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This week we head to Tijuana, Mexico to talk with John Ewing, Carmen Montoya, and Christopher Robbins of Ghana Think Tank, who are working on a project to encourage communication at the U.S-Mexico border.
INSTRUCTIONS - What's Your Problem?
1. Find someone you think could never understand your perspective

2. Ask that person for help with your problem

3. Do what they say

4. Document your experience

5. Share using #theartassignment

6. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode)

Learn more about Ghana Think Tank:

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
Sarah: We're in Tijuana, Mexico. And we're joining up with the organizers of Ghana Think Tank, who have been developing the first world since 2006. Through a variety of initiatives, the group has collected problems in the US and Europe, in so-called developed countries, and sent them to think tanks around the world in places including Ethiopia, Cuba, El Salvador, Serbia, Palestine, and of course, Ghana. They then work with the communities where the problems originated, to implement the solutions devised by the think tanks.

They are currently working on a project at the US Mexico border that focuses on conflicting views of immigration. They are applying their process to encourage communication and collaboration between right wing border vigilantes on the US side and recently deported immigrants in Mexico and undocumented workers in the US. We're going to be talking with John Ewing, Carmen Montoya, and Christopher Robbins, who you may remember from our very first Art Assignment.

They are working on this project in concert with Torolab, an artist's collective, workshop, and laboratory that brings together artists, architects, and designers to think about and elevate the quality of life for residents of Tijuana and the region. Ghana Think Tank's remarkable approach flips the usual power dynamics and asks us to reconsider our cultural assumptions. We're meeting with them at Torolab's La Granja space in the Camino Verde neighborhood.

And we're going to follow them in a day of their border project. Ghana Think Tank's assignment is going to give you the opportunity to seek solutions in unexpected places.

[In Spanish] We are Ghana Think Tank, we are Torolab, and this is your art assignment.

Christopher: Made more simply, Ghana Think Tank kind of forces you to deal with something you always care about, but in a way that forces you to think about it through lenses of people you probably feel uncomfortable about.

Carmen: Finding dirty stories is a sublime solution. I love this. So the first time I think we did it was in Wales, in Penarth. People were complaining that the elderly are treated like a burden to society. That's a giant problem. What do you do with that?

The Iranian think tank came back and they said, well the problem is that young people don't think they have anything in common with old people. And so what you need to do is collect funny dirty stories from old people, put them on mp3 players and play them for young people.

And like to ask somebody in their 80s to remember when they were young and naughty. And their eyes glass over, and they go somewhere far away. And it's beautiful. And then a young person puts on those headphones, and they hear that gravelly voice, cackling about being like so naughty, I mean like, yeah, I was never that naughty.

Christopher: It's not always beautiful.

Carmen: It's lovely. Like the smile blooms on their faces. And in that one moment, they're like in the same timeless space.

It's amazing how that works.

Christopher: A big part of it becomes-- not necessarily like the solution solves the problem. But that it is taking something from one culture, inserting into your own, about something you already care about.

Carmen: Yeah. And the exchange that ensues from that new relationship between ideas, I think is really important. John: And people often ask us why it's art. You know, is this really art? And I think the good answer is it it's about changing perception, which good art does. It lets you see things in different ways.

Christopher: The original idea for the cart came from an immigration problem of the fact that San Diego and Tijuana are kind of one city. And so many people commute so regularly. On Saturday, the pedestrian line can get two, three, four hours long. And they talked about being stuck in the hot sun, walking that slow pace. And the idea was to create a cart that would give you a place to sit, give you some shade, but keep your place in the line. So you can sit down and keep moving along.

Carmen: So this Art Assignment is called What's Your Problem. Step one, find somebody who you think could never understand your perspective, somebody who maybe threatens you or someone you feel sorry for.

John: Step two, ask that person for help with your problem, whether it's a societal problem or a personal problem.

Christopher: And then you have to do what they say, whether that solution seems brilliant or impractical. And then take a photo of what you do. Draw a picture, write it down, maybe a video. Let us know how it went.

John: So Sarah, I love Ghana Think Tank's work. Because they're really trying to find new, innovative ways to bridge the empathy gap, especially the empathy gap between people who have vastly different lives.

Sarah: Yeah, I think this is a really important assignment, especially at this time in the world, when we're really struggling with having civil discourse with people we find different from us. And I think that doing this assignment, whether you're asking a small personal problem or asking about a large societal problem, can be one small but very meaningful step in imagining other people complexly and thinking about the world in a more constructive way.

John: It's also interesting because a lot of times artists are brought to cities or museums to kind of solve problems of the public. And this inverts that in a really brilliant way.

Sarah: Right. It asks you, as the artist, to approach other people to solve the problem and not vice versa. And I think this is a pretty novel approach within the scope of art history, but it did make me think about the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko.

In 1988, Krzysztof Wodiczko presented in a gallery a prototype for his homeless vehicle project. The four-wheeled metal unit had a roof, a can storage compartment, a wash basin, and could be extended for sleeping. Wodiczko designed and tested the unit with a panel of homeless consultants, incorporating feedback and developing variants, according to the needs of its potential users.

While made to meet practical demands, the vehicles were never intended for mass production nor to solve the underlying problem, namely the conditions that led to the displacement of these individuals. Whether shown in a gallery or photographed out in the world, the unit served as points of departure for a bigger discussion, forcing us to acknowledge the existence not only of homelessness writ large but also of the real people whose real lives are affected by it.

Ghana Think Tank challenges us to solicit answers to our own problems, not in order to solve them necessarily, but to reach across boundaries-- visible or invisible-- and create a space for interaction. Solving our very personal problems may be the serendipitous byproduct.

John: I'm really interested in this space that's there, the fact that you have-- this is the most crossed border in the world. And it seems like there's very little design about what happens when people go through that space, or what it should be like. And whether if you're disabled or you're older, as far as I know, they don't make special accommodations. So you're just sitting there in the hot sun for hours.

I'm interested in just seeing what happens when you intervene in that space, and how much you can shift things, and whether other people can make little interventions.

Carmen: Every time I come to do anything on the border-- my family lives all around Tijuana. I've lived both in Mexico and the US. And I feel totally bi-cultural. But I'm sure, because it's the case every time, I learn something else about not only myself but this place that I call home. And that's what I'm really looking forward to.

Christopher: I think the way it's set up is it will have this obnoxious LED sign on one side, saying immigrants and on the other side, Americans, which of course is sort of the same thing for most people who consider themselves Americans. So asking someone to self-identify immediately will start a conversation. So even if they just walk by or they just tell us this project is obnoxious, we can get a conversation started right then about what it means to be an immigrant or to be an American.

From there then, if they select OK, I'm an American, they'll have this software we've developed that you can submit your immigration problem. So what's your immigration problem, hit the button and leave it.

Sitting directly across from you is someone facing another screen, who's self-selected as an immigrant. And they're getting those problems in Spanish that they can solve. And they flip through these different immigration problems submitted by Americans and then choose to hit the button and give their solution.

Carmen: One of the challenges of this kind of work is that you have to put yourself out there. It's OK to be a little vulnerable. It's part of it.

John: It's all about being vulnerable.

Christopher: I mean the problems can be super personal and small and silly. That's great. We've actually found that the most universal problems are often things that seem small and silly, like my neighbor's dog barks too much or I'm afraid to dance at parties have brought some really profound results.

But then there's also huge problems. Maybe we talk about a racist political system, obesity in America.

Carmen: Climate change.

John: Or maybe there's somebody you want to talk to. Use this as an excuse to go ahead and do it.

Carmen: Well, one part of this process that's really important is this person-to-person interaction. If you just can't make yourself do it, be creative. You could leave a note on someone's front door step, on a community bulletin board. You could post a Craigslist ad, if you wanted to.

John: We make crazy carts to get people to come over to talk to us.