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  • jonathan conner

PUBLIC ART THROUGH AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL LENS

Updated: Dec 13, 2022


In the summer of 2008, while participating for the first time in Artworks Trenton’s Art All Night, a 24 hour art and music festival, I bumped into a former art school classmate who invited me to check out his upcoming graffiti event, The Jersey Fresh Jam. At the jam, I met a number of local graffiti artists and muralists, got invited to another event (this time in New Brunswick, NJ), and essentially found my place in the local art community. Over the course of the next ten plus years, I would see that community grow and thrive and participation in events like the Jersey Fresh Jam and Art All Night swell to record numbers. Throughout the same span of time, I’ve seen the pitfalls and struggles of creating public art in a post-industrial city like Trenton, where government ineptitude, a dwindling tax base, and a perception of the city of being broken, or dangerous held by the population of the local suburbs, have all played a role in the failure of projects or has disheartened artists who have poured their soul into the beautification of the city. Experiencing these highs and lows of public art successes and failures as a participating and organizing artist led me to begin asking questions about how we can maximize efforts to truly make the arts an economic engine and cultural draw for the capital city. As an artist, I felt that it did indeed have that power, but how does one ask those questions and how do you quantify the answers to create action and change? In order to acquire the tools to ask and answer those questions I began a master’s program in anthropology that I hope will expand my skillset and provide new perspective on the work being done in the Trenton arts community.

As things often go, at the same time I began my studies, I was invited to join a project that synthesizes the struggles of creating public art in Trenton and provides opportunity for creative ways to present academic research and open dialog about issues effecting the city’s population. The OK Trenton Project, attempts to tell the story of a piece of public art, it’s misinterpreted meaning, and eventual removal in the form of a documentary-style play told through the words of artists, city officials, and residents. Through the course of researching the play, ensemble members made connections to other events related to public art before and after, providing additional context to how art can uncover power dynamics and ultimately effect a community. Anthropology is a tool for exposing the meaning and connections of human institutions, and theater is a universal human institution that provides opportunity for spectators to feel the force of the original experience.1 I’ll be going into further detail on The OK Trenton Project in a later post, but mention it here to introduce the idea of presentation of research beyond the traditional written text (ethnography), in this case using performative art to move scholarship from retrospective to active engagement.2

My intention as an artist/anthropologist moving forward in my current and future research is several fold; first and foremost my intention is to make academic concepts relevant and relatable to the widest possible audience, understanding that a completely intellectual approach does not account for all possible interpretations of a subject.3 Secondly, the use of common language and strong visual presentation of qualitative (interpreted) and quantitative (mathematical) data opens the conversation to voices that may be otherwise overlooked. What is the point of collecting data to fight against power structures if it’s not presented clearly and concisely to the population most effected? Third, to provide opportunity for community empowerment though engagement, focusing on using academic research processes and participatory art events as a megaphone for stakeholders to voice their concerns and claim the space that is too often controlled from the top down. Finally, I’m seeking to understand and share the best ways to measure and prove the influence and impact of the cultural capital created though public art4 by a local and engaged arts community. I’m embracing an anthropological approach that avoids the discipline’s historical failings of a “helicopter” researcher that drops into a location to gather data and leaves to write up their findings, and instead builds on a partnership with a community that focuses on a constant cycle of creation and evaluation. Having spent so many years embedded in a small, but thriving arts community, and now viewing it through the lens of an anthropologist, I feel as though I can help shape a methodology that focuses on community and collaboration built on past successes and failures, and embraces multiple avenues of visual interpretation and presentation that informs and engages.

1. Beeman, William O. 1993. “The Anthropology of Theater and Spectacle” Annual Review of Anthropology 22 369-393.

2. Gatt, Caroline. 2015. “The Anthropologist as Ensemble Member: Anthropological Experiments with Theatre Makers” Anthropology, Theatre, and Development 334-368.

3. MacClancy, Jeremy. 1997. “Contesting Art: Art, Politics and Identity in the Modern World” Oxford; New York: Berg.

4. Cartierre, Cameron and Ashley Guindon. 2018. “Sustainable of public art: a view on cultural capital and environmental impact” in Public Art Encounters: Art, Space and Identity edited by Martin Zebracki and Joni M. Palmer, 70-87. London; New York: Routledge.

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