An Exploration in Three Parts: Prisons Past and Present at the Sullivan Galleries

November 13, 2012 · Print This Article

Flávio Rodrigues, “I Am a Memory,” proposed memorial project, 2012.

It is difficult then to delve into the past and exhume whole passages of injustice, especially when those passages operate inside of a system one believes to be good. In doing so, one must discuss the significance of trauma, peel back old wounds and attempt in some way to make peace. Or perhaps it isn’t about making peace at all. Perhaps it is instead about admitting and honoring discomfort, frustration and unhappiness, for while it is horrific to admit that there are cracks in the systems we employ, it is worse to gloss over or deny them. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project (CTJM) addresses these issues directly, engaging a local history of police brutality to create a platform for public monuments and discourse.

Rebecca Keller, “Soft Prod,” Fabric sculpture, 2012.

Rather than cover up those horrific moments, CTJM seeks to uncover and air out the darker edges of our past and present, pulling them into focus with the help of survivors, artists, activists, community organizers and lawyers. Together, they invited proposals “for speculative ways to memorialize the torture cases,” in an attempt “to honor the individuals, families, and communities affected by torture, as well as address the obstruction of justice that has occurred in the aftermath.” That call was issued in 2011 and asked for anything from “from architecture to haiku, website to mural, community organization to performance, bronze plaque to large-scale memorial.”

The electrical device used for torture during interrogations by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

“Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” is features 70 of those proposed monuments at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries. The exhibit is  named after a particular torture device (the “black box”) that was used by Officer John Burge to coerce confessions from 1972-1991. Burge is responsible for as many as 200 incidents of torture, many of which involved electrical charges that shocked prisoners. Although legal routes had granted some success, many of the case advocates (lawyers, victims and activists alike) felt that the law was unable to offer adequate retribution. They turned to art. “Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” is one aspect of that process. It is open until December 21st.

William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune. April 4, 2012.

Complementing the theme of that exhibit, the Sullivan Galleries are hosting two additional shows: Laurie Jo Reynold’s Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office,where Reynold’s has effectively installed a working office from which to advocate for the closing of Tamms: a “supermax” prison on the southern tip of Illinois. It opened in 2008, intended as a site for “super shock” treatment that would not extend beyond a year. Now, something like 1/3 of Tamm’s prisoners have been there, non-stop for a decade.”[Inmates] live in long-term isolation—no phone calls, no communal activity, no contact visits. They are fed through a slot in the door. Prisoners at Tamms only leave their cell to shower or exercise which they are allowed to do, depending on their behavioral level, from zero to 7 times per week. Exercise is solitary, in a concrete pen.” Reynolds and her collaborators (including former inmates and inmate family members) also work to connect inmates to the outside world in some way — including, for instance, taking photographs of certain objects at the prisoners’ request. Requests include “the Masonic temple in DC”, “what’s left where the Robert Taylor Homes used to be”, “a heartsick clown with a feather pen”, “my mom in front of a mansion with money and a Hummer”, “Michelle Obama planting vegetables in White House garden”, “any Muslim Mosque or Moorish Science Temple in Chicago or Mecca or Africa”, and “fallen autumn leaves (which we do not have access to in the “concrete box” which is deemed a yard here)”. During their residency at the Sullivan Galleries, Tamms Year Ten continues their regime of activism while planning additional public programs.

Tirtza Even’s Preview: An Assembly from Natural Life (work-in-progress), which  describes itself as “a feature-length documentary produced by SAIC faculty Tirtza Even alongside the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle. The work challenges the inequities in the juvenile justice system by telling the stories of several individuals sentenced to die in prison since youth. The project’s goal is to depict the experiences of these youths who receive the most severe sentences available for convicted adults—a sentence of ‘natural life’ or life without parole—against the contexts of social bias, neglect, apprehension, and alienation.”

It’s a tremendous line up with much to think about and discover and there are a few additional events on the horizon well worth checking out.

Saturday November 17 Claire Pentecost will facilitate a conversation around Photo Requests from Solitary. Men housed at Tamms supermax prison were able to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined, and members of the public realized the pictures. Men formerly housed in Tamms, the family members of current inmates, and other special guests will be on hand to view the photos and respond to the project.

Thursday November 29 Kevin Coval, Darby Tillis, Achy Obejas, Gary Younge, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Krista Franklin and others present I AM A MEMORY: Chicago Writers Against Torture. This evening of readings and performances is dedicated to the survivors, their families, and their communities who endured unspeakable acts of torture at the hands of the Chicago Police.

Saturday December 15 brings the final program. A Film Festival Against Torture presents a daylong screening of three powerful films about torture, featuring discussions with the filmmakers: Peter Kuttner, Cyndi Moran, and Eric Scholl; Jackie Rivet-River and John Lyons; Ines Somer and Kathy Berger.

Jim Duignan, “Salve,” Repurposed cabinetry, soil, succulents, Chicago Police Department service coat button.
2012




Second Round of Layoffs at Art Institute

May 26, 2010 · Print This Article

There’s been a second round of layoffs at the Art Institute of about 65 employees, the Chicago Tribune reported yesterday. The first round of layoffs occurred approximately one year ago, when 22 employees lost their jobs. According to the Tribune, of the 65 layoffs, 50 are security managers.

That the majority of cuts are in the area of security shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that in March the Art Institute cut some of its gallery hours, closing some galleries for one to two hours a day in an effort to cut costs. At the time these “rotating closures” were described as an experiment that could potentially save the Museum $150,000 annually if continued. The cuts in security last week are probably a signal that fewer open hours in some galleries, on a rotating basis, are here to stay.

The other 15 positions cut include staff from the museum education department, retail operations, and the facility/physical plant department.

The Trib says the latest round of layoffs are due to the Art Institute’s “massive budget deficit” resulting from endowment losses of the type that have also been experienced by major U.S. museums such as the Getty in Los Angeles and the Met in New York.




Art, Treasure Hunts, The Tribune & Why I Feel Like Michael J Fox

February 12, 2010 · Print This Article

Over the last 48 hours a story has been jumping around the Chicago art world stirring the minds and causing the hand wringing of countless people. Much of the talk has sadly been via email, Twitter, Facebook & other secondary venues of communication. That story is of the article in the Chicago Tribune about the artwork & marketing done by Patrick Skoff. Mr. Skoff has been taking his work and leaving it around town for people to take for free while giving hints as to locations over the internet.

Some people said it’s bad arts coverage, some people railed against it as playing to the base of humanity, some even wondered what Chicago art coverage has come to post Artner. The general consensus was that this isn’t Art’s coverage and better work is getting skipped; my thoughts are reprinted below from facebook (yea classy I know)……

It’s Entertainment coverage not Arts coverage (and correctly categorized). Honestly is anyone surprised since we continuously seem to exclude/ignore/insult/talk-around the main stream people who read the tribune?

I agree the work/story isn’t that notable (even though I do give kudos to the artist arranging this with the reporter, don’t think for 1 second Christopher Borrelli just happened to be there, this was coordinated, the reporter is as much the artist as the artist in this event) but am I shocked that people will eat this story up in the lack of anything else? No.

People want art in their life, I have seen it, everyday Joe and Jane urban, suburban & rural people love art they just are not being spoken to or at least not spoken to in a vernacular they have any chance to engage in.

Is this new? No. Will this change soon? Probably not. The only thing that grinds me is how everyone is so “shocked” that this is going on every time it happens. I don’t mean you guys as much as people I have had conversations with over the last 5-10 years.

Every time this happens everyone is “amazed” that this gets coverage and not something of more merrit. That is because we don’t talk to them in a way they would be interested or understand and we leave it to people like Borrelli & Skoff to fill the gap.

I swear I feel like Michael J Fox in the “American President” some days, I know I can come off as venal at times but people want Art, they want what that can offer (the creativity, the hope, the joy for the new) and the only people who are doing the talking are people that have nothing really to say. I don’t blame them but we can’t be shocked when the only words that get out are treasure hunts. When by and large everything they love and want we label as modernist and scoff at. There has to be a way to bridge the gap?

Feel more then free to comment by calling 312-772-2780 or emailing us and keep up the good work Chicago even if no one is writing about it.




Forget the Olympics. What the Second City Really Needs is First-Class Art News

October 5, 2009 · Print This Article

Last week was, by many accounts, a humiliating one for Chicago, ending as it did with the announcement that the Second City had been knocked out of contention for the much-coveted 2016 Olympics–in the first round, no less. Given that Chicago had already beaten out numerous other international contenders to reach the final four in the first place I don’t  exactly see why it’s considered such a crushing embarrassment to have come in fourth but, whatever…I  have no dog in that fight. It’s probably just one of the many “Chicago things” that I’ll never fully understand. As an art person, however, I’m far more interested in looking at the blows to civic pride that were delivered earlier last week in the wake of the Tribune’s story on the positive public reaction to J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s outdoor sculpture “God Bless America.” Yeah, you know the one. This one:

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Written by Trib reporter Steve Johnson, the article was framed by this headline: “What does popularity of God Bless America sculpture say about public art in Chicago?” This, I think, was precisely the wrong boldfaced header to attach to an article about a sculpture that has been borrowed from the Sculpture Foundation and is not, in fact, meant to be a permanent part of the city’s landscape of public art. Although the Trib’s article does make passing reference to this fact, the headline seems to imply that “God Bless America” somehow holds similar status as the Picasso, Calder or Kapoor pieces do in the city’s world-class lineup of public art.

For better or worse, Steve Johnson’s story gained a degree of national attention, not as much from Chicago’s art crowd as from arts writers elsewhere in the country. On September 30th the L.A. Times’ chief art critic Christopher Knight linked to the Trib article on his Twitter feed with the comment: “Is J. Seward Johnson trying to be America’s Worst Artist?” A few days later Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City wrote a post titled “Bad Public Art Finds Audience in Chicago” containing a point-by-point takedown of Steve Johnson’s main arguments, which he set up as follows:

“Critics can wag fingers at it — and some do — but God Bless America meets some of the fundamental tests of public art. It is noticed, it is appreciated, and, in many cases, it provokes reflection on what makes an art work original.”

I drove by “God Bless America” last week. Parking is monstrous downtown so I couldn’t stop to get out and walk around it, which is too bad, since public art–like all art–needs to be experienced in situ in order to be fully understood and appreciated. Nevertheless, I can’t offer any viable counter-arguments to Knight and Paddy Johnson’s assertions that the sculpture makes for some pretty bad art. Sure, I could attempt some sort of cultural studies-style analysis of how people actually relate and respond to the sculpture in real life (a more populist form of which Steve Johnson was basically attempting in his Trib article) but my heart wouldn’t be in it. Knight’s snarky question was a valid one, and Art Fag City’s post was in keeping with its editor’s ongoing deconstructions of the more egregious myths about contemporary art and its reception–the Trib’s article, sadly, providing a prime example of just the sort of superficial arguments that so often inform those myths.

As far as I know the Trib’s Steve Johnson isn’t an art critic or an arts journalist. He’s a thoughtful and smart culture reporter who was interested in the popular reaction to a popular work of public art in his city. My beef certainly isn’t with Mr. Johnson or with the quality of the article he wrote. It’s with the fact that Johnson’s was one of the rare  “news” stories about art in Chicago that the Trib has published over the past few months. And I straight-up disagree with that particular choice of story.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even though I’m not saying anything everyone who lives here doesn’t already know: it’s a damn shame that a city of the size and cultural prominence of Chicago does not have a national voice for its art scene, a newspaper art critic of the stature of Christopher Knight who could have written about Seward’s sculpture from a critically informed art historical viewpoint as well as the more straightforwardly populist one put forth by the Trib (or, better yet, would have chosen not to make this into a story at all, given that there’s nothing particularly timely or newsworthy about it).

This is not a city of people who know nothing about art and architecture, nor do Chicagoans evince a “fear” of the rigorous discourse that often accompanies discussion about those subjects. So why does the Trib cover art as if it its readership needs hand-holding and spoon-feeding via articles that essentially give us permission to look no further than a work of public art’s most spectacular effects?

Chicago needs at least one real art journalist with a national platform to represent this city to the rest of the country, if not the world (and by “art” here I mean fine art, not theater, dance, music, etc.  if that’s not already obvious). Clearly, other arts writers across the country are still paying attention to the Trib’s art coverage and looking specifically (and exclusively) to that paper for news and insight into Chicago’s art scene and its art public. The problem is that the Trib is relying on reporters who have no in-depth art backgrounds to cover art news in this city–no dog in the fight, as it were–and frankly I find the effects of this to be somewhat humiliating.

Chicago needs a high-profile newspaper writer who is both a critic of and an advocate for the city’s art; not a booster but a person who will draw attention to bad decisions and art world folly while at the same time placing new developments within a larger cultural and historical context. Chicago’s art bloggers simply aren’t able to bear that responsibility, not because of a lack of talent but from a serious lack of time, money and resources. My advice to the Trib: get freelancer Lori Waxman on staff and make her a reporter or something–I don’t fucking care, but Chicago needs to cultivate its own Chrisopher Knight some way or another. Until we do, we risk letting writers from other cities steer the discourse on Chicago art. We owe it to ourselves not to let that continue.




Kathryn Born Asks Do Republicans Suck At Art or Just Too Busy Stealing to Care?

August 19, 2009 · Print This Article

Kathryn Born who is building a little corner of Art talk and opinion under the roof of the Chicago Tribune asks a lot of conversation starting questions every now and then to get the mind racing but most recently the Tribune home page front page story “Obama as The Joker: another image co-opted by conservatives because they don’t have art of their own” has her taking the political zeitgeist by the horns and goring herself.

The question is do Republicans make decent let alone good artists and why are they incapable of making political artwork of merit. Mix that with a bit of background history on the Obama Joker image that came out over 2 weeks ago. It has been discovered that the image was first created by a Chicago History Student at U of I by the name of Firas Alkhateeb who made a faux Time Magazine cover with a photo of Obama photoshoped to look like the Joker. That image was put on his flickr account and then appropriated by a currently unknown person on the west coast and the Time reference was removed and the Tagline “Socialist” was put in it’s place.

The question it seems is what is the role of Art in Politics, does political art have legs to have lasting impact as art or is it limited to only high water marks in history? Then finally what is the problem with Republicans and their inability to make quality political art? Are they too busy drawing paychecks to draw altogether? From one agitator to another, I salute Ms. Born and suggest a 2004 Siduri Sonoma County Pinot Noir which goes well with shoe leather as I well know from experience.