Saturday, October 5, 2013

TIPRR#5: Beginner's Guide to Community Based Arts

This text seemed to explore the optimum ability of the arts to be involved in redefining the story and identity of local cultures and to incite positive social change.  I sought to create a universal template for the process of involving the community in telling a new story, informed from the inside, about their shared experience, identity, and potential.  I was repeatedly reminded of the Interview with David Gauntlett[1] and its emphasis on the empowering aspect of the process of creating, as well as Peter Forbes’ essay[2] discussing the power of story to create social change.  Both of these seemed to inform my reading as I contemplated the potential for these programs to create lasting change and to actually redefine the personal identity of those who participate.

Largely the text seemed to argue that individuals and their communities need to resist the top-down identity and branding that tend to permeate societies via mass media.  It repeatedly expressed a distrust of the business-model of the press, and seemed to focus its entire energy on the business of telling the untold stories of ethnic minorities, and those socially marginalized for economic or criminal reasons.  I do feel that these stories need to be told, but I also felt that by choosing the entirety of the social issues addressed in this text to be at that end of the spectrum of social change, that the text perhaps alienated those of us who are also interested in telling or facilitating untold stories that might not seem quite so dire or politicized.  I feel that there is still great value in giving voice to the voiceless, even when the weightiest of social issues are not hanging in the balance. 

The format of the text centered around its acronym for the proscribed creative process: CRAFT for Contact (Forming connections with the people you hope to collaborate with), Research (Gathering information about the people and issues you will work with), Action (Producing a new work of art that “benefits the community”), Feedback (providing opportunities for reflection, dialogue, and social action), and Teaching (passing on skills to others to make the impact self-sustaining.)  Each of these points was explicitly illustrated in the 9 examples illustrated in the text.

I appreciated that the text acknowledged the existence and potency of digital communities.  It seems that a lot of groups that would share interest in such a project would be difficult to find in a concise geographic area.  Most of the projects presented could only work in a densely populated city where enough people of similar backgrounds or concerns could feasibly be gathered in one location. 

As I tried to identify a working model of this type of project that would resonate with me, I consistently encountered that online communities have a much trickier job of that first step – Contact.  Locating and creating relationships with the people you hope to involve is much trickier to do when your shared interest involves a negative (a need for change) rather than a positive.  On top of this complication is the existence of communities that do the exact opposite of what this text suggests and aggressively promote harmful or hateful communities.  The existence of support communities for those who wish to pursue extreme eating disorders, sites that teach youth how to be anorexic, rather than support them in rehabilitation, is a troubling example of this. 

Another issue that online community building faces is dealing with search-engine optimization.  This can be difficult, or expensive for a small organization and is pretty much requisite for finding like-minded individuals.  Cause-related Social networking is difficult, potentially expensive, or slow-going if word-of-mouth is the only means of growing the community. (Unless you stumble into an existing community.)

I tried to find an online community action tool for sharing or empowering stories for those affected by depression or mental illness, but the sites I was able to find were rather larger in scale than the projects described in Beginner’s Guide to Community Based Arts.  I found one that had a platform for sharing and discussing stories in an attempt to negate negative assumptions and stereotypes, but it was a small part of the larger website for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. [3]   The scope of the entire site was so large and, frankly, corporate, that it ultimately did not feel to me like it met the criteria.  Several of the CRAFT steps were notably missing, (Research! Feedback! Teaching!) and I felt like it was more of a venting message board than an agent for actually changing paradigms.  I suspect that if I had time to dig deeper I could find a smaller, more effective platform somewhere, but the fact that it requires deeper digging is indicative of a potential problem.


But, outside of trying to align this idea with my own digital experiences, I did see some potential for applying these ideas to real-life instances around me.  I was already aware of some concern over the preservation of historic buildings in Provo,[4] and I managed to walk by a well-preserved building just off of Center Street in Provo with a placard outside stating that it had been restored in 2005 by ARCH, the Association for the Retention of Cultural Heritage.  I attempted to find some information on this “Association” online and had no luck.  My search was overwhelmed by ARCH the (international) Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage – a fundraising site for saving historic sites threatened by war in the Middle East.  This sort of search-engine-optimization problem seems like a huge stumbling block for advancing these types of small, community-scale projects with online resources. I’m not certain that I have a solution for that problem, other than that many of them may need to spend some time carefully deliberating the naming of their projects and the choosing of domain names, and involve social media experts (in their Contact phase) to help them maximize search engine optimization at minimal cost.

[1] Henry Jenkins Interview with David Gauntlett, “Studying Creativity in the age of Web 2.0”
[2] Forbes, P. The power of story.

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