NEW INC’s residents, mentors, and members are constantly engaging in interesting and challenging conversations in the space. In an effort to share these thoughts to a larger community, we’ve begun publishing a series of articles called “Small Bytes.” Designed to tap into the discussions we hear around us every day, we began asking our members and residents to sit down to talk about some of the topics we hear discussed most often. Our focus this session around was on community—what it means, how it informs creative practice, and its politics both in and outside of art.
Katrina Hess is a Resident at NEW INC and the COO of Siren, a personality-centric dating app built on core principles of comfort, privacy and mutual respect. Instead of the ‘shopping for humans’ method used by most traditional dating apps, Siren focuses on creating conversation around a question of the day format. Having begun in Seattle, they are now gearing up to launch the app in NYC.
Ramulas Burgess is a visual artist focused on photography and cinematography. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he has worked in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and Central America. His latest project “To Home with Love,” is an interactive installation giving prisoners a voice as artists.
Faris Al-Shathir is a co-founder of BOFFO, a nonprofit organization that presents innovative and experimental art, architecture, and design. Their initiatives include an artist residency program, digital commissions, and creation of spaces, experiences, and exhibitions. BOFFO views art and design as a vehicle of change and a way to enhance the quality of life of individuals and communities.
NEW INC: Sometimes creating community can feel very separate from the artistic process. Do you think differently about “creating” because you’re also thinking about how to sustain the community your work lives within?
Ramulas: Art itself speaks, and whenever you create, you’re bringing in a new audience, because people are going to travel to it for different reasons. If I create a project that’s social-justice based and all of a sudden it ends up in a museum, then a lot of the eyes that would be on it are eyes that wouldn’t be on it before. Art itself is for the purpose of bringing in eyes that might not initially see it, it’s not just for the people that you want it to be for.
Faris: Oftentimes whenever art becomes a part of the community, it will often bring people together who might not come together otherwise. So it’s a catalyst to encourage engagement, interaction, and often what comes out of that is really positive for communities.
Katrina: For us, the platform [Siren] is the art. The community is what attracts the other communities to come in. In our space specifically, the community dictates. People will find each other. It’s been interesting to watch that.
NEW INC: It’s interesting to think about how we are all defining the word ‘community,’ Is it the subject or the audience of the work? Are they separate, are they the same, are they intertwined?
Katrina: For us they’re intertwined, because there’s definitely an audience we’re speaking to, for marketing and branding purposes. But our app is one-on-one. So we keep saying the word ‘community,’ but they’re not all talking to one another, how is that community? That’s still a question we’re asking. But for us, our members and audience are different.
Ramulas: For my project, there are micro-communities but there’s always going to be a macro-community. My project came about because I felt like the underclass needed to be exposed to the entrapment of mass incarceration. But as you can see with several recent books (Incarceration Nation, The New Jim Crow), you start to have other folks who are also involved in the process.
You may have underclass, you may have middle class, you may have middle class women, you may have middle class men, you may have poor students in public school systems, you may have single-home parents—so you have all these micro-communities. But for some reason, the community is going to create itself. You’re going to have a ton of people wanting to participate, which is what you hope for. When I’m speaking I don’t want to be heard just by one person, I want to be heard by a multitude of people.
Faris: When we talk about community, there’s a lot of different ways we look at it. I think it’s mostly this idea of people coming together to celebrate like-minded interests. Oftentimes there’s a physical boundary to the community, and other times it’s a celebration of a certain joy or mutual characteristic.
A lot of work, particularly for our artist residency program, is in LGBTQ communities. So we look at how art and design can engage and enrich that community, and help people who celebrate similar ideals come together and engage in a more meaningful way through art and design.
Ramulas: Growth and dialogue tend to create the sense of a larger community.
NEW INC: Seeing all of you address one specific community that your project is for, and then the larger audience community that it attracts, do you feel a sense of responsibility to one or another? Are there any tensions that arise?
Ramulas: I definitely do. And I won’t compromise what I’m trying to say with my project, because ultimately it’s not even really my voice, it’s the voice of the people inside [the prison system]. There’s no compromising there, but I don’t think you can avoid tension when you’re talking about the oppression of a group of people.
Faris: It’s funny because our work is that which we present. We give artists a platform to present their work, and people will come and see it. And often through coming to experience these things that we’re creating, people will get together and if they like it, they’ll talk afterwards, and they become friends.
Katrina: Well I kind of see you having two communities going on. You have the artists that participate and present, and then you have the attendees.
Faris: Yeah, but we’re also really trying to get them to become part of the same community.
Katrina: Does it work? Do they do it?
Faris: Yeah, definitely. I often refer to it as an ecosystem. There’s a lot of different parts of an ecosystem that make it thrive. In our instance there’s an audience, there’s artists, there’s patrons, there’s friends of the artists. But it’s a cycle, everybody has a little bit of a different part, but together we create something that functions as a community.
NEW INC: We’ve been talking about community in a purely positive aspect. Is there a negative aspect to community? Is there a different word for a negative community context?
Faris: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Oftentimes people will get together because they celebrate certain like-minded ideals, but they’ll exclude other people. I understand why people can get together because they share certain interests, but I also find myself really frustrated when people start to say “oh you can’t be a part of this community.” That does exist a lot.
Katrina: You saying this made me realize we’re all creating something that creates an audience in some sense of community, however all those people belong to their own communities as well. We have their attention for whatever it is that we’re doing, but they don’t live with us.
Ramulas: What eventually ends up happening, and I think this is with everyone, if you’re going to confide in general you’re going to confide in someone you’re comfortable with. Whether it’s someone that shares your spiritual experience, somebody who shares your heritage, shares your views. But for a communal experience, I’m not dismissive of anyone from any different place because we can all learn different things from each other. I know from my community—from the time I was in elementary school to my first year of college—the only people who weren’t of color that I ever seen were teachers and police officers. I never ran into anybody who wasn’t a person of color.
It wasn’t until my second year in college at Temple University where I learned to communicate with different groups and different kinds of people. Because prior to that, my communication skills were only for people who had the same ideas that I had. It helps you think outside the box. Especially as an artist, because that’s what you want to do—you want to continue to evolve. My experience has been a little bit different, but I guess it’s because I grew up in a segregated neighborhood.
Katrina: That’s one of the first things I noticed about New York, actually. The neighborhoods are so segregated. I’m coming from Seattle, and Vancouver, Canada. So there’s also not as many people. But in New York, there are so many different kinds of people here but they all stay within their little areas.
Faris: Yeah, you’re right. There are definitely, when you talk about the outskirts of New York…Manhattan tends to feel less segregated. And when you start to go out, you start to find pockets, like “this is a Hasidic Jew neighborhood, this is a Russian neighborhood,” you know?
Ramulas: Another thing that plays a part is that sometimes communities stay segregated because they feel tension over the reason why they’re being put through segregation. You may have financial reasons, an ecosystem may be changing so far as the choice of businesses, or the prices in that community. Or housing—affordable housing. And that creates a tension, and New York has a history of that. You can go to Bensonhurst, you can go to Harlem and it has a history of that. You mentioned Philadelphia, and Philadelphia has a history of that.
But for the most part, when communities do become desegregated, as long as it wasn’t done by force (and it never really is, I think politics play a part and nobody ever involves themselves in the politics of the community they’re dealing with), but if it’s not by force you start to see people start to open their minds a bit. It’s a process, it’s not going to be something that happens immediately, because accepting something new is difficult for some people. This generation might be different than the generation prior. It takes a little longer for some people than others.
NEW INC: Even that too, if you think about applying the word ‘community’ even to age groups, and not a physical community or racial community, or an arts community… You can apply it to every kind of definition that you can give a person.
Ramulas: People who like iPhones versus people who like Androids.
NEW INC: The more we talk about this the more complicated community gets.
Ramulas: Absolutely, that’s why I think the community creates itself when it comes to artwork. They all come for the common goal of seeing that art, and then from there the community starts to define itself. Some people might come just for the tech purposes, some people might come for beer. But they still go. It becomes self defining at some point when it comes to art.