In the summer of 1993, I joined High Performance magazine as a contributing editor. The magazine, then in its fourteenth year, was published by artist Steve Durland and journalist Linda Burnham out of the 18th Street Arts Complex in Los Angeles, which they also ran. At the time, High Performance was covering an art scene that the mainstream arts community was going out of their way to ignore. Nevertheless, the magazine established itself as the voice of the burgeoning community arts movement in the US, providing a first-hand, first-voice window (i.e., the arts community telling its own stories) on artists and arts organizations at the crossroads of social change and community development.
The magazine published its last issue in the fall of 1997. Less than two years later, Steve and Linda went digital with both an online archive of past issues and a new web presence called the Community Arts Network (CAN). For many US-based activist artists, CAN quickly became the documentary hub of the rapidly changing community arts universe. Ten years and roughly 10,000 stories, articles, essays, case studies, editorials, and research papers later, CAN went dark, largely due to lack of financial support. During that same period, two UK-based sister sites, Creative Exchange (CreativeX), covering "community arts in the developing world," and the Center for Creative Communities, with a European Union focus, both pulled their proverbial plugs for similar reasons. When these three extraordinary sites stopped publishing, many of us in the community arts field experienced a terrible absence.
But, of course, voids are meant to be filled. The web-based magazine Of Note, launched as CAN was winding down in 2009, is a prime example. The magazine describes itself as "a digital space where art meets activism," with a particular emphasis on "under the radar" artists that are "often neglected in the media." The scope of the site's coverage is truly global, featuring creative initiatives from Africa, Asia, South America, North America, and Europe.
Visually, the site's beautiful, clean, easy-to-navigate presentation reflects founder and editorial director Grace Anieza Ali's background as a photo curator. Each of the magazine's ten issues features eight to ten articles. Some issues are thematically organized (immigration, girls, the imprisoned), while others present a mix of stories from around the world, with an emphasis on people and communities in the global south. One of the site's most prominent features is a commitment to critical issues affecting women, youth, and immigrants. Ms. Ali's native country, Guyana, is also regularly featured. In 2014, the magazine received the Guyana Cultural Association Award for outstanding accomplishment in contemporary media.
Of Note's principal focus, though, is artists who are working as catalysts, change makers, and storytellers "to impact policy, promote global citizenship, inspire social consciousness, (and) motivate action . . ." (About). While the preponderance of creators represented are visual artists (with a strong representation of photographers), performers, writers, filmmakers, and designers also share the space. The high regard with which these artists are held is in evidence everywhere on the site, from the careful pairing of writers and artists, to the respect given both practice and product, to the stunning images that illuminate each article. Nonetheless, Of Note is far more than a catalogue of visually engaging articles about activist artists. The site itself is a call to action. Advocacy and network building are implicit aspects of every piece, which not only provide models from which others can learn, but also numerous links to opportunities for active participation and support.
Quite a few of the stories are penned by activist writers and cultural workers writing about their peers. Other pieces, like Kimberly Burge's "On Writing with the Girls in Gugulethu" in The Girls Issue (2013), are written by the artists themselves. Burge's piece describes the Amazw'Entombi (Voices of the Girls), a weekly writing club Burge created with girls and young women in one of South Africa's oldest townships. Zoraida Lopez's "Caught in the Drug Wars, a Photo Essay" (2013), also from The Girls Issue, is another first-voice article that describes the photographer's multiyear exploration of the impact of the Columbian "drug industry" on the lives of girls and women whose families have been displaced and broken by the slow motion war at its epicenter in Medellin. In it, she recounts teaching photography to women (ex-"drug mules") who are serving time in Medellin's Pedregal Prison. The essay's powerful black and white images (by Lopez and her students) fulfill the photographers wish to counter "stereotypical images of Latina women and girls" with portraits of "resilience and hope" (2013).
The subject of prisons and the complex and forgotten lives of their inhabitants is the focus of the site's most recent issue, The Imprisoned Issue (2014/2015). The lead article by Mohamed Keita, describes PROLIFERATION, a 10-minute multimedia animation by visual artist and composer Paul Rucker. Featured with the article, Mr. Rucker's musically punctuated landscape represents the accelerating growth of the American prison industrial complex, institution by institution (in green, yellow, orange, and red dots), as they have accumulated across the US over a 145-year period. This mutating map is a powerful introduction to an Of Note issue that departs from the magazine's typically global lens by focusing solely on the US. The nine other articles explore the toxic truths and hard stories of one of America's darkest stains, through stories that explore juvenile lifers, prison hospice work, the school to prison pipeline, penitentiary pregnancies, and the plight of ex-cons. For an issue that is often ignored and/or distorted by fear mongering, the spectrum of subjects and points of view represented in these articles is refreshing. Having spent 12 years as an arts worker in California prisons, encountering these disturbing and hopeful stories from such a wide range of perspectives was deeply affecting.
Documenting the kind of community-focused, social-change oriented art making that is represented in this magazine is not easy. Some of my colleagues believe that the only way to truly understand the complex power and impact of community-based cultural expression is to experience it first hand, in the context of the people and places that foster its creation. Others have observed that the systemic nature of issues such as immigration, mass incarceration, and women's rights demand a more sustained, multifaceted kind of portraiture. I, for one, think that follow-up on some of these stories could significantly increase their impact. In a sense, the site's most successful stories give rise to its greatest challenge. Pieces like Zoraida Lopez's "Caught in the Drug Wars" (2013) and Lori Waselchuk's "'Grace Before Dying' for an Aging Prison Population" (2014/2015) literally hook you. That hook is often a desire to know more or do more than just read and turn the page. What has happened to the artists and the communities involved? What, if any, has been the continuing impact of these profound encounters? I understand how cumbersome this kind of sustained narrative is to maintain, particularly for a grassroots initiative like Of Note. But these kinds of questions are a reminder of the persistent ethical challenges facing artists who use their art to reveal and represent the lives of others. Namely, how does one document and share these kinds of volatile and delicate stories in a respectful, healthful way?
For Of Note, the answer appears clear. First, feature artists and writers who are connected and accountable to the stories and issues they are exploring. Then, trust that these artful narratives will reveal enough of what is real, in order to honor the often fragile lives they seek to represent. If the reader can't be there physically, then the artist will take them as close as possible by engaging them imaginatively in the evolving story. Finally, trust that those who want to know more will continue to dig of their own accord. Working in this way allows Of Note magazine to do much more than address "the media's under-reporting of artists impacting their communities through the arts" (About). It also establishes the site as a cocreator, amplifying the impact of artists who use their skills to engage, expose, and reveal the often-invisible lives of others. The result is a living, evolving story circle of hard truths, rough beauty, and lived wisdom.