A.R.T. interviews Calder Zwicky of Artistic Noise A.R.T. interviews Calder Zwicky of Artistic Noise

A nonprofit arts organization based in Harlem, Artistic Noise has been an alternative programming space that provides various forms of creative support to a community of systems-involved youth for more than two decades. It is an active participant in the A.R.T. Library Program.

A.R.T. staff Ricky Ruihong Li spoke with the Executive Director of Artistic Noise Calder Zwicky about visibility, literacy, and the politics of access through the organization’s dedication to post-carceral and other systems-related experiences in New York.

A.rt R.esources T.ransfer: How did Artistic Noise come about?

Calder Zwicky: Artistic Noise is an organization with a history spanning over twenty years. We have been dedicated to working with our specific audience of system-involved young people and connecting them with art and art-making experiences since the very beginning. Our journey began in Massachusetts in 2001, focusing on a group of young women in carceral spaces. We extended our presence to both Massachusetts and New York City. Approximately eight years ago we established our storefront studio in Harlem, where we have been running the majority of our programs ever since. Throughout most of the calendar year, we run art programs and collaborate with teaching artists in four out of the five boroughs. Sometimes all five.

Artistic Noise has always revolved around supporting system-involved young people. By this, we mean individuals whose lives have been impacted by the juvenile court system, probation system, foster care system, shelter system, mental health care systems, and other social systems intended to aid young people, but that often result in doing much more harm than good. Our primary goal is to facilitate the connection between these young individuals, who have faced challenging circumstances and traumatic events, and provide them with a means to process their experiences through art. We approach our work from a therapeutic standpoint, ensuring our participants receive the necessary emotional support they need as well. We strive to eliminate the dilemma faced by many young people when deciding between therapeutic or assistance-based services and their economic well-being.

A.R.T.: How did Artistic Noise strengthen this infrastructure of support through art?

CZ: In a city as diverse as New York, it is unfortunate that individuals with system involvement or those affected by these systems often receive limited recognition for their experiences, perspectives, work, and ideas. We also seek to amplify the visibility of the young people we work with. Therefore, our mission includes empowering these young people by increasing their visibility. This belief has always been an integral part of our philosophy surrounding art and art-making.

Additionally, our young people receive economic compensation through our Art and Entrepreneurship Program, where they are financially supported for their time spent with us.

When we sell the artwork created by our participants, such as the pieces recently showcased at the Immune System exhibition at Hannah Traore Gallery in June, 100% of the proceeds directly go back to the young artists who made the work. Our aim is to create a more equitable ecosystem of art where young people no longer have to choose between receiving therapeutic services, being part of an artistic community, and supporting themselves economically.

A.R.T.: To see the way Artistic Noise puts the arts to work for the community, instead of the other way around, is truly incredible.

CZ: What I really loved about the Hannah Traore show is that we worked with a high-profile gallery to showcase the student work as professionally and beautifully as possible. Being seen in that way and being treated in that way is a deeply empowering experience, especially—again—for young people who are more often than not marginal to the society of visibility. They're often-times told to “go away,” “be silent,” “be quiet,” “get out of here,” etc.

A.R.T.: Albeit varied in focus, Artistic Noise’s work reminds me of the work of Tim Rollins and Studio K.O.S., a collective practice that employs art-making to channel radical pedagogy. In 1984, Rollins initiated an after-school workshop in a South Bronx public school (where he taught at the time) with a group of so-labeled “at-risk students”—a characterization that the group works against. Instead, they identified themselves as Kids of Survival. After Rollins’ death in 2017, his collaborators continued innovating upon their model under the name of Studio K.O.S. A.R.T. had the privilege of collaborating with Studio K.O.S. to create our 2020 Reading Resources guide. How does their practice resonate with your work with Artistic Noise, if at all?

CZ: We have a really different model than what Tim Rollins and Studio K.O.S. did, but they are an important precursor to organizations like ours, of course. The majority of young people we work with get referred to us through different social service organizations, specifically organizations like Cases or Good Shepherd Services. Artistic Noise collaborates with young individuals who are actively participating in these established systems. We want them to be aware that we are available as a resource whenever they require a paid opportunity to delve into the arts or seek a holistic, health-focused experience that addresses their mental well-being.

Our primary goal is to utilize the arts as a platform to cater to the specific needs of our youth. We are not involved in portfolio reviews or any form of screening to determine who qualifies as a so-called "good artist" or not, whatever that even means. Instead, our focus is on identifying young individuals who genuinely require our services, and our community support, and who can benefit from them. These needs may vary, ranging from economic assistance to therapeutic support, or recreational need—for lack of a better word—among others.

We want to create a safe and celebratory space where young individuals can simply exist, heal, and explore their emotions and experiences. We consistently approach our work through a therapeutic lens. We have a full-time art therapist on staff, someone who is weaving therapeutic experiences throughout every art project that we do. So it isn't just “Here's how you paint a mural,” or “Here's how you draw a portrait.” Our work is about exploring identity, fostering self-esteem, and delving into topics such as family dynamics, parenthood, and systemic over-policing and its brutality.

A.R.T.: You recently participated in the Library Program and placed an order of art books from our contributing publishers such as Primary Information and Siglio Press as well as a special box set of books on Keith Haring. How have books, especially art books, been incorporated into the therapeutic and social programs and spaces at Artistic Noise?

CZ: One of the beautiful things about books is that you can sit with them on your lap. Being with a book is a tactile experience. If you want to look at a painting closer, you can pull it right up to your nose. If you want to go quickly through one section of the book and then slow down at another, you're completely in control of that. You can set it down and come back to it. It's art but without all of the structures and the difficulties of a gallery museum setting, without the “Do Not Touch.” It empowers people.

And again, the space of reading extends. We have young people who bring their children into our space. Having books for them to read to their children is beautiful. I have been teaching many brilliant artists, but I can't give them all the resources I want. So it’s great even just to have art books that might inspire them to make a new art project or get them to remember another process they wanted to explore.

A.R.T.: To learn how reading extends the designated program of learning reminds me of what Shannon Mattern calls fugitive libraries. A.R.T. has been trying to identify these itinerant, independent libraries as alternative systems of literacy where reading practices emerge beyond the mainstream Public Library and School systems.

CZ: Yes. We are definitely an independent and alternative-style space. Absolutely. As a nonprofit with a very limited budget, we are unable to, say, pick up $5,000 bucks worth of art books at the Whitney store. To be able to get those resources from the A.R.T. Library Program for free is so important.

A.R.T.: How has access to art, or the lack thereof, impacted/shaped your work with Artistic Noise?

CZ: Before Artistic Noise, I'd been working at museums my entire life. Those are very privileged spaces. And the act of looking at, being around, and contemplating art, it's such a privileged experience that a lot of us take completely for granted because we were lucky enough to grow up going to museums. We have schools that push the arts in front of us, having access to resources. The same can be said about reading an art book or owning an art book. The art world is a rarified space.

Young people deal with so many pressing urgencies: economic inequality, misrecognition, and the bureaucracy of access. We want to create an environment that starts to allow everyone access to these experiences and materials without them being privileged and charitable. It's not, “We're so lucky to have this beautiful art library.” It's a space where you go in and there are books with art on it and you can take part in that or not, however, you see fit. Our library wants to provide access to those early experiences of contemplation, exploration and discovery, which are so key to our development as human beings.

A.R.T.: Is there any conversation being held about publishing or positioning folks not only as artists, but, say, bookmakers, journalists, writers, and publishers?

CZ: We have a beautiful zine out right now that we are going to show at the East Village Zine Fair. We've presented at NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) Flea Market, showcasing zines and publication work the young people produced. We have a brilliant teaching artist, Carlos Nuñez, who is a photographer and has guided the young people we work with both here and in Washington Heights and Inwood through projects exploring gun violence, as well as applying black and white film photography techniques into zines. We also have online archives of past exhibits and different writings that young people did.

In addition, we have a beautiful 20th-anniversary publication that's out now, a very comprehensive book on the history of Artistic Noise and the work that we've created as an institution. And it has voices from our supporters, the young people making the work, and our board members. It's just really all about the community surrounding us. It's a beautiful physical publication that people can purchase.

A.R.T.: It’s great to learn about these publications and archival projects. We appreciate independent knowledge producers—in an arts context, they create and sustain alternative records against canonical art history. One of our main goals is to connect independent publishing and archiving with spaces of art and literacy, and to keep alternative knowledge flowing.

CZ: I would love to work on a new publication, looking at the future of Artistic Noise and showcasing some of the other projects we've done. You're right. Sometimes exhibitions can be very ethereal. They happen and they're amazing. You put them on socials and then they disappear. But it is also difficult for a small non-profit with such a small staff to publish consistently. It’s amazing collaborating with A.R.T. on helping our young people begin to receive the artistic resources they need and deserve.

A.R.T. Library Program at Artistic Noise, 2023. Photo by Calder Zwicky.

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