Socially Engaged Art in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Pittsburgh artists join an international conference in their own backyard to explore the relationship between art, community, and social issues.
by Matthew Wein
Growing up in Pittsburgh, artist Michelle Illuminato was always fascinated with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But when she and colleague Emily Blair wanted to explore how people’s jobs impact the evolution of their neighborhoods, they started looking at the show as more than just a children’s television program.
“There were specific places Mr. Rogers took us, like factories, bakeries, and music stores, and we became really curious about what those places might look like today,” says Illuminato. “We started thinking about work, and about how Pittsburgh’s wonderful past in industries like glass and steel is reflective in everyone’s life and how they live in the city today.”
That’s what led Illuminato and Blair, who’ve been collaborating on interactive art projects such as Next Question since 1994, to create Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Revisited — a two-hour tour of Pittsburgh highlighting spots featured during the show’s 35 year run. The tour will run as a part of Open Engagement, an international conference on public and interactive art that will take place in Pittsburgh from April 17 to 19. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Revisited is one of ten engaging art installations by local artists which will debut during the conference with help from The Sprout Fund.
Jen Delos Reyes started Open Engagement in 2007. After stops in Canada, Portland and New York City, she’s excited about what Pittsburgh stands to contribute to this year’s iteration. “This is a city where so much has changed through creative practices,” Reyes says. “I think there’s a lot going on in Pittsburgh and that artists on a national level can really look to and figure out how they might translate to other places. It’s really interesting as a site that isn’t a center of the art world, but it’s not far off.”
When it debuted in 2007, Open Engagement hosted fewer than 50 presenters and around 100 attendees. This year’s conference will include a record 207 presenters and more than 1,200 attendees from all around the world. Registration is free for all who wish to attend. “When I started this, there were so many artists who were doing this type of work, but it felt like we didn’t have a community of our own,” Reyes says. “At the time, there weren’t many programs dedicated to socially engaged art.”
Elina Malkin is a member of the new media art collective dadpranks, which created Sensory3Mall—an installation in Pittsburgh’s Century III Mall that will transform vacant storefronts and kiosks into interactive studios, allowing visitors to use aspects of web-based art, branding, retail aesthetics and placemaking to bridge the gap between the online retail economy of today with the “mall culture” of yesteryear.
“We were walking around the mall and realized how many similarities there were between its architecture and the aesthetic we like to work with,” Malkin says. “We’ll be running a series of tours involving mall architecture. A naturalist will talk about the plants and ecology of the mall, and we’ll have guided meditations and tai chi.”
Visitors to Sensory3 will also be able to research items they wish to buy at internet kiosks, then, instead of ordering them online, be directed to the location in the mall where they can purchase them from brick-and-mortar stores. “I want people to appreciate the space the same way we do,” Malkin says. “The architecture in the mall is fascinating and there’s so much that can happen in that space. The mall itself is in a state where it’s primed for new uses, and one of our goals is to get people involved in thinking about how that can benefit the community.”
In Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, BOOM Concepts micro-resident artist Bekezela Mguni will host a zine-making day for conference attendees, aimed at both capturing their impressions of the host city and developing a clear picture of its residents’ everyday lives.
“When we have conferences that are supposed to engage on social justice and critical thinking, we have to be mindful that we’re going into someone else’s home,” says Mguni. “I’m really hoping we can create an experience that is honest and thoughtful, and affords the opportunity for people who live here to share who they are with the people who are coming in from out of town.” Once complete, the zine will be made available for download, placed in the Zine Distro catalog and be available through the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s zine collection.
“Connecting with people around the world shows that there’s solidarity to be had, and that people can learn from one another,” says Mguni. “We’re strangers who will become friends.”
“It’s important for us to be able to come together and share resources and knowledge, and create networks of support. With help from organizations like the Sprout Fund, there’s a lot of energy and openness in how art can intersect in the daily lives of people in this city,” Reyes says.
Registration for Open Engagement closes on Thursday, April 16. Get in while you still can!
Register via Eventbrite.