Interview: Milenko Matanovic on collaborative art as a community builder

Milenko Matanovic disappeared from the traditional art world of his native Slovenia 25 years ago to "explore the white space of possibility". From that exploration emerged a vision of an abundant future he’s been manifesting through public art projects with communities since 1986 when he established the Pomegranate Center.

The Pomegranate Center’s projects explore connections between art, the environment, and participatory democracy. When he described his work during his 2011 PopTech presentation, he invited us to "be tough on ideas, gentle on people. Let's focus on the essence of what we can do together and not sweat the details."  We recently caught up with Matanovic to learn about how his process is evolving.

PopTech: What makes a Pomegranate Center project successful?
Matanovic: The center uses a four-part model: wiring a project for success; moving from planning into action; organizing people around volunteer groups; and stewardship and maintenance.

Community ownership is critically important, as is keeping the momentum of moving good ideas into action. In all the talk about sustainability and how we can be wise with energy, these two energies are lost and wasted all the time.

So what does Pomegranate do to avoid that trap?
We want to use the process of collaboration to create something greater than what individuals achieve alone. This collaboration is fundamental to our generation and our society right now. We're doing it through hands-on research one project at a time, learning by doing. I wouldn't want engineers to involve the community in structural details of a bridge for example, but where the bridge goes, what it does, and what it means should include the ownership of as many people in a community as possible.

How can we collaborate more effectively?
Everybody knows, academically, that we are all stuck in our silos. But in practice it's hard for people to stretch themselves beyond their accustomed roles. Collaboration is an act of courage: I need to be strong in my identity, but also be very open to what others have to bring. It's a state of being that culturally we identify more as weakness than as strength. So it needs to overcome some of the cultural tendencies of success.

Words are cheap. Everybody can say collaboration; the hard work is making it actually work in reality. That's the spirit of our work. Pushing that into greater visibility and making it more available and usable to others.

What's your latest project?
Tuscaloosa, Alabama was ravaged by a tornado in April 2011. We're working with a community in the Alberta neighborhood of Tuscaloosa. Salvaged materials from the area will serve as the main ingredients in the design. We'll be taking the destruction of the tornado, and redirecting it to the community. Hopefully the project will create some momentum.

How are you scaling your work?
We know there is a great need because we receive calls from all over the country asking how to do what we do. So we're also considering how to scale up our artistic approach and train more people in our methodology. We want to leave behind a finished project and an increased creative capacity within the local community to tackle similar projects on their own. We are playing with different models, but we know the work isn't learned by information. It's experientially-based mentoring and apprenticeship creating seeds for the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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