Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cultural Engineering: On the Level

If someone says they are being “on the level” with you, it means that they are being honest with you. The idiomatic expression implies more than mere honesty, however. It shows a kind of camaraderie. You can tell someone you’re on the level, you can ask if someone is on the level, and you can request someone to level with you: in each case you discard whatever differences there might be between the two of you and speak as equals. Apparently, the expression has its root in the Freemasons, an organization that takes the tools of the building trade for their symbols. In the Masonic Order, the level is a symbol for equality. Ironically, the Masons are known in popular culture for being secretive and conspiring for world domination. A parallel could be drawn between the Masons’ activities and the Arts Court redevelopment: the building is being engineered as an inclusive public space for cultural expression and yet the arts are often characterized as being esoteric and elitist. If arts organizations are seen to be operating in secret, it probably has more to do with their limited advertising budgets than with any orchestrated attempt to shut people out.

Guillermo Trejo, Eclipsing Justice, 2016, digital video.

The phrase “on the level” provides a lens through which to examine the contributions of the artists in Issue Six of the Cultural Engineering project. Timothy Smith once again brings his incisive focus to bear on the site of the OAG expansion and the actions of the construction workers therein. Another new video by Meredith Snider goes behind the scenes at Arts Court to get some candid reflections on the impact of the Arts Court redevelopment on the lives of the people who work there. And finally Guillermo Trejo, this issue’s guest artist, brings attention to level of a different kind, the balance scale of Justice. His video focuses on a detail of the Arts Court complex leftover from its previous incarnation as a courthouse: a bas-relief of the mythic figure of Justice (blindfolded, holding a sword and a balance scale) that was added as ornamentation to an architectural expansion of the courthouse in 1964. The artists in the Cultural Engineering project have been steadfastly producing work that takes steps to demystify at least some of the goings on at the Arts Court. Link to the sixth issue here.

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