View all of Issue 1: "Where"

Ask an Artist:
Brett Cook Answers Your Questions

Photo by Bethanie Hines.

Photo by Bethanie Hines.

In this issue, Brett Cook responds to where-related inquiries. Brett Cook is an interdisciplinary artist and educator who uses storytelling as a vehicle to distill complex ideas, and creative practices to transform outer and inner worlds of being. His public projects typically involve community workshops featuring arts-integrated pedagogy, along with music, performance, and food to create a fluid boundary between art making, daily life, and healing. He has received numerous awards, including the Lehman Brady Visiting Professorship at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Richard C. Diebenkorn Fellowship at the San Francisco Art Institute. Recognized for a history of socially relevant, community engaged projects, Brett was selected as cultural ambassador to Nigeria as part of the U.S. Department of State’s 2012 smARTpower Initiative. His work is in private and public collections including the Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery, the Walker Art Center, and Harvard University. In 2009, he published Who Am I In This Picture: Amherst College Portraits with Wendy Ewald and Amherst College Press, and in 2016, Clouds In A Teacup with Thich Nhat Hanh and Parallax Press. He is a Community Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development and a Visiting Professor in Community Arts and Social Practice at California College for the Arts. Brett was a 2014 A Blade of Grass Fellow for Socially Engaged Art.


Dear Brett,

I am currently touring an installation and public engagement project that seeks to understand the source of racism and related oppressions through the lens of European history and my own family. Wherever it travels, which is primarily schools, I try to bring together departments and organize opportunities for conversation and response to the work.

My experience is that diversity departments are often excited about bringing the project to their school but can’t locate an appropriate space to display it because the school galleries have their own agenda which is not aligned — they want to focus on disenfranchised artists, student work, or faculty work, or feel that the subject matter is not appropriate or they have already focused on whiteness. Can you offer any advice on how to bridge this gap when I approach schools? Related to this, do you have any thoughts about collaborating with multiple departments?

— Anne Mavor, Portland, OR

Dear Anne,

Thank you for your question, and congratulations on the opportunities to share your important work to understand racism. It reminds me of a project I did when I co-taught a course at an urban public high school to curate a show from a blue chip art collection. The course featured dialogues around race, gender, and class based on artwork from the collection and involved partnerships with multiple non-profit art spaces. In retrospect, one of my significant demands was to base the project and myself at the school and not at the art spaces. These art spaces were the primary funders and held power in the project in many forms.

By being embedded in the school, I expanded my job description in ways the art spaces would have never expected: weekly three-hour staff meetings, afterschool professional development exercises, and chaperoning school dances. Through this, I became part of the culture of the school, a part of the ecosystem, learning from the faculty, students, and staff so that they could trust, learn, and advocate with me. These were relationships that could only be built over time, and the ability to bridge these spaces — between the different departments of the school and the art spaces — was based on the quality of these relationships.

So, while the exhibition and class appeared to be the goal of the project, it was the relationship-building across departments that was really the art and lasting residue of the project. This was also what made the project successful. It was through personal relationships across disciplines that the faculty and staff became willing advocates and collaborators and grew the course and exhibition into a school-wide arts integration initiative. The additional rewards of those personal relationships included insights about spaces for display and exposure that, even in my well-intended and experienced perspective, I simply couldn’t have previously imagined.

I wasn’t using my power as the artist to dictate what was good for the school or art spaces or convince them about what they should do, or even how they should enter into a relationship. Instead, through the process, we built relations where we could negotiate and share power to create something for our mutual benefit. This happened within the school as well as between the school and the art spaces.

Inquiry into how our own actions create suffering in others and sharing those reflections is courageous work. This brings the gift of a greater challenge to modify those behaviors in ourselves and the spaces we work. While American society is desperate for an enlightened history lesson and some collective restorative justice to address our racist past, it is daily actions by individuals and institutions that reinforce asymmetries of power and sustain our collective suffering. How we embody dialogue as a relational process in our work and our lives bares witness to the dream of liberating the oppressed in all of us.

— Brett

Dear Brett,

I’ve worked a lot on socially engaged projects with people in a range of locations, and often the commissioner or project partner is keen to base the project around the community’s immediate “where.”

I understand why this approach is often suggested, as these projects often play on local histories, past industries, or local areas of intrigue or beauty. I’ve been thinking recently that this can also bring up bad memories or foster an inward-looking attitude. My question is, how can you base a project around a broader, more universal “where” that lets people leave their everyday and look outwards? If the context is broader than the immediate doorstep, how can you capture people’s interest?

— Dan Russell, Gateshead, UK

Dear Dan,

It is easy to imagine that for many people — including arts funders and commissioners — starting from where we are makes sense. The immediate “where” appears as something tangible and finite. And like you allude to, this “where” is also beset with all sorts of habits of perception and misperception. With deep looking and dialogue, it can also become obvious that within any recognition of the sameness of “here,” there are also infinite differences that can catapult participants beyond our individual limitations of geography, culture, space, and time.

A foundational part of socially engaged work, for me, is generating the conditions of this deep looking and finding out what we participants individually and collectively define as important. What is something valuable here? How do we make sense of that value? What are the different types of expertise in the group that can enhance our collective learning and transformation as we come to understand these values? This inquiry becomes a vehicle to reassess any preconceived notions of “where” we may be.

To create space for a dialogical process, I work to purposely create an environment where people can learn. This is an environment where those “immediate doorsteps” you speak of can extend in endless directions through inquiry into self, and through dialogue with others. I try to build the environment intentionally: some of that is physical, some intellectual, some emotional, and some spiritual. Part of building a fertile learning environment is simply modeling, or being acutely responsible for my actions. That might mean we’re simply going to speak to each other using first names out of respect and equality. It might mean repeatedly making time to assess our expectations, so that it becomes apparent we have a shared agenda. As a guest to a community, it might mean recognizing part of my expertise and role in the collaboration is offering context from outside, and being the excuse, if not the catalyst, for outward perspectives and impacts — with respect for the natives, of course.

When I was younger, I used to think collaboration meant, “I have an idea, you can help me do it, and we’ll call it collaboration.” At this point, I think of collaboration as a reciprocal contribution by all participants to both the conceptual process and product. Through this process, we are co-creating a new “where” representative of everyone’s interest because it reflects the “I” and the “We.” In the ongoing discovery process that is collaboration, dialogue, deep listening, and learning constantly occur. The best results of collaborative processes are less about capturing a singular essence or a pre-defined notion, and more about reflecting an array of evolved ideas and new ways of being, both from here at our doorstep, and beyond.

— Brett

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