Project Row Houses: An Interview with Rick Lowe, part 2

In this challenging interview with one of Houston’s most well known and brilliant artists, Rick Lowe (founder and director of Project Row Houses in Houston’s 3rd Ward) discusses his role as an artist in a complex collaboration, the differences between individual and collective expression, and the differences between artist communities and artists working within a community or specific neighborhood. Lowe also describes the various roles artists have taken at Project Row Houses including designing an installation in one of the historic row houses, doing a residency, or interacting more directly with the neighborhood and its residents.

Sasha Dela: It seems there is always a flux of artists coming through and successfully working with Project Row Houses (PRH). PRH seems to be an important resource for local artists who may not get what they need from the art and/or educational institutions in town. In fact, for some of those institutions, the caliber of some of the work that comes through PRH might not be for them. However, I always appreciate that there is a place for emerging and local artists alongside nationally recognized artists. I’m excited about this idea of PRH as a type of school. Tell me how you see artists using PRH as an educational force and, also, the possibilities for a school.

Rick Lowe: Just by the nature of what PRH started out as and what it has become, it’s kind of a natural place for learning; we intuitively knew that when we started. In our initial discussions, the point wasn’t to show great artworks; instead, we were doing something that nobody really knew. We were talking about artists generating work within a community context.

When we started with the Artist Projects Program, we were telling people, “come into this community and explore your creativity with us within this context and see what happens.” I would say to people that when I think about the artists that come through PRH, particularly in this program, they can be successful (in my mind) in three different ways and their value is about the same to me. One way is that an artist might create or exhibit something that is aesthetically beautiful and magnificent in itself, and it has nothing to do with anybody in the community. To me, that is a valuable thing because it generates similar activity in this neighborhood and it’s available for people to see and experience. Another way is that people might produce things that might not be so aesthetically perfect or appealing but it might create an incredible social network and value that’s generated over time — great! And then there may be people that may produce a combination of both. But I’m not going to say that the one that has the combination of both is more successful than the others because they’re all successful in their own right.

This entire neighborhood, and PRH, is like a laboratory. It’s where we come to learn about how we produce as artists, how we build community as citizens and everything in between. Something I’ve been trying to figure out, along with other folks both on staff and not on staff, is how to broaden the contextual framework that we develop so that it can be a laboratory for people who are interested in exploring creativity in community and their relationships between the two.

At PRH, we do it in very informal ways and so our question we are asking right now is how we can formalize the organization and make it a bit more impactful. Or maybe I should say “structure it” instead of “formalize” because one of the strengths of what we do at PRH is that, for the most part, every aspect is informal and fluid.

SD: One thing I like about the idea of having a school is because when I was in graduate school in San Francisco they had just started a “social practice” program. I felt like it was problematic because art school in itself is somewhat problematic. Students are outside a context where things are actually happening, producing work with no context except for that of their temporary community of artists. I found that the artwork and exchange of ideas was limited because of that.

RL: Don’t get me started on social practice! I could go on and on with that one.

SD: I’m sure you could and that’s exactly why I want to ask you about it! There are resources within PRH that schools with growing social practice programs do not have any connection to; for students and faculty to come and spend time here would be extremely valuable. The language that develops specifically around all the situations that happen at PRH is much more useful than the language that’s developing in social practice programs.

RL: Well, you know, I have to be a little diplomatic. There’s room for everything, okay? There’s room for social practice and that approach works really well in the academic environment. But I’m always confused when urban planning students or architecture students are sitting in a room and saying things like “We’re going to have this kind of building here, and this piece of property here, and there’s going to be a green space over here…and this community is going to do this, and this group is going to be involved with that.”

I was doing a residency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently and found myself in a situation like this and, at a certain point, I realized that I don’t know what these things mean in the academic environment. I can’t tell if it is just “in theory,” as in this is a student’s thesis that they’ve dreamt it up, or is this something that they’re really doing and it’s really going to have an impact on a place? And the truth is, 99.9% of the time, architects and planners are doing these theoretical things and it doesn’t have any real connection to any particular place, because that’s the way they are taught.

Social practice is the art world version of that. You can come up with schemes or projects that have some element of social intervention but it has no real impact in terms of any particular place or any particular group. It’s impact is strong in its conceptualization and in theory and there’s a place for that. There’s a manipulation of language that codes “community” with something that is less than serious or less integrity in terms of aesthetic issues, concerns, rigor. Once that was discredited, there was need for a new language. Social practice has tried to take over the role of what it means to work socially in the context of a place but there’s no real place there. It’s social; it’s everywhere. That’s one of the biggest issues I have with social practice now is how it’s managed to take the context out of the meaning and the value out of the work. Almost in the same way as “social change” has taken the progressive impact out of things.

I received the Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change from Creative Time and, because I wanted to give them a heads up before the award ceremony, I asked Ann Pasternack why they call it social “change” instead social “justice,” which has a very specific meaning. “Change” is a little, well…what does it mean? Everybody wants change.

SD: But do you see a change? When you walk through the neighborhood, when you talk to people, do you see that awareness?

RL: I see what you’re trying to get me to do and I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to say that there’s that kind of change. But I will say that physically and socially, this place is very different than it was when we founded PRH. I will also say that if you carve out the area that we are in, and you have PRH in the center of it, from what I see my guess is that there’s a difference between what you’d experience here than if you dropped a pin in any other part of the northern part of Third Ward.

SD: When you’re addressing social practice programs, how do you feel your language and the program’s language intersect or don’t intersect? PRH has worked with Rice University quite a bit. What are some of the projects and plans for the future? How do you feel about the language around Rice’s architecture department?

RL: We’ve developed a relationship with Rice University that’s been going on for 15 years. Just saying that is hugely important. Having Rice School of Architecture as our partner means that we’re a partner that they understand completely. They understand how we think and what our sensibilities are over time. You can get really good work done when you have a partner that really understands how you think and what you expect! That in itself is hugely important.

Second, having that long span of time means that there’s been a number of different opportunities to do projects. Each project brings a different set of challenges which means there’s something to learn about working in a community by addressing those problems as you go along.

The third thing is that you also have the opportunity to go back and look at the impact and see how well that we do on different projects. It’s a laboratory and you can start to see how these things move, what works, what doesn’t work.

And then the final thing I’d say about it is that, from what I believe, Rice benefits from this long-term partnership by giving students hands-on experience with real sites on a realistic timeline. For example, if we’re working with students to build a house, then we’ll spend a semester with a group of them speaking conceptually about what the house is, what it should look like, how it should function, and they’ll spend time designing it. Then they’re gone; they’ve done their part. Maybe some will come back in the next semester but maybe not, most of them don’t. The next semester, a group will come in and they’ll start to do construction drawings; they’re getting all that kind of stuff worked out. Then they’re gone. Then the third semester starts, and a new group of students begins building the house. For the student to have to come in and do construction drawings for a semester might not be “fun” but they learn how to do construction drawings and they learn how to value what construction drawings are. I think it’s an incredible model.

And what’s important about that, to me, is that it is an opportunity for those students to understand the world and the way that it functions. It provides a way to step out of that theoretical situation where design is based on what students and faculty imagine people are going to do and how a space if going to be used. When I’m talking about this, I tell students that 90% of the people in a particular class or graduating from university are not going to be the originators of the ideas that you end up working on. They will end up working on some of their own ideas but their job is going to be to create designs for things that somebody else is going to build.

As I was saying earlier, I was doing this residency at MIT. A couple of students said they wanted to do a walk with me, because they were planning students and they wanted to walk. I agreed. I love walking and I’m always talking about the importance of walking and seeing. So we went on a walk but I didn’t choose the walking path, they did. We were just kind of meandering and discovering. We were walking down Main Street and went over to some new buildings on the other side, away from MIT. We found ourselves in a huge public housing project. Three of the four students had no idea that this public housing project was literally just across the street from their school. They’re learning all these things that can be applicable to the people in this housing project but they had no idea it was there. The weird thing about it, conversely, is that probably 90% of the people that live in that place has no identity or recognition or sensibility that they are in a neighborhood that is next to MIT. It’s completely nuts! Meanwhile, one of the people was in a studio class that was going to be doing something in Ghana or somewhere. Going all the way to Ghana to get that? I think going to Ghana is great; there’s room for that. But you’ve got something right here too that could be a completely different kind of experience than going to Ghana.


Also see: Project Row Houses: An Interview with Rick Lowe, part 1

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