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Art and Action: Defining a New Paradigm for Social Action Through the Art of Alfredo Jaar

I. Introducing Art as a Tool for Awareness and Action

War and genocide are tragedies that many individuals have learned to cope with by distancing themselves. As contemporary Americans, are these problems too overwhelming or too distant for us to take action? Alfredo Jaar is an artist who challenges the existing culture of apathy, which has allowed suffering and death to claim the lives of our fellow human beings throughout history. Through his art, Jaar offers a new paradigm of hope, human connection and action which attempts to rouse people by instilling in them empathy and a sense of responsibility for others. The weaving of a stronger bond between the individual and the community – what might be called a human community – is what characterizes his work. 

Alfredo Jaar is an artist, architect, and filmmaker born in Chile in 1956, who now lives and works in New York City.. He is a project artist, meaning that his work takes its point of departure from specific problems or tragedies. Among his most important works so far is the Rwanda Project, which includes 21 productions created between 1996 to 2000 including “Rwanda Performance,” “The Eyes of Gutete Emirita,” and “Real Pictures.”

It is the irreversibility of the horrors Jaar portrays that defines the challenge of his work, and qualifies him for this extraordinarily difficult mission outlined above. “All my works are failures…because they always come too late,” he says. The main purpose of this work is to foster a sense of empathy within his audience, create a connection with those previously thought of as ‘the other,’ and to build a sense of community between even the most dissimilar human beings. “The challenge in art,” he explains, “is to change your life, to entertain, to touch, to make you feel. This is the challenge of the artist.” The works of Alfredo Jaar always seem to achieve one of the hardest tasks of our modern and individualistic societies: to renew the link between community and individuals, by defining a new paradigm in which every individual feels responsible for the community and for ‘the other.’ 

But is it not provocative, and perhaps even meaningless, to talk about art as a new paradigm and tool for social change? Is it possible to inspire everyone in the future to act on behalf of their neighbors? How do the works of Alfredo Jaar attempt to recover what he refers to as the “lost humanity of human beings,” which has arguably been dealt a near-fatal blow by a modern, individualistic conception of one’s relationship to one’s community?

These are the questions that we attempt to address here.

II. Art and the Citizen: Art and Effect on Different Scales

The proposition that art can serve as an important and effective tool for social change is in and of itself a departure from how we usually deal with human rights issues.. Jaar begins with the notion that imparting information in such a way as to create a sense of empathy in those observing his art is the first step towards inspiring them to take action.  In developing a sense of responsibility for others (who through this process become understood to be  similar to ourselves, to the extent that they are in fact conceived as existing within our own community) apathy is translated into empathy, and hopefully, into eventual action. The seeds of hope for a future based on communal responsibility are thus sown, as people begin to visualize a future which is distinct from the past and separated from the prevalent mindset so often characterized by a sense of failure, otherness, apathy, and defeatism embodied by the idea that we are not capable of making change.

The fact that Jaar spends an equal amount of time teaching students, setting up museum and gallery exhibitions, and displaying public art interventions reveals the importance he places on reaching as many audiences as possible. Jaar’s art is designed to be effective on all scales: from local communities to cities; at national and then international levels. On all of these levels, he attempts to bring attention to pressing problems, impress upon the audience a feeling of cross-community responsibility, and ultimately, to challenge and transform the traditional notions of self and community held by many people that have often prevented people from taking action on behalf of those who are suffering. 

Art on different levels and scales

• On a city level, Jaar created a public exhibition in Montreal that brought homelessness and previously ‘invisible’ homeless people “into the light”, by connecting buttons in homeless shelters that homeless people could press to bright lights in the cupola in the central downtown area. This project, called “Lights in the City (1999),” aimed to connect the less glamorous and perhaps less identifiable residents of the city to citizens’ daily experience of their downtown area – and hence, their daily lives. By informing their understanding of who is within the community, this exhibition aims to stimulate an equal awareness of the actions that such understanding might necessitate.  

• On a national level, Jaar’s famous light installation in Times Square, “A Logo for America (1987),” mounts a challenge to people’s national identity, forcing them to consider who is left  out through the usage of certain terminology. The light installation displays the words “This is not America” on a map of the United States. Even in employing a broad term such as ‘American’ to describe a citizen of the United States, there is the risk of exclusion; namely, all other Americans in the northern and southern hemispheres. 

• Finally, through internationally-focused, borderless projects such as “The Eyes of Gutete Emirita,” concerned with the Rwandan genocide, and “Emergencia,” about the AIDS epidemic, Jaar hopes to erase all traditional lines of community and identity that prevent identification with the suffering of ‘others’ by bringing the viewer as close as possible to that ‘other.’ The “Eyes of Gutete Emirita (1997)” exhibition, while failing to bring back those who have died, serves to reinforce cross-cultural and transnational identifications as a way of reducing the possibility that genocide and other atrocities are repeated. In Gutete’s devastated eyes one paradoxically witnesses seeds of hope for the next generation. 

Jaar’s work has been successful in the USA and abroad, although in ways that cannot necessarily be measured or easily quantified. His statement that through his art, he hopes to “recuperate the lost humanity of human beings,” implies that Western individualism and consumerism have become harmful to the human race. Jaar seeks to connect people across distance, time, nationality, culture, and personal experience, to combat apathy that stems from a narrow conception of self and community, to inspire empathy, and finally, to instill hope  so that even as people confront the tragedies of the past, they also are inspired to resist and ensure that such tragedies are not repeated in the future.  In this way, Jaar feels, they will come to embrace a new paradigm of hope, optimism, and community responsibility.

III. The relevance of the work of Alfredo Jaar in a Danish and French context

1) Introducing the Rwanda Project in high schools

Through an introduction to the Rwanda Project, students will engage in discussions about the overall themes of genocide and race. Race is a subject which is nearly invisible to public debates in France and Denmark, even while opposition to immigration and minority issues both occupy much space in these discussions. While such questions may be phrased and addressed in ambiguous terms, they often mask underlying racial issues. 

The overall goal: 

To make students aware of potential ongoing racial discrimination in their own community. 

- To inspire them to take action against racial discrimination through creative and non-violent means.

- To reformulate students’ notion of self and community.

2) Using silent installations to make us talk

“This is not Denmark”

“This is not France”

The project “A Logo for America” addresses how both power balances and words shape national borders and national identity. This exhibit is also relevant to Denmark and France, where discussion about national identity are very much shaped by the ongoing immigration debate. New projects inspired by the visuals in Jaar’s art could be developed in public spaces in these two countries, which will foster dialogue in spaces within society where national identity would probably not otherwise be discussed. Viewing such silent commentaries will lead people to begin to talk.

The overall goal:

To provide new tools  and perspectives for Danish and French people in their discussion of national identity (e.g.,. the Danish People’s Party and their campaign “Give Us Denmark Back” during the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. 

- To begin a discussion of who can and cannot be said to be included under the term “nations”, using a new point of departure: a starting point located midway between public event and art.

II. Alfredo Jaar: the tragic aspect of an impossible mission.

“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” writes James Baldwin. Only through the discomfort that takes root in our subconscious can we be awakened. But exactly how long and how intense can this awakening be? The question points out the potential futility of art, and the difficulty in using it as a tool for change. Can words displayed on Times Square change anything, and what do they potentially change? Do we not, once having left the gallery, go back to the routine of our daily lives? What can a red light in Montreal actually change for the homeless?

Every attempt to  transform the world and one’s community through art seems to be in vain – doomed to failure – precisely because of the ephemeral nature of this discussion, and the fact that the feelings we experience while standing in front of Alfredo Jaar’s work last only as long as we are in the gallery. But might even that feeling of empathy simply be the politically correct response we feel compelled to show?

In the end, images might seem powerless precisely because they are just images. By its very nature, the impact of art as a medium presents a challenge to more traditional tools for social action, because it is impossible to measure its impact on the individual and to verify its success. Jaar intends for his art to “create cracks in the system” – but does he really change the paradigm, dismantle prejudice, and create empathy? And what relevance do his projects have in a society of individuality and lost morality?

Perhaps, the best answer to this is found in Jaar’s own statement: “If I can touch only one person, I will have reached my goal.”

 

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