Last winter, I had the chance to interview Lindsey French, Gulsah Mursaloglu, Sarah Ross, and A. Laurie Palmer, about a collaborative exhibition they participated in with artists and students at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts in Gary, Indiana. Featuring maps, photographs, videos, and books, At The Headwaters (November 6-22, 2015) explored the Calumet River—a series of highly industrialized waterways connecting Lake Michigan, Chicago, and Indiana. With its French Colonial name and a directional flow that humankind has changed to serve its trading needs over the years, it muddles any delineation between culture and nature. The Calumet is Anthropocenic and At The Headwaters traces its relationship to petcoke, steel, international trade, and the pollution it produced.
Caroline Picard: What made you all interested in the Calumet River? How did you decide to work with students?
Lindsey French: We were interested particularly in it as the site of petcoke deposits, a petroleum by product that was being stored open air along the Calumet River. When we decided to choose this site last fall, petcoke was in the news, and as we learned more, its reach spread not just airborne to the local community, but its effect and implication extended to sites like the Alberta Tar Sands and ourselves and the petroleum industry, of course. We also chose this site for balloon mapping because balloon mapping affords the potential to capture a map of a place in a particular moment of time – distinguishing it from a more standard, or maybe public, view from google earth. So while pet coke might have drawn us to the site, we were also interested in the Calumet’s particular as complicated role as an industrial river.
Gulsah Mursaloglu: Also we were interested in the Calumet river as a site that is so proximate to us, but one that we know very little about. In a way it was an attempt to fill one of the holes in our knowledge about the environment that surrounds us.As we started researching we became more interested in the pet coke deposits and how it was affecting the local community. Since Calumet is a particularly dynamic site as Lindsey said it became important to capture an image of the site at that specific moment in time.
A. Laurie Palmer: The Calumet also offers a condensed and multi-sensory experience of industrial history more generally, as others have said, at a particular point in time when it is disappearing, or has disappeared, leaving the mounds of jumbled parts, wastes, and abandoned steel yards now used for storage for another kind of materiality that is not so much human-made, as in manufactured, but machine-made, as in captured flue gas, pulverized coke. While none of us wanted to do ruin tourism, there is something to be said about the stimulating effects of a cold boat-ride on a clear november day with close to 70 curious people; there is something to be said about amping up sensory engagement even as the experience was initiated as a critical practice of DIY sensing, and of putting ones body there, in the thick of it, holding onto the other end of the balloon.
CP: Can you describe the project and how it came about? Why make an exhibition? How did the works on display come into existence for this project?
GM: The project started as a balloon mapping collaboration between three classes at SAIC. Our initial aim was to have a different perspective of the site through the balloon mapping process; all of the classes were interested in how we understand geographies and how our understanding of these geographies are so much determined by our limited visions. After our research and balloon mapping experience on the Calumet river and the things that we learned through conversations with the community members we wanted to present these findings in the format of an exhibition. We wanted this exhibition to be presented in Miller Beach which is one of the sites that are affected by the petcoke deposits and we wanted to share our findings and present a different vision on the location to the local community. The works in the exhibition vary from documentation of our boat trip to knitted maps, to the balloon which was the departure point to everything, to works that are made after the boat trip as a reflection to our trip and findings.
CP: Would you consider the river a collaborator? How? And do you consider the river in the same way now that you did when you began?
LF: The river is perhaps the element in this project with the strongest, or maybe most consistent, influence. But strong and consistent in a more liquid sense, in the sense that it was a structural force that moved between the industrial sites on each bank and moved us between those sites. But also in the sense that it was this strong, central feature that shaped our understanding of the project, and also allowed us to think about its influence as it leaked out of this site and into neighborhoods, into the city, into the tar sands in Alberta, into us as inextricable from the materials it moved and the social and political spaces it shaped. As we were discussing how to organize the show the river as a structural feature came about really early, a form around which everything else was organized. Speaking for myself here, I think if we didn’t approach it as collaborators we might not have been as open to understanding our own liquid qualities.
Sarah Ross: I would just add that, for me, the river is a collaborator in the same way that a freeway is. The river is a highway for goods, raw materials, and only sometimes used for recreation. In this way, it is an ecosystem in the most broad sense. It is part of my ecosystem because it facilitates all manner of materials that I use. Other work I’ve done looks at river systems that move materials so I understood the way ‘natural’ features are part of industrial systems. But moving down the Calumet it was pretty amazing. The river was engineered and modeled for industry. The turning basins, concrete embankments, and lack of trees or marsh was pretty astonishing. It is all industrial.
CP: What privilege does/did the boat offer you all? And what about the balloon?
LF: The boat afforded this particular opportunity to travel while mapping. In earlier projects, mapping was done from a relatively static location. On the boat, we could move along the length of the river, generating an aerial view for a much longer length of the Calumet. Maybe even more significantly, it located us in the physical position of the river, and of the materials that travel down it. We could momentarily position ourselves as materials traveling the industrial river. The balloon gave us an extension of sight, an augmentation of vision, like other lens-based viewing apparati. We talked a lot about the balloon vision—the lo-fi but high-altitude perspective of the balloon.
ALP: and just to add to that, again, our bodies there too, being watched by the balloon too – not absent staring at a screen in a distant relation to the place being mapped—but feeling, smelling, sensing the place at the same time.
CP: How do your roles as teachers/students function within the process of organizing and producing this exhibition?
SR: We met with students over the summer, almost on a monthly basis to figure out how the show could work. Since we had collectively gathered data—images, video, sound, etc.,—we used that as the basis for the work. We thought of the work as a collaborative endeavor, which might be a different starting point for some students who are often encouraged to make their own work, for their own portfolio, etc. But since it was a huge group effort to do the balloon mapping, it only made sense to approach the work in this way. As teachers, we contributed the same way students did, sometimes more and sometimes less. We acted as initiators of the process, we set meeting dates, etc. but the production was quite an open, dialogic process.
ALP: To do the balloon mapping expedition, we had to be collaborative to start with, and since so much of the material generated from that initial trip was documentary, and it was shared experience that was being documented if by lots of different eyes, it only made sense to think together about the show. And then we invited other artists to join in at Miller Beach, some whom we knew had already been involved with thinking about the rivers in Chicago and related environmental justice questions.
CP: It sounds like you all are interested in a kind of mapping for this show. Is that true and if so, can you talk about how/why that impulse plays out in this project?
GM: Since everything started with the idea of balloon mapping—having a different perspective on a site—we wanted the idea of mapping to be the framework for the show. We knitted digital maps from the images we have gathered through the balloon. We are interested in mapping as a way of representing a space/location; because it is a particular way that grants the maker agency and creativity. A map of the Calumet river that will be built in 3-d will act as a spine through the exhibition, both physically and conceptually. This format allows us as creative makers to both represent our findings and observations and reflect on it.
ALP: That map or spine that structures the show was beautifully elaborated and manifested by Lindsey French’s current Experimental Geographies class, a group of students who weren’t even on the original boat trip. This was another kind of collaboration, their taking that idea and running with it. The idea of the map came in part because the exhibition space at Miller beach is so huge, and it is rare to have the opportunity to expand into such a large space. The map acts as a kind of locator for visitors, in an otherwise open space, providing potential paths, directions, way-finding, and complicating the space without putting up vertical barriers.
At the Headwaters featured the work of Marissa Lee Benedict, Nathan Braunfield, Samantha Chao, duskin drum, Corey Hagelberg, Brian Holmes, Sarah Lewison, Frances Emma Lightbound, Gulsah Mursaloglu, Thomas Newlands, Allyson Packer, Dan Peterman, Alix Shaw, Koy Suntichotinun, Jan Tichy, Fereshteh Toosi, Maurice Walker, Patrick Zapien, and students in KnowledgeLab, EcoSensing and the Soundscape, and Experimental Geographies classes at SAIC; with organizers Lindsey French, A. Laurie Palmer, and Sarah Ross.
Work by Lorelei Stewart and featuring artists Marianne Fairbanks, Fultonia, 96 Acres, Jason Lazarus, Cauleen Smith, Jan Tichy, and Amanda Williams.
Gallery 400 is located at 400 S. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Maddie Reyna.
Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Kelly Kaczynski.
PeregrineProgram is located at 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.
Work by Marissa Lee Benedict and Phil Peters.
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Work by Noelle Garcia.
Ordinary Projects is located at 2233 S. Throop St. 5th Fl. Reception Saturday, 6-9pm.
JT: No, we approached the Chicago Housing Authority. They own the land and the building. Itâ€™s a large project, and expanding all of the time. When I say we, first and foremost Iâ€™m working with my partner, Efrat Appel. She is a social worker and editor. We developed the idea and at a certain point went to look for connections in the neighborhood. We met Cabrini Connections, Marwen and After School Matters. Then there are numbers of SAIC students who work in student work groups to collaborate on the projects. Itâ€™s important to me that the exchange is not â€œcome help me on this project and I will give you credit,â€ but is on the level of something more educational and important. And really none of this would’ve been possible without the support of Richard Gray Gallery who helped me approach the CHA and who made the project financially possible.
DG: Then I guess the proper question would be what made you want to work with Cabrini Green as a site?
JT: My work at times has a political or social aspect. There was a time when I was living in Israel with the political situation, with its racism, with Jews against Arabs or even Jews against Jews with a different color of skin. And in coming to Chicago, itâ€™s here as well.
I also think that the notion of working with housing projects came about through working with Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.Â It was a very different collaboration with my students from SAIC. We lit it up from inside. By working on the campus of IIT and exploring with the students not only the architecture but what was happening around we began to feel that the absence of the Robert Taylor Homes was very strong. It had only been a few years since they had been torn down. Because we were working on lighting the building we changed the class time to from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
JT: Well … you know … the students liked it in the end. Taking students from IIT to the Red Line at 5 a.m. safely just wouldnâ€™t have been possible a few years ago. I havenâ€™t lived here before so it wasnâ€™t like I noticed. But at IIT we were interviewing students, faculty and neighbors so it was clear that it had had a huge impact on the local community.
Another impetus was a commission for a private collection in the former Montgomery Ward building that I worked on. While learning about the building I found out that it was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also built the World Trade Center, and who in 1954 designed the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis.Â They were torn down after just 16 years. Architecture critic and writer Charles Jencks later pointed to that moment as the end of Modern architecture. The first time that we were tearing down this Modern dream.
The Montgomery Ward building itself had to go through this makeover to become what it is today, from offices to condos. So the notion of demolition and destruction together with 9/11 and was all sitting right across the street practically from the row houses. So that brought me closer to Cabrini.
But I guess the possibility of relating to a historical moment was very clear. Cabrini is the last [high rise housing project] to go down and this is the last building to go down.
DG: How do you see your intervention acting to elucidate or animate that historical moment?
JT: It was very clear to me from the beginning that projection (which is the tool that Iâ€™m usually working with) projecting on, imposing an image, wouldnâ€™t work here. To project on a building is to come from the outside. And realizing the potential of the emptiness that needs to be filled; it needs to be filled from the inside.
Therefore we went to the neighborhood, to the kids. People who should have the opportunity to raise his or her voice about this issue, to get a different attention. Cabrini Green got a specific kind of attention. Everyone was writing about Cabrini but only when somebody was killed. Nobody was paying attention when the other things were happening. So this is a way to give to the next generation, to the kids who came from there, a way to express, to be heard, to be seen and to be empowered.
So we started to work with partners in the community like Cabrini Connections, a tutor-mentor program and with Marwen Foundation that is also in the neighborhood, but serving kids from around the city. Several of the kids from Cabrini Connections actually lived in the apartments in the last building. Other kids, from Marwen were also mostly from low income housing, but not only. For the kids who donâ€™t know Cabrini, the approach was obviously different, it was more learning about the history.
DG: What is the nature of the kids’ contribution?
JT: I was thinking about how to help give voice to someone in a public space and also in my other work about the relationship between light and sound. If we can translate the message, or whatever the kids want to say, to light.
The workshops that we hold with the kids includes some information about public art, what it can do and about light and sound art as a means of gathering attention. Then we begin to talk about general issues about home and housing. At a certain point we introduce slam poetry, a form that is from Chicago and at a certain point the kids themselves start to write. When they are done with their poems they perform them. Their performances will then be translated into a modulated light display.
DG: So each individual kidâ€™s voice will light a room in the last building?
JT:Â We record the audio of the performance and program it into the control chips for the LEDâ€™s. We thought when we began that we might only be able to get 30-40 kids, but weâ€™ve had such a great response that weâ€™ve recorded nearly 100 kids. Weâ€™re trying to get to 134, because their are 134 apartments in the building. I felt that during the workshops that there was something really important happening with the kids that were not only from public housing. We felt that we could extend this dialogue to include area kids that werenâ€™t as directly effected.
There is another layer to this educational aspect, in that I look to the example of Moholy-Nagy. Heâ€™s close to me not just in working with light, but a lot in education. This is also something that came to me when I was working on Crown Hall. Both Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe came to Chicago at more or less the same time, from the same place for basically the same purpose, but they were completely different, not only as artists, but as educators and thinkers. Mies was like â€˜That is how you do things, cause thatâ€™s how I do it.â€™ Whereas Moholy-Nagy was much more collaborative, with faculty working with students on a project, trying to bring the students into the community from the very beginning. These aspects of his example are important. And that was also part of the idea at Crown Hall, was to do this very Moholy-Nagy workshop inside of a Mies structure. And there the idea that I brought was very simple. Just to light up the inside of the building, the rest was figured out in collaboration. I see myself as an artist / teacher, teacher / artist.
Here the idea is simple, just to light up the inside of the building with voices, but still as the project grows their is more and more opportunities for students and creative experience.Â Sound students made the sound equipment, and make the recordings. Faculty and students from the Art and Technology Department are constructing the LED kits.
The demolition starts the day after the installation of the lights and will last between 4 to 6 weeks, so every day there will be less and less lights, as they are demolished with the building. The electronics will be salvaged from the wreckage during the recycling process of the debris. The thing is we donâ€™t really know what it will look like!Â A mock-up wonâ€™t help me.
DG: Is that at all scary?
JT: It is!Â While I am working only with white light, I do expect that the effect will have color, reflecting off of the painted walls in the apartments, being more clearly visible because the windows have been removed prior to demolition.
JT: Someone was trying to make it nice, to make it a home.
DG: In the building is the audio also available?
JT:Â No, itâ€™s just the blinking because you wouldnâ€™t be able to hear it from the street anyway.Â The audio will be available online as a web component with an interactive digital model of the building. Youâ€™ll be able to click each apartment and hear all 134 poems performed.Â The poems will also be published.
There is also a gallery component at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Cabrini has always been close to the Gold Coast, close yet so far away. I mean itâ€™s a 9 minute walk from Cabrini to the MCA. But the gap between these two is huge. I thought it would be interesting to bring it live to the MCA. Another group of students from SAIC are working on making a live feed of the installation available 24/ 7 for the 4-6 weeks in the MCA.
DG: This is a colossal project!
JT: I was just thinking about that. Its obviously growing over my head and Iâ€™m really glad that itâ€™s happening in two weeks so it canâ€™t grow any more!
Guest post by Julia V. Hendrickson
Notes on a Conversation.
Withâ€”Arielle Bielak (Coordinator of Alumni Programs & Exhibitions at the Marwen Foundation)
Inâ€”Marwenâ€™s classrooms and galleries, 833 N. Orleans St, Chicago, IL
Commencedâ€”on Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011, 7:00â€“7:30pm
Unless you grew up in Chicago, there is an art school in River North that youâ€™ve probably never heard of. Marwen is a particular kind of secret, one that is kept by this cityâ€™s young people. Offering free visual art classes to underserved Chicago youth in grades 6 through 12, this non-profit organization has a mission of wide-reaching creative education. Despite its low profile along the well-trodden Chicago artways, if you are a creative person and you start to ask around, I bet youâ€™ll find at least one person that you know who has a connection to the school.
I started assisting with classes this summer, and it is to Marwenâ€™s credit that the educators often learn a lot there, too. The environment is incredibly supportive, and it is so rewarding to interact with young people who are actively excited about creativity, while watching creative projects unfold before your eyes. Students do projects outside of Marwen’s walls, too, such as working with artist Jan Tichy and the MCA on Project Cabrini Green: a public piece with LED lights illuminating the last days of the housing project, blinking in time to audio recordings (which will be available at the MCA), allowing young people to share stories about home, community, and public housing in Chicago.
Marwen also holds another well-kept secret; on the second floor of the building lies a contemporary art space called the Untitled gallery. Designed to connect Marwen alumni with each other and back to the school, it is also an added educational component, with an aggressive exhibition schedule and powerful presentations by contemporary local and international artists. In 2010 the galleryâ€™s exhibits showcased radical printmakers from Oaxaca, Mexico; emerging artists from Mexico City and Chicago; contemporary fiber and sculptural works; photographs from the Ukraine and Chicago; and more.
Coming up in the Untitled gallery, the exhibit opening April 1st is a curatorial project of mine, group show called Territories. It will feature works on paper by Suzanne Caporael, Ryan Travis Christian, and B. Ingrid Olson; paintings by J. Austin Eddy, Erika Hess, and Ryan Ingebritson; sculptural work by Maria Gaspar, Jessica Taylor, Matt Nichols, JosuÃ© Pellot, and Kevin Reiswig; experimental video by Russell Weiss; zines from Anne Elizabeth Moore via Cambodia; and a performance piece by Aurora Tabar and Sara Zalek.
My friend and colleague, Arielle Bielak, is the Untitled gallery coordinator, as well as a talented photographer in her own right. She is very much the driving force behind this gallery, and I asked her to answer some questions about her life and work. [Note: all of the photographs that follow are copyright Arielle Bielak].
AB: The Untitled Gallery at Marwen, formerly known for nine years as the Alumni Gallery, shed its Title in 2010. The whole shift is a culmination of years of hard work and relationship building with alumni, art educators, artists and curators. Its main inspirations are the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Antonia Contro, Sadie Woods, and the Arts Club of Chicago. The gallery is as unique as the building and community that it holds. It is due for a logo treatment and slick neon sign at its entrance.
My choices in artists and co-curators in 2010 were pretty intuitive, steeped with international aesthetics, microcontroller technology, and a sense of wonder. The whole run was organized around a Marwen sensibility of gallery education, a huge commitment to engage students and alumni at several levels, and a deep desire to manifest the art of social justice and the social justice of art.
2011 is moving forward with all of the direction of 2010, but there is a greater collaboration with other staff and programs in the Untitled space.
AB: I migrated to Chicago from New York via Virginia after an intensive yearlong stint working in the Big Apple Circus. I knew instinctively that I needed to get myself to Chicago, and settle directly in the middle of this big-ass country that I had bi-coastally divided and tangentially traversed for six years. Chicago was a dual return and a beginning. Marwen was the embodied trifecta of professional, personal, and creative desires I held in 2005. I did a lot of physical labor to allow myself to stay long enough in Chicago to meet the job of my dreams, and as it turns out, the marriage of Marwen, Chicago, and me was a powerful catalyst. I sit here today as a born again Chicagoan, and a self-proclaimed artist. This was not something that I had the proper huevos to declare before 2007. I believe in what I am doing here and everywhere I go. This is a magical and powerful home base.
AB: A three year stint doing photo and installation work with Deadline Projects was nearly neck in neck with my relationship with Marwen. Walking into Marwen’s front door I was making stuff that was strongly influenced by a Miami aesthetic, and infused by an Etsy and glitchy nerdtech aesthetic. This is of course thanks to the other artists in the collective. What does that translate as literally? BIG photos. Narrative. Humor. Dressing up my dad and sister as the Anglo god and Satan, respectively, and putting them into a hotel room bed. Pressing a shutter. Gold leaf crutches.
Even FURTHER before, if you want to know, I wasn’t really making art as much as I was traveling around with a death grip on the body of an AE-1 that my dad gave me in the early 1990s. Later it was a Nikon D70 that I gave myself when I was 20. I pressed those shutters thousands of times around the people and musicians from the Warped Tour and Take Action Tour who were there alongside me trying to cope with and raise awareness around depression and suicide.
In the circus it was a similar story. I was going for anything that moved in the circus with that D70. I didn’t share much of any of that work with a public audience other than bragging about the circus a lot.
I’m sure that all of this was influenced by the time i spent in Florence in 2001 as a terrified art student abroad during the whole debacle of 9/11. How can I explain this time? People around me were setting miniature radios into jello molds and calling it art, while I convinced my TA and best friend to do my sculptural bidding for me as I stood there shocked and speechless.
AB: Nice question, Julia. You know it’s hard.
It is also paradoxically the most supportive environment in my universe. Go figure.
I find that the overwhelming amount of artists in my life force me to draw on my memories and photos from the past in order to find paradox. It also pushes me into the role of curator, and then further into the role of producer. I am drawn to the most powerful, dedicated and radical voices among the artists who approach me as an advocate of their vision. I seek out different experiences in my limited spare time. I seek out architects and free Spanish classes. I seek out Mexico City. I look into microscopes. I curate the artistic energy that I find all around me into elaborate and spontaneous happenings in my personal time.
Evolution? In my own mind, my creativity moves as a more fluid, performative, and elegant animal than ever before. My formative beginnings are less pronounced, and more sublime, embedded. I am myself. I am not concerned as much with being inauthentic. I am all of my thirty years, and more.
JH: How do you sustain communication with Marwen alumni, and keep a network of all of the working artists out there? Do you see yourself tapped into a unique contemporary art scene? Do Marwen alums network and organize as twenty and thirty year olds?
AB: If Marwen had a soul, that soul is the confluence of the individual and the greater artistic spirit. Alumni are the proof, the echo, the rhythm of that phenomenon. It is my honor and pleasure to learn how to converse with those who continue to feel connected and inspired by Marwen. It is my challenge to reach out to those who are doing great things and have not reconnected. I do this strategically and organically. I talk to people all the time. I talk and I listen. I email and I collaborate. I support and am supported.
Lately, I have been in awe of the possibilities that our new website promises for alumni in particular, and I can’t wait to move into this new and exciting mode of communication with more of Marwen’s former students. I can see clearly that more alumni will reconnect with each other, their own artistic practice, scholarship, job and exhibition opportunities.
And, yes, of course people network as twenty and thirty year olds. Some do it completely naturally, based on long-established bonds that I could never fully understand. Others come to me looking to help them reconnect with old friends. I’m also planning a pretty promising alumni reunion and exhibition this August.
This artistic universe, at which Marwen is the center, is completely unique, and 90% of every person who experiences this place understands this. You simply cannot find another place in this time and space that establishes such a fluidity of learning and artistic expression across generations, experience, and discipline. The work here isn’t being made or shown anywhere else. Art is always the queen.
Julia V. Hendrickson is a native of eastern Ohio who lives and works as a visual artist, writer, and curator in Chicago, Illinois. In 2008 she graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art and a minor in English from The College of Wooster (Wooster, Ohio). Julia is currently the gallery manager at Corbett vs. Dempsey, as well as the office manager and design assistant for Ork Posters. She is a teaching assistant at the Marwen Foundation, an active member of the Chicago Printers Guild, and has taught at Spudnik Press. A freelance art critic and writer for Newcity, Julia also keeps a blog called The Enthusiast, a documentation of the daily things that inspire, intrigue, and inform. She is currently exhibiting at Anchor Graphics (Columbia College Chicago) in a solo show titled FANTASTIC STANZAS, on view through March 26th.