A couple days ago, while sitting with the illustrious Duncan Mackenzie, Richard Holland, and Claudine Ise, recording some musings on Chicago art at a bar in the middle of the afternoon, we started to talk about the tradition of socially engaged art in Chicago. I talk about this a lot, especially trying to figure out how to explain it to my students at University of Illinois at Chicago, where I co-teach a class introducing the subject with my colleague Faheem Majeed. I’ve been thinking lately about how to distinguish, at least for myself personally, what I think is good or bad or boring or exciting or challenging socially engaged art, a very murky field. When judging that kind of work, as I’ve talked about previously on this blog, what interests me is that socially engaged art struggles to address the world outside the world of art. And with that comes a struggle for the artist to engage not only in what kind of artist they want to be in the world, but also what kind of person they want to be. Thus presents a complicated dilemma, because oftentimes it feels like to judge this kind of work also always includes a judgment on how ethical we perceive the artist as a person to be. And so trying to avoid the trap of deciding who I think is the best person or the most righteous (because really, socially engaged art should have the license to upend our perceptions and not always make the world a better place), I’ve been leaning towards the idea of compasses as a way of getting me somewhere out of the quagmire. I mean compass as a sort of aspirational mechanism, wherein a constellation of people, projects, and places provide for me a navigational tool for a world off in the distance that I want to get to. Like for instance, Laurie Jo Reynolds is a compass, because she along with tons of other people spent years trying to close Tamms Supermax prison, and they did it and that is completely amazing. And the beautiful process by which that came to be drew on a set of aesthetic strategies that made it art, not only because it was creative activism, but because it also created a space for speculation, for not-knowing, for metaphor and poetry. Tamms Year Ten is a readily available example because of all that was accomplished, but there are a host of others operating at different scales, both historically and today. And other folks, who shall remain nameless, are just not creating a world I want to be part of because they don’t think about the aesthetic experience or they have lazy politics or the artist thinks its about the social world, but by that they just mean the art world, because its all they really think about. I’m working on articulating this, but it’s a start.
And when I start thinking about compasses, I believe I’m also speaking of narrative. The process by which we encounter the world as it is and speak of how to transform it is a space of art, but capturing that process is a difficult thing. It cannot often be brought to life after the fact without a good story attached.
This last Monday, Julie Ault came to speak at SAIC, mostly about a creative archiving practice that spans the last 32 years. In 2010, her edited version of Group Material’s seventeen year history (of which she was a founding member) came out in the form of Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material. In the text, she’s found a way to create a compelling portrait of a long and complex collaborative process, rather than a theorized history, zoomed out from above. Documentation of their projects is interwoven with minutes of meetings, polemics, ranting about collaboration, internal disagreements; all of this to assert the primacy of their voices and a ground level vantage point, situating readers in the time of the projects. A micro-culture gets revealed and what we theorize with a backward view to context and circumstance gets complicated by interjections and digressions that resist a single vantage point. The story is the complexity of collaboration, the struggle with institutional legitimation and the exploration of artistic forms, most notably in their practice of exhibition-making as a kind of artwork.
The multiple viewpoints, the many different takes on a situation, the resistance to one kind of narration, is the struggle to how to understand participatory, socially engaged work. What this brings to mind, in this riff on orientation and documentation and archiving, is the fact that Mess Hall will close on March 31 after a ten year run. Mess Hall formed in 2003 when a landlord in Chicago was prompted to supply a storefront in the Rogers Park neighborhood free of charge after reading an article in the New York Times mentioning Chicago-based Temporary Services. Thus began a space for “visual art, radical politics, creative urban planning, and applied ecological design” in which no money was allowed to change hands. Its many keyholders have hosted a local and international socially engaged creative community as well as potlucks, free stores and seminars on participatory budgeting with the district’s Alderman. It was a welcoming-and-kooky-and-homey-and-sometimes-dogmatic-but-mostly-not-and really-just-all-over-the-place space. I remember in 2008, when this amazing weekend symposium happened called “What we know of our past, what we demand of our future,” organized by Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune, where a group I am involved with, InCUBATE, was invited to stage our project Sunday Soup, which involved selling soup for money that would go towards a creative project grant. But since the rules of no money changing hands was so strict, we had to sell our soup out on the sidewalk and it was January so, obviously, absolutely freezing to be out there. I also met Nato Thompson that weekend, which led to me working for a summer at Creative Time, and we ended up hosting Sunday Soup at the exhibition Democracy in America with Robin Hewlett and Material Exchange and meeting tons of people which in many ways spurred the Sunday Soup network on its way.
Last Saturday I went to one of their closing events, The Material Production of Cultural Spaces, which featured speakers on “exploring practical models for building counter-institutions that are non-commercial, consensual and community driven. Guest speakers will offer concise presentations on the labor, tactics, skills and monetary investments required to forge/forage alternative cultural spaces in Chicago.” One of those speakers was Sara Black, narrating the experience of the now defunct Backstory Café and Social Center in Hyde Park. And she spoke of Backstory much in the same way as these projects I’ve mentioned: complicated, messy, beautiful collaborations, speculative at the same time as concerned with real world applications. (Robin Hewlett speaks of this as well in her essay “Small Business as an Artistic Medium.”)I went there frequently, I was close with the organizers, and hearing something that you’ve lived through (even vicariously) spoken of through a narrative creates a jarring nostalgia and I’m sure brings up complicated memories for all that were involved. But the only way to really hear and feel and understand what was important about that place is through listening to its story, because you cannot have the affective experience of standing in that place, with those people, at that time. I often feel this sort of inside/outside dilemma of narration and storytelling when explaining some of my own experiences like closing the InCUBATE storefront in 2010. The more I tell that story, the more it is told using the same words and the same pictures, which feels a little sad but I know I’m lucky that people actually care about it too. Ault talked about this as well, that for a long time she and Doug Ashford (another founding member) thought that the best way to keep Group Material’s voice present was to narrate the experience in person rather than through a set text. I imagine that archiving one’s own experience is overwhelming, grappling with a long, formative, contentious group history that doesn’t want to go silently into the archive.
I really am going to miss Mess Hall. I say that with unabashed sentimentality. It will remain a compass for me because of its messiness, its utopian promise, its desire to be so wholly other than the typical art institution and outside the market, and because its sweet belief that social and economic justice could exist coterminously with a desire to be an ethical, socially-engaged culture-maker. Go see them before they close, the final party is on Friday, March 29. As they say: Join us for our final gathering in the space. We will say our farewells with a parade, a key-tossing ceremony and a night-long party. The current key-holders do not wish to leave the space alone. We will leave it as we found it: together.
PS: Never the Same is doing a free seminar this summer on archiving Chicago’s politically and socially engaged history, their call for participation is here!
Recently, while trolling the facebook site for Works Progress, an artist-led public design studion in Minneapolis, I came across a thread on Colin Kloecker’s page (who co-runs the studio with Shanai Matteson) compiling a list of must-reads on the subject of Creative Place-making. What I gathered from the thread and then from talking more with Colin is that we share an interest in how new funding opportunities, that are becoming available under the rubric of “creative place-making” (most significantly through granting organizations like ArtPlace), are affecting and intersecting with socially-engaged practices. Most recently this conversation came up in Chicago when Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation along with the University of Chicago and the Bruner Loeb Forum held a conference called The Art of Place-making.
Artplace was there in attendance, my highlights were the presentations by Kennedy Smith and Walter Hood, presenting on the importance of small business development and creative urban design respectively (arguably the two poles of Theaster’s initiatives.) There were tours of the various properties and lots of conversations about what is unfolding at Dorchester Projects, Stony Island Arts Bank, the Washington Park Arts Incubator, and all the rest in development. One of the moments that stood out for me came in a meeting leading up to the actual conference where Theaster convened community members, local organizations, and neighbors at Dorchester Projects to talk about what was going to happen at the forum and getting feedback on a smaller-scale. I ended up in a break-out group on the Washington Park Arts Incubator and the community-building initiatives now in formation. I don’t pretend to fully understand the complexity of that project, in that neighborhood, with that set of partners, and while I am really excited about what’s happening there, I am also struck by the enormous responsibility being placed on an artist residency program sited in a neighborhood with a historically decimated economic infrastructure. A lot of people spoke about needing educational programs or job training, or of the difficulty in explaining to the neighborhood why they should embrace this place. And I thought, this is a really complex, long-standing socio-economic context to wade into and a lot is being put on artists to have a significant impact in the shaping of that conversation. Perhaps that’s just naive, but I also think it bears repeating. These issues are really, really complicated, the struggle against gentrification is a hard battle and the issues of good versus bad economic development are very deep and hard to parse out. And it is kind of a bizarre world in which artists are put forward to lead the way, while being asked to speak about economic development and community impact. Perhaps that’s where they should be, I’m not sure.
So with that in mind, while cribbing Colin’s list and adding some of my own, I thought it would be interesting to compile a list that reflects the dialogue as it is in this very moment. With the 10th anniversary of Richard Florida’s book “The Creative Class”, the much-criticized and massively influential book on urban development that ties arts funding to innovation culture and business development, rather than inherent social good, we’re primed to revisit the failures and the successes that are now the received wisdom as to the state of arts funding.
Creative Place-making from the government:
The original white paper from the NEA
In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.
And from ArtPlace on “Vibrancy Indicators”
ArtPlace is a collaboration of 13 leading national and regional foundations and six of the nation’s largest banks. ArtPlace is investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities. To date, ArtPlace has awarded 80 grants to 76 organizations in 46 communities across the U.S. for a total of $26.9 million.
And then the analysis:
Dead End on Shakin’ Street in which Thomas Frank explains how Creative Place-making pits Cincinnati versus Rockford versus Kansas City versus Akron in the vibrancy test. It is perhaps unfair to pit funds for city tourism over what should go towards universal health care coverage, but it might as well be put in perspective. A very trenchant and important critique here.
This guy has some beef with Frank, writing from Asheville, NC. I think he misunderstands Frank’s larger point which to me is about pointing out the disinvestment in the public sector on a wide scale, not that universal health care is being specifically defunded via the millions spent on vibrancy initiatives. He also writes for what looks like a marketing firm called Placemakers. They “cultivate livability.”
The Fall of the Creative Class, a first person story of why following Richard Florida’s plan to the letter in deciding where you live might not be a good idea by Frank Bures. Madison-bashing and a totally baffling set of unrealistic expectations aside, this has some good analysis. Also as a side note, the part in here where an overweight woman who he imagines as never leaving her apartment stands in as a symbol of his existential angst is totally problematic. Fat people are not signs of the world coming to an end.
Richard Florida responds to Bures directly here in his “What Critics Get Wrong About the Creative Class and Economic Development” which is basically a rehash of the correlation versus causation debate and then Bures responds back here. And more from Richard Florida in More Losers Than Winners in America’s New Economic Geography.
Ian David Moss from Fractured Atlas and Create Equity blog (which is really good) has some great analysis in Creative Place-making has an Outcomes Problem. This will truly take you deep into art administration nerd-dom but his critique of ArtPlace and its vibrancy indicators is coherent and worth reading. And there are links at the bottom of his post that will lead you to more Florida backlash.
Roberto Bedoya on Creative Placemaking and the politics of belonging and dis-belonging writes about creative place-making strategies of community engagement not adequately meeting the challenges of spatial justice and how “place-making” has to contend with the very real histories of displacement, colonization and indigenous struggles. As Bedoya writes, “Creative Placemaking activities’ relationship to civic identity must investigate who has and who doesn’t have civil rights.”
And here’s a hilariously raw assessment of Richard Florida’s consulting group “The Creative Class Group” implementing a program to train “community catalysts” in Charlotte, North Carolina; Duluth, Minnesota/Superior, Wisconsin; and Tallahassee, Florida, conducted by Knight Creative Communities Initiative (KCCI) that Frank Bures talks about here. And a similar aggregate of the arguments with Can Creative Placemaking Be Proven? The (New) State of the Arguments.
Enjoy the rabbit hole!
Photo by Eric Rogers
OPEN CALL FOR PROPOSALS: DUE AUGUST 15th at MIDNIGHT
October 26-28th, 2012 at the Geolofts
Friday October 26, Vernissage
Open Saturday October 27 and Sunday October 28, 12-6 PM
The MDW Fair invites proposals for its fall showcase at the Geolofts in Bridgeport. Formed in spring 2011 as a collaborative project between the Public Media Institute, document, Roots & Culture and threewalls, the MDW Fair is a showcase for independent art initiatives, spaces, galleries and artist groups, highlighting artist-run activities and experimental culture locally, nationally and internationally. The MDW Fair is the world’s premier event for grassroots and independent art culture.
MDW invites curatorial proposals from not-for-profits, artist-run spaces, emerging galleries, collectives and independent curators across the United States and around the world. MDW also invites proposals for performances, programming and independent publications.
PROPOSALS ARE DUE AUGUST 15, 2012 AND SUCCESSFUL APPLICANTS WILL BE NOTIFIED BY SEPTEMBER 10, 2012
Proposals for booths:
Groups are required to send 10 images of the curatorial premise they wish to focus on at the fair. Number of artists is not limited, proposals will be judged on quality of the premise and the artists’ work. Deadline is August 15th. Images should be sent as a zip file along with a short mission statement/bio about the presenters and 500-word curatorial statement. Successful applicants will be notified by early September with details. All booth spaces are 300 sq feet/$400. Successful applicants will be included in the MDW Catalogue, published by Public Media Institute and designed by Plural.
Proposals for publications:
We welcome exhibitors that produce and publish artists’ books, art periodicals, artist zines, or independent art-book culture in all forms, including fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Interested publishers and booksellers should send a 500 word or less description of their organization or project. Tables cost $50.
Proposals for programming:
Proposals can be for lectures, panels, performances, music, or any other kind of experimental action. Picnics, tours, public interventions, artist-led workshops and discussions as well as creative disturbances in public space are also welcome. Performance artists and event producers of all stripes are welcome. Please send a 500 word or less description of program, time limit, and preferred time slot during open hours on Saturday and Sunday.
Submissions for the MDW Fair can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Questions about submissions can be submitted to Aron Gent at: email@example.com
Design by Plural
For more information, please visit mdwfair.org
A couple years ago, Mike Wolf wrote an article about his experience with the space Mess Hall, in AREA Chicago called “Can Experimental Cultural Centers Replace MFA programs?”. It’s a really poignant account of how becoming part of that particular community at that moment answered his concerns about what kind of artist he wanted to be, and by extension, what kind of life he wanted to lead and it was happening outside of the traditional school environment. He talks about watching his friends getting disheartened by the professional field that they work within, and questions whether or not it’s really all that worth it. Mike says, It sometimes seems like teaching in the cultural field is becoming more and more like the bluechip art world, an economy that sets people against each other and can only support a fraction of the people who aspire to be a part of it. I think as far as answering our economic needs and the need for health security, collective creativity is needed. For those in the PhD and MFA camp, there’s no denying that getting your school credentials is really all you can do if you actually want to find a job in higher education but it’s also pretty scary out there once you’re actually looking to be gainfully employed. There is another dream out there to stop the demoralization and be an autodidact: unconventional residency programs. My experiences with the temporary communities built out at unconventional and artist-run residencies like Harold Arts and ACRE is that they give me the necessary space to think outside of being productive, where I get to know new networks of artists outside of school affiliations and nerd out with them in the spirit of the place. It’s very true that not everyone has the luxury of leaving their life to go commune in the woods for a while, but they are just one model out of many for people to figure out how to slow down and blur the professionalism boundaries. But Sara Knox Hunter has an answer for those feeling all fucked up about the real world and looking for an alternative educational experience, she launched Summer Forum for Inquiry and Exchange this last year and the first iteration is happening this July.
So really, there’s this:
OR THERE’S THIS:
AS: Can you explain a bit about what inspired you to start Summer Forum?
Sara Knox Hunter: The idea for Summer Forum began to take shape during the fall of 2010 while I was preparing to apply for PhD programs in Comparative Literature but feeling increasingly unsure about the whole idea. Articles by William Deresiewicz, http://
AS: What is the format?
SH: Summer Forum will consist of a primary and secondary discussion each day, along with evening programming provided by one of our five invited guests. A text or set of texts will be the basis of each discussion. All residents are encouraged to attend the primary discussions each day and those who are interested can return for a second conversation on a different text. We wanted to give people the opportunity to read as much or as little as they wanted depending on their needs and interests. The evening programming will be determined largely by the invited guests – Linh Dinh, Lucky Dragons, Timothy McCarthy, Marisa Olson, and Randall Szott – but most of it will take place in the Atheneum, http://www.usi.edu/
AS: How did you decide upon New Harmony?
SH: I was researching spaces to host the residency when a friend told me about New Harmony. He had taken an architecture class with Ben Nicholson at SAIC and Ben took the entire class down to New Harmony. I visited last spring and knew immediately that it work well for what I was trying to do. New Harmony is the site of these two failed utopian projects from the 19th century but I was especially interested in the second project started by the social reformer, Robert Owen. That community was committed to educational reform, scientific research, philosophy, and art – it seemed like the perfect place to try a similarly minded experiment almost 200 years later.
AS: Will the theme change every year and so will the location change or is New Harmony the site for Summer Forums of the future?
SH: I’m not sure yet what will happen with the Summer Forums of the future. The theme will probably change from year to year and I’m also hoping to eventually have a permanent space, whether that be in New Harmony or elsewhere. I would also love to see a network of Summer Forum type ventures pop up all over. I’m interested in providing different lengths of sessions as well for people who can’t afford to get away for a whole week and longer ones for people who have more time to invest. Perhaps a Summer Forum in Spanish, too?
AS: I love the Hearth and Shelf program as a way for people to show off and perform their favorite texts or their own idiosyncratic approaches to the books they collect. I’m a big collector, or at least I can’t throw anything away, and I attach a lot of significance to what I choose to display on my shelves (even if it’s just for an audience of me and my roommates). They’re like spirit objects for me. And I think about Hearth and Shelf as a way for people to talk about their favorite texts with a generous spirit of inclusiveness rather than needing to be an expert on what the book actually proposes to be about, which I think seems to be part of the spirit of the program. Can you talk about how that series fits into the larger program for you?
SH: Yes, I love your response. I think Hearth + Shelf is a part of this new criticality that I’m talking about that does not negate the personal even amidst intellectual pursuits. The books that we have and like are often valuable because of the way they have affected us personally. Giving a platform for these types of conversations, especially in people’s homes, provides a generous environment in which to create new ways of relating to each other without the pressures of professionalization. We walk away having learned something and it opens up the opportunity to learn more.
AS: Will their be creative re-readings of texts out on the farm this summer or what other kinds of “spontaneous collaborative scholarship” do you want or imagine happening?
I am not entirely sure what to expect for the first residency. I hope that by giving dialogue so much focus and attention that the dialogue itself will be considered a collaborate work, operating as a creative and scholarly entity. I’m excited to see what each resident brings to Summer Forum, and what a space like New Harmony will do to all of us.
AS: If you were to do your own Hearth and Shelf reading, what would it be on?
Good question! We own a lot of books but we have also moved five times in the past seven years. Each time we move I scan through our collection and cull out a box or two of books. After five moves, there is a specific reason for keeping every book. It might be fun to share some of those justifications along with the books themselves. I might end with a demo on how to pack the perfect box of books.
P.S. Summer Forum has a kickstarter going, support them here
We lost one of the good ones this week. Actually, one of the best ones. Dara Greenwald, artist, activist, thinker, organizer, and all-around inspirational person passed away this week from cancer at the age of 40. She lived in Chicago between 1995-2005, worked at the Video Data Bank from 1998-2005 and was part of all the best Chicago organizing projects of that time, including Ladyfest Midwest, Department of Space and Land Reclamation, co-founding Pink Bloque, and many others.
Dara was the kind of person that all of us cultural organizers should aspire to be. My first experience with Dara’s work was at the Signs of Change exhibition that she co-organized with her partner Josh MacPhee about the history of social movement culture that started at Exit Art in 2008 and toured until 2010. That show just simply blew my mind and remains a model for me of exhibition-making and cultural research; the respect and attention to the act of making images, the breadth and depth of international politics at work, and the devil-may-care attitude about art with a capital A.
Oh I was so intimidated at first to talk to her, what a badass she was. And when I would see her over the years intermittently at different art/social organizing efforts, she was secretly my barometer of whether what we were all sitting around a circle talking about had any merit. At the same time that she was so no-bullshit, she was warm, funny and just whip-smart. Her work got me excited about so many radical projects like Videofreex, Pilot TV, Justseeds, the Interference Archive she was working on with Josh MacPhee, many other things, and just in general the possibilities of art and activism coming together to create transformative experience.
I’m thankful that I got to know her the little I did and admire her from afar. I want to take this time to revisit all the work that she put out into the world and simply marvel at what she accomplished. She was a fierce and brilliant person and will be missed.