The artist Rick Lowe chose the spot for his latest piece when he saw the big oak tree. The tree hangs over a grassy area outside an apartment complex on Ridgecrest Road, in Vickery Meadow. The complex, like much of the housing in this poor neighborhood, is a dilapidated mess. Paint is faded, windows are boarded up. The oak, though, is magnificent. Its canopy shades the entire front of the apartment complex, offering a bit of bucolic serenity in a neighborhood otherwise filled with sagging buildings surrounded by moats of hot concrete and barred fences.

The day I visit the giant oak, a team of artists, volunteers, and neighborhood residents is busying itself with preparations for an event that evening. Lowe’s project, called Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow, is part of an initiative called Nasher Xchange, a celebration of the Nasher Sculpture Center’s 10th anniversary. The idea was to commission 10 artists to install 10 pieces of public art throughout Dallas. Lowe’s contribution is to help the residents of Vickery Meadow—a diverse community located less than a mile from NorthPark Center, one that includes 35,000 immigrants and refugees from more than 120 countries—organize a pop-up outdoor marketplace. That is his installation. It’s hard at first to see how anyone could consider it “art.”

Today is a trial run for the market, which will open in October and operate one Saturday a month through February 2014. Lowe’s team is putting together an outdoor potluck meal that will double as a neighborhood gathering and an information session. I arrive on the scene and am promptly put to work by Sara Mokuria, a UT Dallas policy researcher whom Lowe appointed project manager of Trans.lation. My job is to hang paper flags between the oak and the apartment building. 

At length, Rick Lowe himself finally arrives. He pulls up in a dinged-up light blue Ford pickup, hanging out the passenger-side window. He’s in his early 50s and wears a blue, unbuttoned dress shirt thrown over a t-shirt. He has thick black hair that sticks up a bit, dark-rimmed glasses, and a gleaming smile. The second he climbs out of the truck, Lowe is peppered with questions. Where should the tables go? Where will t-shirt printers set up? How should we arrange the chairs in relation to the stage? Lowe answers most of the questions with “What do you think?” or defers to Mario Guerrero, a Mexican-born 24-year-old in charge of setup. Lowe sticks to menial tasks. He helps put out folding chairs and grabs a stack of fliers when he sees residents on the street. A teenage boy strolls up, and Lowe hands him a flier and then solicits his help. Moments later, the boy and I are busy with a screwdriver, putting together a Weber grill.

When the food arrives, the event begins to take shape. The aroma of a dozen cuisines drifts through the cool shade under the oak. At the base of the tree, an Ethiopian woman, wearing a yellow and green striped dress with yellow ribbons woven through her black hair, lays a blanket on the ground and arranges delicate, little porcelain cups on a tray at her feet. From a small pot, she pours rich, black coffee to serve alongside hunks of fluffy, sweet bread. The musicians arrive—a team of African drums, a DJ—and so, too, dozens of neighbors. There are Iraqis, Jordanians, Burmese, Ghanaians, and Sudanese. There are African-Americans, Mexicans, Hondurans, and Peruvians. Three Nepalese women take up folding chairs in the crowd, head scarves framing their ancient, leathery skin.

Around 7 pm, the rest of the people arrive: local art-world folk, media people, and administrators from the Nasher. The Dallas Morning News’ Michael Granberry wanders about in a suit, chatting with photographer Allison V. Smith, who is snapping photos of the colorful crowd. Smith’s husband, the prominent gallery owner Barry Whistler, stands with his arms crossed on the periphery, watching Lowe speak to the crowd. Lowe’s modest introductory remarks are overshadowed by the impressive sight of a line of young men up on stage with him, translating his words into Spanish, Nepalese, French, Swahili, Hindi, and Arabic.

As Lowe speaks about his hope for the project, to help show the city what a resource it has in this rich, diverse, and largely overlooked neighborhood, I overhear a local artist whisper to her friend: “Rick may be a better preacher than he is an artist.” The comment does poke at a certain disconnect between the forces at play in the potluck, an event underwritten by a major museum, but which, nonetheless, has all the makings of a backyard barbecue. If we are to think of Rick Lowe as an artist, and his projects as his art, then the potluck does invite that old “My kid could draw that” dismissal of contemporary art. After all, most of us have actually organized backyard barbecues.

Stepping away from the crowd and looking at its odd mix of art-world elite, artists, and social workers—volunteers, migrants, refugees—something strikes me as strange about the orchestration of activity. What is it doing? Preaching or presenting? Is it engaging or exposing? And who is it all for? The people of Vickery Meadow or the art patrons?

Rick Lowe is a Houston-based artist who won worldwide acclaim beginning in the early 1990s with a piece called Project Row Houses. It consisted, simply, of the renovation of a block of turn-of-the-century shotgun shacks in Houston’s historically African-American Third Ward. Lowe turned the old homes into artist residences and exhibition spaces, as well as a resource center that helps unwed pregnant women. Project Row Houses is now a nonprofit organization with a $1 million budget.

Project Row Houses is also an oft-cited cornerstone in the emergence of a new kind of art that is sometimes referred to as “art as social practice” or “social sculpture.” The term “social sculpture” was coined by the influential German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys, who once locked himself in a room with a coyote for a length of days, claimed that all human activity could be considered art. More recently, curator Nato Thompson used the phrase “living as form” to describe work by Lowe and others like him, broadening and refining even further the definition of what could possibly be considered “art.”

Lowe has a simple way of describing what he does. It began when the Alabama native was visited in his studio by a teenager from an inner-city neighborhood. At the time, Lowe was creating socially conscious art, mostly paintings. The teenager was unimpressed.

“We know what the problems in our community are. We live with them every day,” the young man said. “You’re an artist. Why can’t you create a solution?”

The question prompted Lowe to put down his brush. Since then, his projects have inspired many other artists to forgo object-making and instead engage in activities like offering immigrant services out of vacant storefronts in Queens, salvaging buildings on the South Side of Chicago, and holding a town hall meeting in a museum to discuss race in St. Louis. For its part, the art world has largely embraced all of this as art.

“This explosion of work in the arts has been assigned catchphrases such as ‘social practice,’ ‘relational aesthetics,’ ‘new genre public art,’ and ‘dialogic arts,’ ” curator Nato Thompson wrote in an essay accompanying a survey exhibition devoted to this new work. “Yet, the projects themselves defy easy categorization, and raise contradictions regarding issues of authorship, and traditional notions of art. … Such efforts might not be described as artworks, but their collaborative spirit, investment in community engagement, and deployment of cultural programs as part of their operations compel us to consider what they do, not who they say they are.”

Again, Lowe encapsulates the idea more simply. “It is a story, a poetic gift to the community,” he says.

vickery_meadow With its communal gatherings (left and top right), Trans.lation is similar in spirit to Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston (bottom right). Vickery Meadow by Allison V. Smith for the Nasher Sculpture Center; Row Houses by Eric Hester

Lowe’s arrival in Dallas could not have come at a better time for Abdul Ameer Alwan. Alwan is a 57-year-old artist who moved from Iraq to Vickery Meadow with his wife and daughter five years ago. In his home country, Alwan is a well-known figure. He has exhibited all over the world and supported himself for decades by teaching and selling his work. Since moving to Dallas, however, his career has stalled. He still sends some paintings to Jordan, where they are popular among the million or so Iraqi refugees now living there. Yet while the Dallas Morning News profiled the artist in 2010, he has had trouble finding support from collectors in the West.

One August evening, I visit the complex on Ridgecrest Road where Lowe has turned two units donated by North Park Terrace Apartments into a temporary community workshop and an artist residence. Alwan, a short, small-framed man with dark, deep-set eyes and stringy, slicked-back gray hair, is teaching three students in one of the bedrooms that has been converted into a painting studio. “How do you like my birds?” a fortysomething Hispanic man asks Alwan, pointing to squiggles at the top of his canvas. The artist smiles.

Later, outside, Alwan smokes a cigarette while sitting on a raised plywood platform that served as a stage for a talent show event the Trans.lation team organized the prior weekend. Most refugees only stay in Vickery Meadow for a couple of years before moving on, he explains, but he has been here for five. He likes the community. He likes grilling food and inviting neighbors to his apartment, and after eating, singing and playing his oud, a lute-like stringed instrument. But sometimes he gets depressed. He says his apartment is too cramped to paint. He puts his hand to his mouth and makes a swigging motion. Sometimes he drinks.

Looking at some of Alwan’s work, it is not difficult to surmise why his sensibilities haven’t translated to the American market. He paints watercolor landscapes of Baghdad or the Iraqi countryside, and rich, melancholic oil paintings. In one, a family of murdered refugees lies in the dirt near a tattered, rolled-up rug, their faces peaceful, as if they are sleeping. In another painting, a pretty young woman lies in a bed, her body lost in billowing sheets, her right hand extending out, clutching a plucked flower. While Alwan is undoubtedly a skilled painter, his work is flushed with melodrama, and it doesn’t seem to jibe with the interests or sensibilities of much mainstream contemporary art.

Since Lowe started his project, though, Alwan has been teaching classes again and making a little money doing it. His hope is that the market in October will bring new attention to his work. The project has already made him yearn for a studio of his own, with room for his materials.

“And a key,” he says, pinching his thumb to his forefinger, twisting his wrist, and locking an imaginary door.

Guerrero, too, has high hopes for how Lowe’s project will impact the neighborhood. Guerrero’s family moved to the Melody Park Apartments in Vickery Meadow after crossing into the United States a month after his ninth birthday. That turned out to be a lucky break for the boy. Unlike many of the apartment complexes in the neighborhood, Melody Park happened to have an after-school program run out of the complex’s community lounge. The lounge became Guerrero’s second home growing up, where he found help with his homework, discovered his love of drawing, and played pick-up soccer and basketball. He says it kept him and his friends from getting into trouble. It was also the place where he learned that if he worked hard enough, he could eventually go to college, even if his parents had brought him into the country illegally. He graduated earlier this year with an architecture degree from UT Arlington and is now spending his summer working here with Trans.lation as something of a right-hand man to a world-famous artist.

One Sunday afternoon, I go with Guerrero to Melody Park. The dirt and concrete courtyard adjacent to the community lounge that figured so largely in the life of the young man is hidden away from the faceless façade and parking lots that you see as you drive by the development. As we talk, two 10-year-old boys sit on a stoop across the shaded courtyard, watching us.

“Get a ball!” Guerrero yells. One of the boys returns with a soccer ball, and kids swarm out from the units surrounding the courtyard. In minutes, they have broken up into teams, fathers hanging over upstairs balconies watching, the children shouting for Guerrero to join in. Guerrero is shorter than some of the teenagers who have joined in, but his quick feet keep him steady on the ball. As he plays, he shouts encouragement to the younger kids, smile flashing between his high cheekbones.

“They swear less when I’m around,” he says. “You should hear them talk when they are on their own.”

Guerrero explains that one of the older teenagers, his cousin, hopes to play in college. College would have been an impossible dream for Guerrero had it not been for the after-school program operating out of his apartment complex. He likes to say everything happens in life for a reason, but I think what he really means is he has had a lot of breaks, a lot of luck, and a lot of help to get to where he is now. For example, he scored an internship this fall with the architecture firm HKS, in part, because right before his last year at UT Arlington, the Obama administration instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which allowed young undocumented people like Guerrero to get work permits.

He understands that opportunity in the United States is a product of both hard work and tangible support systems. So I ask him, even with the opportunities Lowe is affording him with the Trans.lation project, would he rather the money be spent on Lowe’s art project, or fund programs like the one at Melody Lane instead?

“Rick’s project is important for the community to kind of direct people to help this community,” Guerrero says. “But then, once people know that this community is here and it needs help, then we can be like, ‘We need money to fund these kinds of programs so that the kids in this community can benefit, get an education, and make a better life for themselves.’ But if I have to choose, I would probably choose funding the after-school programs and have a bunch of those in every apartment complex.”It has been a few weeks since the potluck, and yet it is hard to see the direction Trans.lation is headed. On a Wednesday evening, Lowe calls a meeting of the volunteer and artist groups at the Ridgecrest Apartments. Guerrero comes prepared with a plan he worked on with one of his college professors, an architectural rendering of Ridgecrest Road that maps out his vision for the market. The architectural drawings include pavilions and entryways, a temporary bus loop, space delineators, and all the amenities you might expect in an urban streetscape overhaul. While it’s a well-thought-out design, I can’t help but think it looks more like a slide from a city council briefing than a page from an art catalog. Still, with Lowe, maybe there’s little difference.

As Guerrero presents the plan, Lowe sits back in his chair and listens. Afterward, he lets the rest of the group toss around ideas. People like markets, but how do we find people who can make or teach? How do we design something in the community that will show it in a different way, make the dynamics shift?

Soon the conversation turns to some of the issues the team has encountered since moving into the apartments. The air conditioning doesn’t work, the front door is broken and doesn’t feel secure, and the landlord’s promised renovations of the second apartment, the residence, are running weeks behind schedule. One of the volunteers, Michelle Wood, explains that the negligent landlords prey on the refugee community, which is reclusive and tentative.

“Here, we are bumping up against the reality of the context in which we are working,” Lowe says. “We put ourselves in a position that feels the same way the people in the neighborhood feel. How do we take that experience and turn it into something reflective and supportive?”

Mokuria, the Trans.lation project manager, suggests waging a campaign for tenants’ rights. Sam England, an artist volunteer, offers to fix the apartment front door himself. Mokuria says some of the neighbors have told her that they have an eye on the team’s apartments, watching for burglars. There are also concerns about potential fires and flooding, which could destroy the work the residents have been making for the market and storing in the apartment.

rick_lowe_2 Lowe on the steps of a Vickery Meadow apartment complex.

As the conversation winds and scatters, I begin to wonder about Lowe’s light-handed, democratic approach to organizing what is, at the end of the day, his public art project. At this point, Trans.lation could go in any number of directions. The team has successfully engaged the community, and its presence is already starting to create conversations—and frictions. The idea for the market is starting to feel like a secondary function of the work, an organizational excuse to live there and, as Lowe described it, put themselves in the position to feel how people in the neighborhood feel.

After allowing the conversation to wander for a while, Lowe finally takes the floor. And for the first time since I’ve been with the Trans.lation team, the artist takes control. He talks about the Nasher and he talks about art.

“I have to walk a line between the community and the Nasher,” he says. “I have to make sure that this is the kind of thing that they feel good about, contextualize it.”

He leans forward and continues: “Now, for some of you, bear with me, this is art-world speak,” he says. “Who here has heard of White Cube, a gallery in London?”

A few hands go up, and all eyes are on Lowe. White Cube, Lowe explains, is one of the most famous galleries in the world. If, as an artist, you show your work in White Cube, then you’ve made it. What Lowe doesn’t mention is that White Cube is emblematic of the consumptive glut of the contemporary art world. It has been accused of misreporting its inventory to manipulate market prices of its artists’ work.

“So I want to play with that idea, of the White Cube,” he says.

Lowe’s idea for the market is similar to Guerrero’s, but with a subtle shift that makes all the difference. He will have three white cubes constructed and installed in three parking lots along Ridgecrest. The cubes will function as galleries, displaying artists’ work in the interiors, with the residents setting up their tables and booths between them.

Lowe’s idea turns a familiar artistic strategy on its head. Ever since the French Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal in a gallery and declared it art, artists have been pushing the definition of art by bringing objects from everyday life and placing them in the rarefied confines of the gallery space. But here, Lowe has proposed taking the whole gallery and placing its pristine, white walls in the context of everyday life in Vickery Meadow. The cubes, then, will take up a practical, symbolic, and metaphoric function. They will organize the market space, demarcate the area of Ridgecrest as the site of the monthly markets, and they will help attract curious art lovers who want to see Lowe’s Nasher project, thus luring them into the neighborhood even when the market isn’t happening. Perhaps more interestingly, the cubes represent a strikingly egalitarian gesture, literally bringing the art world to the people and handing it over to them.

When I show up at the apartments again on a random evening in late August, three young Hispanic girls are working alongside an older Arab woman on some craft projects. Darryl Ratcliff, a member of the Trans.lation steering committee, explains that one of the bedrooms in the apartment next door has been taken over by members of a nearby condominium homeowners association that is holding a secret meeting to discuss ousting its president, who some members suspect is embezzling dues. Lowe’s idea for a common space in the community has turned into a kind of no-man’s-land; somehow teaching kids arts and crafts has also given license to a local HOA to use the space to organize a coup.

I walk outside with Ratcliff and ask him about the cubes. Lowe has tasked Ratcliff with choosing the artists for the spaces, and I wonder if Alwan’s work will be featured in one of them.

“Yes, but I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh that’s cute. They have art in Vickery Meadow,’ ” he says. “My goal is to make it so that you can be anyone and want to exhibit in this gallery. I think it is important to set the tone with an exhibition from someone who can easily get push back from the art community.”

Ratcliff also has his mind on other things, like what to do when the Nasher’s program finishes in February 2014. The landlords of the participating apartment communities are allowing the cubes to remain, so the program could continue. After all, what’s the point of all these months of community organizing if, once Lowe and the Nasher leave, the market evaporates? Earlier in the day, Ratcliff met with an administrator of the Vickery Meadow Public Improvement District to see if there might be funds for Trans.lation. Currently, most of the Vickery Meadow PID dollars go to funding extra police patrols.

The issue of financing draws into question another complicated aspect of Lowe’s work. What he creates are not autonomous artistic objects, but rather organizations that look very much like regular nonprofit groups. And these kinds of organizations need funds to survive. Even with Project Row Houses, Lowe has strived (unsuccessfully) to distance himself, to cede control of the project to volunteers from the neighborhood so that the founder is no longer essential to its sustainability. Perhaps that explains an aspect of Lowe’s light touch in Dallas, his awareness that he needs to create space for people like Ratcliff, Guerrero, and Mokuria to step in and take ownership of the project.
This tension between authorship and sustainability is a key component of much of the work that can be lumped under “art as social practice.” There is the artist’s vision, and then there is his effort to use that vision to cultivate agency in others so that he can eventually cede ownership of the work. This creative generosity seems central to what distinguishes these practices as art. It is an effort to create something that is both ego-less and uncommodifiable.

It’s hot outside, so I ask Ratcliff to see the apartment residence. In the front room, paintings cover some of the walls, mostly watercolor landscapes by Alwan’s students. But over the fireplace hangs a portrait by Alwan. It’s a man in a gray blazer, with a white button-down shirt, thick-rimmed eyeglasses, black eyebrows, and frizzy hair that sticks up in a short Afro. Set against a gray-toned background, the muted, stoic portrait is painted in the style of a picture you might see hanging on the walls of a home in Iraq. It could be the picture of a relative, a politician, or maybe a revered imam. And yet, in this context, it would be impossible to mistake the man in the portrait for anyone other than Rick Lowe. His face wears a strained, almost goofy grin. The eyes look outward, engaging the viewer. It’s a steady and unceasing gaze, and when you stare back, there is a trace of sadness in it.

Seeing the picture there above the fireplace feels both odd and full-meaning. It is an image of the artist from Houston who has parachuted into this Dallas neighborhood bearing jobs, ideas, companionship, and hope. It is a picture that seems to embody a conflicted collision of sensibilities, between an artist from the East and one from the West, between the way a refugee from Iraq who has lost his country and career honors a man he has come to love, and the way the man in the picture understands honor as a kind of disappearance from public view. The portrait encapsulates something about the project that the Trans.lation market will never bring to bear: what Rick Lowe, the person, has come to mean to the people he has gathered around him, and how essential he is to all of it.

When we walk outside, I see Alwan, who has stepped away from his students for a cigarette. I ask him why he decided to paint Lowe’s portrait. Alwan brushes off the question with nonchalance.

“Oh, that,” he says. “It’s nothing. It was easy. It’s what I do.”