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Public Matters
Public Matters

Public Matters

Conspiratorial Joy Lives Here

Claiming communal dignity while rising up against systemic challenges is the art of Public Matters. In their work, they deploy humor and joy with healthy doses of absurdity as secret weapons against seemingly intractable issues. Noxious smells from industrial zones, unmet maintenance requests for streets and sidewalks, freeway noise and pollution, lack of green spaces, and more. These are the challenges facing the East LA neighborhood of City Terrace. For the California Creative Corps, Public Matters is collaborating with Visión City Terrace, a local all-volunteer group, on A Good Mischief Toolkit for Neighborhood Self-Determination (Good Mischief for short) to build local capacity to shape the neighborhood’s future and improve quality of life. We spoke to 18th Street Fellows Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada of Public Matters about their strategies to help City Terrace residents address these issues.

Our conversation begins here, edited for clarity.

Mike Blockstein, Co-Principal
Mike Blockstein, Co-Principal

What is Public Matters?

Reanne: We see ourselves as artists in public contexts–a creative studio for civic engagement. We situate our work in sectors and disciplines conventionally perceived as outside the arts because we believe that the arts belong in these contexts. The arts are integral to our quality of life; art can be a lever for social change and a powerful tool for convening and connecting people across their differences. Our work addresses equity by bringing people together for collaborative creative acts for public good.

Mike: Public Matters projects have addressed healthy food access, traffic safety and mobility justice, tobacco control, education, leadership development. We work more frequently with urban planners, public health professionals, and public agency staff than with curators. We create elaborate engagement ecosystems with partners of varied organizational scale, bringing together community organizations, schools, businesses, public agencies, and institutions with local residents and stakeholders. We serve as the connective tissue between them, translating as needed, and develop conditions that encourage conversation, exchange, and ultimately collaboration.

Working in this way has enabled us to manifest a diverse body of work: market makeovers to expand healthy food access in food deserts; jeepney tours highlighting Historic Filipinotown’s immigrant histories; crosswalk choreography with giant props (music included), performed by community members for Slow Jams in University Park and along Temple Street, to encourage drivers to slow down to save lives. For University Park Slow Jams with USC, we made giant band-aids for community members to place on broken sidewalk “ouchies.” Multiple people had already been hurt. The band-aids included a QR code for MyLA311 so people could report damaged sidewalks to the city.

Reanne: Humor and joy are central to our work. We have to be able to laugh, to hold on to our humanity in the face of unjust conditions that are absurd because they have no place in the compassionate world we should inhabit. We don’t surrender our sense of humor and joy to the fight. On the contrary, we meet these challenges with a spirit of mischief to build a sense of camaraderie and to nurture community. We believe there’s room in the conversation about traffic safety for a pet parade at the Queer Mercado, which we did last spring. More recently, we submitted to the LA County Board of Supervisors a PET-ition to PAW-liticians advocating for safer streets for all ages, abilities, and animals, signed by hundreds of human signatures and paw prints. It was over 20 feet long.

What is the history of your involvement in East LA, City Terrace, and the nature of your projects there?

Reanne: Our work began with addressing food deserts in East LA, evolving to tackle broader quality of life issues. Regardless of the project, a core mission is to build community capacity for self-advocacy, using our skills as artists and communicators.

Mike: We’ve worked in East LA for about 15 years. Our approach is to commit to places,
not just projects, understanding that change in a community unfolds over time. We focus
on people, building relationships, and working with residents of all ages. 

This fall we participated in the East LA Mexican Independence Day Parade. We recruited over 100 community members of all ages to promote people-powered transit–runners, adults with developmental disabilities, folks in wheelchairs doing wheelies along the parade route. It was the first time in 70+ years that people with disabilities were included in the parade.

Reanne Estrada, Co-Principal & Creative Director
Reanne Estrada, Co-Principal & Creative Director

What's the geographic and social landscape of City Terrace? 

Mike: City Terrace is cut in half by the 10 Freeway. To the south is primarily residential; to the north a mix of both light and heavy industry near residential homes. There are three elementary schools close to the freeways, train tracks, and industry. Multiple recycling centers, autobody shops, trash services, and manufacturing bring air and noise pollution. The sickly sweet flavors of the Monster Energy Drink factory mingles with the stench of trash. For residents along the 10 Freeway, there’s no sound wall to dampen freeway noise. 

Reanne: City Terrace suffers disproportionately from the harms of environmental injustice compared to the rest of Los Angeles County. Residents are at greater risk of cancer and respiratory conditions like asthma. 

Mike: Sadly, these conditions have become normalized for a lot of folks in the neighborhood.

Reanne: There’s a big challenge of resignation and feeling like the status quo is unchangeable. And yet there are folks who LOVE the neighborhood; their roots are there sometimes multi-generational. They identify with this place–the rolling hills, neighbors who look out for each other. The folks from Visión City Terrace believe a better future–the future they deserve–is possible. Through Good Mischief, our goal is to better equip them and their community to chart their destiny.

“Humor and joy are central to our work. We have to be able to laugh, to hold on to our humanity in the face of unjust conditions that are absurd…We don’t surrender our sense of humor and joy to the fight.”

Public Matters - Mike & Reanne

Anything you want to share about process, progress, etc.?

Mike: A lot of our attention so far has been on developing a story map that Visión City Terrace can use to inform and mobilize their neighbors. We’ve collected materials for a Toxic Tour of the area, which we’re complementing with local stories of activist efforts and wins. We hope this resource continues to serve them beyond our grant period.

Reanne: We recently attempted to co-opt Valentine’s Day by collecting and displaying City Terrace Love Notes, stories and declarations of love for the neighborhood. We distributed them through local businesses, schools, orgs and got back almost 400 notes, which we installed on seven trees off City Terrace Drive. If there’s this much love for the place, there have to be more people willing to protect and take care of it. Love Notes helped create an opening for Visión City Terrace to connect with their neighbors about a pressing issue that would be going before the LA County Regional Planning Commission on February 28th. Visión City Terrace was leading an effort to “break up” with Republic Services, a trash company that brings 700 tons of trash into the neighborhood everyday. On the heels of our "public display of affection," they circulated a petition (got over 200 signatures), recruited neighbors for public comment, and convinced the Planning Commission to reject Republic Services’ Conditional Use Permit, effectively dumping the dump.

Next up: we’ll work with the Institute for Art and Olfaction and Visión City Terrace to develop The Scent of No-Pollution.

What’s been your experience as a California Creative Corps, 18th Street Art Center Fellow?

Reanne: We were thrilled to be selected for this project. Being part of such an esteemed cohort is an honor; the Fellows are deeply inspiring; there’s a lot we can learn from each other. This recognition from the state of the value of integrating art into broader societal processes is truly heartening.

Mike: As we mentioned, our work is intentionally situated outside of the arts or the art world. We spend our days working with people in other disciplines and walks of life. So, it’s been refreshing and inspiring to be back in an arts world context, and with a cohort of artists. One of the best things 18th Street Arts Center did was to bring all the Fellows together and create a spirit of camaraderie. 

Learn more about Public Matters here.

18th Street Arts Center lives to amplify the impact of artists on society. Conceived as a radical think tank in the shape of an artist community, 18th Street Arts Center provides the ideal environment for artists and the public to directly engage in creating experiences and partnerships that foster positive social change.

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