Print Public

Review

Print Public

By John Zarobell June 18, 2015

The medium of print has a long history of expanding art into the public realm, and Print Public at Kala Art Institute has boldly pushed the envelope of the role of print in the urban context via a highly inventive series of public workshops and interactions that led up to the current gallery presentation. Kala presents this project not only as a gallery show but as a long-term collaboration with its neighbors and UC Berkeley: “Print Public was conceived in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of City & Regional Planning as an arts-integrated approach to urban planning and community activation.” Because the project was developed and elaborated over a two-year period, the involved artists had ample opportunity to design innovative ways to integrate the local community into their projects. Most devised a public dimension designed to bring attention and visitors to West Berkeley, where Kala is located, and then collaborated with residents to produce interactive, or at least locally informed, works. The exhibition organizers call this a “place-making initiative.” Such terminology can have many meanings, but the intent in this case was for the assets of the neighborhood to be explored by the artists and then reflected back to give residents a sense of their own community. Perhaps it is not so much place making as place finding.

Taraneh Hemami. People Power, 2015; aluminum stencils, paint, and banner-making workshop. Courtesy of Kala Art Institute. Photo: Hsianglu Meng.

Print takes many forms in this show, and most would not be covered in an Introduction to Printmaking class. The only thing like a traditional print is a stack of letterpress prints that is part of Imin Yeh’s Points of Interest (2015) neighborhood scavenger hunt. Viewers are encouraged to take a print from the stack and then find four hand-carved stamps in the gallery and in locations along the San Pablo Avenue corridor (a map is provided on the back of the print) in order to make their own personalized work. It is a print, but one that is given as a gift intended to lead to discovery and interaction. Taraneh Hemami’s People Power (2015) stencil set, which hangs beautifully on one wall of the gallery, is designed to be used during community workshops by visitors who create their own political posters. Both of these works change the usual relationship of artist to viewer by seeking to engage viewers as participants in the printmaking process who produce their own results.

Other artists approached the community as the matrix, so to speak, out of which their final works would emerge. Whereas most printmakers use a plate (of metal, wood, linoleum, or stone), these artists employed visitors and other participants as the means to create a work. Sue Mark investigated social shifts by collecting stories from neighborhood denizens, which she then turned into text-based signage that is being used as props in performances taking place during the run of the exhibition; the performances are collaborations with a variety of community partners. Taro Hattori followed this general model as well, but asked participants to sing songs, which he recorded on video and recapitulates in his gallery installation, Swan Songs (2015). These two artists employ community interaction as the foundation for their print-based works, so they engaged participants in an earlier stage of the print process.

Susan O’Malley. Less Internet More Love, from the series Advice From My 80-Year-Old Self, 2015; mural at Bob McGee's Machining Co., Inc., 2735 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley. Courtesy of Kala Art Institute. Photo: Bob McGee’s Machining Co., Inc. 

The collective Swell produced art walks as their contribution, engaging the community to explore the neighborhood. They captured these interactions through photographs that became their “prints” in the exhibition. They describe their piece, entitled Well, Being: Walking in Relationship (2015), as a “means to mental, emotional, and spiritual fitness.” The work is social practice, a designed perambulation that becomes a way to change the participants’ experience, and thereby change the neighborhood and, by extension, the world. Susan O’Malley’s Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self (2015) is also the result of community collaboration. O’Malley and a graduate student from the Department of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, Julie Chau, interviewed local residents, asking what advice their older self would give their younger one. The result is a series of posters in the gallery and outside of it; two phrases are printed as large-scale signage and exhibited along San Pablo Avenue where any passing driver can read them. In this way the exhibition provides even the most fleeting visitor to the avenue a trace of these residents’ views of the world.

Print Public raises two central questions: How do printmakers contribute to the community, and how does this community contribute to printmaking? While the answer to the first question seems clear—the show has yielded wide-ranging results and demonstrates myriad forms of community collaboration and engagement carried out by contemporary artists—the answer to the latter question is less so. Yet if one thinks about the set of techniques employed by a printmaker to produce an image, then it is clear that the neighborhood has had a profound effect on these printmakers, influencing their ideas of art making (and the regional planning student’s idea of place making) so as to include personal elements of people’s lives in the body of the work. To compare older ideas of print with these new ideas, one might look at the difference between rendering the world as a picture and multiplying it through mechanical reproduction, versus reinventing a neighborhood through imagination and accepting as art the new human interactions that the project allows. In this sense, Print Public does indeed augur not merely new developments in the neighborhood, but novel and innovative approaches to print.

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Print Public is on view at Kala Art Institute and Gallery, in Berkeley, through June 27, 2015.

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