I’ve spent three days hanging out at the Creative Capital retreat at Williams College (Editor's note: For full disclosure, Worldchanging's Alex Steffen has also been a consultant at this retreat in the past). Creative Capital is an arts development organization that supports artists both fiscally and via extensive coaching - these retreats give the artists sponsored a chance to show their work, and a couple of days where artists and consultants can work closely together. It’s intended as a sort of “venture capital” model, where succesful artists are expected to pay back the foundation. That’s not likely for many of the artists supported, but a small number have returned some or all the money invested by Creative Capital.
The most striking piece of work I saw at the Creative Capital retreat yesterday wasn’t made by any of the artists in the room. It was designed, built and decorated by prisoners at the Graterford, PA correctional facility, who were working with Williamstown-based artist Peggy Diggs. Diggs became fascinated with the idea that global warming could lead to major environmental catastrophe in the US, and that Americans could find themselves living as refugees, keeping with them a small number of posessions. What sort of architecture and technologies would we need in this mobile, difficult life?
She put the design challenge to a group of colleagues, inmates at the Pennsylvania State correctional institute in Graterford. This isn’t an entirely new idea - Temporary Services, a Chicago-based arts collective has done some excellent collaborative work with “Angelo,” an inmate who shared with the artists the wealth of technical creativity developed and shared behind bars. Diggs went a step further, putting a specific design challenge to inmates, and got a wealth of interesting ideas back. The strongest of the ideas was the “Greater Fit”, an elegant storage unit that turns into a desk (the name is a pun on Graterford, the name of the facility.) Diggs explains that she was only able to bring certain materials into the prisons - fabric, masking tape, cardboard and paint. Her collaborators were able to manufacture tools capable of working the cardboard into quite precise shapes, and were able to collaborate with some of Philadelphia’s finest graffiti artists on decorating the pieces.
The pieces can’t be sold, and most are being donated to a retirement home in Philadelphia, where some inmates have friends and family members. Diggs is interested in finding ways that the design - available as a downloadable PDF - can be shared and disseminated. Seems like a logical technology to be adopted by projects like Architecture for Humanity, or Strong Angel 3.
Amelia Kirby and Appalshop, an artists and social change collective in eastern Kentucky, are looking for a different sort of dialog with people imprisoned in Appalacia. Kirby has produced a weekly radio show - Holler to the Hood - which features hiphop, community affairs discussions and shout outs from prisoners' families to inmates inside the prisons. Her work is now morphing into a larger project, A Thousand Kites, which is a multimedia exploration of the US prison system, examining not just life inside, but the relationships between prisons and the communities they’re housed in.
Kirby’s was one of several projects I saw at Creative Capital which I could have just as easily imagined seeing at a conference on the future of journalism or on online community activism, the sorts of conferences I usually attend. (This weekend has gotten me thinking a lot about OPC, “other people’s conferences”, events where you’ve got the chance to attend and participate, but you’re not part of the demographic/psychographic/professional group the conference is being held for. They’re really fun, really provocative, but bad for your ego - no one knows who you are or what you’re doing there. I suspect I should go to more of them.) Several of the documentaries I saw would work as well as activism or journalistic projects, I suspect, including Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary on feminism and art, “(H)ERrata: Women, Art and Revolution“, a project she’s been involved with for forty years. The film is both a thorough overview of the emergence of women’s response to systemic exclusion to the “serious” art world, and an invitation for collaboration, including a wiki where others can add to the history of the emergence of feminist art.
Eve Sussman, still from “White on White”, film still in progress.
And then there are the pieces that remind you that this is very much an arts gathering, and that some of this work won’t come to life without systems and mechanisms that support creativity and innovation. Eve Sussman is writing and filming a noir mystery, set in contemporary Kazakstan. Called “White on White,“ it’s the story of a nation moving from communism to capitalism, and the wildcatters looking for oil and water who are transforming the country. It could easily be a didactic documentary… but it’s not. It’s a lovely, lyrical art film and mystery story and I cannot wait to see it.
Cauleen Smith’s work couldn’t be much further from Sussman’s, but I’m waiting anxiously for her film as well. She’s fascinated by Nollywood, the huge, profitable and chaotic film industry in Lagos, Nigeria, and decided the best way to learn about the field was to make a Nollywood film. (I guess Franco Sacchi’s documentary, This is Nollywood, makes it a little harder to make an art film about Nollywood.) Visiting Lagos, Smith found that her contacts were more interested in holding her for ransom than letting her make a film. But they were generous with their critiques of her ideas for films, rejecting most of them, but finally embracing the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s psychodrama, Rebecca, which one of her collaborators/captors calls “a very African story.” I have high hopes that she’ll both remake Rebecca in Nigeria and release a film about her own obsessions, explorations and encounters with Nollywood - I’d pay to see both.
Many thanks to Creative Capital for letting me sit in on this gathering and giving me much to think about. And now, for something completely different: Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Seattle - I’m heading there tonight. Wish me luck with the cultural whiplash.
This post originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's blog