Activating the Creativity of Community Development

Jeremy Liu and Gayle Isa talk about the spaces ‘in between’.

By Gayle Isa

"I never wanted to narrow my field, but work in the liminal—or, to use a term from cellular biology, interstitial—spaces ‘in-between’."

"I think the world is coming closer to this perspective–people are realizing that nothing is ‘single discipline’."

Jeremy Liu is a community development advocate, urban planner, and artist. In 2009, he became the executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in Oakland. Previously, he led the Asian Community Development Corporation in Boston. He is a cofounder of the National Bitter Melon Council.

Gayle Isa is the founder and executive director of Asian Arts Initiative and an active participant in Philadelphia’s arts and culture community for the past 16 years, beginning as an intern and evolving as a staff member at the Painted Bride Art Center.

This interview took place in a café in Philadelphia on an icy day in December 2007, after attending a Citizens Convention attempting to define priorities for Philadelphia’s mayor elect.

I had known Jeremy Liu by reputation for quite some time before we finally met only a couple of years ago at a conference about the intersection of arts and community development work. Though he runs a community development corporation (CDC) and I work for an arts organization, we have sometimes noted that our lives are surprisingly parallel. Both of us came from California in the late ‘80s and we are now just past our mid-30s, working in East Coast cities and holding onto the belief that the arts and community development are inherently intertwined.

To start this conversation, I ask Jeremy to define the worlds or communities that his work bridges. He begins with a story. 

•  •  •  •  

JEREMY LIU: In school I studied biology and ecology. I wasn’t typical pre-med—I was interested in the environment. I learned about the concept of ‘biomes’, and the interesting thing about biomes—at least what I remember about them—is what goes on in between them at the interface between two types of environments, or ecologies, like the savannah and the desert or the beach and the ocean. These in between areas generally have the most species and are really rich in diversity. When I learned about the concept of biomes I was drawn to it, and I think that has been one of the fundamental guiding philosophies of how I do my work. I never wanted to narrow my field, but work in the liminal—or, to use a term from cellular biology, interstitial—spaces ‘in-between’.

‘Community Development’ has such a broad definition, that basically you can do whatever you want and it is part of community development. So, housing or art or performance or marketing, urban planning, community organizing, neighborhood branding, financing, all of these areas intersect.

My father, John K.C. Liu, is an architect who does community-based planning. He moved back to Taiwan to create a new department of architecture at the National Taiwan University and an affiliated nonprofit organization that were focused on design-driven community planning and organizing, doing things like coming up with a sustainable development plan to protect an endangered bird habitat or designing and building a new theater with a community. Essentially they are designers and planners, but in addition they had artists, writers, musicians, community organizers, scientists, engineers, filmmakers all working with them, and I always held that as an ideal.

GAYLE ISA: I realize that an important aspect of your perspective is the fact that you are a working artist as well as a community development professional. When did you first identify yourself as an artist?

LIU: Twice. When I was growing up I took a lot of art classes in drawing and photography, but I never thought of myself as an artist. Then, in college, I decided to cram all of my arts requirements into one summer. So, I took an intensive course at the Boston School of Fine Arts, which was affiliated with Tufts, and it was kind of a transformation for me. In evaluating my printmaking, one of my teachers told me [in a critique of my ongoing work], “What I like most is how you keep working on it.” My work was terrible. I realized that my natural inclination is conceptual—not strong technique.

The second time was when I saw a call for outdoor, site-specific, environmental sculpture. And I thought, “great,” because it was the intersection of these interests of mine. But I wasn’t really a practicing artist at the time—I wasn’t making work, I didn’t have a studio, I didn’t really play with materials on a regular basis. But I did a project. There was not a lot of subtlety to it—I think part of the problem is that the only times I was doing it, I was in the public eye all the time, and had no chance to practice or refine my work.

Then I moved over to social performance. The Deep Creek residency in Arizona was the first time I ever did a ‘real’ performance—and I realized that it’s all about engaging an audience. I guess performance art is the thing that got me thinking most about process in relationship to product.

More recently, I used a Fluxus performance as professional development where I took all our community organizers [from Asian Community Development Corporation staff]. The ability to go from concept to something very concrete, and back to concept again—that’s what art does for you. And it’s not just important for community organizing, but in anybody’s professional development.

ISA: For you, it seems like the confluence of fields that you work within has been such an organic process. But I wonder whether it is ever challenging to articulate or convince others who are not so fluent?


Liu: I’ve met with the mayor [of Boston] in several contexts—on an open space planning committee, to talk about cell-based technology-based language interpretation services, to advocate for affordable housing, and as an artist. He must think there’s like six different Asian American people who all look the same!

But I think the world is coming closer to this perspective—people are realizing that nothing is ‘single discipline’.

ISA: Yes, we agree that the world is becoming more interdisciplinary. But at the same time there is still the desire to place people in boxes—are you an artist or are you doing community development, are you an artist or are you an executive director? In your projects, does one realm—artistic or community development—dominate over the other?

LIU: When I was walking past your building (the former home of the Asian Arts Initiative, which has been demolished to make way for the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s expansion), I thought it would be cool to do the Paul Pfeiffer thing (time-lapse photos that show chunks of the building crumbling without seeing the crane and wrecking ball making it happen), but even that is political. It’s pretty rare that it’s a ‘pure’ art project without content or organizing affect.

Another example is an economic development grant that the city offers that is usually used for facade improvements. But I had this idea that we should hire artists to redesign the bathrooms of ten restaurants in Chinatown. Can you imagine a situation where people are going from restaurant to restaurant to see the bathrooms?

ISA: In your mind, is this an ‘art’ project, or an ‘economic-development’ one?

LIU: It’s both. The other term to use is that it’s a “social intervention.” But in the arts world, our projects are often faced with people who wonder, ‘Where’s the art in it’?

And in our grassroots communities there is often also that same question about “Where’s the art in it?” I share an example of the cultural barriers that we had to confront with seniors in the Philadelphia Chinatown community, whom we had invited to contribute line drawings of their childhood neighborhoods to be included in Hirokazu Kosaka’s Memory Map project, but who had expected that since he is an artist he should teach them how to paint or draw, to make ‘art’.

ISA: We go on to discuss a project that Jeremy and his partner, Hiroko Kikuchi, will conduct as part of the Asian Arts Initiative’s next Chinatown In/flux exhibition. Chinatown Orange is about interrogating the Glidden paint company about its choice in naming this particular paint color, and it is also—by using this paint color to coat an abandoned rowhouse owned by the City of Philadelphia on the long-languishing site of a hoped-for Chinatown Community Center—intending to bring public attention to the distribution of resources in order to make specific change in the local community. Jeremy gives another example of an artistic project he and Hiroko are working on with a policy agenda.


LIU: Another project is about voting. After learning about campaign politics and process in my role as chair of the campaign committee for Sam Yoon (the first Asian American to run for and win an elected office in the city of Boston), what we want to do is a Warhol Vote project in Boston’s next election for city councillor at-large where we will ask artists to vote for Andy Warhol as a write-in candidate. In Philadelphia, if South Philly votes one way, they know who’s voting—it’s a demographic. But artists don’t always concentrate in one [geographic] section; it’s hard to quantify what is the ‘artist vote’. Legally the write-in votes have to be reported, so this is way of literally projecting artists’ voices in the political realm.

ISA: We deliberate over the fact that in Boston each citizen is allowed to vote for up to four city council candidates, and whether it will detract from viable living candidates if people decide to ‘throw away’ one of their votes for this project.

Then, as in almost every conversation that I have with another executive director, eventually ours turns to a discussion about the challenges of managing an organization—and the difficulty of balancing work responsibilities with other life pursuits. I wonder if there is a hybrid role that could be created within the organization? Could Jeremy become the creative director of a CDC? Develop other qualified staff so that some of his salaried time could be spent in pursuit of these artistic projects? That’s what I hope for him—and so that I can live vicariously through his success!

Original CAN/API publication: March 2008