A DANGEROUS IMAGINATION: creation, resistance, and togetherness

Ideally, the art class is one of the few places where we are allowed to create things that don’t yet exist. Where we aren’t chastised for failure and where risk taking is encouraged. We are encouraged to play and explore materials and ideas we aren’t familiar with. To sit with the uncomfortable idea that we don’t know what the end result will be and slowly learn from the process. We are asked to slow down and respond to the people around us, to consider questions being raised by critiques, to take into account new ideas that emerge from conversations. We are encouraged to be vulnerable and reflect on what we don’t know as part of the visual research we are undertaking. Paying close attention to why things bring us joy and paying close attention to the things that make us feel uncomfortable.

Little Village community member showing the tote they printed out and colored.

As a first generation Mexican American and the first person in my family to attend college, art education introduced me to a language through which I could justify to others why the stories present in historically marginalized neighborhoods, the legacies that are often forgotten, and the labor that goes uncelebrated needs to be centered in the art classroom. In centering them, we remind students of their power to amplify the complexities that exist in their neighborhood. We remind them that their experiences deserve to be celebrated. We are also reminded that we don’t need permission to tell our stories, to document our experiences, or to share the legacies of the people who have created the spaces for us to flourish in. These lessons, and many others I won’t be able to write about in this essay, are the ones I have learned through teaching and are the lessons that are often at the center of my arts practice with communities.

Much as in the classroom, my goal in creating art in public is to engage others in the process that disrupts their daily routines. I am asking people to be vulnerable by engaging in creating with me. In asking them to be vulnerable, I have to do the same. Sharing time and space with people in their neighborhoods is a constant reminder of how privileged I am in learning with others. People who I may never interact with again but whose experiences are part of an ongoing conversation. They share their stories, experiences, and concerns with me and anyone else who is creating with us. We are asked to listen. To listen attentively. We listen while screen printing. Whether we are pulling a print or adding to the print someone else has gifted us, we mutually create a space where we can learn from and with each other, recreating the classrooms I usually teach in.

Printing with the Mobile Street Art Cart Project as part of the Mosaic: Albany Park Arts Festival.

The Mobile Street Art Cart (MSAC) Project is designed to function on the street. It is inspired by ice cream and food vendor carts found in Little Village, a Mexican American neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. When stationary, its built-in tables can unfold to reach a width of 4 feet and a length of 10 feet. It was designed to be pulled by a bike or pushed by hand. The MSAC Project is meant to 1) Provide free art projects to people on the streets of their neighborhood; 2) Address issues relevant to their community; 3) Create a temporary space where people and I can talk about art and its impact on their neighborhood, and 4) Share resources to support artmaking and community-building. It amplifies the creativity that already exists in the neighborhood by addressing relevant social issues through art making in the streets. The MSAC Project uses art processes predominately used in organizing, but I especially love screen-printing as a way to invite people to make art with me. I also love ringing the ice cream bell to call out to people who may be curious but unsure of approaching me, calling to them to join me in free art making. The prints we create begin as prompts people are invited to answer. My arts practice uses these prompts to create a critical space for people to engage in dialogue about what is happening in the neighborhood. It generates a classroom in a public space where adults are reminded to play. To engage their imagination. To imagine possible futures with others. To use art as a conduit for community building. To establish stronger relationships, share ideas, and organize toward a collective future. Art making in public invites people to see their individual work as part of a larger conversation happening across their community and the city. It is also a creative interruption in their busy schedule. It is an invitation to step out of their comfort zones. To create a space and time to listen, learn, and create. I am asking them to be vulnerable, to make mistakes. This can be a messy process but most of the time, when we are all fully present, we engage in wonderful conversations and we are all reminded that making art isn’t just for young people. There is joy in making with others. There is joy in others listening to you.

Printing with the Mobile Street Art Cart Project as part of Grabadolandia at the National Museum of Mexican Fine Arts.

Making art with people in their neighborhoods can be a radical act. Especially for adults who are constantly told their value comes from their labor. It can be a radical act for adults whose labor isn’t valued and is only celebrated when their work is deemed essential by their bosses, but their bodies are still considered disposable. Their joy and the ability to experience joy through art making is something I am constantly reminded of when I invite adults to make with me and they tell me they can’t because the young people in their lives aren’t with them. They need to be convinced that they can play too, that they can make art. Our imagination is dangerous. Our solidarity is dangerous. The ability to imagine spaces that are built on mutual aid and community support outside of existing systems is scary for many. I am constantly reminded by the people I get to collaborate with that art is used to make our dreams a reality. Art takes something we have only imagined, and it gets it closer to reality. It helps others imagine those futures as well. It helps them imagine their own futures. Art making is a reminder that they can engage their imagination. Art making is a form of resistance. It is a song that lifts our spirit. It is a poem that documents our stories. It is a quilt that was created when organizing our communities. Art is a document and guide that we use toward our collective liberation.

Elan Alo Estrada hanging prints to dry at the Homan Square Tower Residency as part of the R.A.D.I.C.A.L. Printshop Project.

The R.A.D.I.C.A.L. Printshop Project is a pop up public printshop meant to exist temporarily in community spaces. Its focus is to teach basic accessible printing techniques that are used in the creation of graphic images within a social and political context that amplify the stories and concerns of historically marginalized groups. I aim to work directly with people in community organizations doing grassroots organizing to develop and distribute images that support people powered movements. The priority is to learn from each other and the work of artists, organizers, and activists working in collaboration with people that challenge oppressive systems. It is also an opportunity for people to share resources, for people who are interested in learning how to support people led movements to have a space to design, talk through ideas, and imagine future possibilities. It is an artmaking space, much like the classrooms I teach in, that centers learning with each other. It is an invitation to share the joy we experience in organizing for things we feel strongly about. We are reminded to center our joy in creating and we allow others to witness the joy we experience in creating. The R.A.D.I.C.A.L. Printshop project is radical because we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others. We are creating a space to ask questions, questions we may not have the answers to yet.

Protect Communities Prints designed in collaboration with Dr. Patricia Nguyen drying at the PO Box Collective as part of the R.A.D.I.C.A.L. Printshop Project.

Imagining different possibilities is part of the process of making together. It is also an important part of my practice as a teacher and artist. When we give ourselves permission to create with people, we consider strangers, we build opportunities to build new relationships. The collaboration we undertake with others begins to intertwine our experiences. It creates a mutual responsibility to each other, not only as a form of resistance but as a reminder that we must ensure we all experience joy. It is our mutual responsibility and togetherness that will guarantee our collective liberation. Our imagination is dangerous, but only because it reminds us that our collective power is our greatest strength.

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