoramas of specific streets and locations in the neighborhood.

Benjamin Volta is a visual artist whose projects combine academic learning and life-skill development with an audacious inspiration to create great art within an unexpected context. His proposed work will visualize a constellation of points, shapes and stories that have built the Chinatown North community; with the installation imagined to wrap the entire interior surface of a cavelike tunnel under the Reading Viaduct.

Colette Fu creates one-of-a-kind collapsible artist books that combine photography and pop-up paper engineering. She has proposed to create a pop-up re-creation of the flavors of locally owned Chinatown restaurants with color photos, recipes and stories in both Chinese and English relating to the origins of the dishes.

Dave Kyu, Percent for Art Project Manager for the City of Philadelphia, is planning to interview community members in Chinatown and Chinatown North, unearthing implicit codes that govern daily life in the neighborhood — average walking pace, clusters of niche commerce, acceptable uses of public sidewalks — and compile the findings into a self-published small book titled Chinatown Codes.

Laura Deutch / Lee Tusman / Kathryn Sclavi / Katya Gorker are functioning as an emerging collective that draws from their respective expertise as artists and educators to use participatory processes to engage communities. Their team has proposed to engage residents, organizations and small businesses in a series of activities culminating in a locally sourced outdoor meal that highlights the unique and varied assets of the Chinatown North neighborhood.

Steve Parker is a musician, composer, and educator who is presently a Donald D. Harrington Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and Artist-in-Residence at the Blanton Museum of Art. He has proposed partnering with students, teachers, and musicians from the local community to collect sound artifacts from the Chinatown community and create a concert program of musical compositions reflecting the neighborhood.

Yowei Shaw is an independent audio producer, youth radio educator, and second-generation Chinese-American. She proposes to create a cell phone audio tour of Chinatown North, a walking narrative adventure featuring the voices and stories of local community leaders.

This past weekend, all of the Artists-in-Residence participated in an intensive launch retreat for our Social Practice Lab, introducing them to each other and National Advisory Committee members, meeting neighborhood representatives on our Local Resource Team, and learning more about the communities of Chinatown and Chinatown North.

As part of their commitment to the Social Practice Lab, each of the artists will be conducting at least 20 hours of community service or observation in the neighborhood during a “research phase” this fall; which we hope will inform the development of the artists’ projects before they are implemented in 2013.

Throughout the retreat, and in evaluation surveys that we collected from the artists, there were multiple exclamations about the importance—and unfortunately, the relative rarity—of this kind of time to build the relationships that are so key to successful “social practice” or community-based arts projects.

It was an interesting tension for all of us to hear the details of the projects that the artists have proposed, and to know that part of what we are trying to do is create an environment—a true “lab”—where those project ideas can be challenged, changed, completely thrown away, or created anew.