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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2014

Social intervention through art

Near a busy intersection in Richland, Wash., a barren lot of pounded dirt and loose gravel sprouted a most unusual crop: a half-dozen bright red lamps.

Desk lamps, to be specific—the sizes and shapes you’d expect to see in shiny brass, standing on a banker’s desk, or in black, perched crooked-necked on a shelf in a student’s dorm room.

Red Lamps art intervention in Richland, Wash. Photos by Olga Kutnyakova
Red Lamps art intervention in Richland, Wash. Photos by Olga Kutnyakova

A curiosity. A spectacle. An aberration. Art.

The lamps didn’t just spontaneously emerge from the rocky soil, of course. They were planted by a team of WSU Tri-Cities students last fall in staging an “art intervention”—an injection of artistic work in the public arena that seeks to engage and often to educate or inspire social change, provoking thought, discussion, awareness, and, usually, greater appreciation for the intrinsic value and impact of art.

Peter Christenson
Peter Christenson

Encouraged and guided by Peter Christenson, assistant professor of fine arts and digital technology and culture (DTC), the students conducted their intervention onsite, spray-painting the lamps fire-engine red and burying them a few inches into the ground for stability. The vivid color provided visual contrast against the subtle background, while all the messages and meanings connected with the color red invited a flood of impressions and interpretations.

People noticed. People wondered. People stared. A police officer stopped, scrutinized, nodded, and drove away. The lamps—the art—illuminated a vacant space with new ideas and intrigue.

Seeds among thorns

With no major art museums, few galleries, and limited funds to support creative endeavors in the Tri-Cities, area artists are a marginalized, disconnected group, Christenson said. He’s out to change that.

Only two years since the Detroit native came to work at WSU, he already has led several successful art interventions in his new community. His mission is to connect his creative students with other like-minded people in the area, enabling a new culture of artistic expression and collaboration to emerge. Like sowing red lamps on thorny soil.

This past summer, Christenson organized and funded publication of a new, 24-page, glossy magazine featuring work of local artists, photographers, and writers. Titled Null Set, the magazine contributes to the regional culture by providing an outlet for creativity and by fostering public discourse about art and social issues.

“It’s a step in enabling social change to happen,” said DTC alumna Olga Kutnyakova (’14), one of several local residents whose artwork appears in the magazine. Kutnyakova was also part of the four-person team who managed the editing and design.

‘Walk Until They Bleed’

Another art intervention that Christenson conducted last spring was designed to draw attention to what he sees as a disconnected pedestrian flow on campus, an issue that he thinks hinders interactivity and movement.

Christenson's path in 'Walk Until They Bleed'; and post-walk images by Heather Willoughby.
Christenson’s path in ‘Walk Until They Bleed’; and post-walk images by Heather Willoughby.

In his durational performance “Walk Until They Bleed,” Christenson dressed in red and marched barefoot and silent for almost five hours in a pattern around and through all of the WSU Tri-Cities buildings until his feet became raw and bled. This ultimately left a light trail of blood and dirt that led to the Art Center, a small gallery in the Consolidated Information Center building.

“It was my hope that the blood from my feet would literally become a physical map across the space, connecting our campus and documenting the process, inviting people to follow the path into the gallery,” Christenson said.

Inside the gallery, which he curates, Christenson finally rested, holding one-on-one discussions about a variety of topics related to the creative class, activism, and the campus community.

Anti-litter social practice art

A more recent intervention produced even more obvious outcomes. The Anti-Litter Mapping Project that Christenson conducted with local community members and student volunteers in various majors produced 30 industrial trash bags of litter gleaned from nearby Bateman Island. The volunteers also gathered photos, videos, and GPS data documenting where each piece of litter was found, providing the seeds for a new, web-based social responsibility project.

The amount of litter scattered across the island took the students aback, Christenson said. Bait wrappers, old fishing line, beer bottles, cigarette butts…. While their primary goal was cleaning up the park for everyone’s enjoyment, the volunteers hope the project also motivates others to clean up litter as part of their daily life—wherever they are.

Exporting ideas, importing new ones

In January, Christenson will take his innovative ideas to Scotland, where he’ll be a Core Fulbright Scholar for seven months at the University of Dundee.

With students, faculty and staff at UD, he intends to produce a video archive and multimedia exhibition about the diverse culture, traditions, and stories of the region. The project will focus on new media art and exploring space—how to activate space, draw people into it, and foster discussion.

The goal is to get students out of the classroom and connecting with their community, Christenson said.

“The work I do is often focused on connecting the creative class of an area; connecting academic institutions to community is important. I hope to use this experience as a model to bring back to the classroom at WSU Tri-Cities, and foster an exhibition of the videos and photographs from the experience,” he said.

One of several pieces in Christenson's 'Square Peg, Round Hole' exhibit. Photo by Esther Flatau.
One of several pieces in Christenson’s ‘Square Peg, Round Hole’ exhibit. Photo by Esther Flatau.

Geoff Schramm, a senior in environmental sciences and former Tri-Cities business owner, stopped by the Art Center one afternoon to peruse an exhibit of works in wood. “Peter has been a gift to our campus,” Schramm said.

“He is engaging and challenges his students to reach beyond their comfort zones. We will miss him while he is gone but look forward to growing from his adventure.”

An exhibition featuring some of Christenson’s visual work, “Square Peg, Round Hole,” is on display in the Art Center at WSU Tri-Cities until November 14.

The Art Center is open from noon to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Christenson earned his bachelor of arts and master of clinical social work degrees from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his master of fine arts in intermedia from Arizona State University. His academic research and artistic practices are rooted in interventionist, psychosocial art, and institutional critique theories; they are influenced by his experience working as a licensed psychotherapist.