Exit Interview: Stephanie Smith

August 26, 2014 · Print This Article

Stephanie Smith, Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Stephanie Smith, former Chief Curator and Deputy Director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art / newly appointed Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario

 

This summer it was announced that Stephanie Smith, a longtime Chicago cultural work, best known as deputy director and chief curator at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, has left her Chicago post to become chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Smith, whose interests lay in contemporary art with social and political bents, developed highly-acclaimed exhibitions and programs for the Smart, most notably Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, Heartland (with the Van Abbemuseum) and the site-specific Threshold series, co-curated an international biennial exhibition in Athens, and, until recently, edited Afterall journal, a scholarly contemporary art quarterly. Bad at Sports’ managing editor Jamilee Polson Lacy touched based with Smith upon her departure for this “Exit Interview”:

 

Jamilee Polson Lacy: To gain a bit of insight, what first drew you to Chicago?

Stephanie Smith: I felt Chicago’s gravitational pull as a kid growing up in St. Louis, but landing in Chicago wasn’t inevitable. I actually arrived via Houston. That’s where I went to college and cut my teeth as a curator. Houston is also where I first got interested in socially engaged public practice by watching the early evolution of Project Row Houses (PRH), and during the mid/late 90s while researching PRH, I started to learn about related activities in Chicago like the Culture in Action exhibition and various projects at Randolph Street Gallery. So, long before I lived in Chicago, I had ideas about it as an exciting city for art—high and low, in museums and out in the streets.

The thing that finally pulled me to Chicago was the PhD program in art history at Northwestern. I left after just a year because I realized that I’m happiest and more effective in museums, where I can work directly with art and artists and in dialogue with the public. I almost immediately landed at the Smart Museum as associate curator and continued to grow into new roles up to my most recent position as deputy director and chief curator. The Smart turned out to be a perfect place for me. The choice to leave the PhD program at that particular moment turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

JPL: You have had notable success at the Smart Museum of Art and in the greater Midwest as a curator, an arts administrator and as a general cultural force. In many ways, you’ve brought the international art world to Chicago and helped to propel the successful careers of many local and regional artists. With so many projects under your belt, can you name a few things that you think have been your most important contributions to the Smart? To Chicago?

SS: Thanks for the very kind words! [But] I tip the hat back to everyone who has done this work with me—all the artists, colleagues, sparring partners, friends. Anything I’ve achieved has been through collaboration with all of you.

I’m proud that at the Smart I helped to build a culture in which it became a habit across the institution to think critically, transparently and collaboratively about what’s at stake in our work. Within museums there’s often a pressure to produce—to feed an exhibition-making machine. When feeding that machine we can get into a mode in which we’re simply ticking things off our lists without pausing enough to reflect about what we’re doing, and why, and how, and for whom. It’s a challenge faced by every self-aware cultural worker or institution. At the Smart, we worked hard to make that kind of reflection a part of the DNA across the whole institution, and we often did it in collaboration with artists, scholars, students and others who helped us ask better questions and do better work. All of this hooks into larger trends in the field as [institutions and cultural workers] continue to think through what it means to be a twenty-first century museum. We have to keep asking the big questions about our values and choices. We have to keep seeking more sustainable ways to work. We need to remember that we do it all in the service of art and ideas and the public—as well as for our own pleasure as creative people.

Now that I’ve let my museum-administrator-geek-flag fly, back to the art: I hope that I’ve helped to shape a wider critical awareness of Chicago as a dynamic and particular context for contemporary art and ideas. One driver of my work has been curiosity about what’s distinctive about Chicago and the Midwest versus any other place in the world. What does it mean to be based here, rather than another place? Sometimes the answer is “nothing,” but it’s worth posing the question, and I’ve tried to develop a kind of critical regionalism that assesses questions of place without falling into traps of ghettoization or booster-ism. Often I’ve featured Chicago-based artists in shows along with their international peers without calling out their Chicago-ness. I’ve also done a few projects that deal with the issue directly, particularly in relation to the region’s strength in socially and politically engaged art. (Critical Mass, on activist practice in Chicago, and Heartland which the Smart co-organized with Van Abbmuseum to cross-pollinate European and Midwestern contexts). And like any good curator I’ve introduced the city’s art and artists into new international contexts—by bringing great outsiders to Chicago, by making connections, by showing the work (for instance last year as one of the curators of AGORA, the 4th Athens Biennial). I’m also proud of the work I’ve done to build the Smart’s collection, especially its holdings of both Chicago-based artists and of socially engaged work. The latter hasn’t been happening enough yet across the field because this work can be difficult for institutions to manage, but such stewardship is crucial. We need to think about what view of art and the world we’re shaping for future generations of museum-goers.

JPL: You have also kept busy as an arts writer and editor working on various projects and publications beyond the museum. Are you currently working on any writing projects? Will you continue this kind of work from Toronto?

SS: Writing will remain a big part of my practice, but it needs to slow down for a while so I can focus on the AGO and Toronto. For now, I’m simply wrapping up prior commitments.

I’m in the final stages of editing a book called Institutions and Imaginaries. It’s part of the Chicago Social Practice History Series that Mary Jane Jacob and Kate Zeller are putting together in tandem with SAIC’s fall exhibition on art and social action. My book explores the roles of institutions as spurs, proponents, and contexts for socially engaged art practice. It’s a good topic to be thinking about right now as I pivot between cities and jobs.

I’m also writing an essay on Fernando Garcia-Dory’s para-institutions for Afterall journal for 2015.

And I’m in the very early stages of developing a book via New Projects—my ongoing collaboration with architect and urban designer Marshall Brown—but we’ve paused the project until I get settled in Toronto.

JPL: What will you miss the most about our fair city—art and/or otherwise?

SS: My family. The friendships, long-standing collaborations, ongoing conversations, and lazy afternoons with my closest crew—I know I’m going to love Toronto, but it takes a while to build up that sense of community.

I’ll miss the particular gritty energy of this city, with all its beauty and all its flaws. I’ll also miss specific things about Chicago as a built place. Certain walks, certain parks, certain neglected corners. The lakefront. Those sublime vistas that you get while riding the El through the Loop. The Point. The perfect diamond grid of the city seen at night from a plane, or from the bar at the Hancock Tower with an out-of-town guest who would invariably get caught up in the giddy-making magic of the view, as would I, every time.

Art-wise, Chicago’s an exciting place right now. There’s such great work here, so many brilliant minds, such big hearts, and of course big shoulders. It’s been a privilege to work in the city for so many years. And you’re not rid of me yet, Chicago—Toronto’s a short flight away.

JPL: Now, be brave: What won’t you miss?

The occasional flare of second-city provincial anxiety and its flip side of defensive booster-ism—please get over that, Chicago. The flatness (except when viewed from on high—see qabove). The traffic and the scale and the psychological distance both can create between people. Crazy inequities and persistent racism. And as a born-and-raised St. Louis Cardinals kid: Cubs fans.

JPL: Let’s wrap up with a look ahead: Art Gallery of Ontario. What excites you most about your new institution and this new position?

SS: I’m arriving at the Art Gallery of Ontario at a great time. Toronto is a fast-growing, vibrant, and incredibly international city, and the AGO is poised to make the most of that civic energy. There’s so much to build on: the creative vitality of Toronto as well as the AGO’s own strengths as one of North America’s great civic art museums. The AGO has a rich history of exhibitions and scholarship, a terrific collection, a great building, a talented staff and an engaged board, a bone-deep commitment to audience engagement and civic service. It also faces the usual institutional challenges. I’m really looking forward to digging into all of this and to working with colleagues across the AGO and within the community to tackle those big questions about what it means to be a truly great twenty-first century civic art museum. It’s a much bigger institution than the Smart, but the two museums share a spirit of adventurous inquiry and a commitment to hospitality. This feels like a natural next step, and I’m looking forward to diving into the work here.

JPL: And though it may be a bit premature to ask, what are some of your plans/upcoming projects for AGO?

SS: My first priority is to get to know the AGO and the city. I need to learn about what’s already happening on the ground. I’m looking forward to thinking with the team about how to do our best work together, how to build the strongest possible relationships with artists and other core collaborators, how to connect in the most meaningful ways with the museum’s wide civic audience, and how to extend the AGO’s international reach. I’ll be working on strategic planning, including collections-building strategies, long-term exhibition planning, and building curatorial capacity at the AGO. So, much of my job will be about bigger-picture curatorial leadership for the museum overall, but I’ll be doing my own exhibitions and research as well. [I] can’t say anything yet about exactly what that will look like, except that it will grow naturally out of my work in Chicago.

EDITION #36 – Minnesota Nice

August 25, 2014 · Print This Article

Minnesotan Artists Decent at Sports

If anyone understands the preciousness of summertime, it’s our fellow neighbors in the Midwest. All across Minneapolis WTT? discovered artists and creatives playing Minnesota “Nice.”

Tuesday Night Music Club at the Lyndale VFW.

Our week in Minneapolis started correct when on Tuesday friend and former ACRE resident, Cris Cloud, invited us to the Tuesday Night Music Club, a post-kickball dance party at the VFW by Lyndale and Lake Street (FYI- also the name of a ’93 Sheryl Crow album). Not just any TNDC, this evening was the after party for the annual kickball game between the Kennwood Kickball Club and the team from Uptown who were decked out in full clown regalia.

Fraternizing with the locals outside TNMC.

Not a party for the faint of clowns.

In addition to the annual kickball game TNMC’s MC Jacobs was celebrating his last night at the club before leaving MN for China. The night’s sets started off with The Artist Formerly Known As jams and escalated into full booty dancing on the ol’ VFW juke box kinda night. Scantily dressed clowns danced alongside the somewhat dejected Kennwood-ers, who exhibitied true Minnesotan-sportsmanship.

Possibly the best ever use of Nite Brite.

When questioned about their lack of costumes in the face of the triumphant clowns, one player retorted, “Do you know how much planning that takes and how much we don’t give a fuck?” A teammate added, “They go hiking for fun.” Either way, the party was worth it and there’s always next year.

Later that week the T? got in on the game. Having beefed up on our Basketball Bidness all summer on the Stueben courts, it was awesome to ball at the regular Thursday afternoon game played by the Artist Basketball League at Lyndale Farmstead Park. We ran into artist Jesse Draxler near the California studios on the way and he assured us that the game was collegiate. “Sometimes we play 11 year olds,” he said as we parted ways.

Draxler wasn’t kidding, at the half court game there were four artists and ballers Malachi, 11, and Xavier, 8. What he didn’t mention is that 11 year olds are sharks, just running back and forth steady scoring. Informing me that he “didn’t like art,” Malachi showed me his moves, the low dribble, the layup. Xavier followed suit, dribbling between his legs along the side of the court. Impressive.

Artist Basketball League’s Thursday game.

Serendipitously, that day our old tubing buddy, Sara Caron, got in touch right around the time of the game to invite me to the Blue Dress Cup. If you didn’t already know, Blue Dress Cup is an annual competition to determine the Best Artist in Milwaukee.

We’re pretty sure you don’t have to be from Milwaukee to be the best artist in the city, so why not apply now? We definitely think Malachi has a fighting chance despite his aesthetic apathy (maybe in part because of it). I want to see what happens when Minnesotans meet Wisconsinites meet Illinoisians (?) on the field of battle. See you on September 20th in Milwaukee for the summer and sports’ real final hurrah. Tri-state tournament anyone?

T around Town(s)

After visiting Minneapolis recently for Bad at Sports’ participation in Open Field at the Walker, WTT? was excited to return for a longer and more in depth visit to the MN art scene. After a week we don’t know the true definition of “Minnesota Nice”, but we found MN dwellers to be genuinely nice, chill people to hang out with. Oh yeah, and the art wasn’t half bad either. We found the artists we met to be a proud and supportive group with just enough buzz. It’s kind of like being in Chicago, but nicer, and cuter (super compliment) and with better bike trails. Here’s just a sampling of what we saw on our TC getaway.

First on our Nathaniel Smith sponsored tour was Soo Visual Art Center in Uptown we were caught Lovesickness with Trees: Recent Work by Sophia Heymans and Garrett Perry.

We had heard about SooVAC and Soo Local from Negative Jam on our last trip, so we checked it off our list first thing. Word on the street is that the Local space is pretty rad, but we unfortunately just missed the closing of Congruent Influence, a collaborative show between Mark Schoening and Drew Peterson. Carolyn Payne was way cool, we talked shop and it seems obvious that Soo’s got big things coming on the horizon.

Work by Sophia Heymans on view at what the locals call “SooVAC.”

Work by Garrett Perry on view at what the locals call “SooVAC.”

SooVAC ED, Carolyn Payne with Nathaniel Smith in the gallery.

We also managed to battle our way into a few studios during our trip. An old friend from our SAIC daze, printmaker Drew Peterson, invited us to lunch at the teeniest Tiny Diner and then showed us his to his studio in the Powderhorn neighborhood, east of Uptown. We were stunned by the surprisingly painterly pixel paintings of Mathew Zefeldt at his studio at the University of Minneapolis. Right before we left we were able to squeeze in a visit with Nate Young, more on that later.

We want to tell you all about the beet tagine we had with Drew at Tiny Diner, but this isn’t Instagram.

The Weatherman Report

Work by Drew Peterson, from his series Waterworks 2013-14.

Our favorite work, a sweet and sold(!) fire butt by Garrett Perry.

Peterson’s Waterworks series in his studio.

Peterson has been busy since we both left SAIC. This and the other unique screen prints he showed me are destined for the artist’s solo show in the fall.

Peterson in his studio, the type of tight and well organized space you’d expect from a seasoned screen printer.

Mathew Zefeldt’s studio at the University of Minneapolis. The artist is working on his upcoming show at the Minneapolis Institute of the Art, opening October 16th. We heard there’s wallpaper involved. Excited.

Zefeldt looking svelte in his studio.

Not only were these paintings clearly a glorious mindfuck, they also include the last two video games I remember playing as a child. I fucking loved killing Nazis in Wolfenstein.

Despite the digital feel of the paintings, Zefeldt doesn’t even touch photoshop. This “mood board” is his way of testing out aspects of the painting before committing them to canvas.

We had a chance to visit some of the major cultural institutions, most notably the Walker (can’t get enough!) and the Minnesota State Fair, where you can see sculptures made of butter and “The Miracle of Life” barn (too real for this city mouse). We partook of all of the mini donuts and cookie buckets we could muster at the fair and had our minds freaking blown away by the awesomeness of the Walker. The Flux exhibit was pretty cool but the Radical Presence exhibition was well, radical (as you might expect), featuring 36 artists and over 100 works spanning the 1960’s to the present there were a ton of blockbusters, lots of Chicago favorites. It’s an exhibition that really can change the way you think about art. Oh yeah, and OMG! The Clock! Who even needs the east coast? We have everything we need right here in the middle.

No caption necessary. At the Minnesota State Fair.

There were more items and artifacts from Lorraine O’Grady than we’ve ever seen it one place. It was resplendent.

A image from O’Grady’s series Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire.

Detail of sculpture/video work Jacolby Satterwhite on view in Radical Presence at the Walker.

Installation view of work in Radical Presence.

Video by Kalup Linzy at Radical Presence.

Saturday night, David Petersen Gallery had an opening that we were tipped off too by our buddy Nathan Coutts from Midway. Probably the most chi-chi thing we did in MN, the exhibition, What Was The Question was replete with NY artists, Joshua Abelow, Sadie Laska, MacGregor Harp and Adrianne Rubenstein mingling with the Minneapolitians. We were particularly fond of Rubenstein’s beach umbrellas and I don’t think we were the only ones.

The turnout for What Was the Question at David Petersen.

Midwest meets Midwest. Andrea Hyde and Cory Schires at the Petersen opening Saturday night.

Aforementioned paintings by Adrianne Rubenstein.

B@S fan Nate Lee with Rubenstein and Joshua Abelow at What Was The Question.

Last but super not least, we were lucky to meet up with Nate Young on his way back from the Black Artist Retreat in Chicago on our way back to the city. Everyone in Minneapolis was pointing us to The Bindery Projects in St. Paul, the space that Young runs with his wife and fellow artist, Caroline Kent. Young was MN nice enough to open up the space for us so we could see Zachary Fabri’s solo show, Video is Dead (he’s also in Radical Presence at the Walker). The spacious and industrial alternative space has two large exhibition spaces, installed with images and a game board/ assemblage of dice and painted chicken bones in one room and a video called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, which was shot outside the Apollo on the day Michael Jackson died in the other. We also got to check out Young’s studio in the background and even explore the old factory building a bit before emarking on the long ride home.

Installation view of Fabri’s show at Bindery Projects.

Detail of Morgan Freeman image from Fabri’s ongoing series, Aureola.

The formidable Young in his studio.

Work by Nate Young in his studio.

Our last minute trip to The Bindery Projects was definitely the most clutch way to close our trip to the Twin Cities. We’re happy to finally wind down in Chicago, but this summer we’ve learned there’s good T to be had all over the Midwest. Until next time, Wisconsin, Twin Cities!

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (8/22-8/24)

August 21, 2014 · Print This Article

1. The Square Root of Pi(e) at Chicago Artists Coalition

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Work by Rami George, Dan Paz, Jenyu Wang and Alexandria Eregbu.

Chicago Artists Coalition is located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

2. Almost Ergonomic at Studio 424

slump

Curated by Third Object, with work by Alex Chitty, Laura Hart Newlon, Kate O’Neill, David Bhodi Boyland, and Jeff Prokash.

Studio 424 is located at 167 North Racine Avenue, Suite 1. Reception Saturday, 5-9pm.?

3. Retreat at Richard Gray Gallery

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Curated by Theaster Gates, with work by Derrick Adams, Erika Allen, Elizabeth Axtman, Bethany Collins, Tony Lewis, Kelly Lloyd, Valerie Piraino, Mitchell Squire, Wilmer Wilson IV and Nate Young.

Richard Gray Gallery is located at 875 N. Michigan, Ste. 3800. Reception Friday, 5-7pm.

4. Iffy Conditions at Garden Apartment Gallery

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Curated by Daniel Bruttig, with work by Boris Ostrerov, Erin Thurlow, Frank Pollard, George Blaha, Jessie Mott, Joe Cassan, Julia Klein, Kelly Kaczynski, Lauren Carter, Mike Schuh, Paul Nudd, Peter Fagundo, Scott Wolniak, and Shane Huffman.

Garden Apartment Gallery is located at 3528 W. Fulton Blvd. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.

5. Fetish at Defibrillator Gallery

DANI-PLOEGER-photo-by-CHELSIE-NIEMI

Work by Dani Ploeger.

Defibrillator Gallery is located at 1136 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 8-11pm.

Take the Green Line to Nantes

August 21, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise McKean

Voyage à Nantes, until August 31, 2014

The green line in front of the Temple du Goût Voyage à Nantes 2014 Photos by Lise McKean unless otherwise credited

The green line in front of the Temple du Goût
Voyage à Nantes 2014
Photos by Lise McKean unless otherwise credited

 

Thanks to my husband who’s from the Atlantic coast of France, I’m a regular visitor to Nantes, a city the size of Boston on the estuary of the Loire River. I just got back from there and besides long days and lingering twilight, another good reason to visit in summer is to take in Le Voyage à Nantes. I first saw it last summer, and 2014 is the third edition of this two-month arts festival. Voyage creates visual and conceptual conversations between contemporary works, cultural treasures from local museums, and the sites themselves. Alongside centuries of architectural, urban, and riverine forms, installations resonate with green innovation and spaces–Nantes was Europe’s Green Capital in 2013.

Voyage activates the city’s green identity. A fluorescent green line painted on the pavement leads voyagers to exhibition sites and suggests destinations to everyday flâneurs. The 8-mile line branches into three circuits covering 42 sites in central Nantes. Another route brings visitors further afield by bike, boat, car, or bus to see Estuary, a collection of permanent installations occupying industrial and natural sites near the river between Nantes and downstream at St. Nazaire.

Le Maison dans La Loire, Jean-Luc Courcoult. Photo by Bernard Renoux

Le Maison dans La Loire, Jean-Luc Courcoult. Photo by Bernard Renoux

 

Like any trip, some sights and moments on Voyage appeal more than others. The 2103 and 2014 shows aren’t padded with works so obvious that they’re slam-dunk crowd pleasers. That is, thankfully the organizers don’t mistake facile for accessible–a problem less savvy large-scale public exhibitions pose for art connoisseurs. One year to the next artists and curators create installations that produce different experiences of the same indoor or outdoor spaces.

For example, the works occupying the expansive Place du Bouffay in central Nantes in 2013 and 2014 enliven the space very differently. Follow the Leaders by Isaac Cordal for Voyage 2013 is at once large and small: the installation takes up a lot of the plaza, yet it’s the fit-in-your-hand personages dotting the work’s gravel and rubble that grab the attention of viewers and passersby alike. Cordal’s little, grey-suited, briefcase-carrying men look like they rained down from a Magritte painting.

Follow the Leaders, Issac Cordal Voyage à Nantes 2013

Follow the Leaders, Issac Cordal
Voyage à Nantes 2013

 

This year, Vincent Mauger created Résolution des forces en présence for Place du Bouffay. It’s large, spiked, and wooden. It could be described in terms of natural forms: hedgehog, reclining pine tree, spiny sea creature. Medieval weapons enthusiasts might see the piece as the gigantic head for nasty armaments such as the morningstar or holy water sprinkler. Its size and spikes might seem menacing, but the tentative way it rests on only some of its phalanges invites an imaginary journey à la Nantes luminary Jules Verne–might it roll like a log or crawl like a scorpion across the plaza?

Résolution des forces en présence, Vincent Mauger Voyage à Nantes 2014 © Martin Argyroglo / LVAN

Résolution des forces en présence, Vincent Mauger
Voyage à Nantes 2014 © Martin Argyroglo / LVAN

 

Taking the green line to the Temple du Goût brings visitors to a temporary exhibition space that was built in the 1750s as a commercial and residential building on the quay of the Loire and the epitome of the era’s lavish taste. Going from the bright sun into the building’s subdued light and damp interior feels like stepping back in time–or into a dungeon. Last year Cordal’s work filled the Temple’s gallery spaces with Le Nouvel Esclavage (The New Slavery). The title resonates with the site’s history: the port of Nantes was the epicenter of the Atlantic slave trade in France.

With eyes still adjusting to the darkness, visitors pass into the first exhibition. Cordal’s little men aren’t in their outdoor wasteland anymore. And the change isn’t for the better. Here they sit or slump at desks that are lined up inside animal cages that in turn are piled atop and beside each other. It’s like looking through Loop office windows from Chicago’s green line and seeing cubed workers in the ghoulish glow of fluorescent light. The savage eloquence of the installation’s stark materials and repeated forms wrenches the gut. Cordal’s additional Temple installations also  explore contemporary anomie, placing the little men and other figurines and objects in different settings, but with less visceral effect.

 Le Nouvel Esclavage (The New Slavery), Issac Cordal Voyage à Nantes 2013

Le Nouvel Esclavage (The New Slavery), Issac Cordal
Voyage à Nantes 2013

 

This year the Temple du Goût offers visitors another sensibility with Curiositas, a subset of Voyage exhibitions that is unified by the interests of curators from the Nantes Musée des Beaux-Arts. A line-up of bird specimens and an Inuit kayak (1836) are near the entrance. Turn the corner and it’s another world: Alighiero e Boetti’s painting Il Progressivo Svanir della Consuetudine (1974) fills a wall with ballpoint blue. Nestled adjacent to it is a small painting by Yves Tanguy (Untitled, 1927), responding to the Boetti with its own swathe of blue.

Temple du Goût, Voyage à Nantes, 2014

Temple du Goût, Voyage à Nantes, 2014

 

In the next rooms a sculpture of the python spirit by the Nalu people of Guinea consorts with Personnage avec Yeux Bleus (Personage with Blue Eyes, 1954) by Gaston Chaissac. This Chaissac gem is from the Nantes art museum; one hour away, Les Sables d’Olonne’s magnificent beach is matched by collections of Chaissac and Victor Brauner at its Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix. Anne and Patrick Poirier’s Phantasma, a site specific work in the Temple whispers archeological spells while sparkling in the dimly lit room. Last last year Cordal held forth here with a fortress of briefcases.

Sculpture, Nalu people of Guinea; Personnage avec Yeux Bleus (1954), Gaston Chaissac. Voyage à Nantes, 2014

Sculpture, Nalu people of Guinea; Personnage avec Yeux Bleus (1954), Gaston Chaissac. Voyage à Nantes, 2014

 

Voyage gives old and new works summer homes to bring them closer to locals and to bring tourists to Nantes. And visual art isn’t the only attraction. Voyage offers a couple months of classical, jazz, folk, and pop music concerts, along with the Electropixel Festival and a rooftop place to watch movies, consciously riffing on old-time American drive-ins. And this being France, art extends to food: visitors eat locally produced food and wine at artist-designed picnic spots and cafés along the green line, and chefs with stars prepare dinner for 200 in a local vineyard.

Voyage also brings Nantes’ best-known sights into its orbit with works commissioned for these spaces. For example, last year Cordal’s little men were bobbing in the moat at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne. Installations also pop up around the Parc des Chantiers, where the Compagne Machines de l’île builds and operates its grand mechanical creations on the grounds of former shipyards. On this island in the Loire, Royale de Luxe also creates monumental mechanical beings, and brings them to life as street theatre in Nantes and beyond. Just maybe one day Royale de Luxe will make its way across the Atlantic and work its magic on us here in Chicago.

The Deep-sea Diver, His Hand, and the Little Girl-Giant (2009) Photo by Royal de Luxe

The Deep-sea Diver, His Hand, and the Little Girl-Giant (2009)
Photo by Royal de Luxe

 

Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.

Mo Problems: One View of Twin Cities

August 20, 2014 · Print This Article

I cannot read the news at night any more. I lay awake in the fading heat filled with outrage, sadness, my heart breaking with lives destroyed, communities torn apart, people disempowered and displaced. I have been dreaming of death, loved ones suddenly gone as I sit next to their hospital bed, the charred remains of buses and cars. As summer roars into its last gasp, I need relief, escape from heat, humidity, simmering tensions. Instead, I read the news in the morning, a bitter taste lingering, a veil on my daily activities that hazes my coffee, blurs my to do list, turns food into ashes.

I am privileged. I am privileged to be aware of and called to action by the multitude of crises happening in my neighborhood and around the world. I am removed enough and have enough leisure and access to knowledge of events that surround me and that take place across the globe to choose what I consume and how I act. I am privileged to sit and write these words.

Invoking Adorno again, we must ask what is possible in the face of daily crises? What is tenable when confronting the contemporary world? How can we continue to create when the world seems to crumble around us?

There is a reason we need art. We do not need art because it expresses the experiences of people in terrifying situations or because it brings escape or comfort, although we must remember its ability to do so. We need art because we are told there is a solution to the problems we face by people who have power, who want to maintain and restore a sense that they are in control in an increasingly uncertain world, who fear their power crumbling away from them. There is not a simple or easy solution. Real change takes longer than we can conceive and cannot happen within the frameworks that surround us. We need art to help us abandon the idea that there is even a solution to be found. We need art to push boundaries, not by imagining or creating alternatives that reinforce or are co-opted by existing conditions, but by shocking us into new ways of envisioning ourselves and our power in this tragic world, by opening doors to us that we did not realize were closed.

It is not enough to read the news and be outraged, although we must be aware. It is not enough to protest, although we must make our voices heard. It is not enough to sit down to dinner with your neighbor, although we must build meaningful connections between us as individuals before we see connections between us as communities. It is not enough to be radically local, although our work here ripples beyond our sight.

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Contemporary art must be that which is inextricable from the hour it was made, the neighborhood where it was conceived, the global panorama from which it arises. With the exponential expansion of information, evidence, visual records, we must be aware of what we make, what we put out into the world, the context it enters. We must pay close attention to who we are, where we come from, the privilege we embody, the impact our actions have, and we must continue to create.

Read the news. Be outraged. Protest. Eat dinner with your neighbor. Be radically local. And continue making work that pushes the boundaries of what we know to be desirable. Art and artists are not a way to fix the broken systems that surround us, but they may be one way to begin a future we cannot foresee.

I am for an art that admits and proudly wears its context. I am for an art that is inextricable from the world which shaped it.

I awake from my dreams. I push aside the veil of of despair and apathy. I rise to meet the challenges of the day. They do not decrease.