Transforming and Informing Community Through Art: An Interview with Matthew Mazzotta

Matthew Mazzotta, Busycle, 2005 - current.
ACT at MIT

Transforming and Informing Community Through Art: An Interview with Matthew Mazzotta by Marissa Friedman

Matthew Mazzotta (SMVisS ’09) works at the intersection of art, activism, and urbanism, focusing on the power of the built environment to shape our relationships and experiences. His community-specific public projects integrate new forms of civic participation and social engagement into the built environment and reveal how the spaces we travel through and spend our time living within have the potential to become distinct sites for intimate, radical, and meaningful exchanges.

Mazzotta is currently teaching the Spring 2019 section of 4.301 | Introduction to Artistic Experimentation, and will be giving an Artistic Research Luncheon presentation on Tuesday, March 5.

Marissa Friedman: What was your experience like as an ACT Student? Were there specific courses, opportunities, or faculty, that really influenced you?

Matthew Mazzotta: Back when I was in school, it was called VAP [Visual Arts Program]. I mean, my teachers were Krzysztof Wodiczko, Antonio Muntadas, Joan Jonas, and Ute Meta Bauer. I thought about them, well those three – Joan, Krzysztof, and Muntadas – almost like primary colors; they were so different in so many different ways. It was quite a nice experience to go between them all. To me, the whole program is so unique; to have an art school within the context of a whole university, one that has every discipline at such high level, to me, this is what is super interesting. This is when it starts to get good.

MF: What excites you specifically about teaching at ACT?

MM: At ACT and MIT you’re meeting with other disciplines, and you’re trying to figure out the shared interests. Once you take the jargon away, you can work to bring something into another context, for another audience, for another reading. I just thought, ‘wow, this is the coolest’ – that an artist is able to have this access to the other disciplines, to all this other thought, and that was so powerful as a student.

Now, as a teacher, it’s a joy – my classes are awesome. I mean, these kids are like, they’re all geniuses, but I don’t know if they’ve all been exposed to the same level of art. With my practice I’m always going into different communities, figuring out what the issues are, what people are interested in, and then we find solutions on how we can get there. Same thing with the students: figure out what each one of them is interested in – mechanical engineering, cognitive science, marine biology – whatever it may be, and then I try to provide opportunities for them to develop projects around those issues. I think, specifically for MIT students that aren’t focused in the arts, this is an opportunity for them to get to experience contemporary or conceptual art. It’s about helping them take their ideas and translate them through the lens of art so other people can have access to them. So, I think for them, it’s just some kind of playground; a nice counterpoint to what they study, it’s abstract and it’s physical. Different artists bring something to it when teaching this course, so I bring my version of it.

MF: What do you bring to it that another instructor might not? A lot of your focus is in making work that is accessible to the public; how did you come to that? How does that influence how and what you teach?

MM: I think that’s maybe why I’m a good fit for the students at this level. My work is so focused on being accessible. I work in and with the public. I made that choice that I want to bring art and ideas into public spaces, where people traveled through, where it’s part of their daily life. They don’t have to make another visit somewhere; it’s just part of their day, and it’s truly embedded in the places they are, and within the context of their lives.

So, if you’re going to work in public, it has to be accessible and be able to be read and understood by many people that aren’t necessarily art knowledgeable. Some of the students could be in the same boat; they might not have a great, big art vocabulary. When they’re working on their projects, I start to see maybe a direction they might be going in through their own experimentation, and then I’ll give them some references, and they’ll be like “whoa, that’s been covered” or “that’s so interesting” or “oh, there’s something else I can do.” I guess I’m always thinking, with all of my artworks, can it be understood from many people from different walks of life?

MF: So, being back in Cambridge, at MIT, in Boston – are things coming to mind of what kind of public art project you would do here?

MM: I actually have a new commission for the City of Cambridge, and we’re just in the beginning research stages. I’ve worked with them before, on the Park Spark Project in 2012. It actually transforms dog waste into energy, and it powers public art work. The goal of this project was to allow more people into the conversation about climate change. You have these climate deniers, right? How would you get someone involved in a conversation, when they’ve already built their tribal camp? I think art can provide that third space, where through curiosity, they might be involved in a conversation they wouldn’t be willing to have otherwise. That project is about that.

In 2005, we also did a project called the Busycle, which was all about public transportation in Boston. It’s a top down process, where certain neighborhoods get access to public transportation, and certain ones don’t, and it’s determined by the local government. This can play into issues of real estate values, environmental racism, how long it takes people to get to work, how people feel about things, how politically powerful or weak people are if they have less access to get around the city. So, we tried to flip that and said, instead of the city determining that, we’ll make a piece of public transportation, built by the people, powered by the people, and where the people want to go. We called it a “Vehicle for Dialogue.” People would get on it and have conversations about public transportation. The physical structure of this particular project is a bus, with no motor, powered by pedals, and it has been co-opted so many times in different cities.

You know, it’s funny, when we did the Busycle back in the day, I was living in Burlington, VT, and we came in to do it with the Berwick Research Institute in Boston; the Mayor got involved, we had a team of 50 Boston-based volunteers, and it was my first project that involved local government, the public, public space, community, activism, and art. I didn’t think at that point that the city would be interested in having a critique of itself, but it was. Anyway, through the success of that, people were like why don’t you just move to Boston or Cambridge, so I did. And then my first job was at MIT – I was like a janitor at the Student Art Association; I worked cleaning up the studio. 

MF: You’re your own version of Good Will Hunting.

MM: Well, yeah, that’s what ended up happening! And then I remembered sitting with my feet up on my desk four years ago and was like, ‘huh that was a wild journey.’ Anyway, I was this studio technician at the Student Art Association, and then I think Marisa Jahn (SMVisS ’07) told me about a free lunch they were having in the art program that I should go to. I had heard of it [VAP] because I knew Jae Rhim Lee (SMVisS ’06), who also went to the program, but I hadn’t put it together.

So basically, I was like ok, I’ll go in, and when I got there there were a lot of people wearing black, and there were some prospective students in the audience; one was this guy Jegan [Vincent de Paul] (SMVisS ’09) who wound up being one of my classmates. But then Ute opened up and said that this was a program between art and architecture. And then someone else was speaking about how these are projects outside of the museum and gallery context, and with communities, in real space. And that’s what I was interested in, but I had never heard of a program that focused on such a thing. I was really blown away, and then there was this one point where this guy had this book open and he’s pointing to this Krzysztof project, his Homeless Vehicle, a project which I just loved; it was probably one of the more influential projects [for me]. And he kept on talking and going on about it and then I looked at him and was like ‘that’s him, that’s the dude that made it – that’s Krzysztof’ and I was just shocked that I was in this room with him. That was when I knew I was going for this 100%, and I put all of my forces towards that and applied and got in.  I learned so much in those 2 years and just really gave myself to the program, that when I graduated, I saw my whole art practice differently, put into perspective.

Recently, I won the Architecture Project of the Year Award from Dezeen [for the Storefront Theater]. My world is a weird world because I’m not an architect, yet last year I won 4 international architecture prizes.

MF: You say you’re not an architect; how would you describe yourself?

MM: I’m an artist. I know about and use the power of the built environment to bring these spaces to communities, to examine issues that are relevant to them. I love architecture and the power it has, but I’m not using it for probably traditional architecture thought. I’m actually trying to bring ideas into the public discourse.

MF: Something I love about your work is that not only is it accessible, but the way you talk about it is also accessible. 

MM: That’s what I try to do – I always try to simplify things so that more people can understand these ideas. The ideas are important, and that’s what’s relevant to people, and how it’s communicated is important as well.