THE ASIAN Arts Initiative, a community-based arts center in Chinatown, has always encouraged local residents' involvement. AAI's latest project, the Social Practice Lab, continued that practice by inviting artists to solicit input for neighborhood art projects from local residents.
There's plenty of challenge in the stark, industrial areas on Chinatown's northern edges. Artist Ben Volta and Gayle Isa, executive director of Asian Arts Initiative, recently met with PECO, for instance, about the huge electrical substation between 11th and 12th streets near the old viaduct.
Volta is related to battery inventor Alessandro Volta. That inspired him to work with PECO, and the idea solidified after he heard from the community. "A lot of the residents around the substation have expressed discomfort with the fact that it was built right next their homes," Isa said.
Volta would like to beautify the area for his contribution to SPL. "We've started talking with PECO about possibly adding art to the fence," he said.
From city blocks repurposed for substations to the Vine Street Expressway and the abandoned viaduct, Chinatown hasn't been lucky with Philadelphia building policies.
A quartet of artists - Laura Deutch, Lee Tusman, Kathryn Sclavi and Katya Gorker - are tackling the lack of public spaces in Chinatown for their component of SPL. They proposed "a tricycle tea cart that will travel around the neighborhoods" with a movable feast of art performances, Isa said.
Artist Yowei Shaw, a local audio producer who created Philly Youth Radio, plans to create sound installations in elevators and bathrooms - spaces where people are somewhat captive. "She'd like to produce a play list of oral history interviews, sound collages and music that reflects different stories of the neighborhood," Isa said.
AAI is also hoping the Social Practice Lab will foster dialogue within the community. Artist Dave Kyu "has become interested in the fact that there are different communities of people that claim Chinatown North," Isa said. "Some people refer to it as the Loft District Area, Trestle Town, or the Eraserhood."
Kyu was inspired by the idea that distinct communities coexist in that neighborhood but don't necessarily come into contact with each other. His goal is to create art that will facilitate interaction between these communities.
SPL artist Colette Fu, whose exhibition of pop-up books is currently displayed at AAI, met with Brother Jeff, the education chaplain at the Sunday Breakfast Mission on North 13th Street. She would like to work with the Mission on a series of pop-up books or greeting cards inspired by men in the homeless shelter.
"Here is a part of the population that is often invisible," Isa said. "Creating beautiful pop-up imagery, and adding an audio component that captures their oral histories, might be a way of having other community members understand and relate to the men.
"At the heart of this is the interest in fostering dialogue between the divergent populations of the neighborhood." The impact will reach beyond the neighborhood, too, touching visitors to Chinatown, students who head to the Loft District for First Friday gallery events and others.
While the various SPL projects won't be completed until several months into 2013, a visit to the AAI, or participation in one of its Chinatown Arts Crawls is a way to see the works in progress.