05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Question Everything

Tuesday at USC's Masters of Public Art Studies (MPAS) lecture with artists Mark Bradford and Rick Lowe, I was reminded of something the artist Philippe Parreno said to me recently in Paris: "What is real is not necessarily what is visible." I thought how this elegantly applies to the practices of Mark and Rick, artists who are both committed to using their cultural capital to give back.

Mark Bradford, Mithra, 2008. Caffin Avenue at N. Miro Street, Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans.

Mark was passionate that the old protocol for service has failed; he puts himself in a position to give back on equal ground by making himself vulnerable through conversation, which is the most basic engagement and exchange available to all of us. I was reminded of a radio ad I heard earlier that night for Trader Joe's, a place, the voice claimed, where you hear "real people talking."

Best known for Project Row Houses and as the originator of the Watts House Project, Rick said, "I'm interested in structures and vehicles through which people are empowered to find their own creativity." He noted his work on a project for Amherst that created a tracking system for non-monetary exchanges between students, as well as an initiative at a local senior center that tracked generous gestures, favors and bartering among families, friends, and community.

Power structures - both institutional and business - are sustained through static processes. Artists rely on the freedom of organic processes "to produce reality," to quote a phrase by Hans Ulrich Obrist. As the invisible structures which produce mass reality are beginning to shift, artists like Mark and Rick provide important reminders that, as Philippe said, "seeing is not understanding." Understanding comes through conversation and experience; as Mark instructed these students, "Question everything. We have to question everything we do."