07.12.22
Dana Arnett + Kevin Bethune | Audio

S10E2: Jane Saks


Jane Saks is the President and Artisitic Director of Project&, and the co-Founder and co-Artisitic Director of M2M: Monuments to Movements.

She discussed with Kevin and Dana the complementary roles that design and art play, and the role of the second respondent:
When you need blood and sandbags and shelter and food, you don't call it an art, right? It's not the first to get there at the fire. Now it can soothe a baby who's crying— I'm not saying it isn't often a first responder, but it's really a second respondent. And that's where the idea of design and architecture and art and culture really come together. As a second respondent, we get to be reflective. We get to risk, we get to be courageous, make mistakes. We can't make mistakes as a first responder, right? And so that's where the properties of these fields really kind of overlap. So if you have a chance to rethink building shelter, what does that look like? What does that feel like? How does it make people feel? And so as a second respondent, you can question. And it also means that you can commit to getting deeper and deeper into the problem. That's what art and culture does. It's what design and it's what architecture does.

Next Week: Kaleena Sales and Omari Souza give their take on arts, culture, and democracy.

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This season’s theme music is from Mike Errico. Photo credit: Philip Thomas

TRANSCRIPT

Kevin Bethune
Welcome to The Design of Business...

Dana Arnett
...The Business of Design.

Kevin Bethune
Where we talk with leaders in their fields,

Dana Arnett
About how innovation, access, and curiosity are redesigning their worlds. I'm Dana Arnett.

Kevin Bethune
And I'm Kevin Bethune.

Dana Arnett
This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by ArtCenter College of Design, a global leader in art and design education.

Kevin Bethune
Later on, we'll hear from ArtCenter faculty member, J.C. Cornwell.

Kevin Bethune
On today's episode, art projects and the project of art.

Jane Saks
You wouldn't have a democracy without art. You wouldn't have a just society. And I think that's part of, in creating a just society, is the idea that art and justice have human dignity in common.

Dana Arnett
Jane Saks is the founding president and artistic director of Project& and co-founder of M2M, Monuments to Movements.

Kevin Bethune
And has been a visiting critic, artist, professor, lecturer and speaker. She is the recipient of Oxbow's 2022 Inaugural Visionaries Award. Jane, welcome to the podcast.

Jane Saks
Thank you so much.

Dana Arnett
So, Jane, let's get started. I'll never forget an intriguing phone call I got from you, I don't know, 15 years ago, you wanted to create a nonprofit. You called it an incubator where cultural production and art would come together to change the world. It was a big idea. It took flight. And here you are now. Tell us a little bit about those early beginnings and how that's transformed your life and the life of others.

Jane Saks
I count you as one of the founding comrades of Project&, there was an amazing group of about five or six of us, and it was an incredible group that seemed to actually understand what I was talking about and thinking about and how I made all of these kind of unusual, disparate connections. And it really does come from childhood. I used to come home from school, and I love to learn and I love to be on a learning curve. I used to tell my mother I like my toes higher than my heels. And I started coming home more and more often, saying, I don't really think they understand what I'm saying. I don't really think they understand what I'm talking about or what I'm thinking about. And lucky me, I was in a really creative and curious and energetic, you know, family. I used to say to them that gravity was optional, and they understood. And I kept making these connections between people and places and ideas and seeing what was missing. And I started to really notice the voices and ideas that weren't connected and weren't participating. And I think that one of the things that really helped me start to understand how those connections were made is what I now call a queer life. And for me, that is not necessarily about sexual orientation or gender identity, although for me it is as well. But it's really about kind of a-a necessary term of orientation and really thinking about creating spaces and places that are more ambivalent, more porous, you know, often more imaginative than most of the environments that we all navigate every day. And it's part of what I envision when I'm creating things and Project& really came from that vision. But again, you know, I didn't do that alone. And I think that, you know, it's the freedom of queerness and that freedom has liberty, and it also has really deep costs and it has richness and it has risk. But it's the kind of risk that only comes with true emancipation, that emancipation offers a kind of authenticity and freedom, and it offers yourself, you. And I would think that any, any, any creative thinker liver has to live in part of that freedom and risk and loss.

Kevin Bethune
You're someone who does a lot of things. And I'm so curious, when you meet someone for the first time, say, at a bar, or person sitting next to you on a long flight — how do you introduce yourself?

Jane Saks
Oh, see, that's the trick. I don't introduce myself. I talk to them. I mean, I- you know, we have a joke in my in my family that no one knows what I do. I have no noun, you know. I have no, you know, simple noun. And I always joke, you know, you know what a tzar is and a dictator and a queen and— but a friend of mine gave me the title cultural alchemist, which we all thought was quite funny. So I never really say that in public. But yeah, mostly what I say is I work in the arts to create social impact and equitable participation through new models. And then I say, and I've lived a really collaged life.

Dana Arnett
I know from the projects we've collaborated on, you have a deep seated vision around how art can change the world and Project& is essentially a nonprofit platform that does that. Can you give us a quick snapshot of some of those projects that really connect this personal life that you've led and transforms that into the work you do in the community?

Jane Saks
Yeah, that's a great question because I think that at the center of the work that, I think that you can't have democracies without creativity and art and culture. And so part of it is that art and culture deliver on the democratic promise. And all that democracy promises is equitable participation. Now we don't have that, but art offers it. And so that's kind of at the core of all the projects. So one big new initiative is M2M, Monuments to Movements, and it's really about celebrating the collective accomplishments of our society, our communities around the world. It's not about hero worship. So when everybody was knocking the heads off of Columbus, I was all for it. But I said: You know, that's not even a conversation. We still are those people. You know, yesterday we had that statue up and today we don't. So I was like, what's a bigger conversation? And so I always think about who do we aspire to be, and then — how do we get there? And so what a lot of the projects allow us to do is live in all tenses of the verb, you know. So Monuments to Movement is about the past and embr-embracing it, with real courage. It's about committing to the present while really looking around and being truthful and then thinking about the future. And so the idea of Monuments to Movement is, you know, could we have a monument to human infrastructure, which is one that we're working on with National Domestic Workers Alliance and Ai-jen Poo. You know, what does it mean to have a monument to people who are the human infrastructure of our society and are not seen anywhere? You know, what does it mean to have a monument to climate justice, and we're working with Mel Potter and thinking about what does it mean to really think about a feminist seed bank. It's not just kind of taking back land, but it's creating fertile land, metaphorically, actually, physically. And then we're also working on a project with Albie Sachs, the great ANC leader and judge and and someone that I met through my anti-apartheid work, through the arts when I was in college and then have done work with him for decades and decades. And with Albie Sachs and Vanessa September, we're working on a monument to evolving democracies. You know, democracies don't exist unless we participate in them. And so what does it mean to have an evolving democracy? And we're kind of living in that right now, or maybe a devolving democracy. And South Africa is one of the newest. It's one of the most successful. And it also has huge challenges and faultlines. And so we're going to start the project there. And it's a collaboration between artists in South Africa and artist here, youth on both side and really thinking about what does it mean, what kind of democracy are you going to help build and be part of? And I do want to say that I co-founded Monuments to Movements in the House of Radical Feminist Practices with Neysa Page-Lieberman.

Kevin Bethune
And, you know, you mentioned cultural alchemist. You've brought along a ton of wonderful award winning collaborators in your wake. How would you describe the gravity and attraction that drew those collaborators into the movements that you've been inspiring and leading?

Jane Saks
Well, I do have to say that, you know, perhaps we were creating collaborating in each other's wake.

Kevin Bethune
Mhm.

Jane Saks
I have worked with incredible artists and they- and thinkers, and they all were before they got awards. So a lot of them are people who were starting out to do their work and did it in a visionary way that I really responded to. Somebody like Lynsey Addario, who's now Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellow. I think the other thing is that I think of my work and the people I work with as an ecology, and that means in an ecology things are equitable, they're not equal. And so like right now, you know, don't make me choose between water and oxygen, right? You know, right now I need oxygen to talk to you, but I'll need water soon. And so how do we create a kind of ecology, a creative ecology to innovate together? So a lot of times it's people who understand there's no end user, right? All these processes and innovations and collaborations change us as much as they change anybody else in any role. And so that's kind of what I look for, you know? Courageous, fierce, you know, creative people, but also, beautiful, loving, generous, compassionate, and people who are committed to impacting the world for better.

Dana Arnett
So, Jane, I'm going to take you back a ways. Growing up, you got to know the American writer and historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel. Talk a little bit about that and then how on the 40th anniversary of Working America, you helped resurrect that important work of his. Talk a little bit about that full circle experience for you.

Jane Saks
It is an amazing experience. I grew up as part of, you know, kind of extended community of very progressive Jews, and they weren't assimilationist. The idea was not to come to the United States and be white or, you know, to follow the economic or geographic aspirations. But it was to be able to come here and be free and creative and entrepreneurial and, you know, frankly, not be killed. And it also was a prosperous country. You know why? Because it was built on slavery. So immediately by coming to this country, you had an obligation to be part of its evolution and its improvement because you were benefiting from its original sin. So that brought people like Studs Terkel into our lives. And my dad and he were very close friends, but I used to drive around Chicago with the two of them. And, you know, it was the seventies and my dad smoked a pipe and Studs's famous cigar and the windows are rolled up and they're like, you know, breathe deep. You know, there's Emmett Till's house, right? And that was what was amazing. It was the connective tissue in the world, in people in cities that mattered. It wasn't the monuments. It wasn't the kind of tourist attractions or the famous places, but it was all of that connective tissue in between. And that made a big difference. And so Studs had a huge impact on me, as did my father, Timuel Black. And, you know, in about 2014, you know, it was one of the first projects, of Project&. I thought, what's happened to the dignity of work and the dignity of a worker? Not the work force. We got very involved in talking about the workforce, but the individual, you know, really got lost. And so one of the things is that I thought, wait, I'm going to go back to Working. And it turned out it was exactly 40 year anniversary. He had published that book in 1974, and he had traveled around the country famously recording people, talking about just how they felt, about what they did all day. And I thought, you know what— this is work. Not your job, you know, not your profession, not your position, not your title, but the work you do. How-how do we feel about that? What does that mean about our identities? So with Lynsey Addario, we traveled the country and I had picked out 28 people. I could have picked out more, but I tried to, you know, have a good range. She had been coming off of the Syrian border. It was the beginning of that war and that tragic war, and and so I said, come on, crisscross the country with me and let's go back to the dignity of Studs. We also were able to- I got the rights to all the original interviews that he did. They had never been heard by the people who had given them. And they were on, you know, cassette tapes. And so I actually, you know, my partner and I spent a weekend transferring them like it was, you know, getting them from the Library of Congress and from the History Museum and then listening to these and playing them back after a lot of research, the people who were still alive. And they're just remarkable, remarkable interviews. A woman who had been an operator at 16 now is the head of communications at the Seattle Library. But her interviews brilliant. You know, she talks about a lot of talking happening and no communication. Renault Robinson, who was one of the founders of the Afro-American Police League and went through really brutal times being part of the Chicago Police Force. And in 2016 it was very much similar. And he did an interview in my house and really talked about, you know, nothing changing and kind of what he had been through. And so the other thing was, I didn't want people to pay money to come to this museum quality exhibition. I didn't want them to pay their working money. And so I wanted it to be in public libraries. So with Jeanne Gang, we co-created this exhibition. I wanted it to be like steamer trunks, so the whole thing would just fold up and you could ship it in its own crate and there was no nailing on the floor. You didn't need to preparitor or so that it could go to small towns, big towns. But I want it in the guts of the library. I wanted people to pass by who didn't know it was there. I wanted them to engage in it. And so part of what we do in creating the work that we do is we create possibilities that we don't know are going to happen. So we create things for the unknown as well as kind of building the architecture and the infrastructure. So one of the most beautiful things was that I was able to train individuals experiencing homelessness and people who were unemployed looking for jobs at the library, you know, on the computer as docents of this exhibition about the dignity of work as well and as invite well known and not so well known people to come and actually talk about it, taking it to branch libraries and talking about what work looks like, how it feels. And so it's really we also did a ten piece audio series on NPR and All Things Considered, and it was called Working Then and Now. And it was incredible. I mean, it was really amazing to crawl into the anatomy of Studs's work and also be having such a live conversation with him.

Dana Arnett
So I'm sure Studs would not have referred to his work as cultural production, or he probably wouldn't even consider himself an artist. But part of what you do is bring those two things together, and you need an artistic voice to break through the clutter and to create provocative imagery like those that were created for Working in America. Do artists like doing that when you approach them, or how does an artist come to know you and come to collaborate with you?

Jane Saks
Well, I do get around, so that's part of it. I'm always meeting somebody somewhere and I worked all over the world and I just never think there's an unnatural partner. And that's part of it. I don't kind of go out with a preconceived notion of what I need and who I need. But it was also like sometimes you're unlocking possibilities in each other. And so some of it is like, what's the question you start with? What's the assumption you let go of? What is the thing you don't hold as a truth so that you can get to something new? And so the artists that like doing that, like working with me and I love working with them. I serve on a commission to reevaluate the possibilities of what police can be. And sometimes people are saying to me: Oh, my God, like, what are you doing on that commission? Right? There's criminologists and lawyers and academics and, you know, a lot of the people you would imagine. Well its because I understand ways of of helping human beings see themselves differently and locating themselves differently in the world. And, you know, in one meeting, someone said, you know, Jane, you haven't said whether you're for defunding the police or not. And I said, oh, see, because that's not my question. My question is: who do we aspire to be as a society? And once we can answer that, then we can come up with the forms of self-governance. Then we can come together and think about how does that get us to the place that we want to grow to? That's what I do with my collaborators in the arts. The other thing is that, you know, I want to work with artists that want to create spaces of discovery and uncertainty and questioning and loss. And what loss is, is the assumed systems of engagement. And there are times that really can create a kind of reflective space in which we can try to meet those aspirations. And also as a tension, I'm really interested in creating beautiful resistance and spaces of exuberance and esthetic journeys and poetic vision. And so that's what I look for.

Kevin Bethune
This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by ArtCenter College of Design.

J.C. Cornwell
My name is J.C. Cornwell. I have a few different jobs. My primary job is I'm the head of training at DreamWorks Animation.

Dana Arnett
J.C. also teaches at Art Center, both in the undergrad program and in the ArtCenter extension or the ACX.

J.C. Cornwell
So learning at ArtCenter is doing things. The ACX program, the people who sign up for those courses, they're not interested in grades. They just want to learn the software and learn the tool. And it's it's very much a professionals environment and it's just people who want to learn that particular tool and know how to keep up in the industry and just grow professionally. So as technology changes and software changes and the tools change, you can't really just learn one tool and then stick with it for the rest of your life. You're going to be aged out pretty quick if if that's the one tool you use. A lot of the tools used now were not even in existence ten years ago. So if you're not keeping up with what are the latest tools and where is-where is production heading, where is software heading, where is the industry heading, and the adaptation of these new tools — then you're going to kind of be left behind. I think ArtCenter is internationally recognized as a leader in education, especially in design and art. And and to take that branding and to be able to use the same focus and have it for anyone. It just expands the opportunity that people have to learn.

Kevin Bethune
Visit Art Center Dot Edu to learn more about Art Center extension and other exciting programs.

Kevin Bethune
So, Jane, let's look together at the picture that's bigger than any one of the individual projects that we've covered so far. How do you distinguish the difference between art and design in this space that you find yourself in? Do they play a different role of sorts, or is there an interesting symbiosis that we need to explore?

Jane Saks
Oh, absolutely. It's always hard, you know, the sentence gets very long — art and culture and architecture and design. And, you know, and I think these things are very connected. They're not the same field. They're not necessarily have the same properties, but they're on a continuum and they're interrelated. And so in the collaborations that I build, I'm not interested in beige. I like, I like the flavors to be the flavors. Right. And then how do we change in relationship? And so I think, you know, it's it's those conversations about international design and then saying, well, you know, it's not accessible. It's like, what's good for a human being, right? So that is in the way of turning a question, an equation around and around. But I think one of the things that really brings art and culture, design and architecture together is what I call the idea of being a second respondent. So, you know, when you need blood and sandbags and shelter and food, you don't call it an art, right? It's not the first to get there at the fire. Now it can soothe a baby who's crying— I'm not saying it isn't often a first responder, but it's really a second respondent. And that's where the idea of design and architecture and art and culture really come together. As a second respondent, we get to be reflective. We get to risk, we get to be courageous, make mistakes. We can't make mistakes as a first responder, right? And so that's where the properties of these fields really kind of overlap, right? So if you have a chance to rethink building shelter, what does that look like? Right? What does that feel like? How does it make people feel? And so as a second respondent, you can question. And it also means that you can commit to getting deeper and deeper into the problem. That's what art and culture does. It's what design, it's what architecture does. What do you see as the connection between art and design?

Dana Arnett
I've always considered myself an artist, but just an applied artist. So there's this misnomer where you have to kind of separate fine art, what I was told was commercial art when I grew up — but it's all doing the same thing in some ways. It's expressing an idea and then convincing people to, either fall in love with it or think about that idea. So, you know, I maintain a real strong affinity and attraction to fine art. But while I practice the fine art of words and pictures, it's just for me. There's not many barriers between the two. I just get paid to do it in the commercial world. I don't know about you Kevin?

Kevin Bethune
I think for me, I'm definitely intrigued by the questions that art can provoke, like almost the speculative nature of like what, what could be versus like, on the design end of the spectrum is very much seeking the should be, like — what is the answer to the need. But I think that continuum that you described earlier that resonated with me for sure.

Dana Arnett
Yeah. So, Jane, you work with a variety of artists, architects, designers, writers. Can share a little bit about how you engage them to take on big issues and, you know, really address. A lot of the major social initiatives you're interested in.

Jane Saks
Yeah, it's a very interesting process because it's it's different every time. Some of it is highly organic, and I think we don't give enough credit to proximity in our lives. You know, you like, you know, live across the hall from someone and, you know, you end up with them for the rest of your life or it changes the way you think about the world. I do have a huge and varied and diverse network, and I'm always interested in thinking about people and partnerships and ways of thinking that I have never, you know, engaged or been able to enter into. And so I see no unnatural partners. I think of these combinations. It really goes back to what I was saying about living a queer life and taking traditional systems and creating new models. And so, you know, I've met artists in Sierra Leone. I've met artists, you know, in Ferguson, I've met artists in Oakland and and thinkers in Mexico and South Africa. But it's not always like meeting the artist and then pulling a thread. It's really about building those ecologies. And so it may be somebody I've thought about working with for a long time, or they've thought about working with me for a long time, or the world shifts, you know, I don't know that I would have said five years ago that monuments were my burning desire, right? But I always knew that they didn't speak to me. Or they spoke to me with like acidic voices. But then I started to think about that and I thought about what do I value? And I value social justice, I value art and culture. And so it brought it together. What is that? It's movements. It's what we do collectively. And then I start to search again with my co-founder, Neysa, searching and thinking about different partnerships. And also people bring people to me and vice versa. And so it's probably more organic than anybody likes to admit. You know, it's not a spreadsheet, but it is about making that connection.

Kevin Bethune
So your work challenges systems that were not set up to be inclusive. You know, you mentioned a few times this notion of new models. How are you redesigning in those spaces to be inclusive, expansive, just — to make a difference and actually break through?

Jane Saks
I think, again, it's about assumptions and old models. You don't have to come to them and think any differently. I think we all know that in any changes of our lives, when we kind of dismantle an old system and before we've replaced it, there's this moment of of loss, of emptiness, but it's also a moment of imagination and possibility. And so I think that, you know, part of the idea of making things more equitable and just is about agency. We don't think of community members as audience. I just heard this new report, which is devastating, that most people of color don't get asked to be part of, you know, like medical studies. And medical studies are where you get all the attention, right? You know, it's like you see the doctor every day and you come in every week and they're trying something new and they know everything you're doing. And and they don't get asked because the doctors inevitably make assumptions about who that person is. They're Black. They won't have a lot of money. They have a 9 to 5 job. And so they won't be able to just come in. They probably don't have a car. They probably live far away. I mean, think about when we think about equity and new models, think about if that list was not just on repeat in someone's head. So that is the kind of thing that we try to create. It's things like putting things in a library, a free and open library. It's about partnering with The Field Museum to push that museum, but know that, you know, every food group of society will come to that museum on a school trip or with a family or as a tourist or- and so some of it is being in places and with people that will change those assumptions and that will feel like they have the agency to make those choices for themselves. I think there's another thing, too, that's really important, and people often talk about giving voice to the voiceless, which is a phrase I really hate. There are no voiceless people. There are people who have been oppressively not listened to. There are people who have been systematically unheard, and so there is something about allowing someone to participate and be the other on their own terms and be involved in something in a way that they choose. But we've got to make that possible to happen.

Dana Arnett
So, Jane, we've covered a lot of territories. And, you know, as a lifelong activist and fighter, sometimes you've told me you need a revolution to unite this deeply divided world we live in. Do we need a revolution now or do we just need more art?

Jane Saks
I mean, I think there's no just. So that's one thing. You know, we're in a really cruel, tragic, complex time in the world. And it's also one of the most innovative and inventive and kind of full of possibilities. I mean, we are- and I'm not just talking about technology, you know, or A.I. and and all the other things that we can imagine. I mean, people are reimagining or embracing different identities and ways they want to locate themselves in the world. I don't know that it's that we need more art. I do think that every society has had art at the center of revolutions, social evolution, You know, you really- all the major changes and growth of any society throughout history has always had art at the center. I think that what we have to do is think of it as a serious tool, not an accessory. So, you know, is art going to save the world? No, but it definitely is an essential partner. And I also want to say something about uniting. People always ask me, you know, you've been all over the world and don't you just find that everybody really wants the same things? And I said, no, actually, happily, I don't. I find that difference and different ways of approaching anything is what actually makes this world work. And so that's the other thing is I don't know that it's about uniting. It's more about creating that ecology, that idea that we all have different roles. Art is essential. You wouldn't have a democracy without art. You wouldn't have a just society. And I think, you know, that's part of in creating a just society is the idea that and I've said this many times that art and justice have human dignity in common. And so that's what we need more of. We need more human dignity. And that is what art delivers. Art delivers justice through human dignity. And so I do believe that art reflects our times, but also creates a reality before it's a reality. Part of what we do as social justice workers, as creatives is that we create ourselves into that reality. Both of you do that. You create us into a reality before societies get there, before policy, before advocacy, before large public systems get there. And so it's a revolution of ideas as much as a revolution in the streets. And we know that that connection to in the house and in the streets has to be deep and sustaining.

Dana Arnett
That's a mic drop moment there, Jane.

Kevin Bethune
Thank you so much for being with us.

Jane Saks
It is more than a pleasure to be with the two of you. And your work is one of the things that inspires me. Thank you so much.

Kevin Bethune
The Design of Business | The Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer. Our website is DBBD dot Design Observer dot com. There you can find more about our guest today, Jane Saks, plus the complete archive from past guests and hosts. To listen go to DBBD dot Design Observer dot com.

Dana Arnett
If you like what you heard today, please subscribe to this podcast. You can find The Design of Business | The Business of Design on Apple Podcasts, or however you listen to podcasts.

Kevin Bethune
And if you're already a subscriber to the podcast, tell your friends about the show or go to Apple Podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about the show.

Dana Arnett
Between episodes keep up with us at Design Observer on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And make sure you stay tuned for next week's mini episode with Kaleena Sales and Omari Souza.

Kevin Bethune
Our producer is Adina Karp. Judybelle Camangyan edits the show. Our theme music is by Mike Errico. Thanks as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helton and other previous hosts Ellen McGirt and Michael Bierut, and to Design Observer's executive producer, Betsy Vardell.

Dana Arnett
See you next time.

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