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ENGAGING ARTISTS FELLOWS

Andrew Freiband: Rethinking Systems, Reaffirming Artists’ Insights

“Art is not the production of artworks; art is research. And if we view art as research, we recognize the outcomes as our knowledge, and I’m interested in the kinds of knowledge that artists have unique access to.”

The Artists’ Grief Deck, co-produced by the Artists’ Literacies Institue, exists in part to fill a gap left by the absence of traditional communal grieving rituals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a toolkit, the decks have been disbursed for free to grief workers and community organizations and can be purchased here. In addition to the printed deck, the Grief Deck project includes the free companion website, Griefdeck.com, where new artwork and prompts can be added to the repository of resources on an ongoing basis; in addition to serving as an archive of the printed deck, this project website also serves as an expanding repository for grief-inspired artwork and healing, transformative action.

“A film or artwork never exists free of context,” affirms artist, filmmaker, and educator Andrew Freiband, “and I believe that developing models for effectively contextualizing creative work, and putting the qualitative knowledge of creative practitioners to use, can amplify art’s capacity for impact, knowledge creation, and social catalysis.” Well put, but what might a belief in said model end up looking like? What results when the research rubber hits the road? What can artists do?

One expertly crafted answer is The Artists’ Grief Deck, an arts-based toolkit for communal grieving in a time of social isolation, a set of 60 medium-format ‘flashcards’ each individually designed by artists, sometimes in collaboration with grief workers, intended to provoke reflection and provide relief in times of crisis. One side displays an original artwork, created by artists from around the world responding to an open call, and on the reverse is a ‘grieving prompt; these are memorial and processual actions that give the individual something to do — a gesture, a tiny performance, a movement, an act of mindfulness — in memoriam for someone or something whose loss they are grieving.

The context here, the initial prompt to tap into an ever-growing community of artists, is of course the global pandemic. The Artists’ Grief Deck is an outcome of the Artists’ Literacies Institute’s work with the NYC Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NYCVOAD) beginning in the early Spring of 2020, when COVID-19 hit the US; it was produced in collaboration with artist Adriene Jenik, and it was completed in partnership with the National Hospice Cooperative. The Deck exists in part to fill a gap left by the absence of traditional communal grieving rituals as impacted by the pandemic.

Freiband is the founder and director of the Artists’ Literacies Institute (ALI), an experiment in arts education and engagement that helps artists reframe their artistic practice as research, and then connects them to new possibilities for intervening meaningfully in social, ecological, political, civic, and economic systems. As a critique of the instrumentalization of artists as only communicators or servants of the marketplace, the ALI seeks to discover new, more meaningful roles for artists in their society and communities. Freiband’s own work over the last 20 years has explored the many intersections of art, education, media, film, journalism, literature, social impact, international development, research, and strategic design.

Freiband is one of More Art’s eight Engaging Artists (EA) Fellows for 2021. A two-tiered fellowship and residency program for artists seeking to both develop and sustain their public art and socially engaged practice, the EA program curriculum encompasses a professional development series, public art commission opportunities, mentorship, and peer networking. Earlier in the year, he spoke with Jules Rochielle, Engaging Artists Artistic Coordinator, delving into the theoretical (and political) framework of his research-based practice and what the current EA cohort means to his way of working: “I’ve been doing this up until now by just starting classes on my own, very much out in the wilderness with artists who trust this process and are excited about the ideas behind it….Feeling like I can be conducting this work within something of a larger embrace of critical support and advice is really exciting.” Freiband’s responses are below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Artists’ Literacies Institute created the Pandemic Pedagogy Projects, a series of personal and professional development programs for the COVID-19 pandemic. Freiband’s course, Systems Thinking for Social Artists will run again later in 2021. Image via the Artists’ Literacies Institute.

Andrew Freiband: I think I’ve been in a really evolutionary process for a number of years now. I still identify as a filmmaker and media artist, although I really have a very evenly balanced practice between making work and pedagogy and teaching. I had been teaching for a very long time and I recognized that there was more of a creative process in my teaching than I had previously acknowledged. I started to see that art-making practice turn into a praxis, which involved not just me making art in isolation or making or finding subjects for films or producing content, but being really concerned with my relationship to other artists and what I was able to bring to other artists’ practice. This meant catalyzing other artists to transform their work in particular around possibilities for social and civic engagement and this deep, intrinsic sense that I felt from many artists that they had the capacity to do big things in the world and to change big systems and to have a big impact. But, the way the educational system that we were all a part of didn’t provide the training to meet those ambitions. My practice has turned into a kind of collaborative catalyzing praxis in partnership with other artists around this frame. The kind of activating frame is that art is not the production of artworks; art is research. And if we view art as research, we recognize the outcomes as our knowledge, and I’m interested in the kinds of knowledge that artists have unique access to.

The Democratic Field was a theatrical ‘table read’, social research project, and civic intervention which leverages the ‘literacies’ and methods of actors to expose the role of implicit biases and subconscious perception in voter preferences. Beginning with policy statements from ten Democratic candidates on selected issues, actors from the Verbatim Performance Lab then table-read these statements using an ‘embodied verbatim’ method. The statements were randomized among the actors so that bodies, genders, and races were shuffled, and the audience (and actor alike) no longer knew whose words they were speaking. Following the performance, the audience was polled for their voting preferences, to capture which of the candidates ‘won’. A facilitated discussion with the audience drew out perceptions, observations, preferences, and dislikes, before the true identities of the candidates was revealed. Images via the Artists’ Literacies Institute.

I had initially started doing this with my own practice, trying to figure out what do I know that nobody else knows, by virtue of the way that I worked. Now I apply that in working with other artists through a really kind of simple practice of inquiry, which is asking artists what you know? and how do you know it? What I’m looking to identify in dialogue with artists is how do they know when an artwork is working? How do they know when something feels right? It’s really inquiring into their intuition.

I think this is partly based on my sense is that so much of art education in the West has become just intuition-based. There’s this sense in our culture that art is a kind of mystical connection to some other dimension. And that is part of what makes it powerful, but part of also what forces artists into a very precarious economic situation. My concern is to take that intuition, and demonstrate to the artists that rely on it that it’s actually very rigorous and that it’s actually very solid and that because it’s rigorous and solid, it can be applied in contexts that previously they might not have imagined it was possible. So first we identify what you know, and how do you know it. That is what I call an artist’s literacy, the way that they read and write into the world. Once we’ve identified that, there are some kind of natural connections to be made with, well, who would this be valuable to? What systems are out there, what institutions and organizations and problem areas, issue areas, who needs what this artist knows? How can we make that connection? And then provide an opportunity for them to apply that research.

Visualization of narrative causality from the Tre Maison Dasan Narrative Knowledge Research project. Image via the artist’s website.

I feel like there’s kind of two crises that I encountered as an educator in arts education, in arts institutions. One is equity. Our art schools are not fair places, they’re not just places, they’re not built from just systems. They sit on very problematic foundations. And no matter how many inclusivity initiatives those institutions apply, I think that structurally there is something really that needs to be taken apart and rebuilt. And so it’s partly about educational equity and then partly about relevance and the bottom line. I care deeply about artists and what artists do and the aspirations for shaping the world around them. Through my work in film and television, I worked in this very kind of ugly industry as an artist, surrounded by other artists and saw some of these bright, brilliant, hopeful, aspirational people just subsumed by systems of capital, made irrelevant — their intelligence and their humanity and their moral compass, all made irrelevant by these big systems. I found that tragic and then I found it tragic to be in an art school where we were creating a pipeline of entertainers, or art market hustlers, which felt not humane and felt not collective. So many of the issues that I think we face on a social and global level at this point, come from those same systems of capital and individualism. I feel like artists are a key, and unlocking the capacity of artists to affect those systems is key to dealing with some of these really global issues we’ve got.

Tre Maison Dasan is the debut feature film from Denali Tiller, an intimate portrait of three boys who share the experience of having a parent in prison. The film was nationally broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens and featured in several film festivals. As Executive Producer and Impact and Engagement Producer, Freiband worked closely with the film team over three years from project development to final cut (including a stint here and there as additional camera): “I worked to ensure this essential piece of filmmaking — and the new generation of female filmmakers it represents — made it through the arduous process of independent nonfiction filmmaking while maintaining the highest level of artistic and aesthetic integrity.”

I’m excited about the opportunity to do some thought work around these ideas. I feel like a lot of other artists' opportunities are still looking for tangible artwork outcomes, and so the freedom to do some thinking and writing and to build the foundations of the theory a little bit are really exciting. The reason I was excited just to talk with the other fellows was that there are so many artists there who are just really well-aligned, thinking about how does their practice engage big systems? I feel like I can provide some value to those fellows and in the act of doing so within the fellowship feel like you can watch this process unfold and provide feedback on that process from a kind of higher level. So that it will shape my practice in relation to these other artists’ practice.

I’ve been doing this up until now by just starting classes on my own, very much out in the wilderness with artists who trust this process and are excited about the ideas behind it. But it feels good to try this in a kind of sheltered environment where you can be looking at this and say, well, this is valuable, but have you tried this other kind of question system, this other kind of approach to pedagogy? Feeling like I can be conducting this work within something of a larger embrace of critical support and advice is really exciting.

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More Art is a nonprofit organization that supports collaborations between professional artists and communities to create public art and educational programs that inspire social justice.

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