I’ve long been interested in how artists use their work towards social justice and social change. “Artists are in a unique position to critique institutional power as they are both the victims of oppression… as well as its enablers” Ilana Novick recently wrote for Hyperallergic.
In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election we’ve seen artists, curators, and art institutions respond to what is happening. MoMA, for example, in response to Trump’s Muslim Ban, replaced several works in its permanent collection galleries with works by artists from Muslim-majority nations, affected by the ban. Nasty Women Exhibition demonstrated solidarity among artists in support of women’s rights and access to reproductive healthcare.
Recently, I met with someone who is “on the ground” working every day to support artists and collectives creating work that enacts social change. Joelle Te Paske is Programs and Communications Manager at A Blade of Grass, a NYC-based arts nonprofit dedicated to socially engaged art. I asked Joelle about using art as a tool for social change, artists’ role in local communities, and some of Joelle’s current favorite projects.
Greenpointers: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and work with A Blade of Grass?
Joelle: I’ve been in NYC for almost ten years now, by way of Boston. My parents met in the middle – mom emigrating from Johannesburg, South Africa, and dad coming from a small town in Iowa. They’re both artists, and, between them and my brother’s seemingly limitless knowledge of computers and sci-fi, my family has had a big impact on my work.
I’ve been with A Blade of Grass for three years. I manage all of the organization’s digital communications and public programs, sharing stories about artists as change makers. It’s been a nice loop back around to what I studied in college, where I looked at how art practice can play with social and political orders – how it can invent on the world we live in productive ways.
In between school and ABOG I did some internships and was working in contemporary art galleries, working for two incredible women – Kate Werble, and Paula Cooper. Getting a close look at the infrastructure supporting the fine art world was eye-opening. You don’t know what it takes to crate an artwork until you have to crate an artwork. Shout out to art preparators. You do amazing work.
GP: What was your initial reaction to the 2016 election?
JTP: It was sadness. I attended protests, spent (too much) time reading articles online, and talked to my coworkers, friends, loved ones, bartenders… you get the idea. I’m grateful for a friend who’s a teacher who helped me re-prioritize. She said: “Do the work you’re already doing, but push it further. Don’t get distracted. Re-commit.” It’s something that Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl stressed at the New Museum recently too. And they’re right. Working at A Blade of Grass I am lucky to work with artists who have been thinking through resistance for a long time. The work remains, but the urgency and intention changes.
There are some tangible changes I’m trying to put in place too. I downloaded Signal. I close the Facebook tab more often. And I try to get out and put my body in the street.
GP: How have you used art to address post election grief and/or begin the healing process?
JTP: I spent time at the post-it note wall at Union Square, which was originally initiated by an artist named Levee. The artist Adaku Utah and healing village Harriet’s Apothecary share incredible resources too.
I’m also grateful for Kerry James Marshall, Agnes Martin, and Alex Da Corte, whose work brought me into new worlds post-election. Sometimes you just need to wade into beauty and see where it leaves you.
GP: How have you opened yourself up to opposing viewpoints and opened channels for communications with people with different backgrounds?
JTP: I’ve been thinking about the communities of people I know, and where they overlap and where they do not. Family is a huge part of that. Creative, collective endeavors like the crowdsourced open letter Asian Americans put together last summer to talk about Black Lives Matter with family – that is work I keep thinking about.
GP: What can artists and community members do locally to help enact change?
JTP: I’m excited about these Solidarity Sunday parties. Setting up recurring donations. Trying to weave resistance in. I’m still working on it myself. But overall creating an art world and political culture that invites people in – that’s important to me. Why not make them the same thing?
I loved a tactic artist Elizabeth Hamby shared on Facebook of using the ideology of “Yes, and…” from improv as an organizing strategy. Instead of shutting ideas down, using a “Yes, and…” approach can make people feel welcome into a new kind of resistance.
GP: Who or what else inspires you?
JTP: The people I’ve mentioned and quoted from here, definitely. And I’m thinking about Charlotte Moorman, Missy Elliott, Olia Lialina, and working with artists like Black Quantum Futurism and Fran Ilich. Anonymous brilliant people who make memes and gifs. The work Electric Objects is doing. The people in my life who are new parents, definitely! And mememememememepost, my imaginary living room on the internet for the past four years.
GP: Do you have top priorities and goals for this year? Next four years?
JTP: If I had to collapse it into one idea it would be… acclimate without normalizing. How can I use anger to protect radical love? The kind of love that can care for resistance? Maya Angelou talked about anger in an interview she did with Dave Chappelle. She said: “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” Yes!
GP: What do you love most about Greenpoint? What are some of your favorite spots?
JTP: I’m new to Greenpoint but I love being near the water. From city life to wide open space just like that. And I will never stop being amazed that you can buy as many fruits and vegetables as you want, very cheaply, at any hour of the day at Mr. Berry on Manhattan Ave. That’s been a dream come true!
Learn more at ABladeOfGrass.org