June 28, 2013 · Print This Article

The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.

– Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!

Before we talk books, a call: submit your work to two local publications, AREA Chicago and Chicago Literati. AREA Chicago—the acronym is for Art, Research, Education, Activism—was founded by Daniel Tucker in 2005. Not only has AREA transitioned into a collectively-edited, distributed, and programmed publication and event series (no small feat!), but it’s consistently stood by its mission statement, which is to “create relationships across the boundaries that segregate our city and our minds”. That’s a tall order for a city like ours—practically, it’s impossible because there isn’t one language that everyone uses. (I’m not being precious: you don’t talk in Pilsen like you do in Bronzeville, or Rogers Park. I hear juke out the window at home sometimes, but never at work.)

Still, AREA gets close to filling that order, publishing work by people of all stripes, from all walks and all neighborhoods. (I’ve ridden all the CTA lines to get to AREA events. No other publication in our city asks that.) This is good and bad, sometimes of course the magazine will dovetail into generalizing language or get a little wide-eyed, but even at worst those moments are fail-betters, and most often AREA reps Chicago well.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that they have a new call for work out—the next issue is themed KIDS. Send something if you have a kid, are a kid, work with them, or know one. Writing for AREA is one of the best ways to be a part of Chicago art and activism, whether you’re trying to find your place or ready to write its history.

Number two, Chicago Literati: an online literary and lit-focused publication—part of the Tribune’s blogroll—edited by recent Columbia College graduate Abby Sheaffer, who’s taking the baton from earlier catch-all local lit sites like Literago. Chicago Literati publishes features and interviews, as well as original work and heads-ups about cool series or events.

Abby is elegantly tireless, and I’m excited to see where she takes the publication. It’s an incredible amount of work and a noble goal, editing a project that covers all parts of our squid-like lit scene—plus Abby writes fiction in her own right. So let her know about your events, and your friends’ events, and hey: answer her call for original, summer-themed work.

Publications discussed here (an asterisk means it came out less than 365 days ago):
+ Triumph of the Ape: Stories by Todd Dills (THE2NDHAND, print edition 2013)*
+ nods by Carrie Lorig (Magic Helicopter Press, 2013)*
+ Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle (WAVE Books, 2012)
+ Tracy’s Tiger by William Saroyan (Doubleday, 1951; out of print)
+ The Mere Future by Sarah Schulman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009)
+ Violence by Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch (Guillotine Press, 2012)*

Triumph of the Ape: Stories by Todd Dills

Todd Dills graduated from Columbia College’s MFA program, worked door at Skylark for years, and—even after moving to Nashville with his family—still publishes THE2NDHAND, a two-sided broadsheet featuring work by the likes of Lauren Pretnar, Scott Stealey, Rob Funderburk, and Kate Duva. It’s great, and it’s just long enough to enjoy during solo happy hour.

Triumph of the Ape, a short story collection, is Dills’s second book, not counting the two 2NDHAND anthologies he’s edited. I love it for its consistency—it is Of Dills in both style (he writes itineraries, romances, long musical Faulkner-y sentences), stakes (romance again, and death and making a living, and what to believe), and geography (Chicago and the South). It is a testament to his community too, how he’s published it while publishing everyone else at THE2NDHAND in the meanwhile. Dude isn’t messing around.

One of my favorite things about the writing here is that Dills is not a namedropper, in other words the guys with Morrissey haircuts actually want to be Morrissey, or at least wistfully sensitive and sexy and queering like Morrissey. They are not lazy shadows; these characters talk about race and God and money in their own voices, not as cyphers. Admittedly Ape is a pretty masculine book—I went on an Adrienne Rich binge after finishing it—but that’s just to say I identified with the characters as brothers or sons or lovers, not selves, and sometimes I wanted to slap them or hug them. Nothing wrong with that, though—it’s a fine book that makes you want to do that.

NODS by Carrie Lorig, in the fine light of a North Loop Kinko's.

NODS by Carrie Lorig, in the fine light of a North Loop Kinko’s.

nods by Carrie Lorig

Carrie Lorig read at the last Dollhouse, a poetry reading series co-organized by Dolly Lemke, Holly Amos, and Ryan Spooner. (I worked with Dolly at Switchback Books and I work with Holly now, but I’d love their series anyway.) The Dollhouse Reading Series is free, salon-style BYOB, and super-comfy—the last time I came a little late, so tuned into the first reader while perched on Dolly’s porch, looking up at the sky and feeling at home.

Lorig read last that night, she said it was her biggest crowd ever and giggled a bit. She stood like a bass player—feet square to the crowd and squinting, like there was mist hanging over our heads. (Kate Greenstreet does this too.) Lorig’s work is first-chapbook-energetic, bright and sensory, half letter-to-the-poet’s-lover, half kid-explaining-a-nightmare-to-her-mom. There are cattle and rodeos and lust, twinning a bit with the cattle and farms and births of Kristen Stone’s Domestication Handbook.

After I bought the book I was surprised to see how its poems look on the page: not light but dense, low-caps and all caps, with drone repetition and Gertrude Stein valentines. Lines come up like music—“To my Aunt Zero Bones”, “PURPLE CURBS”, “oofprints in the face”—making this a book to dive into, not excerpt from. I’m excited for her next one too.

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle 

I recommend Madness, Rack, and Honey, a book of lectures by poet, critic, and teacher Mary Ruefle, because I am still reading it. I read it like practicing free throws or covering songs. Ruefle begins with a quote from Gaston Bachelard (“We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment”), and continues with essay after wise essay about oh, secrets, thoughts, facts, time, and writing (the daily work of it—the endurance not the romance). I admire her excitement (she uses exclamation points!), her respect for youth (even as she draws on her experience), her taste, how she reads as she writes, and also her respect for form. These are essays written to writers, with established theses and language, not perzines in masquerade. Ruefle even convinced me that Richard Hugo was wrong, and I should start using semicolons. (Tip: listen to this song while reading “On Sentimentality”.)

TRACY'S TIGER by William Saroyan, in the fine light of a Red Line car.

TRACY’S TIGER by William Saroyan, in the fine light of a Red Line car.

Tracy’s Tiger by William Saroyan

Tracy’s Tiger was a gift—a loan—from a friend who is moving to Oregon to be an architect. We went to her apartment and there were colored balloons everywhere, and beer and dancing, and she said have you read this? And I said no, and she said here. You should. She opened it to show me Henry Koerner’s beautiful line drawings, fine enough to see heartbeats. My favorite I think is one of Tracy getting photobombed by pigeons and of course you can’t really have photobombs in a line drawing, but that’s how good these are.

Anyway then one day I grabbed Tracy’s Tiger for the bus. It’s a slim, clean book; I read it all on my way in to the Loop. I’ve read Saroyan before, West Coast high school teachers love The Human Comedy a lot, and also because I want to write strong, short episodic books like Saroyan does. I love how he writes about poverty and children without belittling or straw-manning anyone.

Still I was wary of Tracy’s Tiger, which is about a boy, Thomas Tracy, and how he grows up. Tracy has a tiger; it has white teeth and is actually a black panther. It follows him around like a shadow and is late for church sometimes, and sometimes it says “Eyeeej.” Boy and tiger met at the zoo in New York, and early on it is not clear whether the tiger is imaginary-but-not (a pooka like Harvey), or maybe a precious-er version of Cortazar’s axolotl, an easy mirror of Blake’s poem.

But then of course Saroyan quits my whining—Tracy starts to want things (jobs, kisses) and sometimes he gets them and sometimes he doesn’t. He messes up and he doesn’t always know why. He falls in love and he trusts it, and he even lands in Bellevue. (“He found the people there quite mad,” Saroyan says with a wink.) Towards the end there is a scene that made me cry like when Jason goes to the ocean in Miranda July’s The Future. Greatest of all, also towards the end Saryoan just takes the wheel and tells us what and how the tiger means. Sometimes that’s OK.

The Mere Future by Sarah Schulman

When I’m deciding whether I should read something, I usually look at the acknowledgements not the blurbs. Some names are lucky pennies, so if I see those people thanked I know I’ll probably love the book, that it will probably change my brain. Sarah Schulman—playwright, novelist, activist, professor—is one of those people. (Her book The Gentrification of the Mind is on my shelf for life.)

The Mere Future, her most recent novel, is a romantic satire about two lesbians living together in a future Manhattan. The first chapters are hilarious and dreamy (the political parties the couple can vote for include the Catholic Resumption Party, the Celebutante with Education Party, and the Seniors for Seniority Party), all eerily narrated in past tense. (After earning her postdoctrate in Placemats of the Moyen Age, the narrator works at a place called “THE MEDIA HUB”. “We were blinded by the fun of all having the same boss,” she explains, “while our units provided Identity.”) There is no hunger or homelessness; wealth, attention, and fame are redistributed; and everyday folks can meet up with their politicians to chat over rugelach. Anyone can live in a Bushwick brownstone with six bedrooms for $140 a month, though priority is given to people born in neighborhood.

As engaging as that beginning is, The Mere Future works not because it offers a fairy tale, but because it challenges this world after establishing it. With her usual fierce empathy, Schulman asks what if—what if we’re trapped where we want to be? “Hey you,” says the narrator. “Still here? Yoo-hoo.” How does death work now?

Violence by Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch

A while ago I wrote an essay because I kept rewriting a chapter instead of just cutting it, and Sarah McCarry read that essay and wrote to me. We both grew up around Seattle, and we both read, write, and wrote zines.

Today she publishes chapbooks too (and soon, a YA novel!). Guillotine offers “revolutionary nonfiction”, gorgeously letterpressed by McCarry herself.  (Readers can buy the chapbooks solo or the Special Editions, which include limited-edition broadsides. My favorite so far is a tie between “Punk Is a Moving Target” and “No More Wire Hangers.”) I appreciate Guillotine’s chapbooks for their sincere diversity—in topic (book banning in occupied territory, writing and rage and madness, the politics of methodology; kerpow) and also in length. Each one could be 300 pages instead of 30 but McCarry keeps them short and sweet, so they spark discussion between readers instead of pointing fingers. The chapbooks are also honest and engaging—no posturing and no academic fog, but no weight sacrificed either.

Violence is the first in the series, it came out in October 2012 and is the transcript of a conversation between writers Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch. They talk about how female experience is restricted in art—how women can really (no, really) only be violent if it’s moral, or vengeful if it’s redemptive. “All conversations are preceded by violence,” writes Veselka in the introduction. “Without our consent, we are marked by the world.” (Consent! On the first page of a book about violence. I did a little fist-pump.) They talk about tears, dick, and desire versus hope—not just what to write but how to tell it.

This is a powerful chapbook that shone new light on Veselka and Yuknavitch’s work as well, and even at the end of some of my own tunnels. By the last page I felt like I’d drank a pot of coffee after a nap, and I was ready to get back out and work.

Episode 356: Daniel Tucker

June 25, 2012 · Print This Article

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This week: Artist, founding member of Area Chicago, singer Daniel Tucker.
Also, after the show Duncan tries his hand at announcing top 40 radio.

Social Practice Art’s identity crisis

February 27, 2011 · Print This Article

Attending Portland State University’s Open Engagement Conference last May, one of my favorite parts was jumping in on the conversations that BAS-ers Duncan Mackenzie, Brian Andrews, and Randall Szott were recording at the local bar around the corner. I went out there with InCUBATE to see how this field of social practice was being articulated across the country and connect with current and former collaborators on this rapidly proliferating but amorphous way of working.The question of what social practice art actually is, who is defining its parameters and to what end, is a hot mess. Since the 1990s, a number of mostly European and North American art critics and historians have struggled to understand a notoriously chaotic set of practices, under an ever changing set of  names including new genre public art, socially-engaged practice, relational art, dialogical aesthetics, etc. While I have no interest in throwing my hat in the art historical ring on that one (and I think the folks over at (ed. correction – ) are doing a good job on talking through the issues), I admit that I like the identity crisis that social practice art is always wrestling with. It’s rapidly becoming professionalized through MFA programs, like California College of Arts, Otis College of Art, and PSU. Yet it also heralds a kind of everyday creativity and social connectivity that is supposedly available to anyone with or without an art degree.

I’ve thought about this with my collaborators at InCUBATE over the last couple years and we’ve participated in a lot of conversations where people tear their hair out trying to figure out where social practice begins and ends. Defining the actual parameters of “social practice art” seems to be a red herring. Sometimes a dinner party should just be a dinner party, sometimes calling a dinner party an art project makes it a richer experience for the individuals participating. Social practice art doesn’t necessarily create more democratic exchange between art and audiences, often times it creates hierarchical distinctions between artists in art school and ordinary people with creative hobbies and interests that don’t have anything to do with an art career. But while it continues to be problematic territory, the larger anxiety it brings up is pretty interesting. How are artists defining the communities their work operates in, especially when traditional contexts such as commercial galleries, museums, and non-profits aren’t the intended landing pad? If one’s work is about engaging publics supposedly outside the artworld and eschewing art-speak when it comes to creative expression, who cares if it’s called art other than social practice artists? The issue then becomes not how to judge social practice within the confines of other art disciplines, but rather how the value of that work is being defined and by who. If social practice offers us anything, it openly asks not what kind of artist one wants to be but what kind of person one wants to be and how one wants their work to operate in the world.

Thinking back to that conference too, I felt a sense of camaraderie from the Chicago contingent (people like Hideous Beast, Sara Black and John Preus, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Shannon Stratton, Randall Szott, and more), something like a mixture of healthy skepticism and a sense that yes, we’ve also been thinking about this for a while now too and let’s get into it. I’ve long been inspired by groups and spaces in Chicago who have taken the art/social-engagement approach (Temporary Services, Mess Hall, Haha, Department of Space and Land Reclamation, Pilot TV, FEELTANK, Experimental Station, AREA Chicago, the Stockyard Institute, just to name a few) and maybe those people would really not like to be lumped into the “social practice” conversation. But to me, their work asks the essential questions about the social and political ramifications of participating in the artworld.

So I hope these Bad at Sports posts on the “social practice scene in Chicago and beyond” somehow incorporate that Chicago attitude that I’m struggling to articulate. I’m going to be doing interviews with Chicagoans and artists from elsewhere, asking them what they think about the audience for their work. For this first post, I interviewed artist, activist and writer Ashley Hunt. I first encountered his work as part of his collaborative project (with David Thorne, Katya Sander, Sharon Hayes & Andrew Geyer), 9 Scripts from a Nation at War at documenta 12 in 2007, a piece which cut directly through the curatorial excess of that sprawling exhibition. Since then I’ve followed his writing in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, An Atlas of Radical Cartography and other places. When he told me he was touring his project Notes on the Emptying of a City, a performance/film about post-Katrina New Orleans, I asked him to do a performance at threewalls, where I work as Program Director.

More on that event is here
More on his work can be found at /

Here is the conversation we had:
AS: I know the background to your latest project, “Notes on the Emptying of the City” started when you joined with a bunch of community organizations to document what was happening in New Orleans post-Katrina. Can you describe what is meant to you to transform what sounded like essentially a documentary process into an experimental narrative that explores your own first-person perspective? Did you feel like the original piece ( “I Won’t Drown on that Levee and You Ain’t Gonna’ Break My Back,” ) the documentary that in turn inspired the performance, in some way didn’t satisfy your own personal feelings about what you witnessed during that time?AH: I think we often get caught up in defining our endeavors according to the institutions and audiences we’re expected to speak to. I’m interested in a more fluid relationship to our institutions and disciplines — be they art, activist, educational, etc — while recognizing the tool sets, vocabulary, capacities and possibilities, positions for speaking and listening that each discipline and institution might provide. There are not particular things that I wish “I Won’t Drown” could have done differently, as it was made within the urgencies of that moment, and it needed to be accountable to those specificities.

For me, this was not a time for critical distance and a good, reflective discussion about aesthetics, history, architecture and race. It was a time for contributing my energies and skills toward the efforts to get people released from jail, for locating family members and protesting the use of “looting” as a pretext to further criminalize and round up storm survivors. It was a time to privilege the voices of people more directly affected by the hurricane, rather than speak to my own experience.

At the same time, a great deal of critical reflection on the politics of aesthetics, witnessing, history, speech, architecture and (especially) race were really eating away at me. “I Won’t Drown” needed to be something that could not offer a terribly rich space for that thinking, nor should it have tried to bring people into a more contemplative relationship to the events. But once “I Won’t Drown” was completed and began to move out into the world, doing what it could do, it did become possible to think and work a bit differently. This allowed me to begin the political work that is rooted in reflection and critical understanding of the world, which I think needs to accompany the political work that is rooted in action.

One might say that this traces a certain relationship between theory and practice — practice was what I was initially compelled in to, but each practice is always constricted by the theories that, at the same time, have enabled it. Theory supplies the vision and describes a possible field for action; yet as each vision or theoretical construct has its limits, so will the practices they inspire; whereas similarly, experimental practices make new theories possible.

For me, “Notes on the Emptying of a City” is a much more theoretical piece, where rather than issue demands and arouse action, I hope for it to act upon our political imagination, from which new possibilities of action might emerge. This is to say that I want it to open a publicly theoretical space for its audiences, one in which some of the most difficult questions of Hurricane Katrina — especially the alienation of its issues from other issues and other histories, the forgetting that surrounds it, and the racialized assumptions built into its narratives — can be taken up critically, and where people who are not only activists (or at least don’t see themselves as such) can participate in the conversation.

AS: Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the different venues for this piece to be performed? The majority that I found through online research included The New Museum, Public Space One in Iowa City and then here at threewalls. I know that a component of this piece is the discussion afterwards that you then archive and becomes part of the work, what was your feeling about presenting this work in these spaces? Not that audiences at these spaces cannot be a diverse bunch, but I imagine there is a big difference in discussion from grassroots community venues that were involved in a campaign to help those incarcerated during Hurricane Katrina to an art museum. How do you see the project functioning differently, and who do you see as the audience for this particular work, versus the original documentary piece produced in tandem with the other activist organizations?AH: What is important to me is to build an audience that is not restricted to the audiences called together by one particular kind of institution or another. In addition to the more official art spaces that you mentioned, I’ve also brought the piece to a prison in upstate New York, to a very public venue in San Juan, a public university a mile from the U.S.–Mexico border, and the debut of the piece was situated at Project Row Houses in Houston, which, while an excellent art institution with an art world presence, also has a deep rooted community profile, with involvement and accountability like no other art organization I know.

Once one gains the possibility of working within art world institutions, one can also push them to mobilize their resources in ways that are accountable to ideas, subjects, communities and actions that are not necessarily ‘of’ the art world already. One can use their position to suggest that these institutions demonstrate a responsibility to communities and value systems beyond the art world, and I believe that I hold a responsibility to help do this wherever I can — which also includes trying to make events free and open to a wider public.

It should also be noted that there are a lot of really good people working in art institutions who do very important work, and more still who would like to do more radical programming but are under a great deal of pressure to sell things and build spectacle. So when I find a curator or programmer who’s willing to take up a more political project, one based upon social rather than economic or market values, I really appreciate that and see it as a form of solidarity. It can be a great chance to help that institution expand its audience to communities who will then place different demands upon the institution, perhaps helping to build a slow turn toward socially-based definitions of art rather than market-based definitions.

The value that I’ve placed upon prioritizing, cultivating and archiving the conversations that have followed the piece from place to place comes in part from my desire to trespass the boundaries that separate different kinds of institutions, but also looking to how the meanings of the piece shift as it is situated within one cultural context versus another. This process intends to provide a space after the performance where the private resonances that have built up for viewers can be brought into a public conversation with other members of that audience, or what I think of as a temporary public, while also becoming a part of a record that follows the life of the piece.

The most stunning thing to me has been the different references — historical, political, in local memory and so forth — that the piece conjures, and the forms of knowledge about the world that these stories of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans can suture together. So far, this has included border issues, colonialism, histories of slavery and state violence, the ghettoization of cities throughout the US and the larger world, and most recently, the political changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, and their relationship to the new labor movement forming right now in the capitol of Wisconsin. Even though these seem like geographically and historically distinct issues, our conversations have allowed us to draw important connections between them, tracing out how they may actually be continuous.

AREA Chicago’s Wants & Needs Auction and 4th Annual Fundraiser

November 29, 2010 · Print This Article

AREA Chicago is having a fundraiser on December 4th – that means this coming SATURDAY and they need you to come party with them to help support their organization, ‘grassroots-style’! All the necessary info and links can be found below; be there or be a four-sided regular polygon!

4th Annual Wants & Needs Auction to benefit AREA Chicago
come party & support AREA Chicago and help us fund future projects, grassroots style!

December 4, 8:00pm – 12:00am
Roots and Culture Gallery, 1034 N Milwaukee — an accessible space
$10 suggested donation

At 9:30 p.m. there will be a live Wants and Needs Auction of Skills, Resources, and Adventures donated by AREA friends, contributors and advisers. Bids for the Auction will start as low as $10. We can accept cash, check or credit card on site. Proceeds from AREA’s Wants and Needs Party will benefit the Spring 2011 issue of AREA on Im/Migration, Issue #11, as well as ongoing mapping and print projects.

Cost of admission gets you one complimentary drink. Items up for bid include: A group acupuncture session followed by a delicious homecooked Indian meal, a custom portrait on black velvet of the revolutionary educator of your choice, dinner with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, Four hours on the Chicago River with the Fantastic AquaCat and much more ranging from the practical to the extravagant.

DJs and dancing to follow.
If you know you cannot make it and would still like to donate,

Facebook Event

Time Out Chicago profile of Wants & Needs

AREA Chicago supports the work of people and organizations building a socially just city. AREA actively gathers, produces, and shares knowledge about local culture and politics. Its newspaper, website, and events create relationships and sustain community through art, research, education, and activism.

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (2/26 & 2/27)

February 24, 2010 · Print This Article

1. Pamela Fraser at Golden Gallery

Golden Gallery, generally a crowd pleaser, is putting up another strong show. This round it consists of works on paper by artist Pamela Fraser. The works (from what I could find and discern) are all abstract, hyper-color pieces. Is “eye candy” a bad word in the art world?

Golden Gallery is located at 816 W. Newport Ave. Opening reception is Friday from 6-9pm.

2. Alumni at David Weinberg Gallery

I went to SAIC for grad school, but I don’t believe that gives me a complete bias for SAIC grad work. However, when I see good work from my fellow alums, I got to give it a shout. David Weinburg is putting on an exhibition of “recent” SAIC grad work, including that of Amy Mayfiled, Noelle Allen, Helen Maurene Cooper, & Michael Ratulowski. If you haven’t seen their work yet (which, if you’ve been in Chicago a while, is unlikely) make sure you stop by. If you already know their work, head over for a refresher on why they’re awesome.

David Weinberg Gallery is located at 300 W. Superior St. Opening reception is Friday from 5-8pm. Read more