It was a sheer joy to spend 60 minutes listening to Kim Abeles talk about her work under the guise of the Academic Senate Distinguished Lecture on Engagement, Service, and the Public Good. Abeles began by describing herself to a room that included very few artists (the Dean of Engineering sat in front of me, for example) as a “community-based” artist. She explained, and as readers of this blog probably know, that sometimes this is called “social practice” or “social impact.” I combine these into a different phrase to describe Abeles, a “community impact” artist.
And impact she has had. Her talk revolved around two characteristics of her work as a community impact artist: that the value of her work is in its ability to incite change and that when you work with communities of people, you don’t really have control of the “inputs” that get used in creating the work. I took note of the longevity of her work, as that also contributes to its value, a topic of particular interest to me.
Much of Abeles work encourages people to recognize the impact they have on their environment and, due to that recognition, change their behavior. She is perhaps most well-known for her “smog collectors,” a variety of work that use a process of printing with atmospheric smog. When she started making this work in the late 1980s, smog was even more of a problem in LA than it is today. She has done smog collector projects with cities, schools, and soon, an art museum in Moscow. Her work with the California agency that regulates automotive smog and enforces the smog testing program commissioned her to create a series of smog collector pieces and muffler-based sculptures to raise awareness about the smog-check program. She told a story of how a state legislator called a hearing to investigate why an artist was commissioned by the state Bureau Automotive Repair. She was waiting outside the hearing room in Sacramento when she received word that the hearing was cancelled. Why? When the legislator learned that the project had generated $3million in free press and publicity, he realized that the $3000 commission was probably a good value after all.
Another series of works, undertaken with community partners such as a school or a the Science Center is the “Paper Person” series. In these works, Abeles collects the paper trash from a facility over the course of a specific day (in the case of the Science Center, it was Earth Day, April 22), takes it back to her studio, irons it, and laminates it together to make a giant paper person, a visual manifestation of waste.
I could go on and on describing Abeles’ projects, including one piece recently on display in Cal State LA Fine Arts Gallery show “School of Endurance Work“, but I’ll stop here and just encourage you to visit her website, invite her to your school, or see her work around town. She is an exemplar of a “community impact artist.”