Creating With a Sense of Strategic Practice

Maribel Alvarez and Jason Bulluck on paying attention to the ‘little stuff’, engaging in critical discourse, and understanding how power can be shaken up.

By Jason Bulluck

"My own ethical standard is to be involved in artistic practice that is touching someone in some community."

"The question we need to ask [is]: Where is power and how can power be shaken up?"

Maribel Alvarez, PhD, holds a dual appointment as associate research professor in the English Department and as research social scientist at the Southwest Center, University of Arizona. Alvarez was born in Cuba, grew up in Puerto Rico, and has worked closely in the field of Chicano arts since the 1980s.

Jason Bulluck is the former director of the Shifting Sands Initiative and Douglas Redd Fellowship. This initiative provided support, through the Ford Foundation, to arts and cultural organizations willing to immerse themselves in community development. He is a professional sculptor.

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JASON BULLUCK: Maribel, your writing and work connect academics, community-based arts groups, arts administrators, arts and culture funders, and artists working across a range of economies. You certainly fit the bill as a bridge. Your work seems to have been cross-disciplinary for quite some time. Can you talk about your work in a holistic way? Do you have a single magnetic goal pulling at your various skills and interests?

MARIBEL ALVAREZ: Well, I think my work has two overarching themes that I try to somehow intertwine. On the one hand, I’d like to think my work is about paying attention to the little stuff that goes in between the lines of the big paradigms and social parameters. By saying ‘little stuff’ I don’t mean to say things that are unimportant, just the opposite. I believe that the informal, the stuff that fills the in-between [places] of cultural meaning, are often as important as the big categories, insofar as they get us closer to the texture of how the ‘big’ stuff is felt and materialized, and also how it becomes possible or implausible to change the conditions that produce those things. So, let’s say that the scholar in me is interested in theorizing meaning; that’s a pretty big statement, but it is part of a very long tradition in anthropology. I see my work documenting artists’ work as fulfilling this function.

Having said that, I think the other side of the coin is my personal obsession with understanding the infrastructural ways by which small stuff happens, in other words, the craftsmanship of meaningful systems. So, let’s say also that the practitioner/organizer in me is concerned with taking apart and putting back together the protocols, very much in terms of the mechanics, of how to get things both done and undone. My work as a consultant who teaches best practices would be part of this. My work as a programmer, someone who still has to raise money and put programs together, keeps me close to the ground on these issues as well.

I seem to spend a lot of my time writing up things that are a documentation of the small stuff, as well as working on the infrastructure systems that facilitate grants, organizational development, leadership classes for best practices, etc., and those are the two grooves of my life’s work.

BULLUCK: Could you clarify what you mean by ‘the small stuff’?

ALVAREZ: Folk culture, alternative spaces, emerging aesthetics among youth, Latinos, traditional artists—not necessarily stuff that makes it to the museums, but those practices that are always emerging, practices that borrow from many different sources, people’s oral histories, and alternative and smaller organizations—specifically, the mid-sized nonprofits where so much of ‘the action’ of cultural work takes place, as a sector, in this country.

BULLUCK: Your idea of alternative aesthetics makes me think of the low-rider bikes exhibit you curated [for Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA)].

ALVAREZ: Yes, that is a good example. That was a wonderful project and one of my first attempts to use ethnography in the context of curating and exhibiting. And there was a conference I just organized here in Arizona on how cultural practices, for instance, are implicated in some of the crises of death in the desert. What I mean by that is that it’s important to talk about the big stuff—the crises of our age—but I am interested in how cultural understandings or misunderstandings affect policy. Those are some examples—I think of it as the texture of culture, not just the big text itself. How does it feel once you’re implicated in it?

BULLUCK: I’d like to frame this question with a quote of yours that I found. Tom Borrup writes in his Community Arts Network review of your book, There’s Nothing Informal About It: Participatory Arts Within the Cultural Ecology of Silicon Valley (San José, CA: Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley, 2005), that you recommend directing attention “to those points of intersections in which two seemingly opposed systems of meaning converge…supporting those nodes of cultural production in the nonprofit infrastructure where professional and amateur arts overlap, and can fruitfully cross-pollinate to strengthen each other.” And that sounds like a very tense area.

ALVAREZ: Yes, indeed, there is a tension there, but mainly on account of the hierarchies of taste and skills that dominate still so much of the so-called artworld. The tension can be generative, however. Those who theorize the field of arts and culture should also be thought of as practitioners, and practitioners should be respected as theorizers of practice. It’s silly to bifurcate and polarize these two elements. When I get invited to talk at conferences and am not out there doing field work, after a while I feel a bit of a fraud. My own ethical standard is to be involved in artistic practice that is touching someone in some community. And I can also flip that and say that I want to infuse a more sophisticated critical language in arts practice. Both things are necessary.

An example of this intersection in my own practice is the work I do at the NALAC Institute each year. I teach workshops on financial practices for nonprofits—the intricate and mundane details of managing a budget—and I also teach a workshop on theories of social change and the big picture of the Latino cultural arts production in this country. Another example. I teach a workshop [at NALAC] on the ideology behind strategic planning, asking students to be skeptical of planning as it has been construed ideologically and then I turn around and teach them how to do a strategic plan. It’s a big theme in my life: this duality. For the most part, I feel that I personally have come to feel comfortable with this conflict. Every once in a while I need to be reminded about who is my audience; for example, my tone with academics does not always need to be disparaging, and with practitioners I do not need to use academic language only. I think I navigate that relatively well, but I’m not beyond having some blinders.

BULLUCK: Perhaps your ethnographic work with arts organizations provides a model for navigating between fields. Would you encourage more of this type of research, or suggest others?

ALVAREZ: Absolutely. Yet I also can share some cautionary tales on this topic. The Animating Democracy Project that I did at MACLA on Asian-Latino intermarriage was one such opportunity to reflect, deliberately reflect, on the upside as well as the downside of translating methodologies from one epistemological realm to another. Yet the opportunities that ethnography can afford artists, insofar that the core of an ethnographic inquiry is something anthropologists call ‘fieldwork’ (funny though, accountants also use that term when they are doing an audit!) can be very helpful. For example, the whole issue of the role that folklorists and ethnographers can play in urban planning and neighborhood revitalization—those areas are very important. I also believe that in our field we need to be better documenters of the success stories.

The other day I was working in El Paso where they are having a major urban-planning crisis around the gentrification in one of the old neighborhoods. There are people there who are very active and working very hard to oppose the gentrifying policies, but few of the people in the conversation were aware of models that fuse political resistance to gentrification with interventions that are productive and creative. “Wow,” I thought, “these activists need to be at the table with the big boys … why not create a CDC (community development corporation) to do history and preservation work?” I was struck that the group had all the energy our communities have in terms of political awareness to document injustice, but little in the way of knowing how to reverse it. I am interested in that quite a bit. How can I be part of the solution?

BULLUCK: I enjoyed reading about your Border Identities Project of 2006. I’d like to quote your idea, ‘inherent inequality as inherent opportunity’. Is this a useful notion for the fields of arts and culture and social justice, arts and democracy, arts and community development, and community cultural development (community arts)?

ALVAREZ: Very interesting question. Again, the devil is in the details. One has to be careful that the argument is not one that glorifies or romanticizes marginality. There’s nothing romantic about artists not having enough money to make the rent or Indigenous communities having their intellectual property appropriated without compensation by a big-box store chain. However, if by “margin” we mean that we learn how to build assets where none were evident,…then I think we are on to something. I have come to understand that the works with the most impact are truly multidisciplinary and engage the artist, writer, oral historian, [etc.]. When you’re able to do that, wow! The projects do acquire a new depth. In essence, what interdisciplinarity means is that you are not self-contained in your own wisdom or your own capaciousness; it means you reach to others and others reach to you.

At the same time, like any collaboration, they are difficult and they have to be learned. No matter who, even a college professor with five PhDs, when it comes down to it, you’re predicated to the arenas in which you are comfortable. I am working in the community of Ajo, Arizona, in an oral history project. When I go to that community, I feel I have a lot to offer, but first I have to learn. That sounds so basic—even cliché—but I am amazed at how often we forget it. To me, I believe that’s the work that is exciting, where learning becomes teaching and teaching is about learning.

BULLUCK: You also talk about hard and soft ‘border realities’ in this work—physical signs of border, like the presence of a military and juxtaposed economies and demographics, versus ‘cultural’ signs, like language, ritual, art and work. Are you suggesting that successful work around arts and social justice requires broad training, or the interests of a polymath?

ALVAREZ: Yes, I want to say yes to that question, but I don’t feel that it’s only broad training academically. It’s also the training of being an organizer, and to me what is important is to recognize that there are different forms of knowledge and different kinds of expertise. Traditional artists, elders and artisans, for example, are very thoughtful about their work; yet there is a prejudice, dating back to the 1400s, that artisans are not abstract thinkers. I like the notion of organic intellectual. The question, however, is one of language. Who has access to languages that have been privileged as discourse and who has knowledge that has not even been codified? For example, to do great transnational work you don’t need to read all the books on transnationalism, but you do need, however, to define how your work is different from what, say, the World Bank is espousing on transnationalism. So, while an artist/activist need not be a scholar of transnationalism, he/she definitely has to contend with the discourses that frame people’s understandings about an issue, often preceding the artist’s intervention, the ideas and understandings that circulate in the public sphere as ideology.

For that artist or artisan at some point the critical question of theory is going to come up. If you’re going to be a person of long-term impact, then you are going to be someone who needs to master the language required to participate in the discourse, not academically necessarily, but a critical language to be sure. On the other hand, you see the phenomenon of those who master the critical language not being able to relate to or engage with frontline cultural workers; the universities are full of people who are not making connections with practice. As a hopeful sign in this regard, there is the beautiful effort of Imagining America. But I can tell you that I am frequently surrounded with people whose research is very profound, but their ability to connect with practice is very limited, and I spend a lot of time thinking about those things. And granted, I think my life would be easier if I was just a writer. I don’t spend as much time writing as I should.

BULLUCK: I think your work around semiotics and language—your lessons on metaphors and identity from the Border Identities Project—provide a great deal of grist for the mill for the nonprofit and community-based arts field in particular. They help to frame the work and provide a model for work with various constituencies to ‘hear’ from one another.

ALVAREZ: The question of language is important as much as anything else only insofar as it relates to the ability to connect with people at the places where they are at, especially in the time in which we’re living. Can you imagine a tool kit to use in your community arts center—it’s the equivalent of a car mechanic’s tools, like a wrench and a phillips screwdriver. To me that’s all it is, and it’s also only good for when you need those specific tools. There are certain moments when the fact that you are able to explain how a sign signifies is truly what is needed. It’s all very contextual and is great to feel that you have the right tool when you need it—a word to describe something, an approach to engage people in this or that way, a process by which the art that is created can be more relevant, the knowledge of how to conceive and write a proposal. But those are just tools. I don’t think we should be so enamored of methodologies like semiotics or ethnography—they are there for when we need them—but the thing that touches people and changes lives and changes social dynamics is never a method or a tactic alone. It’s about a lot more…about the ability of art to represent the possibility of imagining a different reality—‘to walk in beauty’, as the Yoeme people of northern Mexico say.

Artistic practice needs to re-energize its links to social change. Those of us who do creative work need to locate our work in terms of where it resonates in the social sphere. How can we be looking at issues like immigration, for instance, and think that an artist that deals in the arena of Western representation can’t really change anything? How can we continue to be troubled by the idea of art not being good for something—that eternal self-doubt. “But what is it good for?” I still hear a lot of that going on.

If we are going to do creative work, we need to do it with a better strategic sense of practice; some folks have referred to this as having a theory of social change. I am interested in that question and I think that all cultural workers should be. Yet I find that I have so many students who learn so much about how to theorize power, and the more they learn the more their hope diminishes.

BULLUCK: I recognize that and the issue of hope really resonates with me; it’s one of the reasons I was eager to interview you.

ALVAREZ: I feel that as cultural workers—for young people—that is still the question we do need to ask: Where is power and how can power be shaken up? It would be nice if we had one simple answer, but we don’t and that’s part of the problem of our times. What are you going to do? In our time this is how power structures things and is structured by things. I’m glad we came around to this question. It’s more a reflection of the times. Are my students correct? Partly yes. There is not a clear path pointing to where the node of social change, is coming from. We don’t have a clear sense of that, not even with Obama. But I think this is a question that becomes artificially complicated because of the liberal idea of linear progress. We have in this country a naïve notion of social change and it is the naiveté that turns into cynicism when things don’t go as we planned. It’s hard to give up the sense of mastery over nature and human affairs that is built inside the ideology of the U.S. And I don’t think other people in the world have this cynicism. Other people in the world believe you can organize and expect change. Here we have the luxury of having the space to be troubled. Our politics in the U.S. lack too often a practical dialectic of social change: How would you make change? By means of social tremors, coups, by means of war; in other words, what is the horizon of possibilities given the alignments of the planets as they now stand? Ultimately, we each have to answer that question about our work and our politics.

Original CAN/API publication: April 2008