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Melding Public Art, Civics at Emerson Engagement Lab

Art, especially public art, is “a tool used to forge bonds of empathy and to build networks of trust,” according to Christina Wilson, programs manager of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College.

She spoke at a forum on October 4 called “Civic Media and the Arts in Public Places” alongside Engagement Lab Director and Visual and Media Arts Associate Professor Eric Gordon, and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics Co-chair Nigel Jacob. ArtWeek Boston also co-sponsored the event, organized by Boston Art in Public Places (APP) Lab Executive Director Ron Mallis.

“To me, this was about unpacking and repacking the word ‘civic’ and the various manifestations of what that actually looks like in practice,” Mallis said after the workshop. “The notion of history through objects, to me, really resonated.”

About a dozen researchers, visual artists, and musicians met in the Engagement Lab to discuss the intersection of public art with civic engagement and technology. This was the 28th workshop hosted by the Boston APP Lab, which Mallis said is an organization aimed at invigorating Boston’s public art scene, whether it be spoken word, visual art, dance, or music.

“We can have these discussions,” Jacob said, reflecting on the discussion, “and because we represent different organizations, we can actually talk about civic issues in more open ways and figure out what we want to try and what kind of challenges we want to take on.”

The group talked about how to foster engagement in consumers of public art in new ways. Participants brainstormed how artists and government agencies can collaborate with community members to create meaningful and evocative messages. They agreed the most important part of these projects is the lasting impact it has on the public places where they are exhibited.

“After it leaves, there’s evidence of it having been there,” Mallis said. “Thinking about that kind of collaboration and what it produces in the short term, the other aspect of it is what it could produce in the long term.”

Participants in the forum spoke about public art projects they felt met these criteria, honing in on art installations that used people’s material possessions to spark conversation. They talked about the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia; an artist based on Cape Cod collecting people’s throwaway keys and the stories behind them; and an exhibition in China called “Traveling Inside Your Own Room,” where participants were asked to tell stories about various objects and parts of their bedrooms.

Jackie Gonzalez, a regular participant in the APP Lab workshops, said these projects could become civically engaging if public figures and politicians participated in them, suggesting their participation would make them appear more human. But then she asked, “What does activating civic engagement look like beyond general curiosity?”

Wilson responded, “I think it’s going to look different to everyone.” She continued, “For me, it’s social capital building. All of these projects are about getting to know people.”

But attendees also acknowledged that—even through art—civic engagement is not always easy. They debated whether or not community members could be civically engaged if they did not actually participate in civic media.

“It’s daring to be civically engaged if you’re young, or if you don’t look like everyone else,” Jacob said.

Gordon elaborated, “Civics is not always civil.” But he said it’s ultimately about caring.

“It’s a kind of civic caring. When you care about a place or people, that’s civic engagement.”