Conversations are a series of MKE<->LAX residency reflections produced by artist, writer, and former MKE<->LAX resident Katie Loughmiller. To read about Katie’s experiences in Milwaukee, please visit her blog Love Notes From Milwaukee.
MKE<->LAX worked together with the Frank P. Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, and Greater Together to bring internationally recognized public art and experimental new media artist Anne Bray of Freewaves to Milwaukee for a residency intensive with a racially diverse group of 12 local artists, designers and advertising creatives on November 4-5, 2016. During this November residency, Anne co-facilitated an intensive to generate proposals for initial public art and media projects for 2017 that will be vetted through facilitated community dialogues and a review with creative industry leaders. These projects will focus on stimulating public dialogue around race dynamics in Milwaukee and within the creative industries.
This residency is the continuation of Anne’s previous residency in Fall 2014 in connection with MARNsalons and the Creative Alliance Milwaukee’s exploration of the Digital Billboard Art Project. Anne Bray was selected as a visiting artist and cultural facilitator based on her extensive background in producing public art and experimental new media art in a wide range of cultural geographies in Los Angeles and other cities. The subject matter of her projects frequently explore culturally sensitive topics around race, gender, health, and labor to make space for a variety of perspectives to be shared.
I was lucky to be one of the artists involved in this intensive. I had met Anne Bray about four years ago through my graduate program in Los Angeles so it was great to work with her years later in this new city and new context. I had time to debrief on not just the intensive but her overall thoughts about Milwaukee as it relates to Los Angeles and beyond.
This was your second time in Milwaukee? What were your impressions this time around?
The first time it was all new information to me. This time I was surprised that there hadn’t been more changes. Two years have transpired between my first visit and this one. I had stayed in touch with Sara [Daleiden] in that two years so I was aware of the evolutions that were happening but still, it felt pretty similar to my first visit. Los Angeles changes all the time. Especially downtown – it keeps moving on. Older cities stay way more constant than new cities. That for me is one major difference – the lack of change that you all experience in Milwaukee.
I never really thought about that. In living in LA and New York, I got used to the neighborhoods I was living in changing often. When I go back to both places it’s amazing how different things are. I’ve been visiting Milwaukee for six years and when I came back, I was surprised how much I actually knew about the city just from my quick visits. This has made it easier, however, to focus on getting to know the people who actually live and work here. Which you were able to meet many of those people during the intensive – had you met them the first time you were here?
I had. Not everybody but a bunch.
That’s great and since I wasn’t here for your first residency – what did that look like?
We did three different sized meet-ups. There were invited participants but it was also open to the public. There were small, medium and large groups. By doing three different scales we figured out broad interest, who wanted to work on this and what forms we could possibly take. It took two years to get any funding to do the second round and that’s why there was such a big gap.
We talked about the race problem in Milwaukee and what people could possibly do about it. Was there a most crucial or urgent issue? We talked about “niceness” and how to address it. And I have to say that’s a big factor – how everyone is so nice and non-confrontational in Milwaukee. How can you broach something as difficult as racism if everyone is being polite? That was a clear issue the first time. And I think this is reflected in the three project ideas that came out of this intensive. All three are pretty positive. You know, that’s customizing it for Milwaukee and I think that’s a good idea.
I struggle with this being from the east coast – I don’t know when to cater or push up against the “niceness” or at least surface level positivity. I’ve had some very successful and not so successful moments. At times when I think I’m being passive aggressive, I’ve been told I’m just being aggressive aggressive.
That’s funny. I’ve lived in New York, Europe and LA. In Paris if you don’t refute somebody, they think you’re boring. It’s like, “You agree with me? How boring!” You get to New York and they are attacking you in the street. You come to LA and it’s way less confrontational but open. Each city does have it’s different emotional tenor. There is a lot of difference in each city. Here (LA) there is no assumed-ness about anything – gender, race, class, sexual preference, etc.. There is almost a quarter of everything here. In Milwaukee there is less variety or smaller percentages and it feels like there is more of a homogeneity that keeps that stability.
How did you feel about this particular group of people that came together this time around?
They were an extraordinary group of people! Those invited jumped right in – there wasn’t much hesitancy and there was a complete willingness to work with each other. I appreciated that a lot. This particular group was very creative so the word play, imaging, being able to draw and sketch – this was really helpful. We were able to get very far, very fast.
I had two very different reactions on the two different days. On Friday night, I was euphoric. I was so excited that we could move so fast with such depth with that group. And designing that whole list of goals! I came in with some and the group added other ones – that was a very expansive and important list for the group and for the city in general. Prioritizing these goals down to three, the fact that it happened without that much difficulty was great. We, Sara and I, didn’t decide how many there would be – the group just formed naturally into three smaller groups. And the fact that all three groups could get to definitions and priorities in the first evening to me was very, very cool. I left Friday night very positive.
Saturday was a very different feeling on my part. I was again very excited about the process that eventually happened. I felt the morning started slow and I think it was the choices that were made. We probably could have jumped right into something but I didn’t know that. I think around 11am or 12pm, when we split back into groups, is when it really started taking off. My job was to create a vacancy for participants to fill. For an artist that can feel like doing little. I did spend an hour with each group and was glad to know the details of what was happening in them and to be informed about the depths each group was going to. I have to say, overall, I was really happy with the results.
So what are the next steps for these ideas?
There will be three focus groups that Zeidler Center is running in three different sectors of the city. And then I’ll be back in January for the next session.
What was your hope for the proposal review in January?
We intentionally left it open. We wanted more community support and to see how the ideas read on their own without all the enthusiasm that we had when they were first formed. I hoped that each project could take off and get to the stage where there are final pitches that can be used to start fundraising. Each project could be small, but I think if they are large scale they would be really effective!
How do you feel about the project now?
I am thrilled because it is going to happen! The first effort starts in March 2017. After that, we will find support for the remaining aspects. We are combining the three projects into one integrated program. I see it as a 10 year project – to end racism. Which is kind of an outrageous goal but I think artists are totally ready to take it on. Milwaukee will be different! People can make change!
You’ve done this kind of work before in L.A, as well as many other places, what do you think is easier?
Milwaukee is smaller and maybe more manageable. Los Angeles is the least social city that I’ve ever lived in. It’s really hard to get people together here. Also in LA, there are a lot more zeros in value over everything. It’s much harder to leverage property, signage, any of those things. It’s very expensive to do things here but there is an open mindedness in LA that is really fun to work with. People don’t resist as much emotionally but they do financially. In Milwaukee, people are resisting emotionally – and financially too because there is no money there!
The two cities are so different and I’ve always found it fascinating by Sara’s inclination to do an exchange between Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Do you have any last thoughts on this exchange?
Hmm. Maybe that we can’t wrap our arms around LA but you can around Milwaukee.