City / Culture: To Them, the Public Matters

Los Angeles-based Public Matters takes on and approaches projects in manners that city staffers could – and really should – dream of.

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City / Culture strives to be about, in part, independent creative people undertaking tasks that might otherwise be considered the purview of government workers.

Sometimes, given that description, folks will pitch notions about this project or that project that are a real stretch – a stretch like a 400-meter hurdler would do between heats at the Penn Relays. A stretch like a Philippe Petit high-wire. A stretch like Armstrong. Seriously, you know, a stretch.

Then there’s Reanne Estrada and Mike Blockstein. If Jerry West’s silhouette is the apt logo for the National Basketball Association, then perhaps a portrait of this Los Angeles-based duo ought to grace this column’s header space every week.

Estrada and Blockstein – friends of the City / Culturecolumnist – are two of the people behind Public Matters, LLC. (Motto: “Creative strategies for civic engagement.”) Blockstein is the firm’s Principal, Estrada is the Creative Director, and there are five other Public Matters team members – a number that expands like lungs during a deep breath in order to fit the needs of various remarkably collaborative projects.

Public Matters takes on and approaches projects in manners that city staffers could – and really should – dream of. Public Matters, for example, worked with students in South L.A. on “market makeovers” – encouraging convenience store proprietors to add healthier options. And in Historic Filipinotown, they worked with students, seniors, and ages in-between to both subtly connect generations, but more prominently, to explore the neighborhood’s past.

Videos from both the market and history projects are visible here. Each project blended cutting-edge media work with old-fashioned education and outreach. Add the often-different way that artists look upon a problem, and the end result is, end results.

The “about” text on the Public Matters website explains the group’s civic notion:

“Leaders need to be creative thinkers, capable of responding to situations that have few precedents,” the text reads. “Public Matters, LLC is committed to developing a new generation of informed and engaged community leaders: innovative thinkers and problem solvers with a deep awareness and appreciation of their neighborhoods. We believe that art and new media have a tremendous capacity to portray community life and serve as a connective force across race, class and generations.”

Last year, the City / Culture columnist asked Blockstein to write up a description of the Historic Filipinotown project, which went under the umbrella of “Pdub Productions.” [Disclosure: Jeremy Rosenberg gave volunteer p.r. advice to Public Matters during that period.] Blockstein wrote:

“Pdub is distinctive for its breadth and depth. The project is led by the Pilipino Workers Center and Public Matters in partnership with HyperCities, UCLA Remap, the office of Council District 13, the School of Visual Arts and Humanities, and a community advisory board of community leaders, scholars, and media industry professionals. Pdub Productions engages high school-aged youth, themselves mostly recent immigrants, as documenters, researchers and storytellers. Pdub youth become experts, advocates and content producers about Historic Filipinotown.”

That text doesn’t mention that the launch event for the project included a newly restored and wildly decorative jeepney, as well as concerts, a feast, a city council member and various political staffers, and a cross-cultural and cross-generational gaggle of attendees touring the area and watching mobile mini-documentaries.

That such a civic-culture cross is the Public Matters sine qua non makes sense when reading the bios of the people involved with the enterprise.

Blockstein is a visual artist who used to run a San Francisco arts non-profit. He also has a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Estrada is a working artist, a painter and sculptor with a solo studio practice who is also a member of a public performance group. She performed here. Public Matters other listed collaborators are Nathan Cheng, David Lawrence, Ron Milam, McRae A. Parker, and Rene Yung. Two are media artists. One is an installation artist. Another is an L.A. Urban Ranger. All also have a variety of other professional skills.

“Artists,” Estrada told City / Culture during a more recent interview, “are underutilized as a civic resource.”

Estrada continued: “There’s a great desire for artists to really engage as a complement to their navel-gazing practice, to feel a connection with the world around them – probably more so now than in recent times.”

Just because artists seek to engage, that doesn’t mean the feeling is immediately mutual.

“Before we embarked on the work we do with healthy food access,” Estrada said, “most of the folks in public health were like, ‘You want to collaborate with artists on that? That’s unheard of.’ But the fact that artists could bring a certain level of creativity and criticality, and deliver information in a way that is less conventional, can make the result more effective.”

“And,” Blockstein added, “less formulaic.”

Next week: The conversation continues with Estrada and Blockstein.

Read past City / Culture columns here and contact the columnist.

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