PHILADELPHIA – Scrap materials like aluminum became works of art at a waste transfer station set up in South Philadelphia by local multimedia artists and brothers Billy and Steven Dufala. Taking cues from children’s drawings of their ideal play structures, Los Angeles–based artist Sterling Ruby designed an outdoor sculpture for them to climb that also provided a gathering place in an underserved neighborhood. These are two of 14 temporary, site-specific works that addressed social issues and opened dialogue throughout the city in October for Open Source: Engaging Audiences in Public Space, an exhibition curated by Boston-based independent curator Pedro Alonzo and organized by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Working across media from murals to sculpture and installation, all of the local and international artists engaged the community and many invited direct participation.
Mural Arts had initially approached Alonzo about doing a street art festival, but he was impressed by their extensive outreach through such vehicles as restorative justice and art education. Alonzo said he wanted “to do an exhibition of contemporary art where I take the artists and embed them into these programs.” Los Angeles–based artist Shepard Fairey and Brooklyn-based artist SWOON, both known for street art, worked at Graterford State Correctional Institution and with Mural Arts’ reentry program for citizens returning from incarceration. New York–based artist Shinique Smith worked with students through Mural Arts’ art education program.
Alonzo’s familiarity with the street art scene came through in the concept for Open Source. Immersed in Boston’s tech culture in the early 2000s, he saw a relationship between street art and new methods of disseminating information. Alonzo observed, for example, that Fairey’s distribution of stickers—which was also part of his Open Source work—created “a viral campaign pre-Internet.” In Philadelphia, Alonzo used Mural Arts as a platform, applying the philosophy of open source development “to bring in the artists to create something new within that structure, to challenge what’s going on, and then to invite the public to do the same.”
As the artists visited sites and met with community members, projects began to roll out over the summer. Sol LeWitt–inspired sculptures Steps and Pyramid by British artist Jonathan Monk were unveiled in early June and immediately put to use by their target audience: skateboarders. JR’s Migrants, Ibrahim, Mingora —Philadelphia, a 20-story-high photomural of Ibrahim, a local immigrant from Pakistan, appeared on the Graham Building in late July. As the first step of his project, New Orleans–based artist MOMO worked with children to paint a mural in mid-August. The children later taught others the geometric shape-rendering method they had used, and instructional videos were posted online so that still others can employ the same process.
All the works were on view in October, when tours, panels with the artists, and family days drew out shared themes and strategies. Multiple artists developed educational programming, established new community spaces, and generated web content.
Open Source was presented as Philadelphia’s answer to international exhibitions like Germany’s documenta, but Alonzo noted crucial differences: “I’m not bringing the art world to Philadelphia—I’m bringing artists to Philadelphia to highlight the unique diversity and cultural identity of the community.”