Look at How Remarkable We Are: Jennifer Rittner
“Everything we do in this world beyond survival and self-destruction is art.”
Featured work: May 2021 Design Museum Magazine: The Policing Issue (edited by Jennifer Rittner, cover art by Blacksneakers)
Writer, teacher and communicator Jennifer Rittner is interested in how creatives can envision and build social justice and abolitionist futures. She has engaged these topics and others in diverse spaces and outlets, including the New York Times; Kelly Walters’ book, Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators; the American Federation of Arts; American Folk Art Museum; and New York Historical Society. She currently teaches Design and Social Justice in the New York City School of Visual Art (SVA) Products of Design MFA program. This made her an apt choice to guest edit a recent special edition of Design Museum Everywhere’s Design Museum Magazine: “The Policing Issue: How one of the most powerful institutions functions by design.” In this publication, 20 BIPOC writers, artists and researchers investigate the relationships between policing and design in America.
“The design concepts behind architecture, urban planning, environmental graphics, lighting, transit systems, digital devices, apps, schools and workplaces all intersect with policing in manners invisible to those privileged by its inner workings,” a press release on the issue states. From the cover art by Blacksneakers depicting an unpoliced urban community (above), to internal visual and written explorations of policing tools, how mutual aid shapes communities, justice systems mapping, and more, Rittner has curated a poignant inquiry into some our nation’s most longstanding and urgent struggles around power, race and freedom. Read on for her reflections on “how a culture of policing permeates contemporary life,” art demonetization and accessibility, collaborative creativity, monuments, and other timely topics.
More featured works:
5 Questions for the Artist:
1. What is art to you?
Everything we do in this world beyond survival and self-destruction is art. We’re driven to art-making because it’s how we make sense out of existence and create order out of the chaos and randomness of life. It’s the objects of creativity, the processes we embody, and the mediums we employ that feel particularly salient to each of us, including the medium of language.
Writing is art — not because of books, pens, or publishing platforms — but because of how the mind organizes and orders language to give shape to complex, messy, beautiful, weird ideas. Art is author bell hooks using all lowercase letters in her name because the lyricism of that act gives shape to her liberation and her resistance. Art is my mother sewing tiny squares of fabric into discs and then sewing the discs together to make a blanket that binds all of those random colors, patterns, and textures together in dynamic visual harmony. It’s art because, in the process of making it, she’s constructing order out of chaos, bringing shape to feeling, and calling on ancestral experiences that connect her to other manipulators of material everywhere in the world at every other point in time.
2. What did you make in the past, and why?
Actually, the first writing I ever had published was a profile for my junior high yearbook. I had the privilege of , very briefly, interviewing Ms. Rosa Parks, who visited my school that year, along with an interracial couple — Reverend John and Nammso Stubbs — who fled South Africa during Apartheid. Meeting Ms. Parks was inspiring, but the more meaningful experience for me was interviewing the Stubbs. As a biracial woman whose parents married in the U.S. in 1967, hearing the Stubbs’ story of resistance and resilience offered a window into my parents’ experience. Writing the article gave me an opportunity to process but also to apply my own sense of lyricism to their story. I was so young, but even then, I think I knew that I wanted to share something that might resonate with others.
I think becoming an art educator and writer has always been a way for me to find clarity in the absurdities of social injustice. How do you look at a beautiful woven garment, or carved bone, or pottery made 6,000 years ago and not think, “Look at how remarkable we are. Look at what our imaginations can create.” How do you look at constructions of love and still choose anger and exile?
3. What are you making now, and why?
I’ve been writing about the intersections of creative practices and social justice. My last project was as guest editor for a special issue of Design Museum Everywhere magazine, featuring writings and art about design and policing. Importantly, I didn’t want the issue to feel like a series of prescriptions for designing policing better. I wanted it to be a platform for writers and designers to explore how a culture of policing permeates contemporary life, including our psychological states, our social interactions, our workplace norms, and our creative practices.
I’m also working on a book project with some design colleagues. I love that we are working collaboratively. I can’t imagine doing any of this work without a supportive community. Anne Berry, Kelly Walters, Penina Acayo, Lesley-Ann Noel, Kareem Collie, Michelle Washington, Sem Devillart, Sloan Leo, Raja Schaar, Liz Jackson, Alex Haagaard, Ajay Revels, Timothy Bardlavens, Sinclair Smith, Adam Harrison Smith, Pierre Alex de Looz, Suma Reddy, and Sarah Fathallah. These are all colleagues and friends who have been in collaboration around writing, teaching, and making sense of the moment we’re in through our various practices. Finding community is everything.
4. What are your hopes for the future?
I would like to write more, better.
I’d like to continue provoking art and design schools to become more equitable and inclusive spaces. I think that’s going to take some radical rethinking about the whole system, and it’s going to be painful for people who currently hold inequitable power in those spaces. It’s going to require that they give up control, step away, and become observers and allies to a future that doesn’t center their needs. That’s hard, but necessary.
I’d like to see the intentional, radical dismantling of all systems of policing that do harm to the many on behalf of the few. Artists and designers pave the way toward liberation by creating art and spaces that reflect radical and imaginative ideas, however that may look, feel, sound and behave. Art is, by its nature, liberatory. But so is literal liberation from systems that perpetuate injustice and inequity. For abolition to be a plan and not just a dream, we actually need more people in power to pay attention to the artists who are paving the way forward.
I’d like to see a radical recalibration of how and where people access art in their lives. Art institutions hold a lot of power and they have historically doled out access slowly and inequitably. What would real access look like? It’s clear that access would include liberating an enormous amount of art and artifacts claimed — stolen — by powerful institutions in the name of preservation and care, at the expense of local communities and their heritages.
I hope to see the radical demonetization of art, alongside equitable compensation for artists. It seems to me that the institutions that mediate access to art have maintained an absurd degree of inequitable power across all disciplines. This includes the ultimate absurdity of incentivizing collecting as a private act rather than a public good. Art collectors, who store art in warehouses? I just can’t. How do we shift the power dynamics in that system to make art accessible to all people everywhere?
I also want to discuss monuments. I don’t believe monuments should be anyone’s heroes, not even my own. Monuments contribute to the glorification of individual leaders, while simultaneously erasing the contributions of those behind the scenes. Behind every leader are the hundreds, thousands, millions of people who made their success possible, and brought just as much value to the cause. So I hope we’ll tear down all of the monuments and invest in usable community spaces instead.
5. What else would you like to say?
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this project. Since I’m not a formal Artist — capital A — I appreciate you widening the definition of an artist to include me.
Artist Supplied Bio:
Jennifer Rittner is a writer, educator and communications strategist. She teaches at the School Visual Arts in the MFA Products of Design; MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism; and BFA Advertising and Graphic Design programs. Her writing on design and social justice has been published in the New York Times, DMI: Journal, Design Museum Everywhere, Eye on Design and Core77, as well as in Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators by Kelly Walters. Jennifer led Art Access II for the American Federation of Arts, an initiative designed to increase museum attendance among under-served communities. At SVA, Jennifer led a collaboration with the Omidyar Group designed to address polarization through creative practices. She co-leads a program with Williamsburg High School of Architecture and Design that introduces students to innovative design practices. She also launched SVA’s Summer Colloquium for International Students. She has been an art educator for the American Folk Art Museum, New York Historical Society, Montclair Art Museum, and Montclair History Center. As a daughter of women, Jennifer centers the voices of her near ancestors Bernadette, Aurea, and Dianqui in her practices.