Are residency programs the new PhD? An interview with Sara Knox Hunter from Summer Forum

March 11, 2012 · Print This Article

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:


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,, William Pannapacker,, YouTube videos,, conversations with friends in the midst of PhD programs, and my own experience pursuing a masters degree in Literature in the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University opened my eyes to some of the major limitations of the graduate school experience. In the pursuit of expertise, students often hyper-specialize to the point of isolation and lose the opportunity for dialogue, gaining instead self-doubt and insecurity. The myth of the plush, tenure track job opportunity still dictates much of the system so the eventual unveiling of the real, unsustainable job market leaves a trail of absurd politicking and unaddressed shame for those who end up on the outside. In such a system as that, education – learning, exploring, questioning, risk-taking – seemed a distant memory. While experiencing all of these painful revelations – I had wanted to be an English professor since high school – I was immersed in my own community, which happens to be the visual art community in Chicago. I loved the residency model where even artists working full-time throughout the year could take a week or two off to immerse themselves in their practice. If I couldn’t willingly participate in the current PhD system, or if I didn’t want to pay at least $20k for for another masters degree, I wanted to create a space to fill the void – a space for committed but generous criticality, interdisciplinarity, and most of all, dialogue. I realized that I wanted to be an English professor not because I necessarily wanted to teach 18-22 year olds but because I wanted a constant space for the exploration of culture and ideas. I believe that space can and should exist outside the traditional academic institution and while they have always existed, they are starting to become a greater force in the 21st century.

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,, New Harmony’s Visitor Center designed by Richard Meier, thanks to a cosponsorship from Historic New Harmony and the University of Southern Indiana. In the mornings, residents will have the opportunity to share prepared responses to the texts if they’re interested. Plus we’re hoping to have a film screening or two, tours of New Harmony, canoe rides, and maybe even some downtime.

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

Remembering Dara Greenwald

January 10, 2012 · Print This Article

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.

View her work here 
A presentation of her work from the Creative Time Summit in 2010 here
And an in-depth interview from the Never the Same interview project here

Public Funding for Public Art?

December 8, 2011 · Print This Article

I’m writing this from Washington, DC where I’m taking part in NAMAC’s first Campaign and Policy Institute, a three day think-tank with nonprofits across the Unites States to give us all some pointers on how we talk to our policy-makers. Tomorrow, I’ll be meeting with Senator Kirk and Senator Durbin’s art staff to advocate for more arts funding. I feel kind of like my Dad when he was chosen as one of twenty high school students across the country to go to the White House and shake hands with LBJ. Of course, I was not chosen to do this out of thousands of people and Senator Kirk is no LBJ. And I am less excited about meeting my elected officials after watching them run and hide from Stand Up! Chicago who had also traveled to Washington, DC to meet them this week.

Particularly sobering today, though kind of awesome in his radical bluntness, was Gladstone Payton, the Associate Director of Federal Affairs at Americans for the Arts. Basically he said that we’re in the middle of a “retrenchment,” arts funding levels are going down and there’s really no upswing in sight. The NEA’s budget has gone from around 165 million to 150 million (which was a deal to avoid government shutdown) and there are proposals now to lower it to 135 million. As he puts it, broader consensus has not been formed around arts and social justice organizations. We don’t have our “thought infrastructure” in place to articulate funding for the arts as important because it’s part of our national identity and we continually fall back on the economic driver and revitalization argument. Where is the counter-Richard Florida argument? “Thought infrastructure” sounds kind of terrifying but so does advocating for arts policy in our current governmental climate. Payton told us another story about Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, who takes every swipe he can at the arts on the Senate floor, yet his daughter is an opera singer and he is a strong supporter of his local arts council and opera company. Some people just believe that the government’s role is not to support the arts and this ideological divide cannot be crossed. Ok, yes, this is kind of depressing. Monumentally depressing when thinking about places like Kansas where Governor Brownback eliminated all of his state’s arts funding this year. Stories like this are multiplying.

So duh, Republicans don’t believe in funding the arts. But some do believe in individual charitable giving, apparently as part of some private sector argument in which arts are supposed to become part of the competitive marketplace. And this is going to be a really unfair comparison, but sites like Kickstarter are also on the individual giving/competition train. And I don’t blame them at all and I participate wholeheartedly. To fund creative projects, who else are we going to turn to for money other than family, friends, and the extended social networks that we are working on building all the time? And what’s more American than good old self-promotion and some healthy competition? That sounds pretty cynical, I’m actually rather painfully earnest. I love love love that tools like Kickstarter exist but doesn’t it also seem like it puts everyone out there on their own individual limb, hoping they made the right pitch to get noticed in all the internet noise?

Which is also why I was charmed when I came across Trust Art‘s “origin story,” as the Statue of Liberty as America’s first piece of public art funded by crowd-sourcing. Trust Art was started by Seth Aylmer and Jose Serrano-Reyes, who choose the projects that become part of the Trust Art network. I met Jose since he’s on staff as a Community Organizer at the Queens Museum of Art, a truly interesting position for a museum that’s interested in public engagement. Trust Art is a responsive model of funding public art in which people on the internet buy shares in public works of art, thereby becoming invested in that project coming to fruition. Their story of the Statue of Liberty, funded partly by dinner parties, small donations solicited by the New York Globe, and motivated citizens, tells the story of how things actually got done, made up of publics with personal stakes rather than monolithic institutions. I was interested in how they thought about the changing landscape of public funding for the arts today, where the majority of non-institutional community-based arts projects are happening via the crowd-sourcing model and where they think all this is going.

First, check out this video that explains a bit more, starring Benjamin Franklin:

How does Trust Art work and how did it get started?

Trust Art is an experimental funding model for socially-engaged and public art.  The model adapts the concept of a publicly-held company to create a community of people actively supporting a public art project over the course of its development. Trust Art issues shares for every dollar or volunteer hour a community member gives towards the development of a project and redeems those shares when the project is completed. Artworks, artifacts and other ephemera from the projects are sold at auction and the proceeds are re-distributed amongst the artists and community members, who are invited to recycle any returns into new projects.

We introduced the model and 10 inaugural projects at the TED Conference in 2009 as an experiment we were intent on learning from.

What are your backgrounds that brought you to initiating this project?

Jose used to work for the New York Fed and has experience in economics and capital markets.  Seth is a philosopher, painter, sculptor, and video maker.   We have been collaborating for 6 years on projects that work at the joints between art and capital.   In a country where half of all public spending goes to military concerns, we have tried to counter the prevailing paradigm and champion funding and support for the arts with the very artwork that we make.  It has been our mission to re-direct capital of all kinds to the arts because we firmly believe in the power of art to transform society for the better.

Can you explain how you think about what seems to be the two different meanings of the word “trust” as the central core to the project?   On the one hand you are actually building a financial structure in the form of a “trust” i.e. mimicking a corporate structure where people take part as shareholders and the beneficiaries of the money are responsible to those investors. On the other hand, “trust” is affective in the sense that you are building a community that feels a stake in these public-oriented projects, where no one person in particular can “own” the work. This seems like a pressing metaphor right now when thinking about movements such as Occupy Wall Street which are so indicative of the fact that people have lost their trust in our government’s ability to have financial institutions be accountable to the regular citizens. 

Yes, we are indeed playing with the different meanings of the word ‘trust’.    Trust.  Equity.  Mutual.  Share.  All beautiful ideas that are present at the foundations of early capitalism, when financial mechanisms were still about getting capital from hand that had it to the hand that needed it.  The use of this word reflects the fact that our work has been less a critique of capitalism than an exploration of what capitalism might look like should it evolve beyond the mentality and propagation of scarcity in which it currently resides.

To us this seems like the perfect time to start re-thinking institutions that are not serving the societal purpose for which they were initially created. In our view, new institutions will only succeed the inevitable trials that they face if they are good at building community. Trust, in the non-financial sense, is a key factor in any community, especially one that is organized around projects involving pooled resources. Luckily public art is a suitable testing ground because it is easier to trust a project which is essentially a gift that beautifies and enlivens your surroundings.

What do you think are the limits of responsive fundraising models like this? For instance, do you think there is any danger in a project being judged on whether or not it serves particular communities well enough or whether it has the right kind of politics? Would a project that has a confrontational element such as Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc not make the cut here? Or would something that is perhaps a more traditional approach to public art such as a mural not have a place here?

We believe in abundance.  That’s the first and most important thing that drives our thinking.  All these kinds of work could live together in our societies, and should.

We really do not want to play the role of the curator, and definitely not the role of a censor, but there are in fact other external factors that do limit and shape the type of artwork that ultimately ends up in public space. There are the obvious issues of construction and permitting which must meet a certain standard, but projects must also be able to successfully fundraise which must mean they have to appeal to a base level of supporters to get off the ground. Confrontation can be a wonderful quality in works of art, but artists working in the public realm will quickly realize that they must face a sea of resistance if confrontation is the only thing they are about.

Obviously, Kickstarter has really changed the way we think about fundraising on the internet. There is now a readily accessible infrastructure where people can fundraise for their work through small amounts of money by their communities. But there are some issues there too. One is that it speaks to the fact that traditional funding models are not responding to people’s needs, i.e. the problem with governmental support for the arts being what it is today. But is it a danger to let those larger institutions off the hook when we individually pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and ask our friends and family members to foot the bill for creative projects? This is a devil’s advocate sort of question, since I don’t think it’s so black and white as that but it does raise some concerns about how we advocate for these kinds of projects at the macro-level. What does an ideal infrastructure to support public art look like to Trust Art? 

Also, do you think there is some tipping point where there will be too many kickstarter campaigns in our lives to feel mutually invested in one particular work? Do you think people will get exhausted by all these solicitations?

If you think about them as ‘solicitations’, yes.  If you think about them as invitations to participate in a creative process, perhaps not.

We think it’s important that we move to reflect the spirit of creative life.  The most sustainable approach for us is bringing supporters closer to their spirit as innately creative beings.  We are also trying to foster a greater community than just the family and friends of the artist because it is the public at large that will be benefitting from the completion of these project.   As tempting as it might be to think of the government as a good solution to funding public art, dealing with that kind of beauracracy can be both draining and constraining.

We are hoping our auction in the Spring of 2012 will be a chance to engage a larger portion of the artworld in the funding of public artwork.

And astutely, you point out that crowd-sourcing, gift economies, and community-based fundraising were evident in our most famous public work of art, The Statue of Liberty. So is all this talk about new models really just a collective amnesia about how things actually get done?

The urge for people to rally together to create works greater and more enduring than their transient selves is an ancient one. The story of the Statue of Liberty is especially inspiring because it is a people-powered work of art that dollar for dollar is one of the greatest economic engines of all time.   Imagine the spiritual and economic wealth that can be traced back to this work of art as it greeted and inspired the tens of millions of new New Yorkers that came to this city to looking for a new sense of what is possible.

Social Geographers – Intimate Mediums; an interview with Daniel Tucker and Ryan Griffis by Robby Herbst

November 10, 2011 · Print This Article

Tonight! DePaul Art Museum is hosting AREA Chicago’s Notes for a People’s Atlas Book Release Party and Reception. Notes for a People’s Atlas is a multi-city community mapping project that started in Chicago in 2005 and has since expanded to a number of cities ranging from Zagreb (Croatia) to Greencastle, Indiana (USA). The project was initiated by AREA-Chicago, a magazine about art, research, education and activism in Chicago. The book and a website ( document this project by presenting the maps collected in each city along with commentary by leading thinkers dealing with art, urban space, cartography and definitions of place.

The Notes for a People’s Atlas Book Release Party and Reception is at the new DePaul Art Museum (935 W. Fullerton, Chicago IL 60614), tonight from 6:30-8:30pm

In honor of that,  it seemed like the right day to publish an interview that Robby Herbst, writer and PHONEBOOK 3 contributor based in Los Angeles, did with artist Ryan Griffis of Regional Relationships and Daniel Tucker last summer. Enjoy!




















Social Geographers – Intimate Mediums; an interview with Daniel Tucker and Ryan Griffis, by Robby Herbst.

20 years ago, in August of 1991 in the UK, the direct action group Reclaim The Streets was born. Reclaim The Streets (RTS) pioneered a horizontal protest tactic that was equally aesthetic as it was political. Back in the early 90’s the UK branch of the radical environmental group Earth First! was hot, defending the British landscape from over-development and freeway expansions. RTS forwarded a technique of turning spaces into places by inviting large anonymous crowds to gather in contested sites, occupying them in sweaty fleshy dance parties. In these moments they became something akin to a temporal village. The reclamation of roadsides, woods, and communities slated for development as sites for civic exploration reframed these nameless locations as homes for convivial solidarity. In the intervening decades RTS transformed from group, to movement, to phenomena. Its carnival of resistance became a central tactic to the counter-corporate-globalization movement of late nineties and early oughts. And its my supposition that RTS’ insistence on the centrality of occupying and creating from positions of and about “publicness” made it a central inspiration for some of the most interesting and demanding public practitioners of place today. From the act of reclaiming the street comes the action of identifying, locating, and demanding the commons.

I met both Ryan Griffis and Daniel Tucker through projects that developed of the spirit of Reclaim The Streets. Both artists are skilled organizers and tacticians. And while Reclaim The Streets developed contiguously, and perhaps as a rebuke to Electronic Civil Disobedience (as advanced by the Critical Art Ensemble), both artists have developed projects that have them investigating place in the flesh – relying upon methods which stress human relationships in space.  Recognizing in their work a mutual affinity for projects which unveil place through a kind of analog social mapping, I set about to interview them about their own (and occasionally shared) projects.

Daniel Tucker is the Founder of Area Chicago a print and online publication, and constellation of related activities, whose goal is to “create relationships and sustain community through art, research, education, and activism.” He is also the force behind such projects as The Peoples Atlas, and Visions For Chicago. He is co-author, with artist Amy Franceschini, of the book Farm Together Now which is “a portrait of people, places and ideas for a new food movement.”

Ryan Griffis is a progenitor of Regional Relationships; a subscription based service that commissions, editions, and distributes  “works that investigate the natural, industrial and cultural landscapes of a region.” He is a core member of the facilitating group behind the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor (and its subsequent iteration as the Compass Group). He contributed to the publication chronicling their Midwestern drift, A Call To Farms. He manages the Temporary Travel Office and is a faculty member in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champagne.


RH: I’d like to start our conversation off by asking the two of you about magazine subscriptions and postage. What I find immediately endearing about both of your works is that you’ve both developed projects that ideally rely upon readers asking for, or seeking out, a hard copy of a publication or artist project. I am wondering if you could explain to me why, at this moment when new media appears to make it irrelevant, you are using old media to explore place?

RG:  Both the Temporary Travel Office and Regional Relationships (RR) are small-scale efforts to deal with the tensions between space/place as information as well as lived experience. Personally, I find the complete informationalization of place via electronic devices problematic for a number of reasons. Perhaps we’ll get into some of those reasons, but the short answer is that making a more concerted effort to connect with a smaller number of people in a more sustained manner is more rewarding for me. Our (my collaborator Sarah Ross and myself) initial formulation of Regional Relationships revolved around the creation of a project in a brick and mortar space. We quickly realized that what we really wanted was to get things into people’s hands, where they are. We wanted to materialize the ideas we find important and interesting, and offer them to people in a form that they can sit with and contemplate, but we didn’t want to produce a publication per se.

Particularly for RR, the symbolic and material use of the postal service to deliver the work to people is an interesting layer in our questions about ways people and places are part of overlapping, yet seemingly discrete, systems. Matthew Friday, the first contributor to RR, uses the phrase “entangled collectives” to describe the combination of people, other living things, geology and climate that produce our lived experience. I think this describes our interest in mailing things to people; the project isn’t simply the content of any individual work. It also includes the combination of friends, workers, bureaucracies, dead plants, technologies and chemicals that led to someone receiving the work in the mail. All of that may not be “on the surface” of the project, but at least to me it’s impossible not to perceive that on some level. There’s also something to working within (material and financial) limits, and trying to figure out how to sustain the project through direct engagement with its audience.

DT: I sure love the internet, but one thing I know from observation is that printed matter can get passed around through networks that (in many cases) would not occur with online media. For example, AREA Chicago, the print publication I edited, would get dropped off in bulk at a community center and handed from a teacher to a student with an enthusiastic recommendation and get read on the spot. Or a contributor to the publication would be given a bundle of 50-100 printed copies of the newsprint publication and would stuff them in people’s mailboxes, hand them out at meetings or conferences that were relevant to their contribution to the issue of AREA. This one-on-one sharing is different than being sent a link, which typically would contain content that could be quickly consumed, as so many online media outlets are known for. It also comes along with the enthusiasm of a trusted recommendation from a friend, one that is helpful in determining and discerning what media one will engage with in the vast world of ideas and images circulating in print and online outlets.

In most of my projects however I advocate for distributing the content in print as well as online. I recognize the potential of the internet as a way to circulate rich content with relatively few resources. So this allows local print publications like AREA to be read outside of Chicago and for most of the printed issues to be distributed locally.  With Visions for Chicago, I made a website with all of the photos and essays generated by participants, but I still worked with a publisher to produce a print catalog. This was a way of giving something back to the contributors. This affirmed their decision to voluntarily contribute and told them that their ideas were print-worthy and therefore more valuable.

So for me it is all about opening the content up to be circulated to different networks of people, communicating commitment to people who do not take online media seriously, and for the content to be in a format that encourages a deeper time commitment than most people typically allow for with online content.

RH: I’m interested in these notions of distributions in both of your works because of the way that physical objects, especially literature, passed from person become a map of relationships unto themselves and perhaps identify communities; and in terms of both your works, the quality of these communities vis-à-vis conversations regarding strong and weak tie forms of human relationships.

RG: One thing about publications and things like paper zines is that the communities around them operate differently, or at least seem to for me, than internet-enabled networks. That’s a broader conversation, and many people, much more insightful than myself, have written on this… but your delineation of strong and weak social ties is definitely important. This is a central component of the theory of gift economies. To go back to an earlier point, it’s easier to imagine the constellations of forces that bring a package to your mailbox than it is those that bring a website to your computer screen. It’s not that the internet is any less physical or institutional, but the technology and the way we access it, is so completely opaque to most of us.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read John MacPhee’s book “Uncommon Carriers,” but it’s an amazing account of the logistics industry; the transportation networks that get commodities from place to place. It’s told through the stories of people who drive the trucks, barges and trains, and it’s easy to connect yourself to their world.

For Regional Relationships, we’re interested in how we can talk meaningfully about localities in a slow, distributed and asynchronous manner. What does a conversation look like that takes place over long periods of time, amongst people not sharing the same space and where feedback is sporadic? Right now, RR takes the form of a mostly one-way proposition, but we see them as participating in conversations that already exist in many places amongst many different people. It’s not about starting new conversations, but finding new ways to enter discussions already happening. The conversations that we’re interested in involve those working with and thinking about the connections between places.

As I said before, we’re focused on how the idea of place – whether it’s what it means to be “rural”, or how we identify with one geographic region or another — meshes with the kinds of places we create and in some cases destroy. Lots of different people are engaged in different kinds of conversations about this, and we’d like to figure out, for ourselves, how to contribute to them in creative ways. Our thinking is that we can contribute by distributing the creative works of people already participating in some corner of the conversation to others who might be working in other corners.

As Daniel said before, there is something specific about a printed object that some people take more seriously. With RR, we hope that introducing an object that asks for some kind of aesthetic contemplation, into an otherwise mostly rhetorical and informational field, will open up some room for other kinds of engagement. I think we’re trying to find a way to generate intimacy within discussions that are generally alienating or hyper specialized.

DT: I agree with what Ryan is describing – giving form to “hyper specialized” pre-existing conversations . When I started AREA the initial advisory group (for a list of current and past advisors see discussed this idea of creating a community newsletter for a community that did not yet know itself or could not see itself. This built on the tradition of having a neighborhood or organizational newsletter that described the goings on of a distinct group of people with the complicated concept of community which is all too often not well explained..

AREA was responding to the existence of a very fragmented local Left in Chicago, which had an incredible diversity and complexity, but no real device for people to see themselves in relationship to one another. People were always trying to form coalitions and have email list-serves, and certainly the bigger or more established groups would try to speak louder for everyone. But there was no forum to simply get to know one another and learn from each other’s experiences. Because the vast geography of the city of Chicago was intimidating it seemed more doable to do this through a publication rather than attempting to create a city-wide community center.

Through a slow and consistent process of releasing 11 publications and hosting over a 100 events (many focused intimate discussions amongst people who have much in common but are separated culturally, politically or geographically) AREA has become this connective device over the last 6 years. It is incredible to me the number of people it has touched, and people’s enthusiasm to participate in a hyper-local project, in an era when it is possible to self-organize online with people around increasingly specific and exclusive subcultures. The ongoing engagement with AREA in Chicago illustrates for me some kind of desire to organize around commonality and commitment to a place, rather than subcultural bonds.

RH: Would you briefly and tangibly illustrate ways in which your projects have created intimacy, whether in a specialized group, or within a broader context?

DT: The Visions for Chicago project I organized last spring involved people using blank yard signs to illustrate their long-term visions for the city. It coincided with the recent open mayoral election in Chicago but it had very little to do with elections. It was more connected to using the occasion of the election to talk about ideas that reached far beyond the typical agendas of elections. Part of my role as organizer was to get people to agree to make these yard signs and then put them outside, in front of their homes and in their windows. I had met so many people through years of art/community organizing, but I had not been to many of their homes. Then their home and their portrait were presented, along with the sign, on the website and in a printed catalog. The publicness of what is traditionally private (their home, their visions) It made the project much more personal and vulnerable. It was amazing when the printed book came out, to see how honored and enthusiastic people were. As I said before the website had most of the same content, but the printed catalog gave people both a sense of worth to their ideas as well as a sense that they were part of a community of a hundred other people who really care about working together at making this city better, engaging their political imaginations collectively.

RG: Regional Relationships, being relatively new, has yet to really find what kinds of intimacy and relationships are possible. Many of the ideas that led to us initiating RR came from discussions with people we are close to and trust, like Daniel. It also was largely inspired by our work with a scholar in Urban Planning in Urbana-Champaign whose been engaged in a research project for several years in a small town on the Illinois River called Beardstown. Through our conversations with her, and our own visits to the town and surrounding areas, over the last few years we have made many acquaintances and friends;  from commodity farmers to recent immigrants from West Africa, to community organizers. The work we do there now has a certain responsibility to those people. At least we believe we have a responsibility to them. We hope that RR will somehow become a platform for the sharing of these kinds of long term and sustained relationships between communities of concern (a phrase I like that speaks to the shared concerns that bring people together, as opposed to some abstract idea of “community” that assumes a unified group of people). The objective is to somehow make the stakes apparent and meaningful, not simply assume that we all care about the same things.

RH: Following up on that I’d like to hear some impressions from the both of you about the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor. This is a project both of you were (and still are?) involved with on some level- where you came together with folks to travel together physically through the landscape, by train and bus, foot and car . This off course is a very intimate act – no need to describe the shared sweet, hunger pangs, and soars of a road trip. I am wondering what tangible personal and/or public outcomes came from your conscious act of co-drifting through the Midwest together ?

DT: When the “Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor” occurred in the summer of 2008 I participated in some of the early discussions of what the thing could become – and then I went on the Chicago stops of the drift. I coordinated the release party of AREA Chicago #6 “City As Lab” to coincide with the drift wandering through town. After the Continental Drift phase, the more open-ended concept of the MRCC was turned into an art collective of sorts called Compass. Since that point, I have continued to loosely engage with building a Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor through participating in personal relationships throughout the region, attending the US Social Forum in Detroit in 2010, profiling midwestern farmers in my book Farm Together Now: A Portrait of People, Places and Ideas for a New Food Movement (Chronicle Books, 2010), and through ongoing collaborations with the Family Farm Defenders and Warehouse Workers For Justice; two economic justice organizations in the region that have very real connections to low-wage workers and international social movements.

RG: The first “drift” in the summer of 2008 speaks to “intimacy” in an interesting way. It was organized by a small but not deliberately exclusive group of folks across Illinois and Wisconsin. In a lot of ways, the goal was to experience a portion of the region called the Midwest while learning something about the cultural, political and economic inventiveness happening there. We wanted to know how people are creating living experiments resisting oppressive tendencies?

For the most part this question was answered through people organizing with those they already knew and worked with within their own communities of interest. As evidenced in the book, those of us involved in conceptualizing the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor produced Call To Farms, this took us from environmental justice struggles within a black community in Champaign, IL to the Dreamtime Village permaculture-experimental art commune in West Lima, WI to Growing Power in Milwaukee. This trip established an intimacy amongst those of us who took it, It led to our continued working together in the more formal, though still very loosely organized, capacity that Daniel mentioned called the Compass. I think the most tangible or significant thing about the MRCC idea is that it shows the need for (and difficulty of) linking the concerns of people and groups that are not in the same immediate space, but have real stakes in working together and knowing what others are up to. Maybe what I’m trying to get at is the need to think about how conduits between these different efforts and people are made; I think we have been thinking about the logistics of creating intimacy across spaces through interpersonal contact. Therefore people literally as social media!

RH: I began this interview asking about the post office because I wanted to foreground the fleshy nature of your relationships’ with both people and media in your explorations of place. Ryan several years back wrote an article, in Re-public, critical of locative media such as GPS, and their expressions in art, called “Against The Cartography of the Everyday”. You conclude your essay with the following:

“Technology may further mediate power and control, and in many senses physically embody them, but does technology replace ideology? Does perspective collapse under the weight of 24 satellites? Michael Curry suggests that the “view from nowhere” always and already occupies a position of interest, but the interest becomes located further and further from the place of power – in this case, literally in space (p. 52). If the tendency of the control society is to embed ideology into mechanisms of domination, essentially black-boxing oppression, how can the black box be opened and its contents documented?”

I am wondering if at this point either of you has an answer to this question?

DT: Well I never read Ryan’s original text, though it sounds intriguing, but I will take a stab at it.

I am often confused by art projects that attempt to critically engage with science and technology. Often they end up producing more interest in amateur science or gizmology alone. I’ve seen this happening  a lot around new-media and screen-based mapping projects. How do you dissect the embedded ideology of technology without simply presenting cool looking demonstrations of products and techniques for art audiences?  This may mean disengaging from the technology itself, presenting your research, analysis or perspectives in completely other forms.

That is one of the things that I think is so successful about Trevor Paglen’s approach. He documents technological innovation of the Military and its black budgets. But he does this with these elegant, blurry, beautiful photos. Rather than building a phone app tracking spy planes, which would position audiences more as military fans than critical observers  implicated through their tax dollars.

Another example of a project that I’ve worked on that’s engaged this tension is Notes For A People’s Atlas. It has been an initiative to collect handmade personal maps depicting places – it has been reproduced in over 20 locations, including the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, the a college town of Greencastle, Indiana, the large city of Santiago, Chile, the region of Granada, Spain, and the country of Ukraine. In this project of vast scale, people always ask me why we don’t use Google maps or GIS, instead of paper and markers, to present the information. On the outside these technologies would allow the information to be treated as data, opening it up for other realms of interpretation. My answer has always been that online maps and mapping software are great tools for dealing with places as data-sets, but if you really want to encourage people to articulate their knowledge of hidden histories and the emotional character of their connection to places, then the simple paper maps are a bare device. People can take them in surprising odd directions, not easily done with those other tools. Ryan mentioned the problem of the ”complete informationalization of place via electronic devices” earlier and I think that efforts like People’s Atlas bring some critical perspective to more consumer oriented maps of cities and user-rated tools like Yelp that turn cities into geo-tagged consumption data sets in a similar way as indigenous mapping that utilizes GIS technology complicates the military origins.

RG: Daniel’s response is exactly what I was trying to get at with that excerpt and in the whole essay. While I was responding to so-called “locative media” specifically, I was also responding to the larger historical project of pictorial documentary with its relationship to technology.

Another subtext is the effort to use technology against power in “tactical media.” While tactical media practitioners embrace the idea of the “tactic” as inherently the “efforts of the weak” and therefore necessarily insufficient, for exactly the reasons Daniel states I think the limits of this can’t be ignored. What’s at stake in developing responses to power that only deepen one’s reliance on that power?

Likewise, and more historically, what’s at stake in representing place through media that by nature alienates and distances the forms of representation from those it represents? Especially when the viewing of these representations actually doesn’t lead to less abstract relationships? I can say I don’t have any answers, and I’m not sure there is an answer.

In some instances, an appropriate response would be to “unplug” so to speak. But, as I tried to argue in that essay, I think it’s important to look at the continuations and breaks in how technologies function. If it’s the technological novelty (the “wow” factor) that is the problem with “locative media,” then we simply have to wait until that novelty wears off, just as it did with photography. But assuming that photography is inherently a more transparent, and less mediated, form of representation isn’t entirely useful. I would maintain that there are qualitative consistencies and differences between the two media, and it’s important to keep the content/critique central. It’s knowing what that critique is that’s the real work. Documenting oppression doesn’t require using the tools of oppression, but it helps to know what those tools are since they’re part of HOW one is oppressed.

Links for projects mentioned in this article

Daniel Tucker

Area Chicago –

Peoples Atlas –

Visions For Chicago –

Farm Together Now –

Ryan Griffis

Regional Relationships –

Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor –

“Against The Cartography of the Everyday” –

A Call To Farms –

Temporary Travel Office –

Robby Herbst is an interdisciplinarian. Broadly he is interested in socio-political formations; behavioral architecture, languages of dissent and counter cultures. Exploration of these fields have lead him to visual art, writing, group work, independent media, public theory and event/exhibition organizing. Collective projects of note include the vast universe of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest (exhibitions, publishing, organizing), The October Surprise and a collaboration of no name exploring psychedelia. He is a recipient of a Warhol Foundation Writers Grant for a project examining the phenomena of “Possibility” within relational art and activism. He has contributed to Alan Kaprow: Art As Life, Museum of Contemporary Art, LA; the 2008 California Biennial; Democracy in America: The National Campaign, Creative Time 2008; Fine Print: Alternative Media, P.S.1, New York; and the Documenta 12 Magazine Project Archive, Kassel Germany. Additionally he’s shown work with Southern Exposure (SF), Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago), The Art Gallery of Knoxville (TN), LACE (LA), David Patton Los Angeles and Machine Project (LA). He has organized exhibitions at The Craft and Folk Art Museum (LA), Park Projects (LA) and David Patton Los Angeles. He has lectured widely on art and politics. He currently teaches New Genres Art at the University of Southern California and Interdisciplinary Art in Goddard College’s MFAI Program.

New Centerfield Post on Art:21 Blog: Hand in Glove

September 28, 2011 · Print This Article

Our latest post on Art:21 blog went up yesterday; some thoughts behind threewalls upcoming conference Hand-in-Glove. A brief excerpt below; check out the full post on Art:21 blog here.

Hand in Glove is for anyone and everyone who engages artist-run culture to talk about its past, its current manifestations, and its potential futures. It’s a four day event of national scope that will address the state of self-organized, noncommercial and artist-run spaces, publications, residencies, and a variety of other projects happening at the grass-roots level. Conversations will range from sustainability to funding to unconventional organizing models, as well as the kind of creative administrative strategies people are using to stay open.

Image: Renny Pritikin, published in Proximity Magazine‘s July 2009 issue.