Justin Randolph Thompson on community building

…Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined…
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
There is an African proverb that states the fact that it takes a village to raise a child. This understanding of the profound need for the acknowledgement, care and interest of all members of a community towards each other in order to produce a healthy environment for growth, imagination and aspirations should not be lost to those of us who, instead of focusing on raising children, are reflecting upon our collective needs as a society. Months of social distance, the abandonment of physical contact and a rising fear of the other’s potential contagion have left us more fragmented as a community than in the past. When coupled with a neoliberal indoctrination that has led us to believe each other as focused on self-interest, we can begin to appreciate the growing distance from community mindedness which has rooted our value systems in a sort of telescopic vision, framed and fixed with an idea of all that is out of reach, yet incapable of seeing what is all around us. This period’s radical isolation and social awakening has also produced in many of us creative strategies for overcoming, new ways of being together and sharing, a reassessment of our values and long-term goals, new expressions of our care for each other and a desire to share space.

Benedict Anderson wrote about the elaborately constructed fiction of ”imagined communities”. If we think about the ways in which so many of the social constructs that structure and enforce our relationship to each other have been in large part imagined, we can come to appreciate the fact that our feeling of connection to each other is a product of imaginative perception. We can also, however be cognizant that this fact renders this relationship no less valid and no less profound. Our imaginations are fueled by broadened fields of knowledge and our ability to shift perceptions and to appreciate that which may seem most basic or intrinsic. If the current community of artists involved in this exhibition is yet a figment of our imagination, then perhaps it is through this shared experience of vulnerability, misjudgment and collective first steps towards re-engaging in the labor of community building that we can begin to fuel a more inventive understanding of our obligations towards each other. In a city which, when not looking to the past, is too often looking abroad perhaps we can anchor a focus in the contemporary moment while building the imagination and active attention towards a true care for every single voice and a future that is not rooted in a mechanized, standardized or un-imaginative individualisms.

Justin Randolph Thompson

Interview

Numeroventi: You work with several media and for the little I’ve seen always in a very engaging way. Using sound and performance as resourceful tools to express your concepts. When do you consider an installation/performance successful and which media have helped you the most in achieving your goals?

Justin: Successful works are those which produce feelings and reflections that the piece was not intended to contain. I appreciate discovery in my work and feel that if I am not disturbed by my pieces, then they are not functioning. Audience is actually rarely a consideration in regards to success. I refuse to rely on audience to validate the work. I have a complicated relationship with mediums and rarely separate or segregate their potential. Materiality, subject and all that is visceral are inseparable for me.  At times it is enough to inject sound or performance into a space with an object for it to work.

N: How does the job as professor influence your practice as an artist?

J: Teaching is really about being open to learning and pushing yourself to learn as much from each course as your students do. Real education is about pushing people to be curious and insatiably inquisitive in regards to everything. Nothing should go unchallenged in regards to notions of authority or legitimacy.

N: What is the main change you could notice in how the city of Florence changed in delivering art to its citizens the last ten years?

J: The past ten years has seen Florence’s understanding and celebration of art increasingly as entertainment. This has been the most validated and compensated form of art. There are a few niche circles where there is a true and profound social engagement taking place, and where true dialogue is possible, but these circles are still suffering from a lack of broader appreciation and from the ways in which the more entertainment based understanding of art undermines the real work and the labor behind it all.

N: How can we make it better?

J: The Florentine Contemporary Art scene suffers from a profound lack of community mainly rooted in a fictitious sense of competition amongst artists who see them selves as competing for some scrap of pie.  This is confounded by a lack of recognition of an entire, immense art world beyond the Florentine and even Italian territory to aspire to. Community mindedness is about appreciating the need for all voices around you and working together to push every one of us. We all have a part to play in shifting all of this, and in the absence of true funding in regards to these more community and socially engaged realms, we need to focus on recalibrating the entire value system and exchange which has diminished a broad appreciation for the arts and contributes to a lack of investment economically and socially.

Justin Randolph Thompson

Justin is a new media artist, cultural facilitator and educator born in Peekskill, NY in ’79. Living between Italy and the US since 1999, Thompson is Co-Founder and Director of Black History Month Florence, a multi-faceted exploration of African and African Diasporic cultures in the context of Italy now 5 years old. Thompson is a recipient of a Louise Comfort Tiffany Award, a Franklin Furnace Fund Award, a Visual Artist Grant from the Fundacion Marcelino Botin, two Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grants, A Jerome Fellowship from Franconia Sculpture Park and an Emerging Artist Fellowship from Socrates Sculpture Park.

His life and work seek to deepen the discussions around socio-cultural stratification and hierarchical organization by employing fleeting temporary communities as monuments and fostering projects that connect academic discourse social activism and DIY networking strategies in annual and biennial gatherings, sharing and gestures of collectivity.

Photos: Daniele Civetta