Artist as Citizen

February 22, 2011

In 2003, Ian Umeda (MFA 2005 Photography, Video and Related Media) attended a lecture at SVA by director Richard Reiss about the role of the artist in helping to form public opinion. Umeda immediately approached Reiss about collaborating on the project that would become Artist as Citizen (AAC), Umeda’s thesis project and post-graduation endeavor. Umeda spoke to the Briefs about AAC, how it works and what it’s accomplished in its first few years.

How does AAC work?

AAC is about getting students to create artwork addressing the important issues of the day. We provide micro-grants, creative and technical support, and we publish the final work on the Internet. Through our process, art students put new ideas about significant issues into the public arena. Enabling art students to work on projects that have real relevance to issues in society is an invaluable benefit to the creative development of an artist.

What was the first moment when you thought, ‘Hey, this is working’?
There have been many successes as far as what AAC has been able to achieve and produce, including collaborations with, Grameen America and The New York Times. But on the organizational level, AAC still runs on pure love on the part of Richard, myself and everyone involved, because we are volunteers. Over time we are looking to build it into a full-time organization and gradually add a permanent staff.

Is there a signature AAC project?
There are two that give a good sense of what AAC does:

AAC3 – Israel & Palestine: This is a collection of photographic portraits and audio interviews from Israelis and Palestinians, all of them members of OneVoice, a peace and reconciliation organization trying to solve the conflict from both sides. AAC sent Rachel Feierman, then an MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department student, to Israel and commissioned Mohammed Farra, a student photographer in Palestine, to take photos and conduct interviews on both sides of the conflict. The result is a Web site presentation that shows a unique and human perspective on the otherwise overdone subject of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

AAC9 – Dot Earth Climate Competition: For this project, we held a competition to redesign or reinvent a climate change risk diagram that featured on The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog. The entrants came from all creative backgrounds and from all over the world. The competition was judged by Ji Lee, creative director from Google Creative Lab, and finalists were featured on Dot Earth, where the blog’s readers voted for the winner. The winner received a $2,000 prize from AAC, funded by donations.

How has AAC changed since launch?
The Web site has gone through several renewals since its launch in 2005. The first version was focused on new methods of visualizing artwork through the internet, taking functional and aesthetic influences from print magazines and many cutting-edge visual sites and online applications. You can see the archived version here: (warning: highly experimental). In subsequent versions, we decided to shift the site’s structure to a more practical level and let the artwork do the experimentation. We are currently working on another revision of our site that we are excited about.

What is in the near- and long-term future for the site?
AAC is currently collaborating with CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities on a project called City Atlas, which is an environmental atlas of NYC, focusing on the idea of sustainable cities. CUNY and AAC received a 2010 Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund grant to build the Atlas, and several SVA alumni are  involved as creative contributors: photographer Maureen Drennan (MFA 2009 Photography, Video and Related Media), and designers Takashi Kusui (BFA 2008 Graphic Design), Jonathan Serrano (BFA 2010 Graphic Design) and Hui Min Lee BFA 2010 Graphic Design). We are also now building our board of directors which, when complete, will help us with those ‘Hey, this is working’ moments.

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