Katie Bruhn: Layers of Reciprocity

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center co-sponsored the Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space on September 30, 2013. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post "on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape." This posting is by Katie Bruhn, a first year PhD student in Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. This post originally appears in the Arts Research Center blog, Muses.

Throughout the daylong symposium, “Reimaging the Urban,” two particular keywords continued to jump out at me – reciprocity and layers. As I thought about these as individual concepts I realized that in fact layers of reciprocity was a much more appropriate way in which to understand the complexity of collaboration and exchange necessary in order for the projects discussed to succeed.

The first panel began with a very clear example of the mechanisms and benefits of reciprocity. Presenting together in regards to the 5M Project, Deborah Cullinan and Andy Wang demonstrated how projects such as this are the result of collaboration across sectors. Deborah Cullinan in particular stressed the importance of the 5M Project for the sustained life of Intersection for the Arts while Andy Wang described how Intersection’s place within 5M has added a dynamic element to the project. Both have benefited from the other, however, what about local communities that surround the 5M Project? What is the 5M Project doing for them and how are they contributing to the development of the 5M Project?

The question of local communities was carried over into Elvin Padilla’s discussion of the 950 Center for Art & Education located in the Tenderloin. Intended to benefit those that live around this site’s proposed location, 950 will in essence become a physical site of reciprocity. Art organizations will benefit from the multi-tenant structure that will create affordable studio and classroom space. Those that live nearby get to use this site while also redefining as Padilla described, the current identity of Tenderloin residents as “helpless.” Yet, Padilla also mentioned commercial aspects of 950, a boutique hotel, and office space. Again, we are made aware of the layers involved in this type of project. I could not help but question (as many of the audience members also did) who benefits more within these layers of collaboration and intended reciprocity? Considering the layers of interaction present in any type of development project such as 5M and 950 the question of equity emerges.

While Cullinan, Wang, and Padilla’s presentations brought up the question of local community involvement in the development of new creative spaces, later presentations raised questions of government support. Joel Slayton’s presentation regarding ZERO 1 mentioned various examples including the Bay Bridge light project, which he described as “deeply complicated.” Such projects would not be possible without layers of mutual support, from the artists involved to the city agencies that control such public sites. The control over public space was again raised in the final panel focused on issues of environmental preservation in the Bay. Presentations by Susan Schwartzenberg and Brad McCrea, while each representing very different institutions or organizations, further highlighted how government agencies must work with local artists, creative institutions, and local communities in this process of reimagining urban space.

Each of the presentations described above touched on reciprocity and exchange in a somewhat different way. Thinking about the layers of reciprocity (or intended reciprocity) present in any public or community project reminds us constantly of the importance of equity. Be it exchange with local communities or government agencies there is indeed a great deal of give and take – perhaps not always resulting in the desired outcome. The use by some of our presenters of the word “reciprocity” signifies a desire for mutual collaboration and equal benefit across sectors. As our presenters made clear, this question is a difficult one without a specific answer. It is something we must continue to work through in order to ensure equality within the various layers of exchange necessary for the successful outcome of any project that becomes a part of our urban landscape.