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The Pursuit of Green Happiness
Jon Lebkowsky, 3 Jul 07
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Sculptor Randy Jewart has been experimenting more recently with a new medium. You might call it social art, or civic art, or (the name of his organization), Austin Green Art. Green Art's events have been increasingly popular and effective in forming community around culture, inspired in part by the public art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Currently Green Art is working with Austin's high-end retail mall, The Domain. The plan there is to create an installation from salvaged materials, including wiring, pipes, machines and old school electronics. from the long-abandoned IBM Building 60, where IBM used to manufacture printed circuit boards. The salvage operation is about making old technology sustainable by repurposing it as art.

We set up this interview just as Randy got final permission for the salvage operation; we met in the trashed out remainds of Building 60, sitting on old boards, echoing as we talked.

JL: When did you get into green, sustainable art?

RJ: I had a research vein going into green architecture. When I heard William McDonough on the New Dimensions radio program one day, I pulled my car over, stopped, and I just sat there for 45 minutes, because I had never heard anybody talk like that. It was engaging ... everybody knows that the environment is in big trouble, and the language about that is dire, and very pessimistic, and it's been that way because of the frustration that environmentalists have had in trying to save the things they want to save.

To listen to William McDonough talk about the potential of creating a new business model based on this cradle to cradle philosophy, and the whole elimination of waste idea, and separation of different natural cycles and technical cycles – there's a robust framework there that's not a bunch of pipe dreams, not a utopia. It's very practical. He presents a theoretical structure, and then he goes into actual examples of what they've done, and I realized, "Wow, they're already doing it." It was just so empowering to listen to that.

Not long after that, I had the opportunity to put together the temporary Al Gore sculpture show for the city, which was hosting a public forum with three hundred public art administrators from around the country. They wanted to have a showcase for local scuptors. I decided that could be the basis for starting an ongoing temporary public art entity. I had a hunch that an environmental theme could give a narrative thread to the public art, which is a tricky business: it can push people's buttons, when you start engaging public space with funky artwork. So I figured if we told a story about why this art was there, that it had a connection to environmental issues, it would help to get people behind the idea instead of putting them off.

JL: Talking about public art, did you meet Christo when he was in Austin?

RJ: I did get to meet him when he was here, very briefly. We modeled the Austin Gates project, which we had done prior to his visit, on his Central Park Gates Project. His scale is pretty much the top of the line, but there's big monumental public art work and temporary projects all over the world. It's a universal civic enterprise. The idea that we would find the artists working locally and internationally that ground their work in environmental issues and create a showcase in Austin for that was the motivation behind the project. Austin Green Art has now been around for two and a half years, and we've picked up a lot of steam, and that has paralleled the current international green movement.

JL: How is Green Art structured? How many people are involved?

RJ: Structurally we're in the middle of a transiton right now. We've had an umbrella relationship with the incubator service that the Austin Community Foundation provides to lots of different types of nonprofit concepts, to help them move into officially creating a 501(c)3. We're just now having our first meetings to establish a board, and move the fiduciary responsibility from me onto a small group of people. It's really exciting, it's really scary. Hopefully we'll be able to hit the ground running and have that process take things up another notch. I've had a lot of help from a friend of mine who collects my work, Raul Garza. He runs an advertising agency in town, and he saw the potential from the beginning, as I described what I wanted to do, to tie in corporate support. He recognized that businesses are interested in legitimately aligning themselves with things that support their core values. He was a big help in shaping a look and an engagement with the community, based on his understanding of the corporate world. We've had a hard core group of volunteers, and when things go well, we can subcontract, and give people some money for a given project, for helping out.

JL: When you talk about working with the corporate world on something like the Domain Project, do you hear criticism from people who think maybe you shouldn't go there?

RJ: We do. We've heard grumblings from working with Starbuck's, and even working with Whole Foods. The Domain Project is mostly known for its first phase, a shopping mall. Most people are not aware that phase 2 is probably ten times the scale of phase 1, and the city is requiring that they build the ten or so residential highrises as LEED silver green buildings, and their office highrises are going to be LEED regular. It's probably one of the biggest green building projects in the world right now, in the design phase. Sure, it's a development, and there's always issues with that. But our goal from the beginning has been to take what people are legitimately doing, that's legitimately good, and just go with it full speed ahead. Certainly that raises awareness about other things that they might be doing that are not so great. Our goal is just to throw things out there that start a discourse about the issues, and hopefully steer that discourse in a way that is productive.

JL: Using art as a framework for civic engagement...

RJ: Not long after we started, I shifted my focus as a sculptor to getting this opportunity to put big sculptures in the public realm. That's what I was into, and efore long, we realized that what we were really doing was community-building. By taking on these large-scale projects that required a lot of financial support, community support, logistical support, we basically do a barn-raising, which is a really important social ameliorator that doesn't happen anymore. I've looked at the way churches always want to build new and bigger buildings. This is where a group needs to have a tangible project, and roll up their sleeves and work on it together. But that process has become abstracted because of what it takes to build a building these days. It's not something that you and I do, it's something that somebody else does. What we offer is a context where people can get hold of the materials, and get a sweat going, and spend time together moving things around and getting to know each other while they're doing it. It really creates a very special atmosphere.

JL: And anybody can participate?

randyj_200.jpgRJ: We've created a pattern for coming up with a theme, choosing some materials, setting a physical stage somewhere, with some rules and ideas about how to start building something. And then we just totally let it go, and invite anybody from the public to come, invite artists to come, invite environmental groups to come, and see what gets built. That's been really exciting, just the improvisational character of it. People come who don't know each other, and start helping each other out.

It's scary, on the one hand, because we don't know how many people are going to come, how into they're going to be, what the weather is going to be like. Now that we've done it ten times or more, we've got to a point where we know something amazing is going to happen every time. We just don't know what it's going to be, or when it's going to happen, or what scale it's going to be. We have enough confidence to go into it and raise everybody's expectation that it's going to be really cool. But we don't know what it is -- and that's part of what makes it cool.

JL: Do you find yourself being more of an administrator than an artist? Or maybe a community builder?

RJ: I definitely do not do as much studio work, and for me, personally, it really means a lot to have that kind of time. But when I started this project, I got into an examination of my studio work, and my practice, and my career against this story that I was starting to make up about art, and its engagement with the environment. For the last two and a half years, I've been merging those two things into one thing.

There's a lot of creativity in shaping these projects, even though I'm not always the one that does it. I try to engage as many artists as I can to actually be the ones with the creative voice. I create the relationships with the corporate partners that make that possible. There's a lot of creative work that goes into negotiating and stage setting to actually get to the point of having an artist go in and make the specific object, whatever it is. And that's very engaging to me, that whole process.

JL: Have people from other parts of the world talked to you about trying to replicate what you're doing?

RJ: I hope that there will be. I see unlimited potential for the core values and activities, the ideology behind Austin Green Art. For a while, I went back and forth a lot about how we would need to change that core in order to start doing projects in other cities, whether it be Pittsburgh Green Art, or Seattle Green Art. I'm hoping that what happens here in Austin is going to be a significant enough green movement as a community, that when people hear Austin Green Art, it makes sense to them that it could only come from Austin. With that sort of beacon or that model, as ambassadors of green through the art world, it will be appropriate for us to start doing projects in other places.

JL: The Bootstrap Network here has been innovative and successful, but it hasn't replicated. Other people in other cities try to create a Bootstrap organization, and it becomes just a networking organization. The question of how to replicate the things that happen that are really suited to the context - it's never clear whether you can really transfer that elsewhere.

RJ: It's definitely a unique atmosphere that the whole project was shaped to address. Everybody that hears about Austin Green Art responds "That's perfect for Austin," or "That's so Austin." And it is. It brings out that creative and environmental bent that is really pervasive throughout the community, and enables a new communal enterprise.

But there's potential elsewhere. I went to the Bioneers Conference in the Bay Area last year as sort of a retreat, to soak up energy from other people and see what's going on in other communities. I felt like I was home. Those people are really special. The numbers of groups, and the policies that they're shaping in Oakland and the Bay Area is staggering. We've started to work with a group there called Forest Ethics. They do forest preservation work. We're starting to collaborate on some projects with them. Portland is also a place we could go.

Our goal isn't to go and ram things down people's throat, but we've created a template for putting a group of people together to do a project. Our goal now is to seed that model, bind the people at the local level, put them together, and be the moderator for the project. We're starting with the environmental groups in those cities, getting people's attention and starting to have a discussion about the possibilities.

We were in DC for four years, so I know a lot of people in the arts community there, and all the big environmental groups have their national presence there, so that would be fun place to do a project. We're shaping a project in Pittsburgh, too. I met with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council that works with the Friends of the River Trails. They've just finished a Rails to Trails project that connects Pittsburgh to DC. You can ride your bike 180 miles down along the Youghiogheny River through the mountains, near Falling Water, and then you hit the end of the C&O Canal, which went all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. They tried to dig a canal to Pittsburgh, and when the steam engine was invented, they just abandoned it. So now you hit the canal in Cumberland, Maryland, and you can ride the rest of the way to DC.

So we're starting to shape a project for close to Pittsburgh where there would be sculptures along the trail in the summer, a layer of programming to encourage more people to get out on the trail, not just exercise folks or folks that like to get out in the woods.

JL: Who would actually create the sculptures?

RJ: We'll work with local arts organizations. We always try to have a mix of people from outside the community and local artists, because it creates a buzz in the locale when people come in from the outside, and you have an exchange of ideas. Maybe we'll get an exchange thing going with Pittsburgh, so that some of the artists we've worked with here can do a project there, and vice versa.

JL: How do you define art?

RJ: That's a great question. My own interpretation of art is very open-ended. It's a challenge for me in the work we do, where we're reaching out to corporate and environmental groups, that most people have a very limited idea of art – as a painting or a sculpture. Conceptual art started in the 70s, and if you're part of the art world, you're familiar with a whole line of art work since then that was very ethereal, didn't have to have any sort of object at all, but a construct of some kind that had something to it. For me the question is, what is that something?

JL: Several months ago, I saw the Radical NY exhibit at the Austin Museum of Art, and what struck me about the New York art scene in the 70s was the strong community that formed and the sense of freedom. They could do anything with it.

RJ: We've been looking at the notion of play, a game, which I think is parallel to what a concept could be as art. It shifts normal reality enough to make it odd, in a way that is somehow informative. It causes you to think about things in a different way.

JL: This gets away from the myth of the solitary, tortured artist, and into the idea of a social art where anybody can play.

RJ: Absolutely. We have the environmental side that we project to the community as a new thing, and internally, within the art world, we're consciously trying to create a new economic model for artists that's service-oriented instead of object oriented. We're trying to change artists' mind-sets about themselves, so that when we want to engage them to do a project with us, it's like an internship for them, where they come in, and they have their own set ideas about what their career is and what an art object is. I want them to revisit all that by meeting with developers and corporate folks, and environmental groups, who have a need. They have a campaign they're working on , they have an environmental policy that they're trying – not necessarily to promote from a marketing standpoint, but they really believe in it – and they want to make it work. And we're bringing the artist in to say, here's how you can take this idea and turn it into a project, whether it's a physical object or some sort of game, that augments it, that pushes it to another level.

JL: That's kind of interesting, because you have a typical set of corporate executive types, who often try to take charge of economic development in a specific area. And one of the things I've wanted to see in Austin is bringing everybody on board, involving the community, and having artists especially get involved in economic development, or business development, or corporate development. This makes absolute sense - but nobody was going there. It sounds like you're going there now.

RJ: We're trying. I just follow the threads that get thrown my way. Every time I meet somebody new, and tell them about what we're trying to do, I try to leave the meeting with the names of three or four people that they think would be interested in hearing about what we're doing. So from an administrative standpoint, we have, like, 40 projects that are on a scale from as tenuous as they could possibly be to "okay, we've been having a number of meetings, and we're starting to get a handle on how this could work." I never know which one of those projects will actually become anything. But that's the way that we push things forward.

JL: I think that's the case with most people, that they don't really know what's going to be the result of anything that they do. (Laughs.)

RJ: We're doing a project that is a good example of "whether this is art or not." It's June 30, tied to July 4. The theme is "Green is the New Red, White, and Blue." I've been thinking about the connection between this community-building enterprise, and democracy as an idea, for quite a while. Recently it's occurred to me that there are some challenges at a language level with the way that we engage each other. So we're going to play a game at this event called "The Pursuit of Green Happiness," where we invite people online to submit tough questions that they think should be addressed, relating to community and sustainability and green policy and global warming problems. We're going to put 'em all in a hat, and for five hours we'll invite anybody to come and sit at the round table with these questions, and wear a powdered wig and a psychedelic shirt, and try to have a different kind of conversation.

This addresses what I feel is a real problem with the way that we communicate - whether it's hyper-politicized, or 24/7 marketing mode. I find that, as I cruise around doing my thing, and listening and looking at the way we're talking to each other, that we're on message all the time, from whatever our affiliations are. It's creating a problem with our ability to listen to each other and to have a genuine conversation without trying to ram our agenda down people's throats all the time.

This summer is the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. I've been thinking about that and wondering what that platform of ideas was, and what was that revolutionary agenda? When you compare it to the current green progressive agenda, you realized that we're struggling with a lot of very similar circumstances with the war and the environment and social justice problems. But then when you look at the informality and the fun of that period, and the way people dressed, and their openness to strangers - the whole idea of calling it the summer of love -- you recognize how jaded we've become, and how guarded, and skeptical.

JL: Did we fail back then? I'm not sure we had clear enough goals to be able to say whether we failed.

RJ: I agree with that. But there's some value in the lack of clear goals, where your ability to respond to the opportunities that come up is concerned, as opposed to having tunnel vision about a policy, or an organization or a candidate. With this game I mentioned, we're playing with the idea that the way that we're talking and the way that we're dealing with each other is leading us down a path that is bound to fail, because right from the beginning, the way that we're talking and addressing each other isn't robust enough for the kinds of change, the kinds of complex solutions that we need to be generating.

JL: That's an ego thing. We dismiss people that we don't agree with; we're looking for the primacy of our own perspectives and our own egoes. It used to be that people would listen to each other and come to some kind of conciliation or synthesis of views. That's been lost, and, as you said, hyperpoliticized.

RJ: I don't think of myself as a political person. It's not so much the party system, but our identity as a country, with our own internal structure that defines who we are. I think that it's very rigid, in a lot of ways. We need to find the humor and the compassion there. I'm an atheist, but I think there's a certain spirituality about existence. We don't always recognize the sacredness of each person's life – and not just people, but we think of trees as resources and materials that can be moved around, and not as organisms that are here to be a tree, the same way we're here to be a person.

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