When she unveils her project later this summer at the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, Antonia Wright will have given voices to the homeless. She means that literally: Over the next two months, the Miami performance artist will have visited Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center, taught art workshops to shelter residents, recorded each person's voice and assembled the audio into an project she calls "Sound Portraits," which will play on a loop for visitors to the museum.
"We'll all be making sounds together," Wright, 34, says with a laugh. "When you're homeless or a low-income family, you become like an invisible person, or you're treated as invisible, and the homeless, I think, are missing their voice. This is sort of a way to empower them. It's not about me. It's about them, about a group that isn't treated with the respect they deserve. Now, I just have to figure out what sounds we'll record."
If Wright's "Sound Portraits" idea seems incomplete, she admits that it probably is. So are the four other artist-driven projects that will compose "Research and Development: Concerning Belonging," the Museum of Art's summerlong experiment that will marry art, social activism and no small measure of creativity. Starting June 1, the five contemporary artists — Tom Scicluna, Natasha Lopez de Victoria and Agustina Woodgate of Miami, and Rick Ulysse of Fort Lauderdale — will call the museum's 5,500-square-foot second-floor gallery their home, carving out workspaces that later will house public exhibitions.
Earlier this year, the museum collected a $20,000 Funding Arts Broward grant and brokered a partnership with staff at Nova Southeastern University and the Fort Lauderdale-based homeless shelter, where three of the five artists will teach workshops. During the residency, artists can use university resources or tap NSU faculty to aid with research, and the public can help guide artists' projects during a series of monthly studio talks, the first of which will take place June 12. Meanwhile, a filmmaker will shadow the quintet as the projects take shape, for a half-hour documentary to be unveiled in early August, museum executive director Bonnie Clearwater says.
"It'll be OK if the projects develop in a radically different way from where they started. It's all meant to be very experimental," says Clearwater, who modeled "Research and Development" after "Trading Places," a similar studio-swap art-residency program she invented when she was executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. "It makes sense to address homelessness in Broward, and rethink the whole idea of how the issue is handled. Artists express themselves creatively better than most, and they deal with issues of belonging or not belonging on a daily basis."
Workshops should last three weeks and involve roughly 50 shelter residents. To gather the voices for her "Sound Portraits," Wright is planning an exercise where she'll play pre-recorded sounds in class, and have residents respond to whichever noises provoke the most emotion. Working with homeless shelters is not unfamiliar to Wright, who once volunteered at Lotus House Shelter in Miami's Overtown neighborhood. Handing female residents her iPhone, she asked them to lay supine on the grass, point their toes toward the sun and record from this perspective, for a video project she titled "Women Who Walk on the Sun."
"Each sound portrait you'll end up listening to is created by a person you already have a certain set of beliefs about, just because of what society says about marginalized groups of people," Wright says. "They are dynamic and capable of beauty, and hopefully this entire project will create empathy."
Lopez de Victoria, half of the performance-art duo the TM Sisters, intends to project shelter residents against a green screen, which she'll morph into a "fantasy backdrop" filled with objects they aspire to possess. Woodgate, an installation artist, may ask residents to create maps of the world. Cartoon-realism painter Ulysse will draw on his upbringing in Haiti for a display that will address issues of belonging. One of Tom Scicluna's projects should involve a Tracey Emin-esque neon sign bearing the phrase "interest in aesthetics," which will adorn a first-floor window at the Museum of Art. The words are lifted from a Fort Lauderdale ordinance, passed in April, which justifies the city's banning of human waste and the storage of personal possessions on public property. In an April Sun-Sentinel story, opponents derided the city measure as a "homeless hate law."
"I don't want to be literal about homelessness, but this phrase is one of those euphemisms that I think can apply to both the city government and to the museum itself, which also has an interest in aesthetics," Scicluna says. "I want to present it like a commercial sign, like an 'open' sign you find at a barbershop."
Luke Jenkins, the show's curator and the museum's chief exhibition designer, says empathy for and empowerment of the shelter residents is a goal worth reaching in "Research and Development."
"We're not out to end homelessness, obviously," Jenkins says. "The realistic impact is we somehow affect the clients at the shelter in a positive way, so that even six months from now they remember us. What can you do with art and social activism unless you use it to provoke emotion, or apply it to people's situations and maybe inspire hopefulness?"
Research and Development: Concerning Belonging
When: June 1 until Sept. 14 (panel discussion: 2 p.m. Saturday, June 7). Open studio nights on June 12, July 10 and Aug. 14; Short Film Festival on June 19
Where: NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Contact: 954-525-5500 or MOAFL.org