When artist Andrea Moore was asked to return to PlatteForum to work with high school students for the art space's summer-long program, ArtLab, she wanted to do something teenagers would be excited about. What she landed on was subversive art. Two times a week throughout the summer, Moore worked with the students to create anti-establishment and often controversial pop-up pieces with the goal of being prosocial and constructive. You can see the students' final project tomorrow afternoon as they hit the 16th Street Mall with an interactive installation that will challenge the idea of commerce in a fun, creative way: with vending machines that accept and dispense art.
We recently caught up with Moore to discuss her eight weeks working with the students, the controversy their work created, and using art as a tool to spark conversation.
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Westword: Where did the idea behind the project come from?
Andrea Moore: I started thinking about who the students were, where they came from, and what I knew about them. What I learned about the ArtLab Program is that students come from all different Denver metro high schools, and that they're all interested in different types of the arts. Some of them are writers, some of them are musicians, some of them are graffiti artists and others visual artists. And then I was thinking about what they were doing. I knew that so many of them were interested in graffiti, and because they're teenagers I started thinking about what I was interested in when I was a teenager, and I was interested in being very anti-establishment, and so I thought they might be, too. And of course they are, so that was sort of what it was born out of.
I was just trying to figure out what their interests were and then the second piece of it was trying to determine the best way to shape their interests in an exciting, but also a mature and socially conscious, way. And that's where we came up with this idea of being anti-establishment but prosocial. Particularly because PlatteForum is located in the Riverfront community, and that community is not at all representative of where these kids come from, and so I knew we would be working in a foil to where they're used to living and where they go to school, that there would be a lot of opposition. And so I wanted to be mindful but still give them a chance to flex their creative muscles. So that's kind of how it started.What kind of artists did you look to for inspiration?
For me, I had seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, so I knew about Banksy, I knew about JR, who's another graffiti artist who recently won this giant TED prize, so these are artists who go and install mostly graffiti art but also other types of installation art all over the world. One of the things that I was really drawn to about that type of work is that they're trying to get people to think and also trying to get people to behave differently. There's this difference, I think, working with teenagers'; they want to make a splash, they want to make an impact and a lot of the times they haven't really thought about, like, do I actually have something to say or am I just trying to get attention? So there's this idea of, like, we know you want to be seen, but what do you have to say?
So at the beginning, we started by figuring out what was inside of them. What were they angry about? What were they excited about? What were their passions? That was our very first class, we talked about what they were passionate about, and then we started generating poetry. We did different exercises so that they were writing their own poetry about where they come from and their personal narrative. So we were doing a lot of work to find out what was meaningful to them and then every Wednesday we would work inside PlatteForum in kind of a laboratory setting and then Thursdays we did something called "open studio," where we would take our ideas out into the public and experiment.
The PlatteForum students' "Manic" installation.
What kind of installations did the students create?
One of those early days we did the temporary installation of messaging. So I broke them into two groups and I said, "You have five minutes to come up with something that you all agree that people are not aware of enough." One group was like, "Lying, lying is something that people need to think about more" and the other group said, "Manic depression. People need to know more about manic depression." And I said, "Okay, now you have thirty minutes to go outside in the park by the river wherever you want and using only found materials, without doing anything illegal and without using anything that belongs to anybody else, you have to go and use those words, 'lying' and 'manic depression,' and go do an installation that will raise awareness about your ideas." And that was the only information that I gave them. And then they went and they did their installations and raised a lot of awareness [laughs].
That was an exciting day. But we'd also started off the trend that we saw a lot this summer, which was we would go do something and then we would feel push-back from the community. So it started this ongoing conversation about what do we mean being prosocial? We're trying to be creative compared to destructive, but do people have to like us? Can we still be prosocial if people don't like us?
For example, one guy came up and yelled at us because the students were using mulch on concrete to design some of the words with the Lies installation, and a guy came up to them and started screaming at them saying, "Hey, my friend almost died, he ran over that with his skateboard and blah blah blah." So we had a big conversation and we said, "How do you guys feel about it?" We had to have a conversation about how do you talk to adults when you're uncomfortable? When you're scared? When you're angry?
And okay, so that guy was angry. We didn't expect that. We did our research, we went out and tried it, and we didn't expect it to have that kind of reaction. We'll never be able to predict everything that's going to happen, but I think we have a responsibility to train ourselves to ask as many questions beforehand as we can to try to think about what might happen and can we live with it and does it still align with our mission to be prosocial and have a positive impact? A challenging impact, maybe, but a positive impact.
Team Manic describes their installation to Team Lies in the first Open Studio.
What other reactions did you get from the public?
I think one of the phrases that we heard a lot in that area, in Commons Park, was that some residents were very concerned about curb appeal. I heard the phrase "curb appeal" about six or seven times one day talking to various people in the community. So I think some of the residents found our work challenging because it disrupted the norm, it impacted these public common spaces. One of the questions that the students were asked was, "Who's gonna clean this up?" And that was every day, no matter what type of installation we were doing. I think a lot of people viewed our work as trash, despite the fact that we tried to be very intentional about it. The most challenging day, I actually wasn't there that day -- Meagan, the education director was there that day -- but the students were doing fortunes, like the kind of fortune you would find inside of a cookie, and also secrets. And they were writing their secrets on little pieces of paper and folding them up and writing fortunes and then their instructions were to hide them around the park for people to find. And they encountered some people who were like, "Why are you littering?" and "Clean that up" and one woman in particular was pretty aggressive and threatened to call the police.
So what I did was I went out, and there's always a police officer in the plaza, and I introduced myself and his name was Jimmy, and I said, "Officer Jimmy, I'd like to invite you to come and meet my students and I want them to meet you, and many of them have never had a positive relationship with a police officer. And I would like to build a relationship with you so that they feel like you're an asset and an advocate for them so that they don't have to be afraid if somebody's calling you about what we're doing." So Officer Jimmy came to our class and he just said, "I'm here to serve you guys, too, and I just want people to be safe and as long as no one's doing anything illegal we can all exist here together."
The students just really respected him and some of them have their own history with the law, and I think it was exciting for them to see, you know, I don't have to be afraid if someone says, "I'm calling the cops on you." I know the cop, his name is Jimmy, and he's a nice guy.
The other thing that happened, there's this man named David and he's the property manager for East West Partners and we invited him to come in and talk to the students as well, and he came in and was very polite and eager to help bridge the gap between what we were trying to do and what were the needs of the residents in the community, so that when we were trying to be prosocial we could tailor it to that specific community. So he was really great at helping to bridge the gap.
What do you have planned for the final project on Thursday afternoon?
We wanted to challenge the public to think a little differently about commerce by kind of adding a creative spin, and so we're going to this place where commerce is the order of the day. People are buying and selling goods on the 16th Street Mall and it's the premier place in our whole city that does that. In terms of tourism and other things it's this major thoroughfare for people coming to buy and sell things. So we were thinking about commerce and what has value. So we're going to be doing a temporary installation. It's about creativity, it's about art and beauty and truth, and it's about commerce. And it does involve currency, but we're challenging the idea that money is the only type of currency. That's the thing that we're really trying to investigate, this idea that money is the only type of currency. So using art as a type of currency we're going to make a statement on the 16th Street Mall doing a temporary, interactive exhibit.
Part of the installation in progress.
What I want to leave room for is what can always happen with subversive art, which is that we go out there and either within five minutes we get shut down, or we get out there and immediately one of the machines breaks and we have to get creative in the moment. There's so many elements that happen once we hit the streets that we can't plan for. It's so important with subversive art that it not ever feel like a failure. It's always an experiment, it's always a risk, and it never goes exactly like we predict it will. So the less concrete planning that we can do, the more that spirit of everything is a success will be maintained. We live in a culture that is so much about either you get something right or you get it wrong. It's yes or it's no. It's black or it's white. It works or it didn't.
And the nice thing about this type of art, and the risky thing about this type of art is that once you get out into the community and you put something out in the world, that's when it actually begins. Because it doesn't exist until that interaction takes place. So by definition, we'll never know the whole nature of it until it hits the streets, and so anything that happens after that is okay. And for the students, they're in high school and that is never true in high school. There's one way to succeed and you walk the line. For them, I want them to feel like they achieved something this summer regardless of whether or not anybody else thinks it's cool.
Why did you choose subversive art?
My real passion of working with teenagers is that I think my experience as a teenager, I was so hungry to be taken seriously and I had so many different experiences of people telling me "You'll grow out of it" or "I know you feel that way now, but one day..." And my experience as an adult, and I'm about to turn 33, is that I haven't grown out of it. I'm still hungry to be taken seriously. I'm still hungry to make an impact. And I still feel that it's extremely important. And so when I work with young people, I guess what I love about subversive art is it helps direct some of these powerful emotions like anger and fear and angst and just grief, it helps direct it and give it a voice and give it a purpose. And it helps them interact with their public in a way that doesn't have to marginalize them. Even though it's risky, it's sometimes questionable, it's controversial, it includes them. It teaches them how to get involved and actually be a part of instead of being on the fringe. That's part of what my initial excitement and initial draw to the project was, was really just trying to tell them, you know what, you're hungry? That's okay. You want to be taken seriously? All right, I take you seriously. What do you wanna say? How can we say it? And how can we say it and still be a part of a functioning, healthy public? And the parts that aren't so healthy? How can we effectively bring those to light and challenge people to make a difference in their own communities?
The installation is planned for Thursday afternoon between 2 and 3:30 p.m. on the 16th Street Mall between Market and Arapahoe streets, Moore says, but as always with temporary pop-up art, it pays to be flexible and keep your eyes open in case anything changes.
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