Over the past ten plus years, Laura Shaeffer has been the entrepreneur and custodian behind a number of projects housed within a handful of unconventional— and often under utilized— spaces on the Southside of Chicago, including Home Gallery, The Op Shop and Southside Hub of Production (SHoP). Her approach is a combination of activism and common sense; community building and home-making. She honors domestic spaces as sites of radical, informal pedagogy, and this manifests itself in an important through line that runs across her projects; they act as platforms for kids to express their creativity and imagination, and indulge their curiosity. Alongside immersing them in art and cultural production, an important byproduct of this is kids’ engagement with other kids, families, neighbors and neighborhoods.
By remaining open, nurturing organic expansion and leveraging intuition, Shaeffer stewards growth rather then shoehorning artists into rigid themes or mapping them onto discrete timelines. She recounts the combination of circumstance and serendipity that led to the recent closing of SHoP and subsequent re-opening of Home Gallery for us, and outlines her influences, collaborators and thoughts on sustainability and longevity below.
When John Preus, Mike Phillips, founder of South Side Projection, and I first started thinking about SHoP as a community cultural hub, we talked a lot about a need we all saw for a more un-programmed life, where idle time can be productive and where relationships have time and space to develop, between people, artists and generations. I love the idea of stewarding growth, looking after, caring for and managing an exhibit as a way of curating through encouraging artists to be more present and participate in the exhibit after the opening in ways that could make their work more accessible to others and in return inspire further thought and exploration on what it means to be an artist in our current culture, especially a more publicly or socially engaged artist. I tend to work intuitively and gravitate toward others who do as well. Working on shows with John and Alberto Aguilar was incredibly inspiring, they are both extremely challenging and creative thinkers. I found that a very good sense of humor and irony is most important in this kind of work and we were able to make each other laugh at the most crucial times.
One common interest John and I shared with others who helped found this project, as parents and artists, was to create spaces for exhibitions, learning and socializing where children and older folks alike would come and be in an environment that was heterogeneous and allowed for spontaneous interactions. We talked a lot about the Piazza, the Town Square, the Adventure Playground movement, public places where everyone gathered, young and old to have a drink, converse, play freely, or make things… and to linger into the evenings. We also wanted a cultural space where we could bring our kids and they’d have their own environment in which to create together so we set up what we called the Autonomous Making Space (silly name we know) for them to explore their own ideas, and make up their own activities, structures, and games. SHoP drew much of its inspiration from the Junk/Adventure Playground movement begun in the 30′s in Europe by C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect. These playgrounds become centers, accessible to the entire community, a place to gather and play freely and to develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Like the Adventure Playground, we wanted our Hub space to encourage children and adults to interact with and learn from each other. Ultimately, we wanted to create a space for people to feel ownership and take responsibility for the space itself because it exists as a result of their own efforts and brings the larger community together.
In terms of spaces that have provided a source of inspiration, there are so many. Several are in Finland; Hirvitalo, a Contemporary Art Center, founded in 2006 as a cultural space in Pispala, Finland, a deeply kindred spirit; Pixelache, a transdisciplinary platform for experimental art, design, research and activism co-created by artist Andrew Paterson whom I had the good fortune to meet in 2007 at the Pedagogical Factory by Jim Duignan, founder of Stockyard Institute, who is a very significant inspiration for SHoP. Places like Experimental Station, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Mess Hall, Comfort Station and North Branch have provided guidance and inspiration as well. There are too many individual artists, projects and people to mention, who have been collaborators and co-producers over the years. Collaborations like Material Exchange, Kultivator and WochenKlausur have also been very influential.
After the Fenn house was supposedly sold (it is now back on the market!), we were charged with the daunting task of reducing the accumulated contents of a 16 room mansion to fill a 20 foot sea container, to be driven away and parked on the Resource Center’s land (thanks to the generous help and support of both Ken Dunn and Ken Schug and some wonderful volunteers). We had all grieved the loss of that beautiful space before we moved, but the lightness of being I personally experienced shortly thereafter made it clear that it is not the space itself, but the people who make the space meaningful through their care, their energy and their creativity. That location, while at once magical and wonderful, and which provided so much space for learning for us all, was also much more demanding than any Op Shop or Home Gallery exhibit and we really needed time to reflect, regroup and re-organize ourselves if we were to become a sustainable center for the community.
I suppose the decision to open up Home Gallery again was a combination of circumstance and intention. We invited some of the artists that played a large role in SHoP as well a few new ones to our private home to intervene with our “private lives” in ways that would alter or disrupt our routines and as well, help us ease the transition back home and frankly, tend to the spaces that had been neglected while running a 16 room grass roots community arts center for almost 2 years. Our tiny home became the focus for the continuation of concepts and ideas we had been working with on a larger scale at Fenn House, allowing us to explore the more domestic and private side of these ideas.
The question of how we will continue to nurture and grow our projects outside of the traditional constraints of traditional organizational structures and frameworks is a very good one. We are discussing and further questioning this all the time. What might we gain by adopting a more organized structure and what might we stand to lose? As an art project, The Op Shop had a sense of freedom and extreme fluidity, SHoP for the 15 months of it’s existence at Fenn continued to enjoy that fluid, flexible and organic quality… but how long can that be sustained? Eventually a project has to grapple with these questions, I admire projects like Mess Hall who knew from the get go that they would not opt to become a non -profit and had a very clear vision for their mission in this sense. I feel we are still questioning the whole issue of becoming a non-profit and what that implies and how it impacts the project itself. In some ways we will not know before hand but one suspects that there might be a loss of this sense of intuitive process, fluid practice and to be honest, we may get away with much less. On the other hand, money is an issue and funding is needed if we are to continue in any long term way. I am and we are obviously conflicted about this issue!
Maybe artists and others who are attracted to unconventional spaces to view and think about art, like the mansion, the small townhome, the porch, the back yard gallery, the storefront, the park, and various unexpected public spaces, are more likely to want to examine their role in social change, themes of modern urban life in spaces that are themselves a challenge. There are artists who have certainly been repelled. I like the story of one artist who had proposed a project for an exhibit at SHoP, was invited to participate, and showed up on a typical day for us, where kids were hammering pieces of wood together on the front steps, students were running a yard sale in the front yard, some seniors were playing bridge inside, the house was buzzing with activity preparing for the installation of the next show. I saw a looming figure outside the house and then I saw him disappear, I asked a friend if they knew why this artist left the scene without coming in to meet us (I knew him from his resume and photos) She said that he ‘didn’t want to show his work in a house run by unprofessional hippies.’ This artist never responded to us again. I could see his point, but I love general (orchestrated) chaos, so I guess that’s my fate.
As told to Thea Liberty Nichols via email, June 2013.
All images courtesy of Home Gallery and SHoP.
I was recently invited to contribute an essay to a forthcoming publication on The Stockyard Institute’s (SI) 2010 exhibition “Nomadic Studio.” It was a treat to look back and think through their amazing show and its constellation of programming and events. It actually felt like stars had crossed when I met Jim Duignan, founder of SI, at one of Nomadic Studio’s many workshops– we got to talking, and the next thing I knew, I was reviewing the exhibition, and then curating work into it and organizing and moderating a panel discussion for it! Duignan’s enthusiasm is contagious, but his true strength lies in his ability to inspire. Hopefully the 499 words below capture some of that, and recount just a handful of the art and ideas Stockyard Institute has helped seed.
The Stockyard Institute (SI) is no stranger to life on the road. From its formation in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1995 to its current perch amidst Lincoln Park’s leafy DePaul University campus, faculty member and SI founder Jim Duignan has made an artistic practice out of teaching, learning, making and giving things away for free. “Nomadic Studio,” organized by SI for DePaul Art Museum (in conjunction with the city’s year-long Studio Chicago initiative), sounds self-reflexive at first, but its true complexity lay in the fact that it was about both the why, and the how, of SI.
Duignan, along with Faiz Razi, Beth Wiedner, and a staggering number of additional collaborators too numerous to list– put together an audaciously elastic exhibition comprised of multiple, month-long thematic reincarnations. Featured works drifted across disciplines and blurred borders between singularity and replication, creativity and production, fine art and craft, and aesthetics and utilitarianism. It was cumulative, and expanded organically through the acquisition of new works over time. These works also talked to and cross-pollinated one another, shape shifting within each new context of the show’s constant fluctuations.
The handful of more traditional works in the exhibition confronted viewers with an exuberant pop sensibility and included large-scale painting, drawing, sculpture and a wall-sized mural. Some pieces were literally nomadic, given their mobility, such as the community garden housed within a canoe. Others were tools which required viewer participation to utilize, complete or deplete them, such as the low-watt radio station, the mobile book binding and screen printing stations, and the zine library.
Ultimately, SI managed to transform the galleries from a space into a place. This was done by literally replicating actual historic or existent Chicago places within the museum space, including the Rumpus Room’s basement recording studio, the Union Rock Yards’ stage, and A/V Aerie’s ballroom. It was also achieved by using the museum as a studio, as a place for experimentation, self-cannibalization and generative failure. Nomadic Studio was always humming– the palpable dynamism would have made most museums cringe with envy. Day and night, Duignan and his colleagues brought the outside in by hosting live musical performances, how-to workshops and open studios.
Beyond tangible artworks and transitory experiences, Nomadic Studio was also well documented. This led to the production of SITE, an online resource for educators that tracked the methodologies, development and implementation of the exhibition for future use and potential duplication. It also resulted in the text you’re reading in the publication you’re holding in your hand.
From the beginning, SI’s students have also been their teachers. Through a marriage of art and politics, they have acted transparently, embraced inclusivity, and stayed true to their belief that there’s plenty to go around. Above all, they appreciate a good spectacle, and this has been their trademark maneuver for reeling us in. The deal is sealed however, as soon as we realize that, through sheer force of will, they have the power to transform the ideal into the real.
All images courtesy of Stockyard Institute.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
Work by Sarah and Joseph Belknap.
Chicago Artists’ Coalition is located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Ryan Chorbagian, Hao Ni, and Patrick McGuan.
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. 2nd Fl. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Work by Andrew Holmquist, David Brandon Geeting, and Jade Walker.
LVL3 is located at 1542 N. Milwaukee Ave, 3rd Fl. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.
Work by Claire Ashley
Terrain Exhibitions is located at 704 Highland Ave. Oak Park. Reception Sunday 12-4pm.
Curated by Dayton Castleman and Matthew Dupont, with work by John Airo, Kristen Althoff, Anna & Meredith, Nick Black, Lisa Brosig, Stephanie Burke and Jeriah Hildewine, Jessica Calek and Dan Streeting, Abby Christensen, Melissa Damasauskas, Kaleb Dean, Aaron Delehanty, Jim Duignan, Ben Fain, Karl Gesch, Aron Gent, Ricki Hill, Gabe Hoare, David Hooker, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Anais Maljan, John Medina, Thomas Moreno, Heather Mullins, Jake Myers, Catie Olson, Haynes Riley, Blake Russell, Chris Santiago, Rana Siegel, Charles Smith, Bert Stabler, Basia Toczydlowska, Emily Van Hoff, Johanna Wawro, and Jen Zito.
Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S. Morgan St. Reception Saturday 6-11pm.
*The author has work in this exhibition
Four solid years of shows! Not one effing week missed! Duncan and Richard have yet to have a Beat-It style knife fight! Yes it is show #208. What, might you ask, do we have in store for show 208? Well I’ll tell you!
This week we are pleased to have Jim Duignan from the Stockyard Institute to talk about “The Cafeteria Sessions” program with The Multicultural Arts High School. The show opens with the students’ audio pieces. Next Duncan and Richard talk to Jim about the project, the Stockyard Institute, how we dragged him away from celebrating his wedding anniversary, and more!
From the Stockyard Institute’s website:
The Cafeteria Sessions
A series of lunch time recordings and radio workshops with adolescents on socially engaged artistic practice, utopian education and the future of Chicago. The Cafeteria Sessions will go on throughout the spring at the Multicultural Arts High School with Jim Duignan (S.I.), Ayana Contrares (vocalo) and Lavie Raven (University of Hip Hop).
This series culminated in a live radiocast from the Multicultural Arts High School on May 21, 2009. Read more