COMBINING COMMUNITY WITH WRITING
Communograph is a multi-platform art project, conceived and initiated by Ashley Hunt and organized in collaboration with residents of Houston’s Third Ward community, Project Row Houses, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, and students and faculty of the University of Houston’s School of Art.
Hunt was originally invited to make a map of the Third Ward neighborhood that surrounds Project Row Houses, and through initial conversations with community members and questions about what it means to make a map today, the project expanded into a framework for community-based research, featuring five parallel activities. The title, “Communograph,” was developed to combine “community” with “writing” so as to ground this research in a writing of community from the perspective of the community itself. In this way, each of the five research activities serves as a platform for community members to enter into conversation, sharing their thinking and authorship. The goal is to build local questions, knowledge, audience and interpretation for what will, in the end, become an atlas for community members and institutions.
FIVE RESEARCH PLATFORMS
- The Communograph House, an exhibition of research-based artworks by artists: Regina Agu, Lisa Harris, journey, Michael Khalil Taylor, Rebecca Novak, and Ifeanyi “Res” Okoro; the exhibition is curated collaboratively, between the artists and the project’s organizers;
- Mapping Community Through Creative Action is a series of public programs presented by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts (MC) and offered in conjunction with Communograph, an original project by artist, Ashley Hunt, commissioned by Project Row Houses (PRH).This series is curated by Bree Edwards (MC) and Ashley Clemmer Hoffman (PRH).
- Sidewalk Talks, a neighborhood conversation series taking place in front of the Communograph House twice a month, organized by the artists from the Communograph House and members of the surrounding community, which will be supported in part by students of J Hill’s IART class at the University of Houston;
- A project of participatory mapping and story collection, open to contributions by community members and visitors to Project Row Houses, constructed by students of Cheryl Beckett’s Graphic Communication class at the University of Houston’s School of Art with support from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts;
- An interactive website, offering information on the project and an archive for the research we gather, designed by the students of Beckham Dossett’s Graphic Communications class at the University of Houston’s School of Art.
Each platform acts as the initiation of research processes rather than a final outcome or “finished work” in the conventional sense, and each has been developed out of collective dialogues with the featured artists, members of the sponsoring organizations, and with residents of the Third Ward.
The conversation that led to the curation of the Communograph House — between participating artists and the project’s organizers, including project manager, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle — played a particularly central role in guiding the project overall. Here we took up the many challenges of representing a place as complex as the Third Ward, the histories of this representation and the futures that can be dreamed with new maps. This allowed the artists to utilize their existing relationships to the community, functioning as both an advisory panel for the project at large and as ambassadors for the project within the local neighborhood.
A guiding principle that emerged from this conversation came from participating artist, Michael Kahlil Taylor, who asked simply: What are the needs of the local community, and how can our creative resources be directed toward those needs?
This question defines the success of the project according to the relevance it finds within the surrounding community, prioritizing that it address the constituents of the Third Ward, and does so in terms that are relevant to them. This issues a key challenge to how art projects of this nature call upon their audiences: Whose values they are we accountable to? Whose definitions of creative activity and art are privileged? What roles are defined for “the community” in the production and reception of the work? Who defines what “the community” even is? Grappling with these questions while still ensuring that the project speaks to multiple publics at once, this thinking has echoed throughout the development of each platform and guided the partnerships that have made them possible.
In the Communograph House, this resulted in a collaboratively authored exhibition. It features research-based artworks developed by each artist, in conversation with one another and with community members to whom they are connected. The works take up multiple ways of understanding research — privileging our senses, perception and voice along side more conventional research methods. Their integration in the exhibition space places them in conversation with one another, addressing viewers as a larger “text” to be read, or as a constellation of starting points ready to be followed throughout the other platforms.
This same conversation led to the Sidewalk Talks series as well, which extends the exhibition out of itself and onto the sidewalk in front. This opens the project’s discourse to the voices and concerns of the surrounding neighborhood, taking up its pressing issues and inviting neighbors directly into the project’s dialogue.
While this expansion of the project’s conversation invites community input on the level of the local, the Communograph Public Program Series connects the local to conversations elsewhere as well, situating the project within national and international debates about the habits of community-based art, architectural and photographic histories, and the ways that contemporary art and activist practices engage processes of community and grassroots change.
Finally, the partnership and support of the students and faculty from the University of Houston’s School of Art have extended the capacity and spirit of the project invaluably, experimenting with the forms that our research can take and be utilized, growing the number of voices that can be brought meaningfully into our dialogues, and finding ways for young artists to act in concert with community and civic actors. This participation and the partnership between the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and Project Row Houses, which made the project possible, have allowed for connections to be made between these entities and the members of the Third Ward community they have met along the way, which we hope will continue to grow.
The Communograph project will find its conclusion at the end of Project Row Houses’ Round 35, where this initial stage of the project is situated, from October 2011 through February 2012. The project has been made possible by the partnership, organization and support of Ashley Clemmer-Hoffman, Brittney Connelly, Bree Edwards, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, the staff and residents of Project Row Houses, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, and the classes of Cheryl Beckett, Beckham Dossett and J Hill at the School of Art at the University of Houston, and the young people who participate in Project Row Houses’ summer education classes.