Civic Studio: Situated Studio as Method
The civic studio takes the practices of the studio and applies them
to the consideration of civic life and space. The project is predicated
on the assessment that civic spaces are complex sites of vitalities,
problems, and opportunities that are in some way evident and connected
to the visual and experiential qualities of actual space. As visual
workers interested in participating in the understanding and development
of culture, these sites are relevant and these workings are of great
by Paul Wittenbraker
for the Spark! project
Design and Locality
Work in the realm of civic space intersects a variety of other knowledge
areas including: planning, architecture, politics, commercial development,
anthropology, sociology, and geography. While studio art as a discipline
has its own histories and idioms, work can begin with a minimal program
of explicit outcomes. The openness of studio practice allows us to use
the project as a way of defining what the project should be and to move
among and between other related disciplines. Visual art can put into
form complex understandings and projections about culture and human
The primary aspect of our studio method is that we situate ourselves.
We are experientially engaged in the particulars of the site. This works
against the tendency to turn the site into a subject that we act on,
and works for an understanding of our activity as an interaction; a
give and take. And while we gain deep appreciation and affection for
the site and people, the contact is complete enough to not become nostalgic.
We get to know the area without becoming unrealistically romantic about
the special values of the place. The experience of being temporarily
situated is different from being in a place long-term. Our experience
is somewhat artificial in that we are institutionally supported and
on-site for a fixed and limited time. We work to be direct, neighborly,
and helpful by being visible, deliberate and responsible in what we
do. Each participant does community service work in the vicinity during
the term of the project.
One of the most significant things that happens in the studio are intense
and ongoing discussions about what we are doing. When engaged in situated
practice everything is contingent on other things. Theoretical thinking
and discussion are embedded in persistent experiences. Imagined and
implemented actions are understood as consequential.
While the project is supported by the University, we work to be autonomous
and deliberate in how we institute ourselves. This is primarily due
to the temporary nature of each project. Each project involves the organization
of a project site. So far, the projects are active for approximately
4 months and then ended. This project-based method of organization keeps
the focus on action and not on institutional maintenance and structure.
Each implementation is an opportunity to evolve and invent the structure
relative to established and new technologies and circumstances. It also
affords the participants a maximum of relevant technical experience
in the structuring and production of projects. To date there have been
3 projects; Lyon street project in a 300 square foot storefront space
in 1999, Bridge street project in a 900 square foot storefront space
in the spring of 2003, and the Alabama street project in a 6,000 square
foot industrial space in the fall of 2003. All of these were in Grand
Rapids, Michigan USA.
Once one starts looking at public space as material cultural form, there
are many ways to go about doing work. The visible world evidences a variety
of knowledge and opens up opportunities for studio investigations. Public
space is plastic: We formed it and it forms us back. It is both a record
of prior forming and ready to be formed anew. The studio aspires to understand
the complex ways in which cultural meaning and value are mediated in civic
forms. How does this interaction develop? How is this enacted?
Following are descriptions of some of the conceptual approaches we've
used along with sample projects. Each project title is linked to the project
web page, which includes additional images and text.
involved the investigation of local knowledge. The project was a reaction
to our inclination to think that our role should be to bring knowledge
to an area when it was much more valuable to reverse the roles and look
for unique things we could learn. What resources and special knowledge
was there? The focus narrowed to things one could make and do by hand.
Five local methods of hand formed enterprise are documented in instructional
Local Forms and Materials
Several projects have investigated and analyzed local materials
and forms. Those Things looked
at the value and understanding of objects and material goods by changing
the context in which the forms existed. Items that were no longer of
use to their owners were collected along with discarded items found
in the project vicinity. The items were visually investigated in the
studio and then formally presented on display on a platform in a gallery
presentation. Images of studio investigations were displayed on the
walls of the space.
Parallel Forms found
similarities in building style, materials, and condition between our
site and a site in Syracuse, NY that had similar demographic and market
profiles. Both sites were also similarly proximate to the core of their
downtown. Pairs of images showing the parallel forms were displayed
in a gallery presentation. The project brings to mind moments of lost
location, when one might operate for a few moments as if you were in
one place, when you are actually in another.
Burrito Analysis is
the documentation of the dissection of five burritos from establishments
within five city blocks of the studio. The establishments represent
a variety of cultural complexes from "authentic" mexican restaurants
to a fast food format to an ethnic foods counter at the University's
downtown cafeteria. Visible details of the ingredients and their packaging
offer potential points of analysis and interpretation. Our problematic
role as analysts is implicit. In another material interaction, Pennant
Shop Scarf, yarn from unusable garments at a local free clothing
center was formed into a functional scarf.
The State of Public Space
The state of public space is assessed in the project Modern/
Vernacular. After reading texts that discussed the civic, commercial,
and social aims of modernism we documented instances where both modern
and vernacular forms were dynamically co-visible within several blocks
of the studio. The images along with a discursive text in English and
Spanish were placed on view in the storefront window.
Two interstate highways intersect a few blocks from the Alabama street
studio. The placement project
researched the space that existed prior to the construction of these
roads in a detailed investigation of 6 adjacent blocks.
The moving house project documented
the movement of the last house to be cleared for a parking lot. The
house was moved several blocks to be used by a history organization
as a museum of immigration.
Form and the Imagination of Civic Space
The complex interplay of community and space operates in both form and
imagination. A significant component of the studio's work engages these
interactions with projects that project ideas and plastic forms. Displacement
followed the Placement project in conceptual and actual propositions
for the spaces now occupied by the highways and industrial corridors.
In the project Stockbridge to Scale
an open invitation was distributed to friends and neighbors to participate
in the construction of a scale model of a 4 square block area. The model
was constructed using discarded material collected from that area.
In Swing Thing, a set of swings
was constructed in the Alabama studio space and the public was invited
to come and join in a weekend of swinging together. In Welcome
Happy Sausage an exhibit of various projects was organized around
the central form of an 8-foot sausage in our front window. The sausage
was the culmination of the In the
Window project, which collected drawings of ideas for what we should
put in our window.
In Department of Forestry
we investigated the state of the urban landscape using a huge pile of
wood chips to interrogate, mediate, and structure civic spaces. Forms
of community gathering were designed and proposed with devices of shared
warmth in plaza ponchos
and the forcefield generator.
The mobile unit extends the
studios imagination of itself and possible projects through enabling
the studio to mobilize into flexible space.
Finally, the focus of some of the projects has been critical reflection
on our engagement and activity. In the projected video Campus
Drive to Bridge Street a studio member made a visual record of her
drive from the parking lot of the rural University campus through the
farmland, over the river, through the strip mall suburb, down the hill
to the city which gradually gets more dense and varied. Destocktion
is a companion piece to Stockbridge to Scale in which a studio member
goes on a rampage destroying the model neighborhood. Using whatever
he could find to wield power, he stomped and kicked, threw bricks and
shoes, and swung a large cardboard tube in a frenzy of frustrated destruction.
The performance resulted in a video piece with sound from the Supermario
brothers video game.
Another work, Etiquette,
came out of our frustration in finding appropriate ways of engaging
directly with residents. (Recent work on community-based art posit provocative
critiques of the of the implications of artist engagement.)(1) Self-help
books were studied for the dos and don'ts of engaging people and making
friends. A process was developed and applied to 7 test cases within
the neighborhood. The piece is a documentation of the process and the
In each of these projects experience at the site resulted in discussion,
investigation, and mediation of visual material that evidenced phenomena
in civic space and life. These mediations were then refined in the studio
and publicly presented in display events, programs and on the internet.
Future prospects for work include finding ways to engage real problems
while retaining the open-process strategies of the studio. We have a
desire to do collaborative visual research in the dynamics of civic
space with people from other disciplines. For instance, in Geography,
Edward Soja's ideas of Third Space (lived space) (2) and effects of
synekism (3) are of particular interest. More work in the realm of how
pubic or civic space is changing in relation to dematerialized digital
culture. Is the experience of actual space and digital space distinct
or co-mingled, especially in the realm of imagination? A related area
is the dramatic hybridization of the world of commerce into the world
of culture through brand extension and the consumption of public space.
These concerns are outlined in the book NoLogo (4) by Naomi Klein in
which she addresses public space as a primary site of the commercial-cultural
struggle. The materialized extension of group and individual imagination
is driving economic growth while the traditional institutions of culture
may have lost their participatory role in the formation and critique
of culture. In addition to these aims the most pressing seems to be
understanding the (lost or needed) skills of dialogue and discourse
from which culture and civic space might be more fully designed, appreciated,
critiqued, and lived.
The civic studio is a project of the department of art and design
at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. The project
is supported by the Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy at GVSU.
1. One Place after Another, Site-specific Art and Locational Identity,
Miwon Kwon, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2002
2. Postmetropolis, Edward Soja, Blackwell, Oxford UK, 2000,
3. ibid, page 12
4. NoLogo; No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, Naomi Klein, St. Martins
A pdf version of this paper is available here.
The Civic Studio web site is available at civicstudio.org.