Artists in the World

For more than two decades, the UC Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA) has encouraged and nurtured artists and furthered arts research, making the University of California a leader in interdisciplinary practices linking research with science, technology, the environment, digital media and the public sphere.

UCIRA has been hosted at the UCSB campus since its inception in 2005. The center was co-directed by Professors Kim Yasuda and Dick Hebdige until 2009, when Hebdige became director of UCIRA’s new Desert Studies Initiative. Yasuda now co-directs the center with Marko Peljhan, associate professor of media art and technology.

In 2009, the UC President’s Office committed $1.6 million to further UCIRA’s efforts over the next five years in three key areas: Social Ecologies, or California-centric embedded arts research; Social Technologies, new models of value exchange; and Integrative Methodologies, renegotiating the art/science paradigm.

An example of the kind of collaborative projects UCIRA supports is Open Container, a project first launched on the UCSB campus in 2005 as a multi-year initiative led by Yasuda, a professor of art. The project began as a classroom experiment to explore architectural and material re-use through the donation of three used shipping containers by Santa Barbara-based J. Staal Storage Solutions. To date, the project has been sustained through multiple art installations and design projects that make alternative use of shipping containers.

The first Open Container class involved conversion of the shipping containers into affordable 320-square-foot artist live/work spaces. The class explored new ideas surrounding dwelling and residential mobility and worked in consultation with campus architects, county planners, land-use consultants, and internationally known architects who specialize in alternative design.

“Rather than the usual ‘show me how to’ assignments they might receive in this kind of class, these students learned on the job, acquiring all the skills that they would in a regular sculpture course that teaches metal fabrication, only bigger and maybe even better,” Yasuda writes. “Together with the creative enterprise of our students, we navigated through the first quarter of Open Container I to an unusual work of art, somewhat resembling a sculpture by Gordon Matta-Clark reconceived as a mobile dwelling unit and social space.”

For the past five years, Yasuda has combined university teaching with her public arts research, developing initiatives that forge partnerships between academic environs and the local/regional communities in which they are situated, exploring potential intersections between a creative practice and community development. She and her students have collaborated on off-site projects, including a public art plan for an affordable farm-worker housing complex in Oxnard, CA, and a public art initiative – renovation of a bakery storefront – in the adjacent college community of Isla Vista. She is currently working with a city planner to develop a participatory public research initiative that integrates the university with its neighboring community through alternative, social programming and research initiatives.

Engagement in solving community and social needs as well as collaboration with other academic disciplines will continue to be the focus of UCIRA’s efforts. Under the Social Ecologies theme, UCIRA will support artists exploring the radically different terrains of California. Topics such as agriculture, land and water use, emergent technologies, and new forms of knowledge production and practice will be investigated by artists around the state.

As part of that effort, UCIRA launched the Desert Studies Initiative in partnership with UC Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery and the Palm Desert Graduate Center. Among the recent events taking place was Dry Immersion 3, a series of art projects that culminated in an open desert exhibition featuring the work of 24 artists from seven UC campuses.

“The project grew out of a convergence of personal interests and a growing sense that the desert is an area of special interest regionally and globally in debates about the future not just of our state but of the planet,” Hebdige says. “Concerns with conservation, bio-diversity, climate change, resource management and the impact of expanding populations on wilderness areas pull deserts everywhere into focus as dynamic but fragile eco-systems that need to be studied and understood on their own terms, and symptomatically in terms of what may be coming for the planet as a whole.”

The Social Technologies theme will emphasize exploration of ways artists can work together. UCIRA has already forged relationships with various artist collectives and non-profits, including a publication project with the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest from Los Angeles in collaboration with the Russian artist group Chto Delat in St. Petersburg. UCIRA is facilitating a program to engage contemporary artists and art in the University of California’s Natural Reserve System through a research partnership with the public art collective, Los Angeles Urban Rangers. LA Urban Rangers is an interdisciplinary collective that engages the urban environment as a site for public engagement and intervention. UCIRA is also working with artist-community organizer Daniel Tucker and social technologist Stephanie Smith on two innovative communications projects to bring visibility and connectivity for the arts across the UC campuses and beyond.

The third initiative, Integrative Methodologies, will encourage new ways for artists and scientists to work together to facilitate alternative forms of co-creative research, again through partnerships with other organizations whose mission is to forge art/science collaborations. As such, Peljhan is leading an effort to develop the 2011 Arctic Research Residency. This program will host an interdisciplinary group of UC researchers, students, international artists, and scientists who will work with native Inuit communities to study and preserve the arctic culture and environment.