What’s Your Problem? – Ghana Think Tank | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

We’re in Tijuana, Mexico. And we’re joining up with
the organizers of Ghana Think Tank, who have been developing
the first world since 2006. Through a variety
of initiatives, the group has collected
problems in the US and Europe, in so-called
developed countries, and sent them to think tanks
around the world in places including Ethiopia, Cuba, El
Salvador, Serbia, Palestine, and of course, Ghana. They then work with
the communities where the problems originated,
to implement the solutions devised by the think tanks. They are currently
working on a project at the US Mexico border
that focuses on conflicting views of immigration. They are applying their process
to encourage communication and collaboration between
right wing border vigilantes on the US side and recently
deported immigrants in Mexico and undocumented
workers in the US. We’re going to be talking with
John Ewing, Carmen Montoya, and Christopher Robbins, who
you may remember from our very first Art Assignment. They are working on
this project in concert with Torolab, an artist’s
collective, workshop, and laboratory that brings
together artists, architects, and designers to think about
and elevate the quality of life for residents of
Tijuana and the region. Ghana Think Tank’s remarkable
approach flips the usual power dynamics and asks
us to reconsider our cultural assumptions. We’re meeting with them
at Torolab’s La Granja space in the Camino
Verde neighborhood. And we’re going to follow
them in a day of their border project. Ghana Think Tank’s
assignment is going to give you the opportunity
to seek solutions in unexpected places. [SPEAKING SPANISH] More simply, Ghana
Think Tank kind of forces you to deal
with something you always care about, but in
a way that forces you to think about it
through lenses of people you probably feel
uncomfortable about. Finding dirty stories
is a sublime solution. I love this. So the first time I think we
did it was in Wales, in Penarth. People were complaining
that the elderly are treated like a burden to society. That’s a giant problem. What do you do with that? The Iranian think tank came
back and they said, well the problem is that young people
don’t think they have anything in common with old people. And so what you need to do is
collect funny dirty stories from old people, put
them on mp3 players and play them for young people. And like to ask
somebody in their 80s to remember when they
were young and naughty. And their eyes glass over, and
they go somewhere far away. And it’s beautiful. And then a young person
puts on those headphones, and they hear that
gravelly voice, cackling about being like so
naughty, I mean like, yeah, I was never that naughty. It’s not always beautiful. It’s lovely. Like the smile blooms
on their faces. And in that one moment, they’re
like in the same timeless space. It’s amazing how that works. A big part of it
becomes– not necessarily like the solution
solves the problem. But that it is taking
something from one culture, inserting into your
own, about something you already care about. Yeah. And the exchange that ensues
from that new relationship between ideas, I think
is really important. And people often
ask us why it’s art. You know, is this really art? And I think the
good answer is it it’s about changing perception,
which good art does. It lets you see things
in different ways. The original idea
for the cart came from an immigration
problem of the fact that San Diego and Tijuana
are kind of one city. And so many people
commute so regularly. On Saturday, the
pedestrian line can get two, three, four hours long. And they talked about
being stuck in the hot sun, walking that slow pace. And the idea was to create
a cart that would give you a place to sit,
give you some shade, but keep your place in the line. So you can sit down
and keep moving along. So this Art Assignment is
called What’s Your Problem. Step one, find somebody who you
think could never understand your perspective, somebody
who maybe threatens you or someone you feel sorry for. Step two, ask that person
for help with your problem, whether it’s a societal
problem or a personal problem. And you have to
do what they say, whether that solution seems
brilliant or impractical. And then take a
photo of what you do. Draw a picture, write
it down, maybe a video. Let us know how it went. So Sarah, I love Ghana
Think Tank’s work. Because they’re really trying
to find new, innovative ways to bridge the empathy gap,
especially the empathy gap between people who have
vastly different lives. I think this is a really
important assignment, especially at this time in
the world, when we’re really struggling with having
civil discourse with people we find different from us. And I think that doing this
assignment, whether you’re asking a small personal
problem or asking about a large
societal problem, can be one small but very
meaningful step in imagining other people complexly and
thinking about the world in a more constructive way. It’s also interesting
because a lot of times artists are brought to cities or
museums to kind of solve problems of the public. And this inverts that in
a really brilliant way. Right. It asks you, as the artist, to
approach other people to solve the problem and not vice versa. And I think this is a pretty
novel approach within the scope of art history. But it did make me think about
the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko. In 1988, Krzysztof Wodiczko
presented in a gallery a prototype for his
homeless vehicle project. The four-wheeled metal unit
had a roof, a can storage compartment, a wash basin, and
could be extended for sleeping. Wodiczko designed
and tested the unit with a panel of
homeless consultants, incorporating feedback
and developing variants, according to the needs
of its potential users. While made to meet
practical demands, the vehicles were never
intended for mass production nor to solve the
underlying problem, namely the conditions that
led to the displacement of these individuals. Whether shown in a gallery or
photographed out in the world, the unit served as
points of departure for a bigger
discussion, forcing us to acknowledge the existence
not only of homelessness writ large but also of
the real people whose real lives are affected by it. Ghana Think Tank challenges
us to solicit answers to our own problems,
not in order to solve them necessarily, but
to reach across boundaries– visible or invisible– and
create a space for interaction. Solving our very
personal problems may be the
serendipitous byproduct. I’m really interested
in this space that’s there, the fact that you
have– this is the most crossed border in the world. And it seems like there’s
very little design about what happens when people
go through that space, or what it should be like. And whether if you’re
disabled or you’re older, as far as I know, they don’t
make special accommodations. So you’re just sitting there
in the hot sun for hours. I’m interested in
just seeing what happens when you
intervene in that space, and how much you
can shift things, and whether other people can
make little interventions. Every time I come
to do anything on the border– my family
lives all around Tijuana. I’ve lived both in
Mexico and the US. And I feel totally bi-cultural. But I’m sure, because
it’s the case every time, I learn something else about
not only myself but this place that I call home. And that’s what I’m
really looking forward to. CHRISTOPHER ROBBINS: I
think the way it’s set up is it will have this obnoxious
LED sign on one side, saying immigrants and on
the other side, Americans, which of course is sort of
the same thing for most people who consider
themselves Americans. So asking someone to
self-identify immediately will start a conversation. So even if they just
walk by or they just tell us this project
is obnoxious, we can get a conversation
started right then about what it means to be an
immigrant or to be an American. From there then, if they
select OK, I’m an American, they’ll have this software we’ve
developed that you can submit your immigration problem. So what’s your immigration
problem, hit the button and leave it. Sitting directly
across from you is someone facing
another screen, who’s self-selected as an immigrant. And they’re getting
those problems in Spanish that they can solve. And they flip through these
different immigration problems submitted by Americans and
then choose to hit the button and give their solution. CARMEN MONTOYA: One of the
challenges of this kind of work is that you have to
put yourself out there. It’s OK to be a
little vulnerable. It’s part of it. JOHN EWING: It’s all
about being vulnerable. I mean the problems
can be super personal and small and silly. That’s great. We’ve actually found that the
most universal problems are often things that seem small
and silly, like my neighbor’s dog barks too much or I’m
afraid to dance at parties have brought some
really profound results. But then there’s
also huge problems. Maybe we talk about a racist
political system, obesity in America. Climate change. Or maybe there’s somebody
you want to talk to. Use this as an excuse
to go ahead and do it. Well, one part of this
process that’s really important is this person-to-person
interaction. If you just can’t make
yourself do it, be creative. You could leave a note on
someone’s front door step, on a community bulletin board. You could post a Craigslist
ad, if you wanted to. We made crazy
cards to get people to come over to talk to us.

Maurice Vega

19 Responses

  1. Gosh, what intelligent people. These are exactly the kinds of conversations we need to be having right now, inclusive and diverse. Often times discourse between groups with such differences can feel helpful/ life-changing on a personal level, but not so much on a community or global level.This problem-solution set up, however, feels like such an active response to the central problems we are facing right now and I am just so inspired.

  2. I think that I could just ask my question on YouTube right here and get plenty of diverse answers. I am a straight, white girl that lives in the US. I need help finding confidence to ask a boy out how should I go about it?

  3. I think a mention for people to stay safe would have been in order. I get what you're trying to achieve, and I love that you're preaching and practicing empathy, but also people should be safe.

  4. Wow, your bias is showing. – Right Wing Vigilantes as one group – if you were going to use that negative conotation, then the second group should have been called illegal aliens. – but no they were recently diorted immigrants in Mexico or undocumneted workers in the US. Somehow, don't think that's going to open up a lot of conversation if the American folks see it… do you?

  5. right…most of us rabble probably feel like NO ONE gets us, making our target for this exchange tremendously broad. maybe I should just ask an outwardly successful adult.

    ☆hey, art assignment☆…I'm the worst at completing projects & I'm tired of having half-finished crap all over the place. any suggestions?

  6. Great assignment!

    My only struggle is that when I think of people who don't understand my perspective, I'm not sure how to approach them with my question without explaining the assignment. Like I'd have to message or email my local MP, a high school bully, etc. and explain that they're someone I think doesn't understand me before I ask them to solve my problem, and that automatically sets up a negative tone to the conversation.

  7. I think this may be my favorite art assignment of all times, and it's timing is truly remarkable.
    It's actually extremely close to what I had in mind to make for 'the muster' assignment, but could never find the right way to execute.
    The thing that struck me most about it though was that when I thought of people in my life I could do this assignment with, I found very few people who fit the category of people I share very little with in opinions or thoughts. I think this may be the thing that bothers me most about how social media works today – the things I see most are the things I agree with, and so not only am I less exposed to other opinions, I am exposed to less people who hold those opinions and can relate to them less.
    Which also brings me to the question of how this assignment will differ when I try it with a person I know, and a stranger.
    I'm going to give this some thought, and find my take on it.
    Also I'm going to share the hell out of this, because we need more of this in the world.

  8. Wow! What an incredible project! So many great stories and examples of art packed into this one episode! So good to see people going out of their ways to help solve other people's problems. Fighting problems with perspective! Love it!

  9. I love what Ghana Think Tank does not only because it's cross cultural but also cross-discipline. And this assignment is cross "divisions". All the crossings! Bringing things (and people) together is such a fertile ground for new richness and new possibilities. Also really enjoyed the talk about the space and experience of the border crossing. What a great group and a great assignment. 🙂

  10. Reminds me why I do art! Bloody brilliant… Although, I always cringe when I say im an 'artist', I hate the stigma rounds that word.

  11. i met carmen montoya at a printmaking workshop at the arab american national museum! she is amazing and humbled me inside out

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