Ted Purves & Susanne Cockrell:
Temescal Amity Works
With support from Creative Capital and the cooperation of their San Francisco Bay community, Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell have created one of the few American artworks to have its own address: 482 49th Street, in Oakland, California. That's the storefront location of Temescal Amity Works, home base for a public project involving the free distribution of locally grown fruit, and the exchange of information and services in a neighborhood diverse in race and class that is in the process of redefining itself amidst the pressures of gentrification and development.
When Purves and Cockrell describe their project, however, they're referring not only to the storefront—which functions as a workshop, library and community center—or the pushcart they devised to represent it, or the collection of maps, brochures, postcards, and neighborhood walks that have started coming out of it. They're speaking of a whole program, which they identify as "social sculpture." The term derives from artist Joseph Beuys, who used it to describe a creative process that results in social change rather than a static object. The idea also connects to the current practice of relational aesthetics, which takes art out of the gallery and engages the public as performer-participants.
For Purves and Cockrell, collaborating artists who are a married couple, personal interaction is sculptural material, and collective action is a medium of artistic expression. The work they're molding is "the space between people," and they hope it will facilitate new relations between local businesses and residents, and between the current Temescal community and its history.
The district, in North Oakland, was settled in the early 1900s largely by Italian immigrants who planted the still-abundant lemon, plum, apple, and fig trees, and the rosemary bushes growing in neighborhood yards. The artists—both of whom come from farming or gardening families—collect surplus fruit, load it on their handmade pushcart, and distribute it to neighbors, passersby, or local restaurants through the storefront, advertised by postcards that go out twice a month.
Working with a local merchants' group, they've also designed a resource map for the neighborhood businesses along Telegraph Avenue, the district's main thoroughfare, as well as a series of free postcards. The duo is seeking partnerships that will provide financial resources and a volunteer workforce, perhaps with help from public schools, to sustain the free-food distribution network beyond its projected 18-month life. They also hope to write the community's economic and social "biography" in a book based on their neighbors' own stories. "We are amplifying a human impulse," says Cockrell, whose background is in theater and video. "Documenting rather than inventing."
Beuys isn't the only point of reference for Purves and Cockrell, members of the faculty at the California College of the Arts, where each maintains a separate studio practice. For Temescal Amity Works, they’ve also taken a page from Gordon Matta-Clark, the New York artist who, in the 1970s, transformed condemned buildings into monumental abstract sculptures. He also created a popular restaurant, Food, staffed solely by artists.
The couple also align themselves with the social activism that has characterized the Bay Area since the1960s, when politically motivated groups such as the Black Panthers and the Diggers added free-food programs to their other activities. But Purves and Cockrell see themselves more as pragmatists than utopians.
"For us," Cockrell says, "this is about redirecting the flow of goods and ideas." Purves adds, "We could just pick fruit and leave it for people to take and not talk to anyone or make jams or postcards. But when you're out in the street, you're making something happen that people haven't seen before—and isn't that what art is about?"
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