Many a street artist has ascended the gallery walls, but galleries are still expensive and exclusive spaces. The Oakland Museum of California is using an outreach project to bring its walls closer within reach. We/Customize encourages everyday people to create art out of the ordinary: in this case, their once faceless, mass-produced stuff. This journey from mass production to art entails four phases. First, an electric truck called the Oakland Rover travelled around the Bay Area soliciting passersby to create their own art projects by modifying mass-produced ones: toys, furniture, bikes. Next, these pieces were brought into the Oakland Museum, encouraging museumgoers to try their hands at modifying these objects under the supervision of a collaborator in residence. Beginning in February, We/Customize will showcase the best of these creations in the same museum that houses pieces by California’s most esteemed artists. After the show comes down, the Oakland Rover will head back out into the world for more DIY community projects. What makes this project more than just a kid-safe section of the museum is its broader societal appeal. We/Customize takes customization — a word that usually entails a measure of wealth — and democratizes it, so that the quality of customization is not dependent on what one can afford, but rather one’s personal investment of creativity. In doing so, it tackles the anonymity of mass production. Faceless Ikea lamps become personal reflections of the humanity of their homes, while Barbie’s problematic design literally acquires bird wings, and soars beyond gender binaries. The show is dynamic by nature, and will grow and change as its viewers create new works. We/Customize’s wide breadth extends notably further with the participation of two artists — Tyrone Stevenson Jr. and Justin Limoges — out of many multitalented collaborators. Scrapertown from California is a place. on Vimeo. Stevenson championed the idea of creating personalized bikes called Scraper Bikes, an all-ages take on the Bay Area tradition of personalized “scraper cars.” Using colorful tape, candy wrappers, spray paint and a host of other inexpensive materials, Stevenson helps local kids, and anyone else who wishes to partake, customize their bikes. (He recently turned Scraper Bikes into a non-profit organization meant for Oakland youth.) Some of the bikes take up a second life as kaleidiscopic art at the exhibition. Limoges, an Oakland artist, acts as a documentarian for the whole project. His drawings are a para-exhibition about the creation of the exhibition itself, from depictions of board meetings and public art events to this chart about the ethos of customization. As an exhibition, We/Customize simultaneously celebrates and rejects consumerism. These are products we buy and love: they share our lives and reflect our personalities. At the same time, these mass-produced objects have stifled individuality in pursuit of commerce; for example, the clothes make the man. The exhibition reminds attendees that, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
We/Customize Oakland Museum of California February 9, 2013-May 26, 2013 Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.