Joal Stein is a civic curator, poet, and activist focused on investigating spatial and social power through contemporary culture, working across art, urbanism, architecture, and social engagement. He serves as a lead editor and writer for The Changing Times, and a contributing editor for Deme Journal. He's worked with nonprofits, governments, and institutions across the United States and internationally in Colombia, Italy, Ethiopia, and India. He's received an Autodesk Foundation Design Futures Scholarship, a Banff Curatorial Residency, and he's been a cultural agent for the US Department of Arts and Culture. He holds a Master of Science in Design and Urban Ecology from Parsons, the new school for design. He's organized exhibitions and progressive activist art projects for the UN Habitat, the Institute for Public Architecture, People's Climate March, and the Fight for 15 Coalition.
Joal Stein: Hi, my name is Joal, and I am a curator and writer. My background that led me to be a curator and writer is actually as an urban planner and designer. That led me to do a lot of work in different cities and different communities around the country, and internationally. What always captivated me about that work were hearing the stories of people and their lives, and how their lives intersected with other lives in particular places, leading to an understanding issues of power and access, inclusion and exclusion, both on the individual level and the community level.
Now, as a curator, I work with artists, mostly social practice artists, who are asking these questions through their work, and about places and people and systems and structures and I help them find a way to put that work into content but also to make them happen. And more recently, as a writer, I've been leaning more into my identification as hard of hearing, sensorineural hearing loss from birth, having had hearing aids since I was a baby. I've been trying to understand how that has shaped my view of the world and lead to more questions of how other people experience their capabilities or disabilities in different ways in space. Not just as people that are hard of hearing, but people with all different types of disabilities across the spectrum. Then also reframing disability not as a source or a lack thereof, but as a different way of viewing the world that has its own power and insight and ways of being.
When I graduated, I was working for the City of Portland and what is now called Prosper Portland. And at the time, it was the Portland Development Commission. I was doing community economic development and sustainability. And I realized I am not a bureaucrat. There's a lack of creativity and not really space to ask critical questions in those kinds of situations. You don't get to ask difficult questions. And so working with artists became a way to enter into that. That opened up this whole exploratory and critical, creative practice, right? What is a job? Or what is a good job now? What is work? And what does it mean to be a community? And what does it mean to be a community in transition? And how do we ask questions about race and legacy, legacy and race, and these communities and address them?
I went to graduate school in New York after doing that, in a program called Design and Urban Ecologies. So in a sense, we were doing a lot of political economy. Like, what are the things that created this place more than the actual physical elements of it. So it became such an experimental forum for all of us. And we were actively shaping that program too. And so it gave me a lesson in what it means, like, to make a pedagogy, to create knowledge and to produce knowledge. How can you take a personal and political stance about the type of work you wanted to articulate whatever project that you're proposing, and pick your place and then make it happen, figure out how to correlate forces around that. So the idea of knowledge, it wasn't this thing that we necessarily acquired. It was the thing that we made.
One of the most compelling projects in graduate school, so we were working in Medellin, Columbia, and the premise was to do sort of a community planning project that use arts as a form of social and community engagement. We were working with a theater group, it was called Casa Amarillo, the Yellow House, they called it. It had started as a theater of the oppressed workshop crew, a theater troupe. The theater troupe would go out into the streets and do the performances, these street that people were afraid to be in as a way to reclaim space through art, as a way to use their body as a form of protest and use movement of body and use these stories as a way of reclaiming this space. And that was eye-opening to me around where we talk about who gets to be seen as the arbiters or the holders of knowledge or expertise because they were tasked by the city - or they were given responsibility by the city - to run the community planning process in their sort of regional of the neighborhood.
What ended up in that experience was a way to be flexible with different methodological frameworks. So our forms of producing knowledge weren't going around with reports and surveys or we weren't just doing traditional data research, but it was using these games and players almost. These immersive theater plays with them, and our understanding of that place was so much more granular because knowledge is never necessary like this person moved here and this was the date. But knowledge is oftentimes in the body, right? You know this when you see dancers, it's like, oh, there's so much that the body holds, and trauma or joy or desire that you can never articulate fully, but the way the body moves expresses it differently. And those are things that are hard to capture and to... See, it's not accepted in a formalized education system, right?
Another project, the idea was just to use art as the vehicle of organizing, right, like let's turn this march into one giant art parade in a sense, where all these different coalitions can have their sculptures and dances and songs, but also to learn to work with one another and to see themselves as part of a larger whole. And so we use art as a way to bring the different groups together and housing and climate justice and became such a joyful thing. And that was really special where it's like you'd ask people to come and help make a banner or a really cool giant sculpture or paint together, and then you build a relationship that way.
Art is important in terms of politics, not as a decorative tool at the end of things. Frequently, you will be told, "Artists can paint the banner and make it look beautiful." But artists can actually be creative strategists in many ways. They ask questions and think of out-of-the box solutions or approaches to things. One big question is: what is the role of an artist in society, what's the role of an artist in public life? How do you support those things? And you're seeing that more and more where you have artists-in-residence in City Hall, state governments. What role can an artist play in society? What role should an artist play in society today, and what role should they play in politics?
I've heard this phrase a lot, and I'm just trying to decide whether I believe in it wholeheartedly. There's merit around the notion that 'the battle of the future will be won through a battle of imagination.' That battle for imagination is a very political one - it's what kind of future do we want to build? What kind of future do I want to live in? And who else gets to be in that future with us? And the power of artists is in creating a sense of this imagined future that you can touch feel smell, you get a glimpse of a little bit of it you never get the full future. A lot of the politicians right now that people are excited, really mobilized by, have a sense of this moral and civic imagination that they offer, of here are the things that we can build, not necessarily empty promises that we want to give you this, but here is a society that we can create. Politics should ,in my opinion, be a forum where we develop an imagination of how things could be. And artists are so good with that, are so good about telling these stories about here's how things could be and here is a story about us right now."
There's this idea that a lot of artists, at some point, have to reckon with where they came from. You have to come home to yourself at some point. The home that you stepped out of, if you don't reckon with that, you're missing a large part of who you are.
An artist named Allison O'Donnell had a piece at the Hammer [Museum] in LA — they're hard of hearing. Her art statement talks about the first time she got digital hearing aids, she's hearing the sound of a banana peeling for the first time. And she's been doing this years-long video piece asking these questions around essential community questions.
Walking into that exhibit or the video is showing, there are a lot of the people there that had been cast. And it was like mostly community members, high school students, lots of different types of people. And a lot of these sort of teenagers, younger people, all deaf or hard of hearing. are in it, and they were there to see this exhibit. And so many of them are on their smartphones, signing to their friends and showing them. And I had never thought about how Facetiming had opened up a whole new world of communication for signing people and deaf people. And so that was a whole cultural aspect that I just didn't engage in, right. I was more in the hearing world and hard of hearing, but never in the culturally deaf community. And so I was like, "All right, I need to figure out how to think about what this means," because, to me, I was always just normal. I never really felt like…
There were times when I was like, "Okay, the hearing aid's battery's dead, now I've got to, deal with it," but to me, it was just like having eyeglasses, right? And then I had this readjustment almost where I was like, "What the 'F' is normal? There's no normal." And to redefine normalcy as this range of embodiments and knowledges and capabilities, right? To redefine normalcy as this spectrum that everyone exists on an individual level and plane. And the ways in which specific environments are set up is what, in fact, dictates whether or we're seen as capable or disabled. It's almost like turning that idea of disabilities on the head.
And now, I was reading this book. It's the best book of poetry I've read in years called Deaf Republic, written by a hard of hearing poet. And there's a line in there that says that "silence is the invention of the hearing." And so to integrate that where deafness isn't necessarily a lack of hearing, it's just another way of being in the world, to not define these things as a lack thereof, but as a different source, a different way of operating and being a part the world.
Being hard of hearing has shaped how I view the world and how I move through the world and how I communicate with others in the world and how I choose to be present in the world. And how then bringing in my sort of urban design and architectural background of what are specific spaces that work for me and don't work for me?
I'm trying to bridge the sense of understanding either the products and the systems and structures and what it means to be hard of hearing and move to those things and how I can ask more significant questions about that, and use that as a way, as my point of view, to then highlight systems of inclusion or exclusion. The battle of the future is also itself a battle of imagination, and offering a vision of the future that people want to believe in and see themselves, and then providing a vision that people can see themselves coexisting with other people in that. In that battle of imagination, it's frequently seen around the corner as something that isn't quite there yet. In articulating these glimpses of what is yet to come to be, an artist has a particularly unique ability to draw from that sense of unknown. Give it form and provide it with life in the present so that people can see or taste or touch or hear or move through something that they don't necessarily know fully yet, but they understand a bit more. Artists have this ability to reinvigorate a sense of imagination in public life and a real sense of vision for the future. Not one that's sold to us, but one that we are actively participating in.
Think About the Periphery
We only step into the frame
in small moments, where
the beauty is in the background
where life plays out
where a world is made
and holds you steady
our bodies can be our own borders
lured in by a reckless promise
we index ourselves against the crowd
subtitling the intentions of others
a neediness for the parts
of the world i cannot control
while focused on narrow affairs
life walks through stage
blocking in the periphery
and with my hands I
am still running through my lines.
If you'd like to see more of Joal's work, you can check out his website at radagenda.com.