On Thinking Space(s): An Interview with the Ghana ThinkTank

Got “First World” problems? Why not look to other countries for solutions?

Founded by in 2006 by artists with extensive backgrounds in cross-cultural community organizing and international development (Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Matey Odonkor, with Maria del Carmen Montoya joining the team in 2009), the Ghana ThinkTank collects local problems and sends these problems to various locations in their global network of think tanks. (Ghana, Cuba, Serbia, and Iran are just a few.) They have also collected “digital problems,” and worked with incarcerated youth in the United States.

In 2011, BRAF awarded the Ghana ThinkTank a grant to help them focus on the problems of Corona, Queens. (This project was also funded by Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art.)

After cruising the neighborhood in a custom-built teardrop trailer to collect community and personal problems, the Ghana ThinkTank ventured back into Corona as a workstation to enact solutions suggested by their international consultants. (They also parked outside the Queens Museum of Art, where visitors could submit their problems and witness the resolution process. The vehicle continued to collect problems from visitors as a 3-month exhibit within the galleries.)

Ghana ThinkTank trailer

Photo courtesy of the artists

Solutions received from the global network of think tanks included the following:

  • Establishing legal waiting zones
  • Pro-immigrant guerilla bus advertisements
  • Asking police to “highlight the differences between the cop’s world and the real world”
  • Baking lessons in Queens

Since the Corona project, the Ghana ThinkTank has been involved with these projects:

Ghana ThinkTank at the Mexican Border

As a recipient of the 2013 Creative Capital Award for Emerging Fields, the Ghana ThinkTank situated themselves on the US/Mexico Border in April to generate dialogue between immigrants and anti-immigrant activists. Problems were collected through anonymous postcards, street interviews, and focus groups.

These focus groups culminated in the creation of pro-immigrant guerilla bus advertisements by the same people who did not welcome these immigrants into their neighborhoods initially.

This project is ongoing and expected to last 2-3 years.

Ghana ThinkTank Mobile Unit (Morocco)

In search of solutions to American problems, the Ghana ThinkTank set up a mobile unit in Morocco in 2012, as part of the US State Department’s smARTpower program. The mobile unit was designed so that it could perform multiple functions; as a tea house, it was recognized as a way to bring people together to engage in longer conversations. As a solar-powered video booth, it could operate in rural villages, where electricity was not a given.

“THE UNLIKELIES – a people with problems sculpture” (Tbilisi, Georgia)

In this performative piece, people were interlocked with each other through wooden planks, in order to create what Christopher describes as an “ad-hoc human sculpture,” that challenges people to solve the problems of those physically connected to them.

Curious to learn more about these projects, BRAF’s Social Media Intern (Denise Li) asked the Ghana ThinkTank to elaborate on their projects.

Christopher: “The idea [for “The Unlikelies”] was to condense the Ghana ThinkTank process – one that generally takes 3-6 months and involves the collection, resolution, and display of community problems, pairings with unlikely partners, and symbolic sculptural elements – into one moment in time. And so problems became weights – literally – stacked around your neck or your leg or your arm. And people became connected through their problems . . . as these weights wedged into each other and the chain continued.”

Denise: I appreciate how your projects bring multiple “worlds” into conversation with each other – worlds that may exist in shared spaces, but also have distinct qualities and concerns of their own. What I find striking is that these “worlds” seem to exist very much through the “roles” played by the people within them. How did people respond to your role first as a collector of problems, then as a mediator or “interventionist?” Were there any other shifts in roles or functions that you had to perform?

Christopher: Although our methods are certainly interventionist, the roles we play “on the ground” are as facilitators. We ask people for their problems, and then work with them to implement the solutions we receive from the think tanks. In order to achieve this, we have to shape-shift, and engage in identity politics quite often, catering our look and behavior to the needs of the action. In this way, our actions often involve performance: I have played the role of a construction worker, ad agency lackey, naive American, non-governmental agency worker, misguided freedom-lover, and artist.

Denise: In your immigrant project, what did you discover when you reversed the pairings of slogans with ethnically-specific imagery? What went on during the focus groups?

Christopher: Our focus groups were composed of people who took issue with the effects of immigration in their communities. We ran the focus groups as a “two-step” process,” pairing slogans with 1920-1940 Italian immigrant imagery, getting feedback, and then pairing the exact same slogans with contemporary Latino immigrant imagery, and discussing the differences in feedback we received. During the focus groups, the conversations inevitably came to focus on the fact that almost everyone in the United States comes from immigrants, so it became important to delineate exactly how things had changed in their minds.

From this developed new pro-immigrant slogans, written by people selected because of their negative views towards the effects of immigra[tion] on their neighborhoods. The one we turned into a bus ad was “I came here to be an American.”

Ghana ThinkTank bus ad

Photo courtesy of the artists

Denise: How important is site-specificity in this process of working through conflicts between communities? Do you find that having a physical location or landmark (i.e. the Kosovo river) is a key tool in resolving conflicts that might be more social or psychological in nature (if these things can even be separated from location)?

Christopher: I define site-specificity like Miwon Kwon does, as a consideration of the uses and people and changing dynamics of a place, rather than as the geometric, conceptual, or ideological abstraction of a site . . . Considered this way, site-specificity is absolutely essential to working through conflicts between communities. We do not work by applying a model through generalizations. We distill large, societal issues into an individual experience between people.

So, it always comes back to the specifics of the site -– I would consider it incredibly dangerous to try to apply some generalized “theory” to different people’s conflicts. Our approach is to develop a strategy that can be applied in a variety of places, but which is absolutely dependent on the specific individuals of the place in which it is utilized.

There is always a visual hook, something easy to grasp as a starting point. A dividing river, a dividing border, a cute teardrop trailer, a big red button you can hit hard, a weird mountainous shape filled with video monitors, a smiling face on a tshirt, a “revolutionary” toothbrush – there is always a hook to anchor the process. It provides an entry point into complex and controversial systems.

Denise: What led you to work with incarcerated girls? Can you tell me more about your interactions with them, as well as the challenges this particular group faced?

Christopher: We were connected to incarcerated girls through Artistic Noise, an arts and entrepreneurship program for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. John Ewing used to work for this organization, and we [have maintained a relationship] with [Director/Co-Founder] Lauren Adelman.

We now work both with girls in the Boston penal system and boys in the New York penal system. Interactions are largely positive, though with one group it was clear that this was being seen as something else they were being forced to do, which is not the relationship we want to develop. Usually they are excited [about being] asked for advice rather than being told what to do. They are living a very controlled life, so to be asked for solutions to other people’s issues is invigorating. A few times we have been able to get temporary releases so that they can directly enact their solutions; other times we return with videos of their solutions being enacted.

Denise: What directions do you anticipate the Ghana ThinkTank heading in?

Christopher: Well, we started with a general 10 year plan, and part of that was that after 5 years we had to see how the Ghana ThinkTank process might function outside of Art Worlds, start folding it back into the Non-Governmental Organization/ International Development world that inspired it in the first place. So that is a primary goal: to explore how the Ghana ThinkTank process might become a useful tool for NGOs/Non profits. Thinking along those lines of leaching into other fields or industries, I believe the Ghana ThinkTank process could become a tool for innovation: we look for ideas from people outside the context in which the target issue is taking place, so this mismatch tends to generate new ideas. Add to that the fact that we have developed a “rough and ready” prototyping method for rapidly bringing solutions to action, and it seems we have some strategies and tactics for innovation in many industries.

I’d love to explore these ways that something developed as Art – something could only have been developed as Art – might function in other ways in other industries and fields. I still want to work with Ghana ThinkTank in Art Worlds, [as] it is an exciting, crucial and critical way to work.

Also, we want to start bringing the think tanks to the United States to implement solutions directly, and have started to scale up our partnerships and project plans past the limitations of any particular show, into projects that last years, sometimes through multiple sites, and continue to develop.

Visit the Ghana ThinkTank’s Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter!

(Edited on August 17, 2013).


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