Artist Interview: The Think Tank That Has Yet To Be Named

Today we share a brief interview with The Think Tank that has yet to be named, a social design collaborative that initiates research, conversations, and actions that explore contemporary sociopolitical issues in the places where we encounter them. The Think Tank’s work is featured in Take Care, on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery through January 13, 2018.

Take Care is organized in partnership with the Metropolitcan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force and aims to shed light on systemic barriers to quality healthcare through the lens of breast cancer. This group exhibition explores themes of care and community, vulnerability and support, by way of painting, photography, immersive sound, and text.

What do you do to support yourself that contributes to your quality of life?
, 2017, Mixed media, 20 x 24 x 20 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your work has a very important place in Take Care. It communicates information to the viewer in a clear, direct, yet intimately personal way. The design feels formal, yet invites us to scribble our fears & concerns alongside it. For Take Care, you transformed your ongoing project, Structures of Support, to focus on health and healthcare. Can you give us a bit of background on the evolution of this project and how you implemented it for this exhibition?

The Think Tank that has yet to be named: Structures of Support came out of an awareness of the conditions which allowed some people to take risks, fail, succeed, and have a safety net to fall back on. We were interested in trying to learn why that was and to share the stories of individuals. Our hope was that this would allow others to see invisible support they already had, share their resources with others, and build more robust support for those who were lacking. The project has been ongoing since 2012 in a variety of different forms–surveys, interviews, data visualizations, and workshops. For Take Care, we were invited to explore some of these same questions with a specific lens on healthcare. It was exciting to think about how this work would interface with other responses to the topic. How would data visualizations and participatory elements work next to sophisticated artistic responses to the notion of care? Another concern for us was working carefully with Weinberg/Newton Gallery in support of the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force. We wanted to make sure that the stories and data we gathered amplified the profound work of the Task Force, and thus we had several back-and-forth conversations about the specific language used across the work.

WNG: All the text from your pieces is culled from a survey of poignant questions related to healthcare. I found these to be very thought provoking in their language. The question, “What support are you lacking? (emotionally, spiritually, physically, and creatively),” prioritizes the notion that healthcare and taking care of one’s self encompasses more than just physical health. And the pairing of the two questions, “How many people do you feel personally responsible to care for?”  and “Who cares for you and how?” both acknowledge the limits of how our healthcare system views us. Can you elaborate on how you choose the language that allows for honest and vulnerable answers?

TT: When we started this project, we began exploring different ways that we could collect individuals’ stories and share them in a public way through unconventional data visualizations. We worked with a social scientist with a background in creating ethical surveys, and she helped us to understand what, how, and why to gather information. We try to only ask questions that we know we will use in our work, which means we often avoid traditional demographic questions and instead focus on qualitative questions. These questions lead to richer answers, allow the participant to articulate their own experience through the act of answering questions, and allows the viewer to make connections between themselves and others while reading the collection. We learn a lot through making the work, and one of the things that has become clear through creating the work in Take Care is that we need to articulate the gaps between what the heathcare system is and what heathcare could be. What it means to truly care for oneself (and others) is so vastly different than what our system of heathcare provides. Perhaps through seeing some of those gaps, we can begin to develop other ways to support each other (within the system and beyond). 

How would you describe the healthcare system / your health?, 2017, Mixed media, 75 x 9 x 10.25 inches

WNG: What else have you all as creators learned from the healthcare based survey results? And, as social facilitators, do you have any strategies in the works for how communities can begin to address some of these shared concerns regarding healthcare?

TT: One of the things we have learned is how different the answers can be to the same question based on context. For example, we have asked “What do you worry about?” since the first version of this project. The specificity of the lens on heathcare allowed participants to delve deeper and explore their specific worries about their health and the health of the people around them. We are excited to see the possibilities of this as we work on other versions of the project. In regards to strategies, we work in different ways depending on the project; in an exhibition, visualizations work well because they can be experienced by individuals at different times. We have led workshops for community groups, students, and within galleries as well. We are interested in igniting a conversation through the patterns that are exposed in the work; we hopefully make space for greater understanding amongst our participants, but we try not to dictate strategies for how future projects develop amongst our participants. 

What do you worry about?, (detail) 2012 - ongoing,  Mixed media, 121 x 102 inches 

WNG: In your statement you mention that the underlying question of much of your work is, “What happens when people in communities see themselves and their own power?” – can you unpack this idea a bit for us?

TT: Our practice builds structures that allow people to learn from each other about how to meet real challenges they face. We devise ways to visualize community reflection–a place to locate and share knowledge, understanding, grief, and challenges. In so many communities, a pervasive feeling of invisibility affects the ability of people to recognize their own assets, much less strategically coordinate the sharing of these assets. Through reflection, communities can build knowledge by visualizing what they already have. And through this, they can see their own power. 

In this way, we are intentional about not designing for outcomes. We want the work to be a reflection, but hopefully also a spark that can sometimes lead to an ignition. As artists, our role isn’t to facilitate the solving of problems or the building of campaigns or institutions. We are careful not to colonize the work of others, so we make no suggestions or recommendations of how others do their work. Our intervention is intentionally temporary and purposefully focused on reflection as a tool for seeing the collective self.

Structures of Support: Health and Healthcare Interviews, (detail) 2017, Mixed media, 146 x 136 inches

WNG: It seems that research is a large part of your collective practice, you even include a section on your website devoted to compilations of reading material – free to download. What are The Think Tank’s various modes of research?

TT: Early on in our practice, reading together was essential. The Readers are a product of that practice. We would focus on a topic, or a confluence of ideas, then each set out to share readings over a set time frame. Those compilations felt especially valuable when grouped, so we decided to make them available to others. 

It was later, as we each individually engaged in both a co-design and community organizing practice in our “work life,” that we started to deploy different research methodologies in the Think Tank. From our professional co-design work together, we brought to the Think Tank an ethnographic research component including interviews and surveys. It wasn’t until the Structures of Support project that we really started to value the effects produced by both the qualitative and quantitative, and most importantly, the space between them. In fact, we’ve found in some cases the quantitative fails miserably to share a viable and useful story.  But when shown next to qualitative data, a richness emerges. These discoveries feel like good fortune, as we are not scientists. We need not even attempt to convey neutrality in the presentation of the data we collect. The presentation of the data is curated and designed for visual impact to distill a clear story of what we learned from the full data set, but also to forefront notions of support.

WNG: What are some of the sociopolitical issues you hope to address further in the future?

TT: We have a broad set of interests collectively and maintain a research methodology that allows us to tap into most ideas. Because of that, we are opportunity driven. Our process helps us engage in many different kinds of conversations, but we typically focus on making visible inequities and the possible support structures that bridge gaps created by inequity. We’d love to focus our energy more deeply on some ideas the SOS project has only touched on so far like: gender, economics, education and the convergence of place, landscape, and belonging.

Take Care Installation at Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 2017
Structures of Support: Health and Healthcare Interviews, 2017 (left), What do you worry about?, 2012 - ongoing (right)

Stay tuned as The Think Tank takes over our Instagram this coming week 10/30 - 11/4

To learn more about The Think Tank that has yet to be named, visit their website.