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Issue 219

‘Aesthetics of Urgency’: Public Assistants on the Artistic Practice of Mutual Aid Work

DonChristian Jones on the genesis of the art collective Public Assistants and the inward process of community-based work

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BY Terence Trouillot in Interviews , Roundtables | 10 MAR 21

During the summer of 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, artist and musician DonChristian Jones co-founded Public Assistants (PA), a mutual-aid hub for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities. What started as a vacant lot for folks to build protest signs has blossomed into a public art space in the heart of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, offering after-school programmes, a community fridge, a bike-repair workshop and much more. 

Terence Trouillot: PA started as a Finsta [fake Instagram] account, is that right?

DonChristian Jones: [Laughter] Yeah. I was trying to make original memes, but no one was following me. Then I started to post works by friends. I’ve always wanted to share what my peers and students were doing. I was seeing all this amazing street art and community-based work, which wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved. I highlighted projects by Autumn Knight, Kia LeBeija and Tamara Santibañez, among others. When we got the space [in Crown Heights], it was evident to everyone involved that what we were doing had really become something. We needed a name and a social-media presence if we were going to ask for donations. I realized that I already had the handle and the title. It was serendipitous. Within five days, I had sketched up a ‘PA’ logo and Rin Kim designed it and created a typeface for us. My roommate, Julian Sharifi, built the website in a week. For the mission statement, I tapped my friends Naya Samuel and Tom Lee. Unfortunately, we were evicted this spring.

Public Assistants, at a protest rally, 2020
Public Assistants at Street Riders NYC Rally, 4 July 2020. Courtesy: Public Assistants, New York; photography: Jake Robbins

TT: How did you get the space?

DJ: I have a friend who knows the guy that manages this property in Crown Heights, and they both had the idea of opening a community popup before the building is demolished to become condos. They asked me to paint a mural on the facade a year ago now. That was the first time I’d been given the opportunity to do what I wanted on a wall. I was super pumped, but then I had an existential crisis: I started to question muralism, thinking about my years working on public mural projects in New York. Muralism has fully become a co-opted tool for gentrification – unless it’s the most grassroots, community-led thing from start to finish – and I couldn’t do it. When COVID-19 hit in the US and the race war started, I felt burnt out and unsafe. That same friend offered me the driveway, of this property in question, as a space to work on banners and posters for the Black Lives Matter protests and the March for Black Trans Lives. Little by little, the thing grew. Then we got the keys to the Crown Heights space – an old Laundromat.

Public Assistants, Bike repair poster, 2020
Public Assistants Bike Initiative flyer, 2020. Courtesy: Public Assistants, New York

TT: It makes me think of The Laundromat Project in New York: the non-profit organization whose mission is to work with the community through the arts. Were they a source of inspiration for you to turn your space into a mutual-aid network?

DJ: Yes, but so much of what I learned and what inspired me to do this work actually came from the Kiki Ballroom scene and my experience – bureaucracy aside – of painting murals with incarcerated youths at the jail on Rikers Island. At first, I wasn’t necessarily sure this was going to be a mutual-aid network. I was helping my friend Crystal Clarity – an activist and artist – making protest signs and she kept talking about the ‘aesthetics of urgency’: this idea that it is less about what the work is going to look like and more about getting it done. We realized that this is what everyone talks about when they speak of mutual aid.

 

Public Assistants, driveway, 2020
Evie Clark (left) and DonChristian Jones (right) painting banners in Public Assistants' driveway, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Courtesy: Public Assistants, New York; photography: Jake Robbins

TT: You’re a performer, a musician, a painter and muralist. Can you speak about how painting has informed your work with PA?

DJ: For me, painting has always connected to gesture and performance. Once I realized that painting was more about performance than the finished product, I became disillusioned with the practice of making an art object. To conceive and create a mural with many hands or ideas was much more exciting to me.

TT: Painting is an act open to failure and experimentation. But, when we’re thinking about protecting communities and mutual aid, the stakes are much higher and a sense of urgency comes to the fore.

Public Assistants, interior, 2020
Bryan Villalobos (left) and Caroline Wineberg (right) sewing at Public Assistants' community arts space, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Courtesy: Public Assistants, New York; photography: DonChristian Jones

DJ: It’s the challenge of not being able to please everyone, right? It takes constant effort to be able to step back and not allow societal projections or polarizing rhetoric to penetrate the project. For me, this has been more of a spiritual work than anything else. It draws on the internal struggles of an intergenerational and intercultural group of peers, many of whom carry their own experiences of trauma. It can be detrimental to not allow for failure. What happens when things fall out of frame? PA is a modular forum for exploration. We lost our first space, but have already found another temporary home in the neighbourhood and will soon have a more permanent venue. We are constantly in flux.

Main images: Public Assistants' community arts space, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Courtesy: Public Assistants, New York; photography: Jake Robbins

Terence Trouillot is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

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