In this post, OHMA student Yameng Xia (2017) considers Robert Sember’s work in public health and his work as an artist based on his work and an interview she conducted. Robert Sember is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at the New School’s Eugene Lang College, and a member of the international sound-art collective, Ultra-red.
In Live to be Legend, Robert Sember writes, “I have spent many years moving between work in public health and my work as an artist. For the past eight years I have been a member of the sound-art collective Ultra-red. ‘Moving between’ is an imprecise description of the overlap and dialogue between these practices. Like public health, art is an interdisciplinary venture, and like art, public health is fundamentally unresolved about its objects and methods, despite the dominance of US-style behavioral science.” 
In addition to his work in public health, Robert Sember is also an assistant professor of interdisciplinary arts. In other words, he is also an educator of fine arts. But how did he begin his work in public health? What are the connections between arts and public health? How did Sember achieve a balance between them? How did being an artist influence his work in public health?
Sember’s first encounter with public health issues was in the early 1990s. He was in a critical theory program in an art school and was shaken by the ravages of the AIDS epidemic and aroused by the militant activism of the first decade of the crisis. He focused on AIDS and made it a form of art practice. That’s the start of his work in public health. Also, Sember was an immigrant to the United States. Like many other immigrants, he worked so hard to be a part of the United States. He wrote in his essay Live to be Legend, “I am inclined to cling as hard as I could to anything that gave me a sense of place, even something as bitter as the AIDS struggle.”
In the interview I conducted, I asked him whether it is difficult to work in public health and in arts at the same time. Sember surprised me when he replied, “Achieving a balance between working in public health and working as an artist is much easier than you think.” He continued to explain that neither public health nor arts is a singular discipline. Both of them are an interdisciplinary practice.
Also, Sember has his own understanding of what art is. He mentioned in my interview with him, “art is like a mirror to the world. An artist is not a person who makes static objects.” Art can be produced and engaged in various ways, and Sember decided to adopt philosophical and political approaches. For example, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free? These are not only philosophical questions, but also art questions because art is about the world, and philosophical questions are related to what the world is like. In that way, public health and AIDS activism are certainly related to arts. But the formalized art world often objects to artists participating in social activism. Sember wrote in Live to be Legend, “Some in the art world have been unequivocally dismissive of the propensity for intervention among artists engaged in public health.” He thought that those judgements are based on a belief that the greatest contribution artists make to social problems is to represent dilemmas, articulate questions or reveal contradictions rather than engage with these dilemmas, questions or contradictions. Obviously, from Sember’s perspective, the objection is limited and artists should engage with public issues.
From my perspective, arts could not only represent social contradictions and elicit emotions, but also could be more tightly related to political and social issues to arouse people’s attention and push political movements, to solve social problems and even change the world. For example, photos of the frontline of wars often speed a process of truce. In addition, Act-Up used arts in their organizing. Arts and public health, arts and politics, arts and society, and arts and the world are tightly correlated with each other.
To learn more about UltraRed, please visit their Website at: http://www.ultrared.org/ index.html
 Sember Robert, Live to be legend, Sternberg press and SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Dormain, 2011.
Yameng Xia comes to OHMA with a BA in History from Fudan University in Shanghai, China. In her oral history work, Yameng has previously focused on Chinese Modern History, as with the Down to the Countryside Movement Oral History Project. She is currently focusing on immigrants to the United States through a collaboration with The Path Home..