The ghost of Pruitt-Igoe looms large in St. Louis. The 33-building public housing complex, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who was also the architect of the World Trade Center) and completed in 1954, has long fascinated architectural historians and enthusiasts alike. Designed in accordance with Le Corbusier’s utopian “Towers in the Park” vision, its demolition began less than twenty years later in 1972 as the site fell prey to dried-up funding, mismanagement, and subsequent decrepitude and crime. According to architectural theorist Charles Jencks writing in 1977, the notorious demise of Pruitt-Igoe, captured on film and televised widely at the time, marked the day that “modern architecture died.” Today, the site exists as a giant scar in the St. Louis landscape, fifty-seven acres of urban forest just north of downtown. It is an emotional scar too, a reminder of how modernist ideals and public policy failed not only the individuals and families who lived in the towers but also, to some degree, the city at large. In fact, the decline of Pruitt-Igoe coincided with the exodus to the burgeoning St. Louis suburbs that began in the 1960s; today, 89% of the metropolitan population of 2.8 million lives outside the city limits (compared with roughly 75% in 1972), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
I think about Pruitt-Igoe a lot because I live in its aftermath. I see it in the blocks of boarded-up houses on Jefferson Avenue that I pass every day on the way to and from work. Similar houses can be found all over the city, a side effect of a population (and a tax base) that continues to decline forty years later. I also think about Pruitt-Igoe when I’m at work at the Contemporary Art Museum in the neighborhood of Grand Center. An established cultural district, Grand Center nonetheless still faces lingering assumptions that it is a rough part of town, situated as it is near the Delmar Divide that bisects the north and south sides of the city — the north side being home, not coincidentally, to the large footprint called Pruitt-Igoe.
The story of Pruitt-Igoe is by now well known and documented so I won’t go into detail here (and recommend the terrific 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth for that). What I’m interested in is the force field-like appeal of the complex, particularly images of its punctum-style demolition, for contemporary artists. Through video and installation to social practice, a number of artists are continually circling back to Pruitt-Igoe for inspiration. Using a small cross-section of familiar artworks as case studies, I’ll explore what it is about the site that offers such rich fodder for art practice today.
French artist Cyprien Gaillard’s Pruitt-Igoe Falls (2009) is perhaps the best-known example. This silent seven-minute video depicts fixed-frame footage of the 2008 demolition of a building in the Sighthill housing project in Glasgow, Scotland. Halfway through the video, the image morphs into a shot of Niagara Falls at night as seen from the American side. In the piece, Pruitt-Igoe is relegated to an allusion as well as a sobering precedent for the shortcomings of contemporary public housing. The name also serves a semantic purpose, offering a way to connect the image of Pruitt-Igoe’s collapse—and, by extension, the collapse of High Modernism—to other spectacles, such as Niagara Falls and the recent phenomenon of ruin porn (i.e. anything about Detroit). Though barely perceptible in Gaillard’s footage, the tiny figures in the foreground of the Sighthill frame reinforce this notion, their camera flashes punctuating the image as they snap photographs of the crumbling building. Gaillard’s video thus reenacts Pruitt-Igoe’s unforgettable demise in a highly cynical fashion, trapping it in the endless cycle of the loop, where it can be repeatedly gawked at for sheer entertainment.
Pruitt-Igoe has also surfaced in several of Michael Rakowitz’s artworks, such as his recent room-sized installation at dOCUMENTA(13) titled What Dust Will Rise? (2012) and, most extensively, in Dull Roar (2005). The latter recasts the towers as inflatable pop-ups, akin to a commercial blow-up mattress you might have in your own home. In the installation, they are surrounded by a 360-degree wooden viewing platform that allows the viewer to fully circumnavigate the balloon-like buildings as they continually inflate and deflate on a timed cycle. Rakowitz, like Gaillard, captures the image of Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction in a simulated mise en abyme that points to the implicit spectacle of that moment. Interested in the idea that parts of the rubble were allegedly used to construct new mansions in the nearby suburb of Ladue (which, according to Rakowitz, was the most expensive neighborhood in the U.S. at the time Pruitt-Igoe fell), he also made several related drawings depicting these mansions propped atop the rubble. The inflatable aspect of his project is particularly acrid and pithy, reducing the complexities of the story to an amusing one-liner. Nonetheless, Rakowitz unflinchingly gets to the point, demonstrating how the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe was but one symptom in a larger enactment of domestic housing policy designed to exclude poor, non-white citizens from the American dream.
While these two projects pinpoint the demolition of the buildings as the penultimate moment, Juan William Chavez is interested in everything that happens after — the potential of Pruitt-Igoe now. For several years, Chavez, who was born in Lima, Peru, but grew up and currently lives in St. Louis, has been making a series of artworks about the physical site where the complex once stood. Together these comprise what he calls a “living proposal” in an attempt to better understand what Pruitt-Igoe might mean today. After first setting foot on the grounds in 2010, he took a series of photographs and made a film about what he saw – dense vegetation and a healthy bee sanctuary. The bees have become key players in his inquiry; as he explains it, the former Pruitt-Igoe complex has been replaced by an indigenous insect community that can actually thrive on the site. Along with his partner, Kiersten Torrez, he opened a space near Pruitt-Igoe called the Northside Workshop. They have taken up beekeeping and planted an edible garden, and they work with local students, artists, and community organizers to create programming that explores the active potential of the Pruitt-Igoe footprint. Chavez’s work on Pruitt-Igoe brings additional dimensions of the story into relief. Through his efforts, I’ve been introduced to other stakeholders who are similarly committed to the site’s rehabilitation, such as St. Louis architectural historian Michael Allen and former Pruitt-Igoe resident and journalist Sylvester Brown, who launched an after-school project for at-risk high school students to grow local sweet potatoes and market their product. (The actual land is not completely up for grabs, however. Local developer Paul McKee purchased a two-year option on the site that expires next year.) Chavez’s work is therefore symbolic but also pragmatic, aimed at building awareness and galvanizing community action to transform the Pruitt-Igoe grounds into a dynamic and truly democratic public space.
I asked Juan about Pruitt-Igoe’s appeal to contemporary artists and he reminded me of the scene in Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi featuring images of the complex immediately before and during the actual demolition. The film traces the outline of the decaying buildings both inside and out. By this point, the complex is little more than a ghost town and Philip Glass’s haunting score turns it into something out of a horror movie. Juan describes this image of a crumbling Pruitt-Igoe as an “epic moment” analogous to moments in early cinema in which we experience time directly, as in the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) or Thomas Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). It is also evocative of something more contemporarily mediated on a global scale, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This visual register of Pruitt-Igoe’s demise, coupled with Charles Jencks’s aforementioned comment about its implication in the death of architectural modernism, imbue it with a mythic pathos that still holds sway today. So what, then, can artists like Gaillard, Rakowitz, and Chavez communicate to us about Pruitt-Igoe? A sober memory? A case of what not to do? Pruitt-Igoe is all of these things. It may be a graveyard but it is also a garden. And perhaps art can sustain it in ways that housing and economic policies couldn’t.
February 6, 2013 · Print This Article
It’s a freezing afternoon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I’m sitting in the kitchen of Galen Gondolfi and Jessica Baran. We are surrounded by their marvelous collection of chrome toasters, heart-shaped cake pans, and other vintage housewares. Joining us briefly is Toronto-based artist Benjamin Edelberg, whose two-person exhibition alongside St. Louis artist Brandon Anschultz, All That Heaven Allows (curated by Baran), opened downstairs at Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts two nights before. Gathered to talk shop, we pause for a moment to watch Gondolfi and Baran’s dog Benny attempt to peel a clementine—one of his many talents, they tell me.
Benny is one of four dogs owned by the couple, who live above Fort Gondo (known to many simply as “Gondo”), the eponymous St. Louis venue Gondolfi started in 2002. In fact, it was initially intended to be a dog shelter. When he bought the building, he knew he wanted to open the street-level space with some sort of community-based mission, but the prospect of creating a home for cast-off canines failed to come to fruition. Rather, it evolved into an art space after Gondolfi and friends Mike Schuh, Bevin Fahey-Vornberg, and Dave Early began staging flash mob-like events across the city as the artist collective “named” Untitled. Soon they hosted an event in the space that attracted nearly 400 people. The performances continued. Ergo Fort Gondo.
The venue is situated at the western end of Cherokee Street, now an established St. Louis arts district home to antique stores, art spaces, cafes, bars, print shops, and a record store, as well as the epicenter of the city’s Mexican community. Real estate remains plentiful and cheap, and Gondolfi, who owns several buildings on Cherokee, is credited with jump-starting much of the neighborhood’s revitalization. Besides founding Fort Gondo, his contribution includes other short-lived creative endeavors such as the “laptop-free” coffee shop Typo and a gallery that exhibited only female artists named Beverly (2005-2007), after Gondolfi’s mother. Within a year of his arrival, he became president of the Benton Park West Neighborhood Association and subsequently ran for alderman in his ward in 2007 (losing to a 12-year incumbent by a mere 76 votes).
But when he moved here in the early 2000s, he was one of three people living on the block. The neighborhood was essentially vacant. Gondolfi gets admittedly “maudlin and nostalgic” about Gondo’s early years, even though he experienced two break-ins within 48 hours of receiving the keys. But such a ghost town-like atmosphere also offered him carte blanche to get weird. He tells me how the building next door had suffered a fire so he would host events in its shell, turning it into a venue called Burn Out. There were vacant lots on either side, so he installed his entire bedroom in one of them and asked people to get into bed with him. Later on he and Early, his business partner, started Radio Cherokee, a “proletarian speakeasy” that presented hundreds of shows between 2002-2006 (including a basement gallery called Low Art and an exterior billboard venue named High Art). The joint was electricity-free; bands played off of extension cords. The entire block, Gondolfi recalls, “was like a playground. Nobody cared about the rules at that point. Gondo was incredibly cavalier and renegade in those early days.”
Gondo soon became a regular part of Gondolfi’s creative life and eventually Baran’s as well (they married in 2011 after meeting through Gondo-related programming; she also exhibited at Beverly). Though the space is synonymous with Gondolfi, he is quick to point out that countless numbers of people have been involved. “It is not an extension of me, but rather it has been a group effort all along. Gondo has been one 10-year running group show, if I think about it. So many people have come back to do other shows…Gondo is part of my life but is not an extension of myself. It’s never been the top priority in my life but has always been there. In some ways it’s like a cockroach—it never dies. I merely essentially paid the mortgage and that allowed whatever chaos to ensue.”
That chaos has come to include a vibrant “program of non-programming,” as Baran puts it: more than 500 intergenerational exhibitions, rock shows, poetry readings, town meetings, political fundraisers, religious services, birthday parties, yard sales, weddings, and other various and sundry happenings. Countless now-established local and national artists have presented their work at Gondo, including four who went on to win the Great Rivers Biennial, the preeminent local artist competition organized by the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (full disclosure: my employer). Even with all this activity, I’m surprised to learn that over 100 keys to the space are currently in circulation. “Do you have one?” Gondolfi immediately asks me (he made three new copies that day). The couple readily welcomes the “mi casa es su casa” vibe engendered by both the space and their apartment. Yet occasionally the open-door policy can be taken a little too literally. Likening Gondo to the spontaneous anything-goes (and potentially depraved) ethos of a bathhouse, Gondolfi notes that a mysterious visitor used their shower the other night. But more lamentable to him is the fact that three rubber duckies from their extensive collection are now missing.
The snacks keep coming. Gondolfi turns off a few lights in the kitchen to avoid blowing a fuse while running the microwave. Over burnt popcorn, the conversation shifts from reflective to anticipatory. The space celebrated its 10th anniversary last year with a series of exhibitions he collectively called “Identity Crisis.” He invited people that had participated in the history of the space—“friends and foes alike” who had shown in the gallery or been instrumental in some way—back to do something new. Ten years is a long time for any art space, and Gondolfi, who also holds down a full-time job as Chief Communications Officer of Justine PETERSEN, a national microlending agency based in St. Louis, is admittedly tired. Following a year of intense self-scrutiny, he has recently demoted himself from proprietor to facilities manager.
Meanwhile Baran, who co-organizes Gondo’s poetry series with poet Jennifer Kronovet, is assuming full reign. A poet, curator, and professional art critic, she was also Assistant Director of White Flag Projects from 2008-2012, providing incalculable grist to the respected contemporary art space during its formative years. Ever self-effacing, Gondolfi jokes that, “I ushered Gondo through the Cro-Magnon era and with Jessica taking over we’re going to start walking upright.” Baran is in the midst of planning a new exhibition program, and they are now awaiting formal 501(c)3 status. Gondolfi, meanwhile, sees his new freedom as an opportunity to possibly pursue animal rights work, or else conceive of his own idyllic artist commune in nearby Illinois, a la The Poor Farm or Mildred’s Lane.
“Fort Gondo has always been pro-failure,” Gondolfi made a point of telling me early in our conversation. He readily confesses that, “a lot of abysmal art has been shown here. Sometimes I can’t look at the walls when I come home at night.” But that’s because the spirit of the space has heretofore been less about discerning taste or aesthetic than about democratic and abundant opportunity. While this may change under Baran’s leadership, Gondo’s mission will always privilege creative over material capital. It revels in the freedom to fail, emboldened by the production and presentation of culture on its own terms. Sure, this may be a privileged way to operate but it’s also very St. Louis, the entrepreneurial land of beer barons, newspaper magnates, and other founder-driven entities. Where it’s possible for a once anarchic community center-cum-established art space to continually fail better.
January 18, 2013 · Print This Article
I came on as the Managing Editor of the Bad at Sports blog about a month ago. It’s been an exciting turn and I hope to do well by it. A few people have asked what my vision going forward is, and I thought I might say something about it here. I hope to continue reflecting on the dynamic energy in Chicago’s contemporary art world while connecting to conversations and aesthetic agendas in other cities and disciplines. That agenda was set in place a while ago and I believe I can continue to guide and focus that intention. There is room for experimentation in that vision, which seems necessary to me. Bad at Sports has never presented a tidy, singular package and as such, I believe it would go against the nature of the project to filter content and tone through a single, editorial lens. Its roots in independent, DIY and Punk Rock collectivism remain at the heart of the project’s vitality and the blog is a platform for unique and individual voices that pass through the subject of contemporary art and culture. As such it becomes a nexus of concerns and responses to culture at large. That is something I hope to preserve under my stewardship. As an artist-run forum, Bad at Sports has the unique capacity to reflect on a host of subjects, exposing the intellectual, aesthetic and social networks that define and subsequently influence cultural production. I believe it is our job to explore and discuss the contexts we inhabit. In doing so, we further establish a living touchstone and future archive of contemporary discourse.
Some changes should be apparent already — others will fall into place like pieces of a puzzle in the coming months. The process is organic, but I’ve been trying to set up a casual, thematic architecture that unfolds over the course of a given week. Eventually, I hope to schedule two posts a day, one before 2pm and one after. Built in to this, is room for special occasions and guest writers — those posts would either go live in the evenings, or fill in existing gaps. To that end I’ve been inviting a number of new writers, many of whom I have admired for a long time.
Here is something of a loose schedule:
Mondays: Essays and reflections from old favorites Jeriah Hildewin, Shane McAdams and Nicholas O’Brien — writers who have been posting with consistent dedication. In addition, I’m excited to announce a new bi-weekly column by Dana Bassett, whom you may know for her ACRE Newsletters.
Tuesdays are dedicated to three subjects: Performance, Social Practice, Language (or the performance thereof) and Object Oriented Ontology. Confirmed participants include longstanding contributor Abigail Satinsky and Mary Jane Jacob (Social Practice), Anthony Romero and João Florêncio (performance), Gene Tanta (language), Robert Jackson (OOO).
On Wednesdays, we will read about artists and art in other cities. The following writers will post on rotation: Jeffery Songco is covering the Bay Area, Sam Davis continues to represent Bad at Sports’ Los Angeles Bureau, Sarah Margolis-Pineo is writing about Portland. Juliana Driever will be relaying posts, interviews and artist profiles about New York, and then we’ll bring it back to the Midwest with Kelly Shindler’s dispatch from St. Louis, and Jamilee Polson Lacy writing about Kansas City.
Thursdays herald our illustrious Stephanie Burke’s Top 5 Weekend Picks and a new monthly contribution from author/translator Johannes Göransson whose writing you can also find here.
Fridays have been set aside for art reviews and artist profiles with contributions from Danny Orendoff, Monica Westin, Abraham Ritchie and myself.
WEEKENDS will feature a range and flux of the above, plus Brit Barton’s Endless Opportunities, cultural reflections and short essays by Terri Griffith, continued posts from Jesse Malmed, in addition to a monthly contribution from the newly confirmed Bailey Romaine and Adrienne Harris.
My last note is this — there is room in this schedule for additional posts, posts that would feature special events, festivals and conferences in the city. That space would also be available to, at times, connect the blog and the podcast. As a first indication of this, we will be highlighting IN>TIME, a performance festival that is going on as we speak, from January until March.
Otherwise if you have any comments, suggestions or, even guest posts you would like to submit, please feel free to contact me at: email@example.com
November 17, 2008 · Print This Article
In the soon to be released issue of bootprint (Vol. 2, Issue 2) Danyel Ferrari interviews Clementine Deliss. Assistant Editor Tim Ridlen sent me an excerpt which coincides with Deliss’ lecture tomorrow, Tuesday, November 18th at 3pm.
The lecture will be held at:
The Franke Institute for the Humanities
The University of Chicago
1100 East 57th Street, JRL S-102
Chicago, Illinois 60637
“Danyel Ferrari: Questions of space and mobility were often discussed as a part of Future Academy. What do you think about the place of architecture in the architecture of ideas, should there be walls?
Clementine Deliss: I might have a different perspective on that than, say, the students I have worked with in Future Academy. For the students I have worked with, this was actually one of the clearest issues and it came up very early on with regard to future buildings. The majority of students, whether they were based in Mumbai, Bangalore, Dakar or Edinburgh generally felt that they didn’t need buildings in the first instance. They sought more face-to-face contact in the sense that they wanted field studies in locations and therefore a kind of plug-in system to enable contact to be played out. So they proposed the “shack academy,” built on existing tea shops, usually roadside venues where more discussions took place than within the walls of the academy buildings. They effectively wanted a more informal location for the production of ideas. The Bangalore group felt that it wouldn’t be advantageous at this stage to invest in a large amount of technology, but safer to wait a while and test out the conditions that might develop over the next few years. So it wasn’t just about buying computers and various technology that would allow for this kind of plug-in mobility, it was something else. What they felt needed to be created was a quasi-business model where information, contacts and networks between these students could be developed into an economic set of relations as they became professionalized and entered into various careers. They wanted to build on the structures that they were already developing through Future Academy and create “roving colleges” that might provide a more equitable framework for them than the type of expansionism that we have known from the colonial period and that is in some cases, though not everywhere, being reformulated today.
Personally, I think one should be more careful and more sensitive to the fact that artists, if they work in the art college context, are actually moving into a back-stage condition. And this back-stage condition is enormously enriching for students. So sure they will teach, they’re always teaching, but they do not need to do courses so much as to be able to mediate what it is they are working on. In an art college, everybody is in a research context and for that purpose they need space. So I would argue that if you invite an artist to work within the art college, as much as possible you need to provide a certain space, a notion of “studio,” rather than creating staff rooms where they all check their emails and then go home. So I’m quite old fashioned in that I favor the artist’s studio within the art school context. And that is something that is either being reduced or is, in some parts of the world, utterly nonexistent.”
Read the full article when the latest issue of bootprint drops in December.