“Any configuration of humanity in disaster needs to include altruism as well as solidarity. Such altruism is present throughout ordinary life as well in the huge numbers of everyday volunteers…Such activity does much to mitigate the cruelties of a competitive system…the most that can be said is that in taking care of others such altruists are taking care of their sense of self, their ideals, and their hopes for society.” —Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell
Socially engaged artists are uniquely positioned to respond to the needs of a community during a crisis. Theirs is an art form for which altruism and empathy are essential components. Having strong relationships with stakeholders with which these artists routinely collaborate, like nonprofits, city agencies, community centers, and public parks, and a sense of a community’s needs and desires, are a critical first step in organizing any public service or support. This is especially true during a time when we’re not only distributing aid for a crisis that might feel removed and apart for most people, but rather a complete overhaul in terms of social mechanisms and systems that now feel disturbingly and purposefully antiquated. What would such new systems look like? Unsurprisingly, artists are also remarkable at giving form to abstract ideas and vague notions, a skill of any creative trade, and one that can be leveraged for significant public good right now. Just consider the significance that our most important public health and safety device is embodied in one stark visual—two arcs. Or the way collective moments within isolation, say a city-wide cheer at 7 o’clock, unite us purposefully during a situation in which we feel completely out of control. There is an opportunity for vital artwork right now, and to readdress the old question, what is art for? Within the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, past and present Fellows for Socially Engaged Art, Jody Wood, and Ras Cutlass, responded with their own platforms intending to reach those most in need in their communities and beyond.
We normally exist in isolated silos in which kin is defined as family members and a few close friends.
Jody Wood’s Systems of Support lives at www.soszip.com, as well as within the zip codes of 90041, 11931, 07302, 11368, 98225, S7K2N8, 11238, V94, and growing, a ticker at the top of the website updating as people from new areas join. Designed for peer-to-peer mutual aid, contributors can upload and search based on their zip codes or city, offering help or soliciting needs in the form of grocery and medical-needs runs, pet care, food, cleaning, and company. Users receive notification of standards of hygiene that must be adhered to as community members, a critical communication and safety function at a time when many are still learning what, exactly, social distancing is. Acknowledging that technology does not replace human care, the platform works instead to facilitate these necessary interactions at a time when we’re excessively isolated. Jody, who was among the first Fellowship cohort with A Blade of Grass in 2015, has invested considerable effort into getting this new technology in the hands of those who need it the most through faith-based and city organizations with which she has long-standing relationships, across the country. The fact that www.soszip.com exists independently of major tech companies is part of the well-informed approach that Jody brings from years of work with marginalized and at-risk communities, noting her concerns in an interview with The Art Newspaper, “If you’re sharing your medical information and vulnerabilities during coronavirus, Google now knows that and can sell that data…” Most profoundly, Jody intends that the website evolve to meet community needs during COVID-19 and beyond. In her statement announcing Systems of Support, she emphasizes her long term intention for the project, “We normally exist in isolated silos in which kin is defined as family members and a few close friends. Consequently, we are largely unresponsive to the suffering, needs, and desires of those living above, below, and separate from us by a thin wall. The tool allows an opt-in group to suddenly become aware of the needs surrounding their proximity and reconcile their own ability to accept or decline an incoming request for care.”
Artist, sci-fi writer, and licensed social worker Ras Cutlass, who was in the final stages of the 2019 Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art, intended to culminate her Deep Space Mind project with the exhibition A Living Experience this June in Philadelphia. With the show’s opening postponed, Ras is channeling the groundwork laid with local mental health workers and those experienced with disabilities into developing virtual community support groups. Accessed through her website and her blog and monthly newsletter, Synapses, Ras intends to provide needed counseling services and mental healthcare for people of color and the Philly community, and other resources prescribed and vetted on a grassroots level. Ras will also be sharing this community-sourced research on healing practices and theories that she’s compiled, initially planned for publication along with the exhibition as a book, DSM.215, intended to counter the Diagnostic Statistical Manual utilized by the mainstream mental health field. Rather than hold the information when it’s most needed, Ras will be disseminating these collective wellness and mental health strategies on the website and Instagram @deepspacemind215. She also has ambitions to potentially develop a mutual aid fund to support those with disabilities and local mental health workers. She continues to prepare for the art show, encouraging and collecting work that presents an alternative mental space that many neurotypical people don’t often experience. Ras, who identifies as a survivor of the psychiatric system, makes a case for this kind of neurodiversity acceptance in a piece she wrote for the last issue of A Blade of Grass Magazine, “Dissociation became a case study for me in…the idea that instead of disorders and sanity, human brains are simply different from one another, with pros and cons to each state, regardless of our characterizations of those states in the modern mental health industry. It also put me on to what might be called psychiatric phenomenology: legitimizing the experiences of people whose realities may not be apparent to others.”