By Joshua Kochis
It’s a new night and you’re out for aestheticism, seeing all kinds of people doing all kinds of things in the name of creative expression. Quiet types dressed in black sip wine from plastic cups at the gallery downtown. Pretty people wearing rings bounce on their toes to ambient techno loops. Kids on skateboards take turns tagging that half pipe. Drag queens cat-walk up and down an alley turned runway, cameras going click and flash as the sun sets. Groups of busy hands are in a yard somewhere using old cardboard to make protest signs with big letters. A solitary guy stares at the empty frame of a torn-down house packed with a grid of toy cars that used to scoot on busy neighborhood streets. Two friends walk past a giant mural animating the old brick warehouse next door. These are subcultures, maybe. Outcasts if you ask the wrong person. But more than anything, they are the makings of a local art scene – and could all be happening in the same place.
The scene is dynamic and always changing. Every city has at least one, and it is a constant work in progress. It is a series of concentric circles with overlapping edges. One person can be involved in two or ten separate orbits that might not share a single defining quality. What they do have in common is that someone is expressing an idea, feeling, or style; and someone else is experiencing it. Art of any kind doesn’t need to be seen or heard to be art, but throw the word scene on the back end of that term and there is no getting around the fact that it has to be witnessed by someone other than the person or people who made it. Art without the scene is still valuable, of course, but for the purpose of this attempt at catching a slick fish in a fast river, it does not contribute to the lake at the end of the line in the same way.
Any scene, at its core, is built from a group of like-minded individuals with the shared goal to determine a creative culture. This includes artists, musicians and bands, galleries and dive bars, protestors, gardeners, poets, craftspeople, and performers across the board. What a scene looks like depends on who you’re asking. Beauty is in the eye of the kind of person who uses the word “beauty” and really means it.
A good art scene includes opportunities for people with various degrees of experience to participate without feeling self-conscious or stifled. This means open mic nights, accessible programming in terms of cost and time, a willingness to elevate voices that have historically been suppressed, and no tolerance for harassment or judgment of any kind. It could be free drawing prompts through a social media page, or simply providing space for people to gather and draw, read, and discuss methods with each other. This is in addition to the typical kinds of events one would think of, like gallery exhibitions with the wine and the cheese and the clean walls and vaulted ceiling. The key to a healthy scene is balance, where all of the art events in a particular area are distributed evenly among many smaller locally-driven organizations and large well-funded institutions alike. There should always be the option between visiting a packed opening reception or an intimate poetry reading on any given night.
There are no rules deciding who or what counts as part of the scene. A DIY show is just as significant as the gallery funded by Quicken Loans if even one person happens to visit both of them. Exposure is a different story. We are much more likely to hear about the latest exhibition at Red Bull Arts than the house music set at the underground after hours spot – but both have the potential to be equally meaningful (or superficial, depending on one’s approach and the location of choice).
All that matters is that someone made a thing and someone else picked up on it. If a tree falls in the forest with nobody else around, will anyone be talking about it at the next biennale? Probably not, but maybe they should. Even Andy Goldsworthy took great pictures of his temporary earthworks to show off later. While there is an important discussion to be had about available space vs. accessible space, the point is that it happens in a place that isn’t your bedroom. If, by chance, that’s where the magic happens, there’s always social media to help artists of all stripes connect with their community without leaving their comfort zone. The ubiquity of social media makes this digital space much more accessible than the kind that relies on real live experience, especially now that coronavirus hangs like a dark cloud all over everything. It is vitally important to support the creative culture even when we can’t catch it all in person.
Scenes are connected to places, and places have history. What happened during the 1967 rebellions in Detroit still affects the content of political art shown in the area today. Murals on popular storefronts and abandoned buildings function as a way of reclaiming public space that has been forgotten by the people who label an entire city as “up and coming” or “coming back.” There is no escaping the past, and any meaningful creative endeavor takes this spatial and geographic context into account. Being an active participant in any city’s art scene isn’t always easy, and definitely isn’t free. One must put their time and resources into communities where personal work and collective participation can develop simultaneously. This is the cost of building a healthy artistic landscape from the ground up.
You get what you put into it. There is a constant conflict between the scene defined by the artists of a particular city, and the scene recognized from the outside looking in. The end goal is to have agency in your city’s scene, to determine for oneself what that means, rather than letting someone else decide for you. There is a responsibility to make sure the scene is democratic, with space for every kind of voice and not just the voices in front of a robust social media presence or big time funding. There is equal significance in the annual mile-wide art fair downtown and the volunteer-organized conference of free lectures and performance art taking place in backyards across the city.
The beautiful part of all this is the fact that anyone can have an active role in the art scene they belong to. Whether it’s hanging a bunch of paintings in a friend’s basement, or putting a sculpture in that vacant lot next to the bus stop, or reading a poem off the front porch, or playing music on the corner across from the busy gas station – it all contributes to the creative pulse of a scene that will continue to grow as long as the right people stick around to keep it going. ◆