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PBS Digital Studio's The Art Assignment visits artist collective Dignicraft during their residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Omar Foglio, José Luis Figueroa, and Paola Rodriguez give us the assignment to facilitate an Encounter / Encuentro. Here's what they mean:

Encounter / Encuentro Instructions:
1. Think of two people who you know who have similar interests but don't know each other
2. Facilitate a collaboration by introducing them and suggesting they do something together
3. Document the experience
4. Upload to your social media platform of choice using #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (your work might be featured in a future episode)

Learn more about Dignicraft and their work at the McColl Center: http://mccollcenter.org/artists-in-residence/dignicraft
And here's where you can purchase a DVD of their film Brilliant Soil: http://www.dignicraft.com/films-music.html

This episode also features a discussion of Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics (1998), which you can borrow from your library or purchase here: http://www.amazon.com/Relational-Aesthetics-Nicolas-Bourriaud/dp/2840660601
Today, we're in Charlotte, North Carolina at the McColl Center for Art and Innovation.  They play host to a variety of artists in residence, and currently, Dignicraft is here, a collective of media producers and ceramic artists whose common goal is to bring attention to the Purépecha pottery tradition in Mexico.  They've made a number of documentary films, including Brilliant Soil in 2011, which brought wider awareness to the Purépecha story, and Dignicraft's work to educate native artisans to rid their practices of toxic, lead-based glazes.  Dignicraft has worked to demonstrate new, sustainable techniques, and establish healthier working conditions for the artisans.  They're here in North Carolina, which has its own rich tradition of ceramics, and have been conducting workshops that bring together local artists and Purépecha communities in this region.  We'll be talking with collective members Omar Foglio, Jose Luis Figueroa, and Paola Rodriguez.  Their work is enormously collaborative, between each other and the artists and communities they bring together through their work.  So let's go talk to them.

Omar: Hello, my name is Omar. 
Paola: Paola.
José Luis: I'm José Luis, and we are Dignicraft.
Paola: Y esta es tu tarea artística.

Omar: Well, uh, the project that we've been working on here at the McCall center for art and innovation is call Encuentros/Encounters. After having this conversation that was recurrent with all the families of ours that we've been collaborating with, ah, where they would ask us, you know, "Where do my pieces go?" or they would tell us, "You don't know how much I would love to travel as far as where my work goes." So building upon that, ah, sentiment, we said, "Well, let's create a contemporary art project and, so we can build the circumstances for at least the artists that are closest to us to actually travel."

Sarah: Here's how the project worked: Dignicraft is based in Tijuana, Mexico, they spent a month visiting artists in Michoacán, in particular, the Purépecha Region, and bought pottery directly from artisans. They shipped it all to Tijuana, where they cleaned and repacked it for importing to the US. Then they sent the pottery to Charlotte, and flew there themselves. They had done a lot of research in advance, and used Charlotte as a home base as they traveled around the state, connecting with Purépecha communities in North Carolina, as well as other artists, craftspeople and ceramicists in the area. Then, they flew over several artists from Michoacán to meet up and collaborate with artists from North Carolina. For example, Dignicraft arranged for ceramic artist Juan Rosas to meet with North Carolina based Antoine Williams and Felicia van Bork, who gave him technical advice about painting and print-making. Together with Dignicraft, Juan worked on a larger scale than he ever had before, and they were able to make this fantastic new mural, punctuated by examples of Juan's ceramic work, for the Encounters Exhibition at the McCall Center.

Omar: A piece like this is like, you're not getting an object, you're getting ah, a small piece of the artisan who ah, put all their energy into it, but it's also like, a summary of their whole culture. Ah, but you need to learn to kind of feel that, and take that knowledge and make it your own. 

Omar: Your art assignment is to facilitate a collaboration. First, you're going to think of two people that you already know who have shared interest, but that do not know each other. Second, you're going to facilitate a collaboration by introducing them--either physically, in person or online, at a distance--and you're going to suggest that they do something together. And third, you're going to document that process and the result of the collaboration.

John: So Sarah, on this journey of the art assignment, you have taught me that art is not just painting and sculpture and I totally get that, but I just want to confirm that--that in this assignment we are being asked by artists who didn't make anything to like, not make something.

Sarah: Well, they're making something; they're making an experience and they're bringing people together--they're bringing them in to encounter and those people make something. And objects may be the result of this assignment, but not necessarily. And I think it's time, we have had a few social practice type assignments, to think about the theory behind social practice.

John: No, no, no. I do not like art theory. I don't like it. You're going to say words like aesthetics. I guarantee you you're going to say the word aesthetics.

Sarah: Well, social practice is accessible, which is great, but there is academic rigor behind it and there are people who have thought a lot about it including um, Nicolas Bourriaud who wrote this book, "Relational Aesthetics".

John: I knew it!

Sarah: He claims that the spread of urbanization and increase in mobility after World War II gave rise to this new kind of art that is also urbanized whose central themes are being together, the encounter between viewer and painting, and the collective elaboration of meaning. Rather than taking inspiration from life, this art inserts itself into life. Bourriaud explains, "Art can be a machine for provoking and managing individual or collective encounters." We've talked before about how art isn't just stuff; it can be provocation or encouragement or connection. "The production of gestures," he says, "wins out over the production of material things." Bourriaud quotes theorist, Félix Guattari. "The only acceptable end purpose of human activities is the production of a subjectivity that is forever self-enriching its relationship with the world." This is the goal of Dignicraft's activities. Through films, workshops, residencies, and exhibitions, they are crafting a subjectivity for themselves and for their audiences and collaborator's that catalyzes exchange and enrichment between people in vastly different parts of the world.


José: You have to be flexible for the uh, the changes that can uh, arise during the process. You might suggest uh, for example, a topic for the collaboration or something that they can do together or you can do with them together, but you have to be flexible that also they will have an input. Otherwise, it would be pointless. It would be more like assigning tasks. It's more like you are, you are inviting people to do something together and you don't know what will be the outcome. No, so that's the beauty of it.

Paola: (Spanish) We believe that that the situation that Mexico is experiencing now is very difficult and violent and we think these kind of encounters can achieve, like, imagining things, imagining new collaborations, imagining new ways of relating to one another and of getting to know one another, and this can create other situations or produce other outcomes that are beneficial for everybody.