Course Turns Vandalism into Works of Art

Posted: October 14, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

When a serial vandal cut up 607 books from the San Francisco Public Library, he had no idea that a group of students from New Century College (NCC) and the Department of Art and Visual Technology (AVT) would spend several weeks working to put those books back in circulation as art.

The 39 students are enrolled in Art as Social Action, a special topics course offered jointly in NCC and AVT this fall. Suzanne Scott, instructor in NCC’s arts and culture concentration, and Lynne Constantine, associate chair of AVT, team teach the class.

“The premise of the course is that all art engages with the larger social world and has a stance, whether it announces its stance or not,” says Scott. “But citizen artists make their art with the express purpose of becoming agents of social commentary, social protest, community improvement, individual and world betterment, and even radical change.”

The project, which the library calls “Reversing Vandalism,” required each student to transform one of the vandalized books. The 39 books taken on by the class were on topics such as women’s health; AIDS; and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender topics. Because of the subject matter of the books, the vandal was charged with a hate crime.

The students in the class come from a diverse mix of backgrounds, ages, and interests. Many are visual artists, musicians, or dancers, while others are more interested in the historical, cultural, and social aspects of art. “The students immediately got that this was a restorative justice project, and that it was about a core value of democracy–freedom of thought,” says Constantine. “They especially understood the importance of returning these books to the library, where they would be placed back in circulation, though in an altered form.”

Some of the students pulped the books and created works from the paper. Others kept recognizable parts of the text and incorporated them into paintings and mixed media pieces. One student used a synthesizer to compose a 12-movement musical piece based on the characters in his book, while another student produced a table setting with flowers created from the pages of the book and a bound proposal with pictures of the planned event.

The students’ works will be shipped to San Francisco, where they will be exhibited with other artists’ transformed books at various branches of the library during spring 2004. George Mason’s is the only college art class to take on the project. The library plans to exhibit the works produced by the class with a display that documents the students’ process.

“Art produced as social action is meant to stimulate connections and conversations between the viewer and the object, between the artist and the viewer, and among the viewers themselves,” says Constantine. “Our goal for our students is to learn about exemplars of this type of art but also to experience what it’s like to make those conversations happen.”

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