Art & the Law: Interview with Jordan Bent

In July, Katrina presented two posters from Pivot on the Insite and Sex Workers United Against Violence cases at the AIDS 2012 Conference in DC. The posters were a smash hit: incredible pairings of dense legal text with stunning imagery. For that, we owe thanks to artist Jordan Bent, who was able to turn conversations with Pivot folk into visuals that commanded both respect and attention. I had a chance to sit down with Jordan and ask about his experience designing the posters for us and his thoughts generally on how social justice organisations can use art to further their mandates. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

Hi, Jordan. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I’m a visual artist. I’ve been working primarily in Vancouver for the last 8 years. That’s been a very interesting process, growing up here artistically promotes growth among the many challenges. My visual arts stem from drawing and painting and it has become more interdisciplinary in the last three or four years. It’s been extending more towards design, and interdisciplinary activity like performance and theatre, and then branching out from that. So that’s been really exciting, taking it from something more traditional into something more well-versed.

I’ve also been doing theatre sets, and being a performer working with choreographers. Then there’s public art, which is interdisciplinary, because it’s a different kind of visual communication. It’s not just a painting or a drawing; it’s translated into physical space that we interact with. You have to involve the environment and be subjective. That’s not just murals, it’s also other experiences. That work is really exciting and hard to do.

The Pivot posters weren’t the first time you connected social justice and art. I’m thinking, for instance of the work that you’ve down for theSoul Gardens Mural Project, What role do you see art playing in movements for social justice?

Justice affects every aspect of society and every aspect of your rights and certainly the equilibrium of society. How is that we’re not invested deeply in that communication often is just a matter of education, process and dialogue with connectivity. If we want to educate each other, then art can be a very viable as well as very realistic way of doing that. It can engage people on a day-to-day level. Hopefully the dialogue that can happen through the artistic vocabulary can be accessible, unlike perhaps the legality of the work that Pivot does, where the nitty gritty is not necessarily a language that everybody knows or knows how to interact with. So art can bridge outside of the organisation. It can help bridge the process of interaction and engage them in an education interaction. That’s what this Insite/SWUAV poster project is about. The posters can represent this, because they’re engaging and you don’t feel like the information is alienating. The pictures help bridge the content for you in an aesthetic fomat.

Pivot gave you challenging material to work with. How did you convert our conversations about the need to both compellingly and respectfully depict the legal battles of street-based sex workers and marginalised drug users into such beautiful imagery?

The first session that we had here was really insightful because we sat together in real time. The sensitivity for the information that everyone has towards this work became apparent. So we went through the ideas, feeling whether they were in the right place or not, surrounded by that sensitivity – which strangely enough is very ephemeral but incredibly important. We were able to look eye-to-eye with each other and ask “Well, what about this,” instead of just me being isolated in a process of making choices that were potentially questionable, without the direct impact of knowing whether they were the right direction or not.

In that initial meeting, we built a compass of ideas together. That was very essential. That informed my confidence in taking other steps down the road, because I could then read into the material with confidence from that compass. I could derive better images from that.

There was also a body of reference there, this image base through photography archive. There was already this soil to work within. It was just a matter of bringing that up a little bit, letting that stuff grow a bit more profoundly.

So you had the photographs that we gave you, but could you also tell us about the artistic inspirations that you had that helped put everything together?

There’s already such a rich amount of people and content in these communities and especially in this dialogue. It’s too bad that we didn’t have the time to engage that, but that was still inspirational: the fact that there’s already this incredible amount of aesthetics and reality to this world that people are contributing consistently to it every day. I could just pay homage to that. Nothing felt like I was defining anything that wasn’t already beautiful and real. So it was just a matter of tapping into it and then composing it sensitively enough for this particular format. It didn’t feel like it was my choice; it felt like those choices were already there. We were just bringing them forward a little bit.  I was just finding a way to render it that was unique enough that it would just look good.

It would have been nice to facilitate other aesthetics from other artists that are in this neighbourhood that deal with that radically. That would have been a very exciting artistic process as well. It gets less consistent, but then that’s the job that we could do together to bring those things together in a more harmonious way.

How do you think organisations can continue to foster creativity that comes from or supports marginalised communities?

A lot of it is about having and starting relationships with artists who are engaged socially in their communities. I don’t know if every organisation has the time or ability to bring in that relationship, with the amount of detail that represents their vision and their work. It’s often really a side-thought that that could happen, if at all, because the organisation’s work revolves around so many other responsibilities.

If artistic relationships can be brought in as an important and very integral part of an organisation’s movement throughout a year’s strategy, then I think that that relationship can then begin to bring about some results. But that relationship has to be bridged first. There are a lot of artists in this community, and within marginalised communities, who have yet to be engaged. A little bit of research can find those voices, bring them in, nurture those relationships. Then you can have these think tank sessions on projects, with issues on the table and different ways of representing them.

That’s a very exciting way to think about it, because it’s certainly not in the timeframe of a legal firm. When you’re dealing with so much other material, how are you going to maintain an art project? It seems kind of trite, but it’s not. In fact, it can be incredibly vital to the output– especially for actions. For instance, results in protests are incredibly important. If anything is going to go to the street or to the people directly, that’s a place where art can be the bridging point. It can be part of the process for the communication. If that’s going to happen, the results will be best served if the art is coming from communities or at least has the sensitivities to honestly represent those peoples struggle.

This is where it’s so subjective that it’s tough to bridge it out. Pivot’s unique because Hope in Shadows is a pretty unique process that is an incredibly artistic action with an artistic result. Not many firms that I know of have ever done anything like this. That Pivot continues to do this work yearly is amazing. You can see the results: it’s not only empowering, it’s created a huge visual awareness of what the community is. It’s remarkable because it is the artists in the community itself that have been given a format and then a result. So this is a curatorial practice that has pretty huge capabilities. I know it’s a still growing and has a lot to figure out. Nothing is complete, but art is messy and sometimes it doesn’t have an ending.

Having these annual projects with diverse voices from diverse factions of the arts community will create a larger and potentially better result.  But this can be an expensive project with time, not just monetarily, but also with people’s focus and attention.

Working around getting away from the literal was also really important for all of us in this project. That’s something that’s really important for organisations too. We often get quite visually literal. They don’t have to be literal, they can be something ephemeral, there’s a quality to what people and their hearts bring to the results of an artistic idea, which just needs the space to expand. The text in this Poster Project is incredibly literal, incredibly defined, but the images themselves, they could dance around it. That dance around the literal becomes a balance, and gives a direct human experience, which we do need, especially with issues so severe as injustice and policy.

This process with Pivot was concise and quite quick, which I found impressive . Giving some time guidelines can actually help bring some concise decisions together. In a concise way, we found new structure to play in and found a result that helped bridge the content and image.

What projects are you involved with now that you’d like people to know about?

Right now, I’m doing lots of little things.  I’m doing all of the promotional material for REEL Youth. I’m doing art/design for music albums,  working directly for artists, which is my favourite. I’m doing all of their promotional material for the Accordion Noir Festival. They’re a very sweet, totally roots organisation. I’ve become such a graphic designer as of late.

I’m also finishing the Whispers Project, which is the public art project which involved Downtown East Side writers. Eli Horn is the other designer on this project. They’re typography murals of poetry and excerpts of those writings from the DTES writers.  Check for installation sites and to read the writers work.

You can download the PDFs of the full posters here: Insite poster and SWUAV poster.