How Do You Expand the Expectations for Public Practice?

11.2 / In/With/For the Public

How Do You Expand the Expectations for Public Practice?

By Mike Blockstein, Reanne Estrada January 15, 2020

In/With/For the Public is supported by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by championing and sustaining the arts, promoting early childhood literacy, and supporting research to cure chronic disease.


Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada talk about their work with Public Matters and how expectations for public practice can be expanded. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Mike Blockstein: Public Matters is a Los Angeles-based social enterprise and a creative studio for civic engagement. What that means is that we are artists who are interested in public discourse, public dialogue, and expanding and pushing the boundaries of what role artists can play. But beyond that, our work specifically focuses on the idea of addressing the trust gap that exists between institutions and residents and communities, in particular in communities of color.

Reanne Estrada: Our work has over the years spanned a range of different topics from healthy food access, to tobacco control, urban planning education, place-based narratives, transportation and traffic safety—and all of that is intentional. It has been from the very beginning because Public Matters is committed to the effort to try to embed and integrate artistic practices and creativity into areas and disciplines outside the arts. What we're trying to do is make more hospitable environments for artists and artistic practice out in the world.

MB: We're also trying to expand the notion and the imagination of what it looks like when an artist is working in or collaborating with a public institution or governmental agency. How do we make the process fun, participatory, and engaging, both for people who work within an institution, but also for people who are residents, students, neighbors, friends, and family who maybe feel a little off-put by that institution? We are trying to bring them together.

RE: It's kind of a bait-and-switch because you're not going to assume walking in that the people in these institutions are just knocking themselves over to work directly with artists. Part of our job—part of what we have had to do over the course of our work—is to convince them of our trustworthiness to a certain degree and that the approach that we're taking, though it may be outside of what their comfort zone might be, can actually yield positive benefits.

Celia Ramirez, owner of Ramirez Meat Market, leads a healthy cooking demo in front of her recently transformed East Los Angeles store (Market Makeovers // East Los Angeles & Boyle Heights, 2010-2014). Proyecto MercadoFRESCO was supported under a subcontract with the UCLA Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD) under Grant No 1P50-105188-01 from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

MB: So, if you're a public health person, and you're like, “well, I have traditional ways of working, but perhaps there's an interest in doing something a little bit different,” that's an opening for us. For example, we've done work around the notion of healthy food access and a process that the lexicon of public health has called a "corner store conversion." (I say that in a jargon-y way because it sounds a little bit wonky, right?) A "corner store conversion" is focused on the idea of neighborhoods and communities where you have a paucity of healthy fruits and vegetables, that well, duh, the solution is just to bring more fruits and vegetables, and then, poof, it's just magic; people magically buy them. They'll be healthier; problem solved, right? We know it’s not so simple. It's actually a question of education, of culture, of norms, of habits, and that requires real engagement.

Public Matters came up with this idea of a "market makeover." A market makeover isn’t just simply a transformation of a corner store and putting in healthier fruits and vegetables. It's more of a transformation about how a community, led by a group of youth from the community, embrace the idea of wanting to transform the way that they eat and what they eat. The students are involved not only in the transformation of the market, but they're learning and they become advocates for healthy eating. And then the creative side becomes: what does that look like?

It doesn't just look like, "well, put the fruits and vegetables in the store." You have students dressed up in giant fruit and vegetable costumes, and lo and behold, they're appearing on the streets of East L.A. with a group of mariachis, or they're in the East L.A. Mexican-American Heritage Parade, or videos that they've made are showing up in the Civic Center as part of a weekly movie night. It's the unexpected; it's the creative. It's a way to demonstrate to people that this is a really different take, but it's also a structural take, where we're building a system, where we're creating partnerships amongst schools, local businesses, and institutions who are actually working together and sharing knowledge.

Young folks from East Los Angeles & Boyle Heights promoting healthy food access and healthy eating in costume (Market Makeovers // East Los Angeles & Boyle Heights, 2010-2014). Proyecto MercadoFRESCO was supported under a subcontract with the UCLA Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD) under Grant No 1P50-105188-01 from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

RE: I think one of the things that artists and creative people can bring to this conversation of collaborating with institutions is to try to reframe or reshape the way people look at results—to look at the way we evaluate what success looks like. A lot of institutions have traditionally relied on quantitative measures for success: things that you can count, for instance. Part of our job in all the different types of work that we do is to shift the perspective, so that we're looking at more qualitative concerns and really bringing it back to the root of what this is really about, which at the end of the day, is about people. Our job in this equation, as much as possible, is to center that humanness in the work that these institutions are doing. Because at the end of the day, they exist to serve their constituents. Whether it's traffic safety or public health, you're working with people. The more that we can shake things up so that that becomes the primary point—the springboard for how we start to make change—there is a more meaningful and significant possibility for long-term changes.

MB: This idea about expanding the boundaries and expectations for public practice is also about a reset of traditional structures and hierarchies and power dynamics. There are plenty of cases where there are projects where basically a community is either the recipient, or they're basically just asked to provide things without any sense of reciprocity, right? There's a big difference if somebody is the subject of something versus somebody who becomes the one who actually sets the stage and tempo of how that happens.

RE: When Public Matters looks at how to approach this, we approach our work from a systems thinking perspective and really look at the different instituent1 parts: the institution is a part; community members are a part; maybe government officials or a whole range of people are part of the equation. When we do our work, a big part of that lift is really in the creation of space for each of these instituent parts—each of these actors—to be able to contribute in a way that feels meaningful and authentic. The way that we do that is to make sure that everyone is recognized for the expertise that they bring to the conversation. When we’re bringing together folks who work in transportation planning, like engineers or traffic safety, they’re bringing their expertise about the process of doing that work. At the same time, we're bringing community members who are the experts in being the people who use those streets and who live in these neighborhoods that are impacted by traffic safety issues. From the very beginning, what we try to do is to, as much as possible, create a more level field of engagement, so that people can talk and inform each other, thinking and creating together essentially.

MB: What Reanne is talking about is also this idea of reciprocity, where local knowledge and community knowledge and expertise is just as important as professional expertise. It's really about changing certain hierarchies and power dynamics inherent within the way institutions generally work. As a specific example, what we're referring to is some work around Vision Zero in Los Angeles County, where we brought together a group of transportation engineers who certainly have all the knowledge about street safety engineering, how to create safe streets, but lack the local knowledge and specificity of what's actually happening on the ground. We created an exchange where they were working directly with a group of high school students from East L.A. who shared what they know, what their families know, what they live, and what they experience around street safety with engineers who otherwise only look at datasets that are generated by the state. They lack the local knowledge and input, so we created an environment where there's a mutual exchange, not only just in the conversation, but they're also teaching students about ways to mitigate and implement street safety. It's a true exchange of knowledge and ideas that hopefully is generative.

RE: We always hope and strive to make sure that these occasions for exchange are not just transactional. Because what we're interested in doing ultimately is to try to spark relationships between the people who are in these institutions and the constituents they serve on the ground.  That gives greater accountability, and at the end of the day, it's perhaps more effective for longer term change.

MB: One other thing we wanted to touch on is that within all of this, we need to maintain our artistic and creative spirit/vitality, which is really based around the idea of experimentation and play. And this is where we are constantly pushing with boundaries. Part of that is a really simple thing: it's basically the idea that if you're trying to get different results of structural, social, or behavioral change, or improve results, you have to do things a little bit differently. As artists, we also have to be able to make sure that within the work that we're doing, we have the room to kind of push on those boundaries a little bit by bringing that spirit of whimsy and play. That's actually part of our strategy of how we work with and engage with communities and residents.

RE: One of the other things that I'd like to bring up is what else artists can bring to the table. Often, in a lot of cases, artists are being potentially brought in as problem solvers—people who can design solutions. I don't think that that's necessarily the best thing always because then what you're doing is you're missing out on the true value that artists can bring to a discourse. That means not just finding the answers to your question, but maybe figuring out what questions you should be asking to begin with. That's something that an artist's critical and creative perspective can bring to a collaboration with these institutions and different groups.

One of the things where we get a little bit hamstrung is this notion of efficiencies. We often equate efficiencies with effectiveness, and I'd like to push back a little bit on that and ask people to consider whether that's always true. A lot of the work we do is, I would say, probably not that efficient. It takes a lot of time. There's a lot of sweat equity. Relationship building requires a lot of emotional labor. That's not so easily accounted for in the ledger books. At the end of the day, we should rethink how we measure what success is—or maybe not success, but what progress or advancement really looks like.

MB: As we ask these questions about what's effective and what's progress, one of the things that we always ask ourselves—and I think is important for others to ask of themselves—is this question about what an authentic public engagement looks like. To us, it's what we've talked about: the notion of reciprocity; of something that's creative, that's playful, that people actually want to take part in; that looks and feels like it actually is from the place and from the community; that it reflects the values, the aesthetics, the cultures, the norms, the habits of that place because it's really driven by the people who inhabit the place and all those values and customs. If we are to go back to that question about the bait-and-switch and how we as artists managed to work and navigate within this terrain, what we're also trying to demonstrate is that as artists, we're also creative thinkers who can think on a systemic level; who can think about how to build partnerships, how to build relationships, how to create a structure that ideally can endure; and that it still has this level of authenticity and engagement at its heart.

And really, that's about leaving open the possibility for exploration.


  1. Instituent: The term came to our attention from an article Sue Bell Yank wrote about Public Matters almost a decade ago, “Tactical Organizing: The Instituent Art Practice of Public Matters.”  It felt appropriate. She came to it via Irit Rogoff’s article “Turning,” which in turn quotes a series of essays by philosopher Gerald Raunig, “Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming.”  Sue Bell Yank identifies Public Matters as an ‘instituent practice’ in the sense that it crosses social and disciplinary boundaries and resists regulatory ossification, creating "'instituting events' that bring together a diversity of constituent practices (as in community organizations, schools, governmental entities, universities, individuals), and this plurality counter the closure of the processes at work. As Raunig describes, “The various arrangements of self-organization promote broad participation in instituting, because they newly compose themselves as a constituent power again and again, always tying into new local and global struggles.[12]"

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