Emily Luce is a designer + artist based in Port Alberni, British Columbia. She is one half of the collaborative entity Search & Research, which studies and makes work about the collision of worlds that exist. The other half of Search & Research, Klehwetua Rodney Sayers, provided thoughtful feedback and light editing of this essay.
Essay by Emily Luce
Be Here Now is a virtual and published space where an assembly of leading artists, designers, and curators bring their visions, their work and their stories together to form a comprehensive starchart of navigational potentials. It is a collective conversation that works to assess, together, where we are, what is happening, and how to advance responsively and fairly for all people.
Through online public lectures, interviews and workshops, co-curators Belinda Haikes and Margaret Pezalla-Granlund invited Jerome Harris, Elaine Lopez, Sheila Pree Bright, Seitu Jones and Mia Lopez to share experiences, practices and projects that present glimpses of a larger emerging structure to the students and community of The College of New Jersey Art Gallery. This group of creative practitioners were very clear : the work of radical social restructuring has already begun, and it is creating a situation that is better, more fair, more representative, more interesting, and long overdue. Each of the invited experts bring subtlety, nuance, craftsmanship, and dedication to their unique vision. The convergence of creative thought and action, and the unwavering commitment to sharing, reminds us unequivocally, now is the time to make headway. This is the way to go. >>
Graphic designer, DJ and dancer, Jerome Harris shares his work around exposing and correcting historical wrongs, reinterpreting and expanding forms of expression and study in graphic design and beyond. Through his adaptive traveling exhibition As, Not For, he calls out ‘the severe underrepresentation of African-American graphic design theories, methodologies, aesthetics, and practitioners in the field as a whole’ with curiosity and appreciation for the work he has uncovered, meanwhile openly exploring the process of creating a history when archives are missing. His research and practice have revealed that when working with black graphic design the boundaries of graphic design become fluid; that design is just one component of a complex community ecosystem. This comes alive in his work @32counts, a series of visual-musical-graphical-choreographed gestures appearing on Instagram. In the expansive, honest spaces he establishes, he shows that history isn’t confined to the past, it is a living narrative, and invites his audience to come as you are.
Elaine Lopez facilitates and creates graphic design experiences to generate opportunities for people to engage with each other. Sharing observations as a Cuban-American woman, she questions oversimplified and exclusionary narratives in mainstream graphic design. She demonstrates that graphic design can be used to amplify the perspectives of one community to another, utilizing tools such as the risograph as ‘inherently easy to use and joyful,’ a pragmatic and powerful tool for addressing challenging topic areas such as identity, or games adapted and derived from her Cuban heritage such as dominoes and La Charada, using play to draw out complexity and facilitate conversation. Through her considered, unapologetically multiplex projects and her interactive teaching approach, she prioritizes opportunities for ‘unstructured organic communication that bring together art and design students to communicate non-normative experiences.’ These underrepresented narratives, she shows, question and expand our worldview, creating a radical, transformative shift in how graphic design can be used to connect and expand.
Sheila Pree Bright’s photographic series calls on narrative and subtlety to change perceptions of black bodies. Through her practice, she is a witness to what is real; not what is fed through a media narrative or a whitewashed history lesson, but by what exists, what is present. Her Barbie series blurs the lines between reality and non-reality, her series of suburban home interiors should be unsurprising, and her series on mothers whose children were missing and murdered in Atlanta is attentive and transformative. Her flag portrait series was a collaboration with her subjects; the way they chose to present themselves and the flag sparked conversation and understanding. “The flag means different things to each individual.” Her work is relationships through photographic form—she is here, now, and so are her subjects, and the series of images they form. And while she is absolutely aware of the projections imposed on her work by others, it does not influence her explorations. This awareness and expertise is a form of resistance, an example, a way forward. “I am talking about liberation and the humanity of it and the confidence of it and what I am trying to do,” she explains. “All of us have to open up our minds to try to understand each other.”
Teacher, thinker, community activist, artist and baker, Seitu Jones was interviewed by TCNJ student Hannah Coward. In this conversation, he underscored the importance of interdisciplinary practice, and how components such as the length of the project or the artistic medium were variables in support of an ongoing commitment to make his community more beautiful than he found it. His recent projects, including a George Floyd downloadable stencil and baking bread with the Frogtown Park and Farm, a community space that he founded, reflect his career-long exploration with multidisciplinary arts and community engagement. He reminds us, through his lived experience as an artist-thinker-activist through the turmoil in the US 50 years ago, that he is a recorder and witness to ‘different points in time in our American history where African American men have been threatened…[and] how folks without power are treated.’ This is an important parallel to now, he maintains, and each of us can raise our voices in a unique way. “This is all a part of changing the power dynamic and the power relationship,’ he explains. He is an eye opener and a wisdom transformer.
Mia Lopez is a curatorial activist. She uses the process of curation to amplify marginalized voices, to allow the cultural politics of artists speak for themselves rather than imposing a curatorial view, and to allow visitors to arrive at their own conclusions. Through projects such as the performative piece The Museum of Revisionist Art History at the Art Institute of Chicago and the curation of Remember Where You Are at the DePaul Art Museum, she emphasizes a plurality of voices, demonstrating “there are lots of different protagonists in the stories you’re telling.” She invites those who work in museums to consider things differently, to be “less aspirational towards what we think perfection is, to the exclusion of pretty much everyone, to a more present tense reflection of what is happening right now.” She notes the potential of the digital space to expand audiences, presenting a three-dimensional, pragmatic case for progressive upgrading in museum spaces and communities. [This is an] “opportunity to take a good hard look and say what can we do better…Top of mind is patience, grace and kindness. These are unprecedented times…Careful consideration of next steps is so essential.”
For the gallery, Be Here Now is a responsive shift from presenting physical work in a space to a series of creative conversations between practising change makers. Its structure was unexpected and organic, propelled by the urgency of the moment, the enthusiasm of students, faculty and staff, and the tools available. It’s different from before, and it worked.
The speakers in the series report on, among other things, glaring hypocrisies in art and design practice that must be corrected and expanded even more. And in the fields of art and design, we have the tools and the skills to make those adjustments. We are trained to observe and respond, to innovate, we are comfortable with critique, experimentation, sharing outcomes publicly and then improving parts of the process. This is why artists and designers are at the forefront of this profound social change. This is why the question periods after each presentation were so lively. Something’s got to happen, and it starts with us.
As Seitu Jones said, it’s not until hindsight that a person is able to see the turning points and major influences in their life and practice. We know this now, though: there is a heat to this time, and we get to be here for it, to be in it, to see it play out, one way or the other. The global pandemic has disrupted so many fundamental aspects of our established society including educational norms, widespread protests and actions against police brutality and systemic racism are not going away, worldwide political and financial upheaval…what next. And here’s where there is a jump in the narrative: what if what’s next is us? There probably isn’t a person involved in this project who isn’t compelled by the palpable (and fragile) potential for real and lasting change amidst this profound shakeup. What if what’s next is a period of expansive, creative, technical innovation for equality, progress, enrichment, balance, humour and joy not seen in centuries, led by people from all backgrounds, cultural traditions, places, ages, connected and working via artistic inquiry and practice? This is why Be Here Now is such an important collective conversation.
The generosity and expertise of these artists, designers and curators bring openness, wisdom and nuance to the landscape of massive shifts. Together this cohort is a power beyond measure. The artists, the designers, the curators, the students; we lead the way.