Public Art; a means for human development - The Artist as Social Animator

Posted by Alex White-Mazzarella, Sep 06, 2014 2 comments

Alex White-Mazzarella Alex White-Mazzarella


It was about six years ago, in 2007, sitting in my small Hong Kong apartment, that I put down ideas for a work practice that would use public art and modern culture as means of developing community and habitat. A practice where the arts would be used not just as an aesthetic to beautify or to activate space, but as productions of communality with the residents of a place and through a process that would open a space for community members to develop and connect. It came from contact with arts in public spaces.

A trip to Berlin put me in touch with a beautiful enormous mural wrapping around a residential building and all it’s appendices. The cooperation and collaboration that must have come to life between residents to bring it to life; the idea, the prospect was astounding. What was this public art? Then coming across the architectural interventions of artist architects such as Hundertwasser who experimented with trees coming out of windows and Santiago Cirugeda who with residents turned dumpsters into useable furniture. These things demonstrated a bottom up approach to city planning, and that to me was a revolution. I didn’t know it in those moments, but I was being drawn into a quest to understand how art, culture and the humanities can be harnessed to liberate communities to move further towards their potential. The only way to learn it was to do it.

Gurgaon transformationIn the following years leading teams working with residents of different communities, we were using creativity experimentally in response to voiced needs to bring to life micro-cultures (culture defined as something between people that lifts the human mind and soul). And increasingly these cultures micro-brewed as solutions of sorts, were bringing forth traces of the type of transformation that was wanted with success depending on the length of each initiative we employed. Discussion circles, art workshops, interviews, murals video projections, flag making, public movies, land art – so many forms can be found to fit the situation. We were finding that as relations matured and as people opened up to participating more and more, reality and limits were being challenged. We were animating people to feel motivated to try something new, and as a result many people’s were raised just a little bit, but enough to see through a transformation. In Dharavi Mumbai, it was a feared industrious slum road transformed into an open house expose of local life.

WP beforeWP after

In Willets Point, New York (above) an empty lot transformed into a soccer stadium. In Detroit an abandoned house transformed into an event to come together. In Kohima Nagaland a trash filled public space transformed into a cultural festival. In Gurgaon India an empty rooftop transformed into an active wrestling rink.

Oax beforeIn Oaxaca Mexico an abandoned lot transformed into a small experimental agricultural garden, and another lot transformed into a space for communality. Across different contexts with unique challenges, cultures and peoples results have been different but also consistent. And after the end of each project? After our presence? From some projects have come desires that we could not fulfill. In Kohima Nagaland, the organization we put together to continue the project fell through. Yet other transformations continue to this day like the soccer stadium in Willets Point New York City where annual soccer tournaments continue to this day. The wrestling matches continue to happen. The agriculture continues and a few leaders I worked to train are being successful in holding bi-weekly meetings to bring other projects and transformations forward.

Oax after

Many of these responses were surprises, but when things are brought to life and hope is rewarded, well more hope is born. And there lies a central point to this public art. Hope! Motivation! Belief! Optimism! Unity! This is the substance that brings individuals and groups forwards. And why shouldn’t the success of these forces be anything but expected? Our modern world is after all running on them.

Billboards, advertisements, movies, and celebrities are constantly motivating and facilitating us to buy certain things, to dress a certain way. If these things disappeared would our consumer culture survive as we know it today? Of course not, for the motivational aspect is an integral part of it. The same holds true for what I deem to be the central objectives of public art; human learning and capacity building.

And thus the point, that public art can help capacitate groups of people to not only assist in bringing ideas and projects to life, but to assume more autonomy and responsibility in their environment. Public art can nourish the “animo” or human spirit of a group and help create healthier relations and reciprocity. And that “animo” is the key to human development, community development and cultural development.

After years and years I have found a term for this type of work, the Socio Cultural. It refers to a transformative process used widely in South and Central America to bring people together to re-valuate the community as a strategic and essential space for human development. And in its’ essence it is a process that can transform people and the reality they perceive by introducing potential for the development of citizen participation and mobilization. To create spaces and activities for communities that permit and enact the promotion of local development processes that value the collective identity and sense of belonging as determinants for the personal investment and involvement that participants put forth. The Socio Cultural can become a base for socially sustainable local development and a method in which artists create and utilize public art.

Furthermore, the sustained impact that the Socio Cultural can have on improving the quality of life in neighborhoods provides a huge opportunity to those artists and leaders that can understand how to use public art and the relational arts. In short it’s not what you do but how you do it. Its not what you make but with whom you make it. Its not what it is, but what it does.

Feel free to contact me at

2 responses for Public Art; a means for human development - The Artist as Social Animator


Lajos Hedertest says
September 10, 2014 at 10:12 am

Your projects seem valuable and energizing to the communities with which you get involved.
A couple of questions:
How do you, as an artist, sustain yourself financially with this type of practice?
Why do you work in such widespread locations, where the distance must make organizing, keeping up and following up even more difficult?

  • Please login to post comments.
September 15, 2014 at 5:48 am

Hi Lajos thanks for your remarks and questions. Working in widespread locations - well for me a part of it has been interest in certain geographies/cultures/ethnicities combined with particular interest that arises somewhere that values this type of approach to community strengthening. Also personally travel has been an incredible way for me to learn different practices and cultures of community organization and communal living - things that have really informed my practice quite a bit. As per financial sustainability, sometimes funding comes with doing a project as an art residency. Projects can also be commissioned by museums and art centers. But other times residents of a community I'm working with gives housing or food which can substitute the need for funding. In short Ive found a range of ways to be sustained to do this work. As per the distance, it does make it difficult to follow up on projects and really understand the lasting effects. And this is important as the idea is sustenance and longevity. But as a part of each project is about identifying leaders in each project, people in the local team do carry things on and report to me how things are going. For example, in a current project in Oaxaca, the local promoter of the project has been letting me know how things are going, and from that I can respond accordingly. But some projects are intended to be catalysts in which case continuity is up to community members. Hope this is helpful...

  • Please login to post comments.