Relationships as Material for an Arts Practice

11.2 / In/With/For the Public

Relationships as Material for an Arts Practice

By Gregory Sale, Johanna K. Taylor, Dr. Luis S. Garcia 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.


Reflecting on Future IDs at Alcatraz (2018-2019)

With a shared belief that cultural problems demand cultural solutions, a committed group of arts and social justice advocates fostered Future IDs at Alcatraz, a year-long exhibition about justice reform and second chances. It featured artworks inspired by the format of IDs, created by individuals with conviction histories. In partnership with the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the exhibition acted as a container for a series of monthly community programs, co-created with over 20 community partners. The project centered the reentry community and other justice-impacted individuals by holding civic space for stories of trauma, transformation, and resilience, for a plurality of voices and visions.

We authors of this essay are a few of the many collaborators who united our diverse expertise as artists and organizers and our experiences within and outside of the criminal justice system to realize Future IDs at Alcatraz. As lead artist and ally, Gregory Sale initiated and maintained the multitude of the social connections and ongoing commitments with support of the core-project collaborators Luis Garcia, Kirn Kim, Sabrina Reid, and Jessica Tully.

The success of Future IDs depended upon our ability to nurture and negotiate complex relationships across disparate constituencies, geographic regions, and through fraught politics and policies. These relationships were a central material to the project.

The Future IDs collaborators developed an evolving set of guiding considerations. They are suggestions, not commands, and are shared here for other artists and collaborators to consider as they build relationships in social practice art projects.

Roberto Bedoya, Emiliano Lopez, and Candice Price in discussion during the Art and Justice Summit on Alcatraz. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Peter Merts

Future IDs Guiding Considerations

Sharing control with collaborators, whether artists or non-artists, is crucial: Invite project participants to help conceptualize social-aesthetic structures, to co-produce artistic components, and to direct the advocacy intention of the work.

Each artist or collective develops their own way of working: Identify the work needed to build different types of relationships. Relationship partners include key collaborators, community and institutional partners, participants, allies, thought leaders, audiences, and others.

Collaboration requires flexibility and acceptance: It would not be reasonable to expect all of the many key participants to be similarly invested. Contributors bring their own expertise that influences the work. Honor the contributions while recognizing that these relationships are in constant negotiation.

Be patient and open: Asking someone to work on a project is easy, but maintaining relationships requires being present with people and being a participant in the world on their terms.

It’s going to get messy, so be prepared: Set common goals with collaborators and other partners early in the process to create a solid foundation for the project. These goals will guide the navigation of complicated challenges that could not have been predicted. Work with the consequences as one of the materials.

Aesthetics and advocacy can be competing project objectives. There is a dance in navigating the unavoidable tension between aesthetics and advocacy that requires making difficult choices. For Future IDs collaborators, the initial goal-setting often led to prioritizing social impact over both artistic recognition and the ease of communicating the project to media.

Ask yourself what it means to walk into a space ethically: Recognize the complexities of race, gender, privilege, and discrimination. Be aware that the artist and some of the collaborators come from a position of power just by leading the project.

Power is a cultural, social, political, and economic construct. Working in collaboration and forming authentic partnerships requires understanding the fluidity of who holds weight in a particular moment and its significance.

Practice hospitality, deep listening, and deep “hanging out”: Deliberate on how we care as a society. Build trust. Create a space where people’s voices and experiences are valued. Remember that active listening can be a difficult skill to put into practice.

Come together to create a shift in consciousness: Cultivate a culture of mutual respect and a willingness to say things that are uncomfortable or critical. Hold space for a deep level of “realness.” This vulnerable emotional space means engaging in unexpected dialogue and building emotional connection.

Strive to become mutual allies of one another.

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