Partnership in Action: DS4SI and Augment

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The Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) is an Upham’s Corner-based creativity lab dedicated to changing how social justice is imagined, developed and deployed in the United States. As a partner in the Fairmount Cultural Corridor, we have done creative placemaking work with residents, merchants and local artists in Upham’s Corner since 2012, and we’ve been located right in the center of it for just over a year. That said, our work is both local and national, and there are really exciting ways that Augment touches on both. 

Augment and the Upham’s Corner Arts & Innovation District

Locally, Augment comes at a time when the City of Boston has labeled Upham’s Corner a new “Arts and Innovation District”.  The primary question for residents about the “Arts and Innovation District" boils down to “Who is it for?” In community meetings, this is reflected in questions about gentrification and displacement, as well as questions about if the arts opportunities will be culturally relevant and accessible. 

In response to these concerns, DS4SI and local partner DSNI (Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative) have been mobilizing local artists, organizations, and residents to imagine what the district could be like if it prioritized local cultures, communities, and artists. To us, bringing Nick Cave to Upham’s Corner is a powerful example of what’s possible. Because of that, it was especially important to have the project involve the community.

The first gathering of local artists, DS4SI staff, N+T team members, and Nick Cave, February 2019.

The first gathering of local artists, DS4SI staff, N+T team members, and Nick Cave, February 2019.

The  Augment  collage cart. Engage with it at the upcoming inPublic festival 9/14!

The Augment collage cart. Engage with it at the upcoming inPublic festival 9/14!

When Now + There approached us to be a community partner for Augment, we immediately realized the possibilities and importance of engaging the community. To engage neighborhood residents, merchants, artists and families, DS4SI and Boston artists Destiny Polk, L’Merchie Frazier, Barrington Edwards and Wilton Tejeda led 15 collage workshops at Upham’s Corner community sites. Over the course of four months, we held workshops at the local library, churches, schools and community programs, gathering over 100 collages based on the prompt, “What brings you joy?”  Each workshop fostered increased dialogue around public space, public art, and how joy is profoundly personal but also collective, shared and cultural. In addition, DS4SI and Wilton Tejeda brought a mobile collage cart out on the streets to engage passers-by who might not know about the workshops or the upcoming installation. 

To us, these workshops and the cart served a dual purpose: 

1) To have the community be a part of thinking about joy and see their collages and ideas on the building wrap at 555 Columbia Avenue (where the sculpture will ultimately be installed), and 

2) To make sure there were many ways that community members learned about the installation. When passersby saw it, we wanted them to know it was for them. If someone said, “What the heck is this?” we wanted their friend to say, “Oh, my son did a collage for that at the community center,” or “Wow, that’s my collage from church!” 

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If the Arts & Innovation District is to reflect and engage the community, why not start with its first spectacle? Augment gave us a great chance to do that. 

Augment and Social Intervention

Much of our national work engages artists, activists, academics and the public in using cultural tactics and social interventions to address complex problems. We feel artists are critical to this work because they work with the symbolic and understand how people, communities, and cultures use symbols to make collective meaning. Understanding this aspect of social life makes it possible to work within it as a point of leverage for social change. 

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The inflatable sculpture that Nick Cave created for Augment is a beautiful example of one of our favorite cultural tactics—something we call “the symbol and the thing”. By that we mean a gesture, item, infrastructure, habit, etc., that operates on both the symbolic and literal levels. By being both a symbol and a real thing, it becomes something artists and activists can intervene on in everyday life. For Cave, the ever-present lawn inflatables were the symbol he so deftly pulled from the terrain of daily life. On his way home for Thanksgiving, he recognized how the holiday-inspired lawn inflatables symbolized our intense and complex relationships to joy, family and holidays. 

When artists and activists identify a symbol that is relevant to the problem they are addressing, we work with them to design a social intervention that amplifies it or “makes it strange.” In so doing, they can shift how people see—or don’t see!—the issue, as well as challenge how it’s subtly embedded in the numerous contours of daily life. Nick Cave not only identified a powerful and familiar symbol—the lawn inflatable—but then he amplified it and made it strange in ways that are fabulous and joyful but also in your face and confusing. He certainly doesn’t let us get away with thinking joy is a simple thing!

The Joy Parade and inPUBLIC

It is no coincidence that the Augment Joy Parade is ending at our inPUBLIC Festival in Upham’s Corner, nor that it is coinciding with the Annual Arts & Health Street Festival put on by Upham’s Corner Main Street and the Upham’s Corner Health Center. To us, intentionally overlapping these events is critical for two reasons:

  1. It is important that the Upham’s Corner community feel a part of the parade and the block party. It goes back to their hopes and fears about the Arts & Innovation District. If we can collectively ensure that Upham’s residents and merchants are a part of the Joy—whether marching in the parade or enjoying activities at the Arts & Health Street Festival or dancing, drumming and more at inPUBLIC—then we will start to underscore that the Arts & Innovation District truly can be something that is “for them.”  

  2. Like Nick Cave, DS4SI has thought a lot about the significance of joy right now. In our writing on Spatial Justice, we talk about reclaiming people’s rights to be, thrive, express and connect across space. Joy is such a part of this, and like many rights, our rights to thrive and express our joy are not evenly distributed. For many people of color in Boston, being out in public can feel alienating, invisibilizing or even dangerous.  With this in mind, our two day inPUBLIC Festival will be a dynamic platform for demonstrating the connections between public space and collective healing, joy, play and laughter. With our partner Company One and the many artists and activists who are co-creating inPUBLIC with us, DS4SI aims to create a multi-textured and joyous counter-atmosphere to this moment of increased isolation, tension and repression. Nick Cave’s explosively joyful sculptures might be just the “symbol and the thing” that captures—and amplifies—the complexity of joy in public.  

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Many thanks to the Now + There team for inviting us to be a part of this exciting and challenging process, and for being open to the learning that we are all doing along the way. Like the UC Arts & Innovation District, having Augment come to Upham’s Corner feels exciting and risky. “Who is it for?” still resonates in the process. We hope that together with the Upham’s Corner community, our local artist and activist partners and the larger arts community of Boston, we will be creating public art that reflects and amplifies the joy in all of us.

555 Columbia Rd. adorned with artwork created by the neighborhood — awaiting the arrival of the Augment sculpture for installation.

555 Columbia Rd. adorned with artwork created by the neighborhood — awaiting the arrival of the Augment sculpture for installation.

Lori Lobenstine is the Program Design Lead and Co-Founder of the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI). She grew up in a family of community and union organizers, and decided early on that working with youth was her passion and her route to creating change, including in settings as diverse as classrooms, basketball courts, museums and foreign countries. Throughout these experiences, she has struggled with the challenges of creating new designs with youth, in fields that are often top-heavy and funding-driven. As a life-long activist, she is inspired by the vision that new design tools and a greater design awareness will bring new energy and power to our work. Her published works in print include Girls Got Kicks (Levellers Press, 2011) and All About the Girl: Culture, Politics and Identity (Editor, Harris; Routledge,2004).