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’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.
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.
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.
Ok, so for those of you who don’t know yet, CAA (College Art Association) has dubbed Chicago worthy for it’s pedagogical adventures, and has settled in our fair city for the weekend. As a member of CAA, I’ll be cruising from lecture to lecture the next few days, trying to suck up as much strange knowledge as I can while the circus is in town. But I’m not the only one excited about the CAA crew. As a result of the conference, just about everyone else in town is trotting out something or other, much of which is AWESOME! As a result, I bring you The Biggest Top 5 You’ve Ever Seen! Rather than picking individual galleries for the Top 5, I’ve corralled a Top 5 of places (in no particular order) you should go this weekend. Hope ya’ll enjoy.
The self-proclaimed Chicago Arts District is holding it’s monthly 2nd Fridays round of openings. Here’s the places I’d go if I were you:
Chicago Art Department – 1837 S. Halsted. Cultural Excavation, work by Christopher Piatt, Ben Valentine, Wayne Bertola, Virginia Broersma, Allison Rae Butkus, Seth Gershberg, Jennifer Hines, Jennifer Jackson, Sarah Leitten, Amanda Paulson, Aaron Wooten and others. Reception Friday, from 6-10pm.
ROOMS Gallery – 645 W 18th St. ORACLE:CHANNELING, with Marrakesh & Todd Frugia. Performance Friday, from 8-10pm.