In 2012, the citizens of Austin, Texas initiated and voted for a new political system where city council members represent specific geographic districts, beginning with the November 2014 election. Drawing Lines was commissioned in response to this historic transformation.
Exploring these citizen-driven yet prescribed boundaries of place, artists would be on the front line as these new districts developed and communities coalesced in this first year of an entirely new political system. The curatorial challenge quickly became clear: How, if at all, does one begin to approach the curation of public life?
Initial responses to the project from community groups proved critical in informing the curatorial approach. Communities that were often under-served and under-heard loudly pushed back against the idea that an artist would be selected to "represent" them, especially given the fact that as minority communities they had so often been represented by others before, and in ways they did not agree with.
Taking this sensitivity into consideration, a team of curatorial advisors was assembled and brought together for an organized dinner to discuss the most critical considerations in designing the curatorial approach.
The approach would bring a diverse mix of artists, media and process to the project and would be structured around an open and accessible selection process. At the same time, a commitment to artistic integrity would be critical to ensuring the project’s legitimacy as both community-based and artist-driven. The artists would be committed to listening and learning verses imposing - reflecting rather than representing. Ultimately there would be more questions than answers.
The newly-elected council members also proved critical partners and were engaged at varying degrees. After spending a few hours together with the artists discussing both their district’s key issues, and the artists’ interests and approach, it was determined internally which artists would work in each district.
Working from this framework, the artists embedded in each of the ten newly drawn districts to co-create a place-specific public project with the residents of the district. After one year in residence and engagement in the districts, the ten commissioned projects would then come together in one citywide exhibition reflecting on the new 10-1 political structure and the cultural dynamics of each of the districts, and thus the city itself. In this way, Drawing Lines paralleled the political process where newly elected council members were also working to understand their new districts, while at the same time working together to make decisions about Austin as a whole.
While set in a political context, Drawing Lines is not a project solely about politics. It is a project about community, and place, and the role that art and participation plays within political representation. How does community grow and how is it lost? How is it sustained? And within this context, what are the roles of participation and communication in the formation and/or fragmentation of place?
As a project that was embarked upon with unknown outcomes, we know there are still more questions than answers. Will the newly formed districts become spatial and social constructs that impact the collective community fabric? Will the district borders mean anything to the community ideals and identities? Do the lines reflect anything other than arbitrary boundaries that serve to further divide a city on political issues? Is district representation constructing or deconstructing community? Will this move the needle on an embarrassingly low historic voter turnout? Can artists build platforms for connection through participation and communication that encourages an authentic engagement in place?
Drawing Lines has only begun to scratch the surface of these questions. It has however shown us through the collaborative works co-created by the artists and the communities they engaged, that common struggles do exist amongst diverse communities. It has shown us that trust is earned and not dictated, and that a truly giving spirit must balance the ask of participation.
In a conversation with participating artist Patrick Bresnan, he poignantly stated “Art is not made out of fear”. He’s right - and great places aren’t either. Much like the life’s work of an artist, the greatest places are not made of fear but of bold commitments to alternative perspectives, invited participation, critique, and a willingness to push boundaries beyond their prescribed borders.
At its core, Drawing Lines is an exploratory conversation about the dynamics of place. It is a project about process that examines the role of contemporary culture in the transformation, transition, or stagnation of place. And through this experiment, how art itself as a process becomes central to Austin’s newly structured political system and embedded in the foundation of a rapidly changing, ever-evolving city.