The Activist Artist: An Interview With Wendy Testu

San Francisco-based artist and teacher Wendy Testu discusses her latest project: a labor of love that galvanizes one community around its social and environmental history.

Wendy Testu art

Ever been on a toxic tour? That’s the first thing Wendy Testu did to teach local Bayview Hunters Point students about the environmental history of their own community. They were surprised to learn that, among other things, part of their neighborhood was built on a SuperFund site, that 20% of the children in their neighborhood had asthma, and that the presence of chronic illness in Bayview Hunters Point was four times the state average.

The more they learned, the angrier they got. Then, Testu got them making art.

October 21, 2009 will mark a turning point for Testu: it’s the day “The Welcome to the NeighborHOOD Project” opens to the public (the exhibition runs through January 10, 2010). Visitors to the African American Art & Culture Complex’s Sargent Johnson Gallery are invited to join in an interactive installation exploring the environmental and social justice issues facing Bayview Hunters Point. The exhibiting artists are sixteen kids, ages 10-18, from the locally-based nonprofit Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ).

Testu spoke with me about the project, an impressive body of work about personal experience, gentrification, displacement, art as activism, and finding the positive people and influences within your own community.

Alexandra Tursi: How was the idea for this project born and how have you nurtured it along?

wendy Testu photoWendy Testu: It came about in about 2005. I had just finished a project that was based in Spain, and I wanted to do something local. I didn’t just want to reference and talk about a project. I really wanted to be involved in the issues. I’d read about this playground they had just built next to a PG&E plant. (I can see the PG&E plant from my house.) I started to do research and things started to organically happen and unfold. I met with activists who were working on getting that plant closed. I met with a doctor in the neighborhood, who told me about the much higher incidence of cancer in Hunters Point. Then, I met the people from Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) and learned about the redevelopment of the Navy shipyards, how it was a Superfund site, and how they’re going to build housing units on top of that. I knew this was what I had to work on. 

AT: What is your artistic background?

WT: I started out doing sculpture and ceramics, then I moved to installations, then filmmaking and documentary. I’ve run the gamut. I also teach: I run an arts program in a local elementary school. I’m going into year number four of that. I really enjoy working with youth. I also grew up in a small town in Northern California, out in the woods, and I have family members who are women’s rights activists, state park rangers, so really environmental and social activism was a formative part of my childhood.

AT: How were the 16 youth involved with this project recruited and how did you work with them?

WT: About half of the youth worked at LEJ already, where they are trained in environmental and social issues. The other half came directly from the community. We put up fliers and had friends spread word-of-mouth. Many of them go to the school right by LEJ--the Mohammed University of Islam. Most of them wouldn’t consider themselves artists, which I liked even more. They found their own voices going through the program.

boy making art

AT: What did they create, and what surprised you about what they created?

WT: What surprised me was more so the process than what they created. They all came in with this thought, “We’re going to make something, and we’re going to take it home.” Then we got through that and they thought, “We’re going to make something, and we’ll sell it, make some money off of it.” Well, no, we’re not going to do that. Finally, they realized, they’re going to make something about themselves, about the community, and it’s going to live in the community. It surprised me that the more they learned about the environmental issues in the neighborhood--even though they lived right there, they didn’t know what was going on--they became really angry. We worked though it and got that anger out through what they were creating.

AT: Are any of them thinking of pursuing careers, or further study in the arts of environmental studies?

WT: More than anything it got them to think about how you have to be your own advocate if you want something to change. We have one kid who wants to be an environmental lawyer, so we’ll see. He’s 16 right now. I think that they discovered that if you’re angry, you have to count on yourself to see things changed.


AT: Can you tell me more about the exhibition itself? What will it look like and how will visitors be able to interact with it?

WT: First, we’re going to have a two-and-a-half-week period when the gallery will be open as a working studio (prior to the exhibition opening). The public can come in, the youth will be there, and they can help us finish and install the work. We’ll be sewing a tented sculpture. There will be several pods--places that feel like forts that the kids will make. The art will be creating that structure.

Once the exhibition is open, we’ll have one piece called Family Ties. What we did was gather garments from the street. Sadly, Bayview is a dumping ground. We gathered these bags of clothes, washed them up, cut them up, started braiding them together, and incorporated the graphics that the kids created and printed. Visitors will be able to add to that. We want to encourage dialogue among the families and youth groups that come to visit and think, “What are your family ties? What keeps you and your community together?”

Other ways: we have video installations where you can listen to and learn about the whole project process. Then you’ll see the piece next to the video documentation of it. Youth docents will give tours, answer questions. We’ll have a wall for public comment for thoughts and questions. We’ll have a lost and found from the clothing that we found things in: wristbands from prison for example. People can come and add to the lost and found section.

AT: Tell me more about other artists (Robert Larson, Keba Armand Konte, Taylor Neaman-Goudy and Eve S. Mosher) involved.

WT: The other artists, working in different media, would spend 8 to 10 weeks, 3 to 4 hours per week with six youth. What we all did, before any of the work began, was take a tour of the neighborhood to learn about the environmental issues. We started with that as a base, then the youth and each artist would explore “what do we want to do with that information?” We all ended up with something different based on our background.

I did a visual poem about the icons in the community. We went around and filmed; the kids learned how to edit. With Robert, they scavenged work, they created this large-scale installation with 12’ by 12’ modular square pieces. Kate worked with them on a photo montage and transfer about gentrification in the neighborhood using found objects.

a nation without roots

AT: Why do you think a project like this is necessary?

WT: I think it’s necessary to build community. We’re going beyond statistics and facts. We’re showing in a very real way how youth in the community understand and feel about what’s happening in their community.

It’s important to do long-term projects in order to build connections with the people you’re working with, not just going in and taking what you want for your project. You’re getting a true sense of the people and how they feel. In many ways, we’re doing this cross-pollination of community-building between neighborhoods: the gallery is in Fillmore; we’re in the Bayview Hunters Point area. These are neighborhoods that historically have not gotten along due to gang violence, gentrification, other issues. We’re trying to bridge those gaps.

It’s important to start at the grassroots level to create a dialogue, educate youth, and make art accessible, that it’s not just about creating an art object, it’s about process – a process you can use to problem-solve for other things in your life. It’s not instant gratification.

AT: Has this project inspired other communities to get involved or do the same in their communities?

WT: There is a group from Stanford; they came out and volunteered at LEJ. Their program is about connecting art with environmental and social issues. The environmental art group from the California College of Art will join us during the installation. It’s great to see that they are teaching it more and more in art schools and there are more programs getting people out into the community.

city view

AT: What do you hope viewers of the exhibit will walk away from the show with?

WT: I hope they have an understanding of community and that at the core of community is family. We all need to have people we relate to, we need our community; we need to be our own advocates to make the changes we want to see, to be more involved in their community and know their neighbors, rather than live in isolation. And to know what’s going on environmentally--these kids lived right there and they didn’t know what was going on. There was radioactive testing and underground fires, in the Navy shipyards--they didn’t know any of these things.

AT: Will there be a part two to this project? What can we look forward to from you in the future?

WT: I will continue to work in the elementary schools. Right now, a lot of schools bring in artists who teach them how to paint with watercolors, which is great. It would be wonderful to do more in-depth, issues-based projects. I’ll continue to work in that direction. Right now, I’m working on getting a grant to refine and complete the documentary of the project this year. Turn it into a full-fledged documentary by the end of 2010: that will be part two.


AT: This is the first time that LEJ has sponsored a collaborative arts program. Why are these strategic partnerships key?

WT: LEJ has been in the community for more than ten years. All the youth who go through their programs are paid interns. It was the same for my program there. That’s important. A lot of the kids didn’t want to work at a place like McDonalds. They wanted to do something more. This is a great opportunity for them to learn so much and get paid.

I think that through these kinds of programs and working with an organization that has been in the neighborhood for so long, you’re building a stronger community and learning from each other.  The community trusts you--they are more open to you rather than only coming in as an artist. The relationship took a while to develop--my relationship with LEJ started in 2005. LEJ has gone on--they’re working with another artist, they got another grant to do so.

AT: Do you think that today’s artist needs to have an activist bent? Why or why not?

WT: I absolutely think that they should. If we aren’t, then who is? If we’re not inspiring and educating the next generation, what are we doing? You can talk about a piece of art, about art theory and history, but to me, if you’re not out there being involved in the issue, do you really know anything about that issue?

What really brought it home for me was an interview Matthew Barney did with NPR. You know, he’s supposed to be the artist of our time. I called in and asked him how he involved the Japanese community he was working within, what was he saying about the political issues. He said, “No, I’m not making a statement. I’m not saying anything about that. I didn’t involve the community other than having them in the film. I’m not making a statement. That’s not why I’m doing this.” I got really pissed off. It’s just mental masturbation. What’s the point? $10,000 for this film? I love to have a point, dammit!

AT: This project is outside of the educational system. Do you think this should be something that becomes a part of the school system?

WT: In a perfect world it would be great. Outside of a school you have so much more freedom. You can be more experimental and adventurous, but it would be wonderful if we could align it with what teachers are teaching and incorporate it to really engage youth.

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