Reassembling the Public

Essay Interview Report Back to Top

Reassembling the Public

Essay Interview Report Back to Top
Reassembling the Public
Shannon Jackson

Shannon Jackson, associate vice chancellor of arts and design at the University of California, Berkeley

Shannon Jackson is the Associate Vice Chancellor for the arts and design at University of California, Berkeley, and a Public Knowledge collaborator. She works tirelessly to involve the arts within each department and institute on the Berkeley campus, from the sciences and engineering to the humanities and architecture. She offers large “gateway courses” that introduce students to the arts across disciplines to at their school and throughout the Bay Area—in visual arts, performing arts, digital media, and design. These courses also have a public lecture series component, including more community members and local organizations. During the 2017-18 academic year, Jackson organized the free weekly public lecture series “Public (Re)Assembly,” which took place every Monday night at BAMPFA and brought together artists, writers, philosophers, and curators—including curators at SFMOMA—to engage in conversations around the changing nature of art and technology in the public sphere.

SOPHIA FISH: Last year’s public lecture series was titled “Public (Re)Assembly.” What does that mean?

SHANNON JACKSON: In “Public (Re)Assembly” we were trying to think that word public and to recognize that it means very different things. Within the museum world, “public engagement” is a sort of catchall for anything that is the creation of an event. Of course, it has other metaphorical associations, outside rather than inside, open as opposed to closed, exterior over interior. The opposite of private. We were also trying to think about public in the sense of our public institution and what it means to maintain a public-sector institution where the values of access and redistribution were part of our founding and not always a part of our operational existence now.

Meanwhile, with the words assembly and reassembly, we started to think about a range of associations attached to the assembly term. One obvious one is the right to assemble: assembly as a democratic form, whether it’s a protest form or deliberative public space or a general assembly where legislation is made. There’s also an aesthetic association: Assemblage as a kind of mixed-art practice that is a big part of twentieth-century practice across literature, visual arts, and performing arts; assembly art is a form where miscellaneous parts are fashioned together, different art forms and different worlds, are brought together. Then we also thought about assembly from an industrial or technological sense — Assembly Required — the social effects of new technologies. Finally, with the the fourth association, we thought a great deal about “the school assembly,” and what it is to use the school as a place for assembly. Especially at a time when schools are being reassembled based on access, tuition, disciplines, pedagogies, new technologies, and the future of work. All of the different associations and sectors are coming in, and reassembling each other. That is what we ended up exploring with different speakers who specialized in one dimension more than another. Together, lots of people—audiences as well as speakers—started to tell us what this phrase meant in new ways from their different positions.

SF: The idea of “making knowledge more public” is central to the mandate of the Arts and Design Initiative and to the Monday-night series, and it is also central to the Public Knowledge initiative at SFMOMA. What is the role of public institutions like UC Berkeley and museums like SFMOMA in making knowledge more public?

SJ: We are at this transitional moment where we are figuring out how shared information, how to democratize and disseminate public thinking and public knowledge, in a landscape that is paradoxically saturated with information. We are in information overload. Information and access appear to be everywhere.

In such a context, we have to think differently about how to provide sustainable venues for producing knowledge (whether in educational, journalistic, or cultural sectors) and developing media literate citizens who know how to process it. It’s not simply about making knowledge more public, but about creating a public that is able to stay deliberative and thoughtful and to sort the facts from the fiction, inside this overload.

As an educational institution, on the one hand, UC Berkeley wants to maintain public values of access, making every event free and open. We’re a regular convening space and public sphere for our community– and our community really seems to rely up on and expect that: they ask for it. So the next questions is how can institution like UC Berkeley sustain that wide embrace, that big public embrace—if the public interest is not matched by public reinvestment?

SF: How can the collaborations across sectors help to sustain these institutions, and contribute to making knowledge more public?

SJ: The goal now is to find partnerships that allow different sectors to leverage each other. I definitely think that’s happening when we have UC Berkeley collaborating with a nonprofit like SFMOMA who is collaborating with San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). Each is leveraging the resources of the other. One organization is not all things to all people; rather a multi-institutional coalition allows us to feature the participate strengths of each institution and play off of each other to create robust, more catalytic public programs.

Just consider how the structural resources of SFPL and its amazing twenty-eight branches. When our Public Knowledge project collaborates with them, we suddenly have expensive “delivery system” for artistic engagement in on-site community centers throughout the city; SFMOMA’s footprint is expanded thanks to the geographic reach of SFPL. And, in return, this collaboration has revealed the social function of the library even more deeply.

SF: Yes, it’s interesting to think about how the roles of libraries and museums are simultaneously undergoing transformations, in some ways that are similar and some that are different. Public libraries are beginning to provide more kinds of public services, as are public schools, which makes sense, in terms of the way we are framing knowledge and how it is a public good.

SJ: Libraries are also in a huge process of transformation based on all of those same social and technological factors. What is a true public library in the age of technology? What is access? What happens when the library becomes an educational space, a social space, even a maker space? At UC Berkeley, we now have a maker space inside the university library, along with other innovative spaces, because libraries are becoming socially-responsive in all kinds of new ways.

Of course, on a more sobering note, libraries, like schools, are also becoming quasi-social welfare institutions. Our city of Berkeley Public Library installed showers; there is a food co-op, they provide housing advice, legal advice, etc. We’re having a whole think tank about the future of our [UC] library, and we’re thinking about it next to being a vehicle for addressing food insecurity of our students. When other public-sector systems have been rolled back, and demolished, the library is picking up the spaces, scraping together, and developing new kinds of public sector expertise.

SF: Shifting gears a bit, what was the impetus behind your most recent book, Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, coedited with SFMOMA’s Dominic Willsdon and Joanna Burton of the New Museum?

SJ: Joanna and Dominic started to work together thinking about their respective places as heads of education and public practice in two different museums. Gradually, at least by the time they asked if I would collaborate, we started to think a lot more about the “public sectorness” in public engagement. Over time, our focus became less exclusively about education and more about different kinds of artistic practices—critical practices—that took systemic questions about public-sector engagement seriously. We started to look for more and more artists who, rather than shun governance and the state, might use a governmental apparatus as a kind of artistic material.

We ended up breaking down the book into different departments, mimicking (not perfectly) the departmental divisions in a government apparatus: the department of education, different from the department of labor, different from the department of culture, and different from the department of surveillance and security. Then we commissioned and/or reprinted essays and artworks that engaged with each of those divisions and themes.

SF: What did you conclude about the relationship between the artist and public sectors?

SJ: Ultimately, I do think we produced something that shows the variety of positions rather than clear conclusions. We couldn’t do, in one collection, a truly comprehensive global representation. Rather, a reader will find a great deal of the variety and will hopefully have explore aesthetic practices, governance puzzles, and public sector experiences that change with location and context.

For instance, here were a couple of entries from people who would never do not actually want to recommit to the “public-sector “as a way of getting anything done. They search instead for opportunities perpetually below the radar: Fred Moten’s puts forward the idea of the undercommons; Andrea Phillips believes in the values for which publicness once stood but now would say that public has become such an empty term. Throughout, however, every interlocutor is engaged and committed to a new complex process: “Let’s do it, let’s go ahead, let’s be complicated.” There are lots of ways that artists can join forces with public servants around housing, immigration, climate politics, fair labor strategy, food security, and public health, etc. Tom Finkelpearl’s interview is particularly exemplary of that spirit of advocacy.

SF: Your In Terms of Performance project, a digital encyclopedic collection of individual perspectives on a set of terms regarding performance art, is on the one hand a database of public knowledge, while on the other hand it is curated and defined. Can public knowledge be both curated and democratic?

SJ: What In Terms of Performance actually has a lot more aesthetic tangles that end up becoming political. We started out on a quest to explore the connections and disconnections across different arts forms, all of which are turning to performance or already were in performance. Our goal is try to create an accessible glossary of key terms that are used in contemporary art and performance to try to give artists, curators, students, and citizens who are encountering this work—traction for understanding contemporary experiment. We had initially thought we were going to create a book, and then we created a website, in part so that it could stay dynamic and so that we could continue to add to it, but also because we really did want it to be free and accessible.

It’s an experiment for me as a scholar, in taking something that is a very specialized knowledge for me. After all, I usually write books and peer-reviewed essays about this topic—but here I tried to turn it into what would be a more translational research project, what could be accessible to a wider group. The site pre-launched at the Tate Modern in London, with staff members and museum visitors engaging with words and practices in fun and playful ways. A bigger version of then appeared the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in an offline/online exhibition that juxtaposed words, archives, art, and social exchange. All of these experiments have given me new ideas about how to ‘format’ Public Knowledge, and how to define public-ness and knowledge in the process.

SF: Is the list of key terms a finite list, or will it change or be added to?

SJ: It is not a finite set of contributions. And we are asking ourselves whether we are going to add more terms. Right now, what we like is focusing on one term so that one can debate the variety of perspectives around it. Soon, I think we will go through some sort of think-tank process or crowd-source process where we will confront whether we should add more terms and what they should be and why. I am also very interested in creating new glossaries for different topics in the future. A glossary focused on socially engaged art exclusively? A glossary on place-making? A glossary to help navigate scientific exchange across the arts? Much more work ahead.