Photo courtesy of Aaron Landsman

In The City We Make Together, theater lecturer Aaron Landsman chronicles the successes and challenges of creating a participatory performance about local government meetings in five U.S. cities. Composed of a step-by-step outline of the process, which included collaborations with artists, organizers, activists, students and government officials, the book offers ways we can think about our creative and civic engagements more powerfully. The City We Make Together is also the basis of a popular freshman seminar and a scalable curriculum his team is building with visionary artist and educator Ebony Noelle Golden, through a START Entrepreneurship fellowship at Princeton. PAW asked Landsman to recommend three more books about civic engagement and the arts, and he suggested these.

Ideas, Arrangements, Effects

By The Design Studio for Social Intervention

I read this while finishing The City We Make Together, and it has been a game-changer for me. I use it in the classroom, in creating new artistic works. DS4SI’s approach looks at how hard and soft arrangements — of power, space, interactions, and resources — manifest in the ideas that govern our society. As they put it: “Ideas produce arrangements which in turn lead to effects.” Most of us lean into effects — the racist police officer, or the unjust rent law — or the larger ideas that undergird them. But if we intervene in arrangements, our work becomes more effective and provocative. DS4SI’s projects have made neighborhoods safer, led to de-escalation strategies for young men, and led to the creation of “Social Emergency Response Centers” in several cities. Written with a playful sense of possibility that mimics the studio’s own projects, the book is both an ideological framework and a toolkit for design-based, creative activism.


By Paul Shambroom

How can a coffee table art book help us think more dynamically and empathically about local civic engagement? Meetings depicts the small town government meetings that Shambroom visited over the course of several years; they take place in kitchens, VFW halls, school lunchrooms, and church basements, as well as in more traditional council chambers. The photos show democracy at work — deliberative, fraught, uncertain, and serious — framing them as both fallibly human and historically resonant. With his sensitive eye, Shambroom lifts the everyday to the level of the epic. Mallory Catlett (co-author of The City We Make Together) and I referred to this series often while we were writing, and it helped us think deeply about how art makes visible what political discourse often hides. The book includes minutes from each meeting Shambroom visited and photographed. Meetings asks us to celebrate local government, perhaps as an antidote to the seeming polarization we’re confronted with nationally. 

Meeting The Moment: Socially-Engaged Performance from 1995-2020, by Those Who Lived It

By Jan Cohen-Cruz and Rad Pereira

This book just came out, and it showcases the projects and practices of artists whose work builds bridges within and among communities, often intersecting with city agencies and governmental bodies. In a thorough chapter specifically focused on arts-civic collaborations, Cohen-Cruz and Pereira pinpoint a central tension in the field, which is that artists often prioritize discovery, while governmental agencies need to prioritize outcomes. The examples here point to ways through this dilemma. Cohen-Cruz — a titan in performance studies scholarship — and Pereira, who practices in multiple modes as an artist and organizer, walk us through the possibilities of these kinds of projects, and offer transformative ways artists and cities alike can think past the traditional cycles of funding, attention, and elections.