Cathy Byrd: This is Fresh Art International. I’m Cathy Byrd.
In 2019, we visited art schools and universities in the United States and Canada to begin recording voices of the future. In 2020, we present the first episodes in our Student Edition—conversations about creativity with emerging makers and producers. Given opportunities to explore and experiment, students are discovering how they can shape the world they live in. What issues and ideas spark their creative impulse?
Today, we take you to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also known as SAIC. We’re here to meet participants in Imagining Tomorrow. This yearly experiential learning opportunity brings together students from schools and the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and Pakistan. During each two-week seminar, they gather in a different host community to envision possible futures through design thinking. The clients are local organizations who ask the students to imagine solutions to real life challenges such as environmental sustainability and immigrant integration. Artist Kirsten Leenaars teaches at SAIC. She’s a co-creator of this project.
You talk about the way that imagination gives shape to the way we relate to each other and the way we relate to the world we live in.
Kirsten Leenaars: Imagining is not an apolitical thing. Imagining is also defined by our circumstances or our culture or what we see around us. Not everybody can imagine as freely as some others. My work always has had a very social aspect. So a lot of the projects that I create are working with different communities or specific groups of people to create work together around certain specific issues or questions. I’ve always been really interested in documentary making as a way of storytelling. My own art practice is an extension of thinking about what documentary work could be, but in a more experimental version of that where it’s always done through collective production involving other people in the creation and content of the work. What I really want to do is to create that space where different perspectives can exist. For me, that’s where the magic happens: when different people come together in this kind of creative process and something else arises that you yourself could have never imagined, just being you. It is something about being together that allows for that to come to form.
CB: Leenaars introduces three students who have experienced Imagining Tomorrow. Their studies range from film, animation, and video to architecture and fashion. Summer, you three are representing different iterations of this project. Which one did you participate in?
Summer: I just went to the one that was this past summer in Karlsruhe and the group that I was working with was doing an initiative with the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. It was founded in the 1980s as an institution specifically for digital media, exhibiting a lot of things about the Internet and surveillance. As technology progresses, that institution is the place to be thinking about the future—thinking about what’s coming next in terms of technology and politics. The way that they explained it to us was rethinking how an institution approaches the public not only to get art out there, but also to be space for free thinking and a space for free political thought—a space for people to come together without the distortion that is happening in a lot of official media outlets currently.
We were working on a solution to the role of an institution in today’s modern world. The solution that we came up with was to create what we call the Digital Agora, which is like an online platform for people to come together to connect with each other, but also to connect to the museum itself. So instead of the museum just being a place to exhibit art, in this removed upper-class activity, it’s more like community outreach and more of a space for people to come together and share their ideas with each other instead of just absorbing what is being presented before them. I think it’s really important to be thinking about that kind of stuff right now, especially with a lot of censorship and distorted media as well as surveillance. I feel like my generation is pretty cynical towards that kind of stuff in terms of not being able to speak our minds. Free speech is something that’s really important right now. We’re not going to let the big corporations and the government control it.
CB: I remember at the Venice Art Biennale in 2015 where David Adjaye, an architect, built a gathering space for conversations, performances, and interactions between the presenters and the visitors. It was extremely effective. Alejandro, tell me about how you’re involved with Imagining Tomorrow.
Alejandro: I participated in Imagining Tomorrow this summer as well. Our group was also in charge of solving an issue for ZKM, but we took a different approach because from what we gathered, from what they gave to us, we thought that they wanted to reach out to a different audience, a broader audience around the globe. But they wanted to do it reaching out to other artists as well and working with them, so what we came up with was a sort of festival called the ZKM Commons. It would travel around the world and work with different, local artists to reach the local community wherever they went and to exhibit the art of the local artists and the art from ZKM as well. So it’s also a way to make ZKM a global institution, even though their museum is located in Karlsruhe, Germany. It was an amazing experience because we actually got to talk and engage with the ZKM people. It was a real professional experience. I really enjoyed that, every moment. It was so much fun. I got to meet new people from all around the world…people that I don’t know how else I would have been able to work with.
It was just amazing to see how all of us interpret art and interpret the world in different ways. We actually got to talk about that and have discussions and come up with solutions and work those two weeks engaging with different communities.
CB: And so your projects were in response to the perceived future desires and needs for ways to work within the digital realm?
Alejandro: Yeah, because ZKM sees themselves as a different art institution. So we had to figure out how to get them to be known around the globe, without what they called the middlemen, which would be traditional media.
CB: Faviola, tell me about your experience.
Faviola: I did Imagining Tomorrow my first year of being here. We went to Utrecht in the Netherlands. We collaborated with students at SAIC, but also at HKU, which is a university in Utrecht, and then another school from Germany (I think they were law students). We were separated into groups and the group I worked with, we tried to help out the Red Cross from the Netherlands—rethinking their way of advertising or getting people involved, either through donating or just making more people aware of what they do. My group, we decided to create a festival surrounding the things that the Red Cross does, integrating activities for children or adults or just any age range. Our advertisement was “Be the G.O.A.T” because we wanted to get something more eye-catching rather than the stereotypical Red Cross ad you see of a child starving or something like that, like on the CTA or the train. I feel like a lot of the times people just look past like, “Oh, that happens, it’s sad”—but they don’t really pay much attention.
So we tried to take a different approach, which was just create an ad that’s completely different from what you would expect it to be relating to. That’s kind of where we went. So “Be the G.O.A.T.” [meant to] be the “greatest of all time” by donating. I ended up doing the design for it and it was pink and it was a goat and it was very eye-catching in that way. I really liked the entire process. It was really amazing to get to know people from different countries all around the world. I still have connections; I follow them through Instagram and Facebook. So we still keep in touch, I think [because we] had these experiences in the professional realm. We went to the headquarters to talk about our ideas beforehand, with a big table and in front of the people who are in charge at Red Cross. At the end we did a huge presentation in front of everybody. I think it’s very important to integrate yourself in those spaces just to get to know how to navigate that.
KL: In all your groups, what I really liked is that you were very critical of the question. The language that was used was also kind of professional. All the client organizations that are part of it give a brief to the student groups. What is amazing too is that it’s usually three or four student teams responding to the same brief. So you have four different solutions to proposals to the same question. It’s also really remarkable to see how very different the different responses are. Then the student teams give a debrief to the organization and they get feedback on that. From there they start developing their ideas and it always ends after two weeks with a final presentation of the ideas that were in the debrief. There were a lot of really good critical questions, which I think surprised the organizations, that there were that many. But I think that was such a great kind of reality check and pointing to how sometimes they can’t see themselves anymore and these student teams come in and really kind of flip that. That’s one of the things that I think is really amazing.
CB: What does “design thinking” mean to you in the context of the projects that you did?
Summer: We were thinking about this philosophical model, the spiral of silence, in which the public media will silence minority opinions. It’s demonstrated in an image of a spiral that’s going down, descending. We were thinking, oh, let’s flip that and make it the spiral of voices to promote free thinking and communication between the public and an institution—to have the spiral going upwards instead. I think it’s a good representation of what we wanted to do.
Alejandro: What design thinking meant to us was bringing our own experiences and ways of thinking into a project. As people who are not yet as involved in the professional world, our way of thinking is way outside of the box. With ZKM, something that they told us was how they really appreciated how far we took our proposals, how we made them think about things that they had not thought about before.
Faviola: I think going back to what we did for our project. It’s like “Be the G.O.A.T.” It’s kind of like a millennial thing, I guess.
Summer: Because colloquially, the term G.O.A.T—Greatest of All Time—was used originally to talk about basketball players or celebrities or stuff like that. “Kobe Bryant is the G.O.A.T.”, like that—he’s the greatest of all time. [In general], figureheads who are really skilled, highly talented. We’re just really reliable and so Fabiola thought of bringing that into a charitable organization. Really interesting.
Faviola: We’re bringing this younger experience to more of a professional, bigger audience. So it’s design thinking in that way.
KL: I want to say something about design thinking because it’s a hyped term right now. So what does that really mean then? I have an artist background, so I don’t really necessarily use that term or teach it that way. But I think what is amazing about this project is that students are coming from different not only different schools, but also different disciplines or backgrounds. There are design students who are coming from a studio background, there are arts management students from graduate to freshman level. So everybody brings their own kind of expertise and education to the table. What is amazing is that most of the students have never done it at all, and maybe don’t necessarily even have the ambition to do social design or solve problems in the city. But what we see every time and we’re excited about every year, is that everybody has something to contribute in this process of thinking about solutions that engage your whole community or city. Everybody can pull from their own creative mind and their imagination. That for me is kind of design thinking—even when you don’t think of yourself as a designer or an architect or an urban planner, we’re all human citizens of this world. We have that ability to see things and to make relationships from that. You can start thinking of solutions.
CB: I want to know how you see your participation in Imagining Tomorrow impacting your future creative endeavors?
Summer: I think reading the proposal, going through this whole process, talking about a lot of philosophy and political theory is not something that I really did before in my work. After this trip, it’s something that I have definitely been thinking about a lot more. Specifically, working with an institution and thinking about the role of an institution has changed my approach in my art making because I am going to school at an institution: SAIC is connected to a museum. I’m thinking about the art that I’m making and how it speaks of, first of all, the school; second of all, the museum—when really it should be more about myself. [Laughter] Surprise! Art should be personal. So maybe I have become a little bit more cynical about the role of the institution I am attending. Sorry to any SAIC higher-ups if you’re listening, but it kind of made me more aware of the fact that art is not accessible for a lot of people. And being educated in the arts is not attainable for a lot of people either.
CB: The inclusiveness in the idea that your art connects with a greater universe is like a huge discovery.
Faviola: Yeah, and it taught me how art and the professional realm intertwine and how people go about that—just working with students with different backgrounds and navigating that, because a lot of the time I feel like when you’re in school, you’re with a bunch of people that do the same thing. So collaborating with people that have different practices and experiences—it’s good to know in the long run.
CB: Yeah. And I think for you [Kirsten], working with arts administration students gave you a chance to show them the importance of a creative point of view in approaching the challenge that they have as institutional workers. You have an appreciation for those hierarchies and structures that they have to navigate to present work by artists like you.
Alejandro: For me, I think it was more of a reminder of how much I enjoy working with other people and it was a great professional experience solving problems and actually having to come up with solutions for an actual problem. I really enjoyed that and feel much more motivated towards what I do here at SAIC and what I want to do.
Summer: I think I was a really valuable experience for all of us.
CB: This is the Fresh Art International podcast, I’m Cathy Byrd. We’re pleased to share the conversation we recorded at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2019. Participants from four countries will gather in Chicago this year for the latest chapter of Imagining Tomorrow. In a range of cultural contexts, students and educators alike forge meaningful relationships and learn to navigate business and government protocols to address real world issues, crossing international borders to collaborate and innovate. Students bring creativity outside the classroom, engaging with communities and learning to lead. SAIC—Imagining Tomorrow is one of our Student Edition stories.