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From the Ground Up: Assocreation takes to the streets

By Melanie Kruvelis, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published November 29, 2012

Even “Fieldwork,” one of Assocreation’s museum pieces, encourages viewers to walk all over pounds and pounds of hair, turning split ends into a tightly woven wig carpet.

“We want people to think about what they’re stepping on with each footstep,” Graf said. “Each step is an interaction with the ground and the world around us.”

For Graf, the feet and hands-on nature of Assocreation’s work highlights the upside to public art.

“Sure, you’re opening yourself up to vandalism,” he said. “But the flip-side to that is the possibility to create something beautiful; creating interactions more beautiful and complex than you imagined.”

For 15 years, Graf and his colleagues observed street-level interactions all across Europe and transformed them into literal works of art. Every plaza was a breeding ground for new ideas. Every public square told a story.

But then Graf took the job at the University, and moved his family to Michigan. And just like that, the pedestrian-driven streets of Europe were left behind — traded in for strip malls and red lights. The street culture that drove Graf to art was replaced with a new kind of street culture — SUVs, minivans and the occasional bumper sticker.

Which brought him to the question: What the hell am I supposed to do now?

The wild (mid)west

Graf chewed on the end of his pen. “I’ve traveled a lot in my life, and I’ve lived in different countries — Austria, France, Brazil.”

He paused: “But I’ve never been to a place as wild and raw like Michigan.”

It has been a little over a year since Graf uprooted his life and hopped to the other side of the Atlantic. Though he enjoys his work at the University, Graf is the first to admit — it’s not easy being an artist in the Midwest. Especially one that lives for pedestrian life.

“I had plans when I came here,” Graf said. “But from the beginning, there were just so many things that didn’t make sense to me.”

For instance, cars.

“The connection to the street here is completely different. Of course, Ann Arbor is a nice small town, and it’s more walkable than others.

“But it’s still car-driven,” Graf continued. “Several times I was nearly killed by cars while pushing my daughter in her stroller.”

This wasn’t the case back in Austria. “In Europe, we could open our studio doors and bring people in off the street,” Graf explained.

Even Europe’s mass transit was an artistic goldmine, Graf added, with thousands of people rushing on and off metros every minute.

And here?

“I still get shocked driving around Michigan,” Graf said. “I’ve never lived in a place where you can adopt a street.”

But with time, these automotive affections became a vehicle of inspiration for Graf.

“The intimate relationship Americans have with their cars inspired me. It pushed me to incorporate completely new elements in my art, like the solar toy cars,” he explained.

Still, after a year in Michigan, Graf doesn’t really know if the Midwest is best for artists.

Graf looked at the ceiling and laughs. “Well, maybe if you can afford to leave enough.”

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “This is a great university, with smart, inspiring people. But you’re trading this with an environment that doesn’t reflect the world outside these doors.”

“You have to make an effort to stay in touch with the real world,” Graf said. “You have to try to connect with street life, no matter what that looks like.”

“And above all else, you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground.”