In Search of a Future Present: The Chicago Architecture Biennial’s Make New History

In her preface to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban advocate Jane Jacobs directs the reader to “look closely at real cities.” “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us,” she writes. “While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.” (Note 1)

I was reminded of Jacobs’s words with each viewing of Make New History, the second installment of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), which just closed its nearly four-month run this January. However, the biennial’s premise that contemporary architecture look to its past and traditions “to understand the channels through which history moves” and shapes the present ran counter to Jacobs’s advice. Instead, it posed a retreat from the civic and experiential engagement of architecture and its publics, at least as presented in the central exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. As such, CAB offered a narrow, insular view of architecture out of step with the social realities of contemporary life, despite the diversity of a field faced with an array of intensifying challenges – climate change and increasing environmental disasters, lack of affordable housing and other growing social and economic inequities, the privatization of public space – ultimately distancing itself from its public, for whom architecture is lived experience.

Curated by architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of the Los Angeles-based firm Johnston Marklee, Make New History took its name from a 2009 artists’ book by Ed Ruscha, a bound edition of 600 blank sheets of white paper stamped on its edges with these declarative words. Whereas Ruscha’s ironical work is a conceptual call to script new narratives for the future, CAB posited history as hidebound to the scriptures of modernism, particularly Western modernism with its well-known figures and forms, across the following themes: building histories, material histories, image histories, civic histories. Throughout, the high priests of modernism (e.g., Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe) were upheld over lesser-known names, as was their brand of classical formalism, despite the curators’ claim that CAB invokes a “return to postmodernism.”


Installation view of 6a architects, Returning, 2017, part of Vertical City. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial © Tom Harris.

Missing was any real criticality of these overly familiar architectural legacies, as were opportunities for biennial participants, often constrained by various curatorial prompts, to define their own influences and precedents or, more importantly, showcase current work. This was the case for both Vertical City and Horizontal City, core exhibits conceived as a call and response. Vertical City, which occupied the Cultural Center’s ornamental fourth-floor galleries, asked 16 architects to respond to the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower Competition, the result being a rise of vertical totems that spun on the skyscraper as an icon of both Chicago and the modern city. While one of the biennial’s most visually impressive moments, the purpose of such an exercise remained unclear. This sentiment was suggested by Tatiana Bilbao Estudio’s project (Not) Another Tower (2017), a “vertical community” made in collaboration with 14 other studios invited by this architect from Mexico City, whose sustainable housing project was one of the highlights of the inaugural 2015 CAB.


Installation view of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio, “(Not) Another Tower,” 2017, part of Vertical City. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial © Tom Harris.

Artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Beehives with Asteroids and Prototype for Re-entry (2013-17), a series of white cubes exhibited in a horizontal grid alongside Vertical City, offered its own critique of modernist verticality. The work’s monumental forms – one displaying a miniaturized asteroid, another a replica of Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1932) – recall the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. However, the artist’s modular units are actually based on the Langstroth comb beehive patented in the late 19th century, used here as a symbol for mass housing and production with its form-follows-function design, strikingly conflating scientific progress with modernism’s search for universal form.


Installation view of Horizontal City at G.A.R. Hall, 2017. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial © Tom Harris.

For Horizontal City on view in the second-floor galleries of G.A.R. Hall, 24 architects were invited to construct models based on “canonical” photographs of architectural interiors, as a reconsideration of photography’s role in the production and dissemination of the architectural image. Although never acknowledged, this is the central thesis of Beatriz Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity: Architecture as Mass Media (1996), which argues that the mass media, including photography, made architecture modern by disseminating modernity to the masses and transforming the relationship between public and private. This may have been a more effective lens by which to consider the architectural interior versus Mies’s 1947 plan for the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, the footprint of which was the organizing principle for a field of low horizontal plinths each displaying one of the models. However, the reason for this curatorial conceit was never clearly stated. And like Vertical City, Horizontal City operated as more of an academic exercise rather than a commentary on the importance of the archival image to our understanding of contemporary architecture. Nor did it offer a fundamental rethinking of interior space as a site of subjectivity, a subject better explored elsewhere in CAB by the Belguim-based duo Dogma, whose Rooms was one of the few projects to address private life. Based on Virginia Woolf’s extended essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), this series of 48 black-and-white perspectival drawings imagines the domestic spaces of famous architects, artists, writers, and thinkers (e.g., Steve Jobs, an anonymous evicted artist, the English writer herself), often rendered with humorous effect.

Architecture becomes an object of photographic representation in “A Love of the World,” a group show curated by Jesús Vassallo that interweaved the photographic works of 10 artists throughout the main exhibition in order to “challenge the canon of modern architecture” and collapse the dichotomies between the field’s internal/external view. But here again, Mies dominates, as does an abstract formalism that distills its architectural subjects to an elemental geometry that, at times, borders on a kind of fetishism. Those that succeed transform their iconic subjects into other spatial dimensions, such as Veronika Kellndorfer atmospheric images of the interior of Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, printed on large sheets of glass, and Filip Dujardin’s surreal digital mash-ups of the Chicago skyline. Marianne Mueller’s photographic installations reinterpret the architectural spaces of the Cultural Center itself, with their close-up views of fragments of the building’s neoclassical interior, enlarged then installed in four glass vitrines that encircle historic GAR Hall.


Installation view of Veronika Kellndorfer. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial, Steve Hall © Hall Merrick Photographers.

With its focus on “the fundamentals of the discipline” over more multidisciplinary practices, Make New History ignored current innovations happening in what Cassim Shepard calls “practical urbanism,” citymaking created by a diverse cast of stakeholders, from architects to artists to environmentalists. For Shepard, “citymaking involves more than design, politics, policy and economics; it also includes articulated observation, artistic production, technological innovation, and civic activism.” (Note 2)

One might equate citymaking with CAB’s constellation of partner exhibitions, programs and events, many organized outside of the city’s center, including six anchor sites, which allowed audiences and local communities to engage with the biennial’s theme in ways that the main exhibition did not. Together they offered an alternative view of both modernism and contemporary architecture at the intersection of a broader spectrum of social narratives and cultural histories, or what Svetlana Boym terms the “off modern,” “a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project.” (Note 3)

This was particularly true of those projects led by the Chicago art community and cultural institutions. For instance, in her exhibition “Zip Zap and Zumbi” at the DePaul Art Museum (September 7 – December 10, 2017), Luso-South African artist Ângela Ferreira explored issues of transference, mobility, and colonialism in two architectural installations that made visible lesser-known histories of modernism. For Zip Zap Circus School (2000-2017), she revisited two unrealized projects: one by Mies for the Kröller-Müller family in the Netherlands in 1912, the other a circus school in Cape Town by Portuguese architect Pancho Guedes circa 1994. Using models, blueprints, photographs and archival research, Ferreira adapted Mies’s plan for her construction of a large-scale wood-and-canvas tent based on Guedes’s proposed designs, repurposing a failed moment in Western modernism to realize Guedes’s educational vision for South African youth. In her installation Wattle and Daub (2016), a wooden fence constructed from twigs and mud using the ancient building technique referenced in the work’s title becomes the scaffolding for a narrative that connects histories of slavery in Portugal, West Africa and Brazil via projected images and an audio track. Although conceived as separate works, in tandem they formed an intentional dialogue that at once paralleled slavery and colonialism with the ubiquity of Western modernism, while also suggesting cultural resiliency in light of failed utopias.


Ângela Ferreira, “Zip Zap Circus School,” 2017. Photograph by Lizabeth Applewhite. Courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.


Ângela Ferreira, “Wattle & Daub,” 2016. Photograph by Lizabeth Applewhite. Courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.

An unfinished project by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie was the impetus for artist David Hartt’s ambitious exhibition “in the forest” at the Graham Foundation (September 14, 2017-January 6, 2018). Combining photographs, film, sculptural objects, a soundscape, and tropical plants, Hartt presented a multisensory portrait of Safdie’s Habitat 68, his experimental housing complex for Puerto Rico that was never completed. Related to the architect’s earlier Habitat project first created for the Canadian Pavilion of the 1967 World Expo, Safdie’s design was similarly based on a series of interlocking concrete cells integrated into the hilly, tropical landscape of a neighborhood in San Juan. Throughout his color photographs and video installation Hartt documents the present-day remains of the architect’s commanding structure alongside the lush greenery of the surrounding forest, creating a moving elegy to Safdie’s original vision that transcends the effects of time.


David Hartt, “Carolina I,” 2017, archival pigment print mounted to Dibond, print size 36 x 54 inches. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey and commissioned by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Both the above exhibitions inspired critical reflection on global legacies of modernism, while others enlisted collaborative artistic production to catalyze conversations around local histories and contested public issues. Responding to current attacks on environmental protections and the long-term impact of human activity on our ecological system, Chicago-based artist Sara Black and Aotearoa New Zealand artist Raewyn Martyn transformed the central gallery of the Hyde Park Art Center into a monumental landscape that enveloped viewers in a forest of wooden trellises draped with scrims of painted cellulose. The installation’s title, Edward Hines National Forest (November 12, 2017 – February 11, 2018), references Edward Hines, the owner of the Chicago-based lumber company who deforested Wisconsin’s Norwood trees to supply the Midwest with timber and build his local monopoly at the turn of the last century. The wood and cellulose used to construct the artists’ meandrous ecosystem descend from the extant Norwoods, a gesture that undermines Hines’s reckless capitalism and symbolically restores the original forested habitat. Related events activated the project’s central themes, including a walking tour organized in conjunction with Deep Time Chicago that narrated the history of the lumber industry as it developed along the south branch of the Chicago River at its junction with the I&M Shipping Canal. One of the highlights of my experience of CAB, such programs offered deep engagement with history and place and their connections to the present not found in the core exhibition at the Cultural Center.


Sara Black and Raewyn Martyn, Installation view of Edward Hines National Forest, Hyde Park Art Center, 2017. Photo courtesy of Tom Van Eynde.


Collaborative projects around Chicago’s public education system shared community responses to the closing of 50 public schools deemed either underutilized or underperforming by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013. According to a 2015 study conducted by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, Chicago saw the largest number of schools closed in one year by any school district in the nation, displacing 12,000 students, 88% of whom were black. (Note 4) Chicago-based artist John Preus gained access to the schools’ abandoned bookshelves, desks, and chairs, which he has subsequently integrated into his artistic practice transforming the discarded furniture into sculptural objects and interactive installations. For the exhibition “Infinite Games 50/50,” Preus invited 50 artists, designers, architects and musicians, many of whom are also educators, to create works with these same material artifacts and to respond to the issues of memory and loss embedded within them. On view at Open House Contemporary (to March 16, 2018), Infinite Games takes a critical stance to the social inequities and spatial injustices triggered by the closing of these schools, while also reframing objects that previously existed within the public space of public education into the private space of this residential B&B that is also an exhibition space. [Disclosure: I was invited to lead a public tour and discussion of the exhibition last fall.] Many works serve as memorials, giving materialized presence to absence, in which chairs and desks become symbols for the body and stand-ins for the students whose lives have been displaced by the closings. Other works continue the Duchampian legacy of the readymade challenging notions of function and utility, or through acts of creative reuse imbue their objects with new purpose and meaning.

Infinite Games Exhibition at Open House Contemporary

Installation view of “Infinite Games 50/50,” at Open House Contemporary. Image courtesy of John Preus.

Possible futures for these former schools was at the heart of a collaboration between Borderless Studios, Docomomo Chicago and Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, which hosted a day-long workshop at the now shuttered Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville to showcase design ideas for the redevelopment of this site as a neighborhood anchor and to engage the surrounding community in the process. The project opened the building, designed by Perkins and Will in 1961 and considered an important example of modernist school design, to the public. An exhibition of artwork by high school students from Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School of Medicine was on view, featuring installations, models, and proposals that envisioned new uses for the building and made visible the hopes and concerns of students and other community stakeholders.

Supporting initiatives like these that allow for local governance while fostering creative approaches to adaptive reuse and the built environment should be a key pillar of CAB’s mission. As should a global presentation of the current state of the field that looks beyond well-worn architectural histories towards problem solving for the present and future. As I have stated before, CAB has the potential to reinvent the biennial model, both on and off the grid. The next installment (September 19, 2019-January 5, 2020) needs to be an innovative platform for the generative and diverse practices of architecture looking forward rather than back, one that is as wide ranging as life itself.



  1. Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books Editions, 1992), preface, np.
  2. Cassim Shepard, Citymakers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2017), p. 20.
  3. Svetlana Boym, “The Off-Modern Condition,” Accessed October 17, 2016.
  4. Research Report of the University of Chicago’s Consortium of Chicago School Research, “School Closings in Chicago: Understanding Families’ Choices and Constraints for New School Enrollment,” January 2015.


To the River: More on the Art and Politics of Walking in the City

As I consider Chicago’s new Riverwalk, I am reminded of Bob Dylan’s oft-covered song “Watching the River Flow,” in which the song’s protagonist, lonely and alienated within an unidentified city, finds solace sitting along the sandy banks of an unidentified river. The song’s themes of inspiration and displacement, fostered by clashes between public and private, urban and nature, seem an appropriate metaphor for the inherent issues embedded within urban renewal projects that repurpose former industrial sites, including riverfronts, into green spaces. Related to my earlier post about New York’s High Line and Chicago’s 606 – urban revitalization initiatives that transform abandoned rail lines into cultural spaces for walking – I am interested in exploring the impact of these large-scale public works projects on the communities where they take place, and the promises of environmental renewal that they pledge. From the vantage point of creative placemaking, I am invested in a strong role for artists in the decision-making and design process, and the successful integration of environmental and spatial art practices into the everyday dance of the riverfront promenade.


The Chicago Riverwalk, Ross Barney Architects. Photo by Kate Joyce Studios.

Like the High Line and The 606, Chicago’s Riverwalk belongs to broad-scale redevelopment happening across Chicago and other cities in which new public greenways devoted to walking are central to urban renewal. Urban theorist Jane Jacobs saw sidewalks and neighborhood parks as essential to the public life of cities. She also advocated for development that transformed “border vacuums,” vacant, dead-end spaces along waterfronts, rail yards, expressways, and parking lots, into sites of active use or “seams.” Writing in 1961:

“It is more to the point to grasp the problem where it originates, at the shoreline and aim at making the shore a seam. Waterfront work uses, which are often interesting, should not be blocked off from ordinary view for interminable stretches, and the water itself thereby blocked off from city view too at ground level. Such stretches should be penetrated by small, and even casual public openings calculated for glimpsing or watching work and water traffic . . . . Boating, boat visiting, fishing and swimming where it is practical, all help make a seam, instead of a barrier, of that troublesome border between land and water.” (Note 1)

As Robert Kanigel argues in Eyes on the Street, his biography of this prophetic champion of cities, Jacobs did not readily embrace the New Urbanists, whose ideas have spawned some of these new pedestrian-oriented developments. (Note 2) However, I think that the Chicago Riverwalk fulfills some of the essential elements advocated by Jacobs, most notably in creating a seam between the river, the lakefront and the city. First initiated in the 1990s and completed last fall, this 1.25-mile pedestrian walkway follows the south bank of the Chicago River between Lake Michigan and Lake Street, integrating the city’s lakefront and riverfront into a continuous public park and pedway. The Riverwalk’s design, a collaboration between Sasaki Associates, Ross Barney Architects, and Alfred Benesch Engineers, transforms the riverfront into a series of black-long open bays, each with their own personality and purpose, among them floating piers for observing fish and plant life, a cove for kayaking, a zero-depth fountain for wading, and a vertical rise of stairs that provides seating for observing the “theater” of the river below. In my mind, the least successful of these spaces are those that house upscale restaurants, tiki bars and wineries, prioritizing commerce, tourism and rosé over recreation and reverie.

009 WEB Ross Barney Chicago Riverwalk Phase III[1]

The Chicago Riverwalk, Ross Barney Architects. Photo by Kate Joyce Studios.



Floating wetlands and water gardens, The Jetty, between Wells and Franklins streets at the Riverwalk. Image by the author.

The Riverwalk is also part of a larger initiative (Great Rivers Chicago) to reclaim the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines rivers for the development of more recreational and economic opportunities for the city (often code for gentrification as the current, contested development along the Chicago River’s North Branch near the Goose Island industrial corridor portends), and to improve the overall health and ecology of these aquatic environments (storm and sewer run-off being one of the main pollutants). These goals, along with the creation of the Riverwalk as a continuous trail with public access, were at the core of “River Edge Ideas Lab,” a satellite exhibition of the current Chicago Architecture Biennial (September 16, 2017-January 7, 2018), which invited nine architects to re-envision the south branch of Chicago’s riverfront at three pivotal sites: the Civic Opera House, the Congress Parkway, and the Air Line Bridge at Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park. No doubt an audition for a future leading role, participating firms include Adjaye Associates, James Corner Field Operations, Perkins+Will, Ross Barney Architects, Sasaki, site, SOM, Studio Gang, and SWA.

Several designs for the Air Line Bridge location respect the current ecology of Ping Tom Memorial Park, a 17-acre former rail yard and historic industrial corridor converted into a public park and restored prairie. Proposals include restored wetlands and habitats, increased spaces for kayaking and boat races, beaches for swimming, and a forested tree canopy. Proposals for the Congress Parkway site more openly address the environmental impact of vehicular traffic and other high-stress uses of this congested South Loop hub that currently severs access to public parks and the river. For example, Ross Barney’s Congress Filter (my favorite) is a system of waterfalls and raised platforms that aerate and filter river water while also providing shallow pools for swimming. SOM’s design similarly includes biofiltration waterfalls and windmill-driven pumps to aerate water, as well as a soundgarden.



Congress Filter, proposal for River Edge Ideas Lab. Photo courtesy Ross Barney Architects.

Several visions for the Opera House edge transform this site into an outdoor amphitheater using the building’s large limestone façade as a screen for projecting films, moving images and lights. Floating platforms imagine stages for performances and additional seats for viewing; exterior opera boxes, proposed by Perkins+Will, would offer public views of the performances inside. However, I am more drawn to designs by Sasaki, SOM, and a few others that are less theatrical and more focused on problem-solving the difficult pedestrian access to this part of the river, with proposals that inventively create fluid, multi-tiered pathways and points of entry.

Although proposals for the Civic Opera stretch of the Riverwalk celebrate the performative nature of its site, art and artists, absent within the designs, appear to play little to no role in these possible futures for the Chicago River. However, in all fairness to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the city’s Public Art Program, no doubt public works will eventually occupy some of these spaces, as they currently do for the completed portion of the Riverwalk. Ellen Lanyon’s Riverwalk Gateway, the first permanent work commissioned in 2000, serves as a passage between the lakefront and the river. Here, twenty-eight ceramic panels narrating the history of the Chicago River flank both sides of a trellised walkway beneath the Lake Shore Drive bridge. Just east of Michigan Avenue is the newly commissioned Howlings (2017) by Candida Alvarez, known for her abstract paintings that combine camouflage patterns with personal symbolism. The artist reconceptualizes her paintings as a series of large abstract scrims, four polyester-mesh banners that provide a soft yet dramatic backdrop to this high-traffic area of the walkway.

Photo 5[1]

Candida Alvarez, Howlings, 2017, 4 polyester mesh  banners, dimensions variable.  Photo courtesy the artist and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Howlings is one of a few temporary works on view for the first time as part of the city’s Year of Public Art, which also includes Tony Tasset’s larger-than-life fiberglass deer feeding on a grassy knoll at the pedway’s west end, and Scott Reeder’s text-based fiberglass sculpture, Real Fake (2013). Gilded in metallic gold paint and installed at the northeast corner of Upper Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue directly across from Trump Tower, its titular message offers the perfect political critique.


Tony Tasset, Deer, fiberglass, epoxy, and paint, 2015,  144” x 240” x 96”
Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Image by the author.


Scott Reeder, Real Fake, fiberglass, metallic paint, 2013 6′ x 8′ x 3′ Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery. Image by the author.

This summer, The Floating Museum, an artist collaborative that creates temporary, site-responsive art projects throughout Chicago neighborhoods, organized “River Assembly,” an industrial barge converted into a mobile art museum. Docked at various locations along the river, including the Riverwalk, this itinerant exhibition and series of public performances, workshops, and community events spun on the history of the Chicago River as an industrial waterway and as a physical site that transcends traditional city borders. One might see echoes of Robert Smithson’s Floating Museum and Andrea Zittel’s Indy Island, a floating habitat and residency created for the White River in Indianapolis, although River Assembly acted as more of a traveling Wunderkammer. Over thirty artists created works displayed inside wooden crates installed both on the barge and at designated sites on the Riverwalk and Navy Pier, operating as a kind of cultural cargo. Video and film works were also screened, and two oversized yellow busts of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable reclining on the barge’s platform commemorated this founder of Chicago who established the city on the mouth of the Chicago River.


The Floating Museum, “River Assembly,” 2017. Image by the author.

Jacobs once proclaimed, “A city cannot be a work of art,” arguing that art and life are not the same, instead imbuing art with the power “to illuminate, clarify and explain the order of cities.” (Note 3) While I might disagree with her claim of the exclusivity of art and life I do acknowledge Jacobs’s notion that art offers a vision of the city that could inform city planners and designers, and “help people make, for themselves, order and sense, instead of chaos, from what they see.” (Note 4) Cultural theorist Rosalyn Deutsche similarly argues “[a]gainst aesthetic movements that design the spaces of redevelopment,” in favor of “interventionist aesthetics” and “public art as a spatial activity.” (Note 5) Within both their views are a myriad of possible public art models that could inform, intervene, and activate the evolving spaces of the Riverwalk, expanding upon the merits of the current public works on view.

One model might be the Milwaukee RiverWalk, a three-mile walking corridor along the Milwaukee River in the city’s downtown, in which New York-based environmental artist Mary Miss was a central player in the project’s development and design. Her related forthcoming public work WaterMarks makes visible the importance of water to Milwaukee through a series of site-specific installations that will transform new and existing vertical markers throughout the city into oversized map pins. Miss has worked with rivers in the past, including those in New York, Beijing and Indianapolis, as part of her City as a Living Laboratory, a project that includes her own works as well as collaborations between other artists and scientists.

Such projects belong to a broader practice of environmental art focused on helping communities, large and small, meet current ecological challenges, while raising awareness about the significance of rivers, lakes and waterways to the cultural life and health of cities. From pioneers of Land Art, including Miss, Agnes Denes, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, to contemporary eco artists Mel Chin, Mark Dion, Lillian Ball, Natalie Jeremijenko, and others, there is plenty of rich cultural history to build upon and current examples by which to establish creative partnerships that enlist and embed artists, as these pedestrian waterfront developments continue.

For theorist Michel de Certeau the city is experienced as a social rather than physical space through the everyday practice of walking. Thus future public art projects for the Riverwalk could also focus on artists for whom walking is a part of their practice and whose works directly engage the public as discoverers and wanderers. Like eco-art, walking art also has a long and varied history, from the Situationists’ dérive, a form of wandering or drifting that actualized the pychogeographical effects of walking in cities for social transformation, to the nature walks of Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, to Francis Alÿs’ Paseos and Janet Cardiff’s audio tours. Such projects reinterpret the everyday spaces of public life, offering others the freedom and opportunity to access the river and the city in ways that are both new and self-defined.

I have walked, biked, and once kayaked the Chicago River and return to the Riverwalk often. My experiences are neither spectacular nor sublime (I am not a romantic), but something a bit more personal and understated, dependent on the crowds, the weather, the state of politics in the city, my state of mind. The river and the Riverwalk will continue to grow and change; plans are already underway for a 312 RiverRun on the north branch of the Chicago River. As both a critic and a citizen, I remain committed to the cultural opportunities these pedestrian waterfronts offer, but for now I’ll just sit – or walk – and watch the river flow.


  1. Jane Jacobs, “The curse of border vacuums,” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1992), p. 268.
  2. Robert Kanigel, “Ideas That Matter,” in Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), p. 371.
  3. Jane Jacobs, “Visual order: its limitations and possibilities,” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 375.
  4. Ibid., p. 378.
  5.  Rosalyn Deutsche, “Uneven Development,” in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), p.

Art and Ritual; Facebook and the Archive

A part of my morning ritual is to check in with Facebook. Each day I am greeted by a picture of a sunrise posted by artist Barbara Koenen, who photographs the sun ascending over Lake Michigan from her apartment window in Chicago. Using her smartphone, she then posts her images on Instagram and Facebook, where followers Like, Comment, and Share.


I have followed Koenen’s sunrises daily since she initiated her project two years ago, and have come to find there is surprising variation in each dawn: a menacing horizon filled with metallic clouds one day gives way to a fiery orb the next, while a succession of fiery orbs reveals that no two are alike. Similarly, each sunrise is colored by the changing character of the season; the warm-lit early skies of spring and summer melt the dark dawns of winter. The constant is, however, Koenen’s daily recording of her immediate environment from the same vantage point and view (albeit, with occasional interruptions), and use of social media to display and distribute her landscape images. Her work, alongside that of others, has prompted me to consider how Facebook functions as a social space for photographic practices that merge documentary and ritual, not only in their creation but also in their reception. Through such projects, private life, both the artist’s and the user’s, plays out in the public sphere in an act of shared ritual.


The recent exhibition “Natural Inclinations” at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, Chicago, (April 7-May 28, 2017), curated by artist Linda Dorman, fed my interest. On view were works by seven artists, including Koenen and Dorman, whose photographic images are generated on social media. Koenen presented some 200 images from the series, titled “Sunrises and Dawns,” printed in cells across a progression of twelve grids, an arrangement that brings to mind the conceptual landscapes of Jan Dibbets, while also preserving the sequential way one encounters her photographs on Facebook.

The premise for the exhibition evolved from Dorman’s own social media participation, and from her observations, like mine, of its growing use by artists and photographers as a forum for documenting aspects of their daily lives:

“Each artist has a different reason for making these images. As artists, their eyes are focused and their sensitivity to their surroundings honed to their curiosity and what interests them most. Each project is carried out in uniquely purposeful manner, some are more disciplined or ritualistic, while others are more spontaneous and event driven.” (Note 1)

Although her work was not included in this exhibition, photographer Jin Lee also regularly posts images taken with her iPhone to Facebook. Collectively titled “Train View,” Lee captures the moving scenery viewed outside the train window during her weekly commute between Chicago and Normal, IL, where she teaches photography at Illinois State University. Taken with a careful, steady eye, Lee transforms the flat Midwestern landscape into an endless panorama of silos, trees, railroad tracks, houses and telephone wires, offering a quiet beauty in the familiar and the mundane. Seemingly empty fields reveal neat patterns of tilled soil dusted with white snow. A thicket of trees bathed in the red glow of an evening sunset appears otherworldly, as do those images in which the motion of the train renders her scenes as hazy phantoms or as abstract plays of color and light.

Other photographs – the smoke stacks of a distant factory, the totemic mills of a wind farm, a graffitied wall with the tag “The Drug Money” next to a construction crew – document the disparate economies that operate within this region of Illinois. They also connect the issues of documentary and ritual embedded in Lee’s Train View (the subject of a forthcoming solo exhibition at devening projects + editions in October) to those of labor – that performed by the many subjects she records and, more importantly, her own, a discovery revealed in the below Facebook exchange:



Jin Lee‪ With my teaching schedule, I ride evening trains every week where I watch the light fade and the landscape blend into darkness. Thanks to Adam Brooks who confirmed that in addition to ideas about landscape, time, and place, this series is also about work and commuting.

Dan S Wang‪ How could it not be about commuting and labor?

Jin Lee‪ I know…kind of slow about the obvious. It’s also about making work within the life circumstances and its limits.

When Lee began her project in 2014, it was with the idea that she would “not do any school or computer work during the ride,” but instead “just look.” (Note 2) The act of looking then became the central motivation behind the photographs under review here, whose formal and conceptual operations were defined by the dictates of her commute: the time of day, the speed of the train, the availability of light. Thus Train View not only documents the routine travel necessary to carry out her work as an educator, it also documents Lee’s production and artistic labor, one that spans a broad range of photographic isms and also embraces Conceptualism’s concern for systems and set limits.

I see resonances between Lee’s and Koenen’s Facebook photos and the work of conceptual artists Roman Opalka and On Kawara, who similarly blurred the boundaries between their personal and artistic lives through their ritualistic painting practices. Opalka’s Details, his lifelong project of painting numbers across a progression of canvases begun in 1965 until his death in 2011, was both a daily mediation on the infinite possibilities of his medium and a portrait of his own im/mortality. Kawara’s “Today” series (1966-2014), more commonly known as the Date Paintings, similarly registered his artistic life in relation to daily events, whether personal or historic, in spare acrylic paintings simply bearing the day’s date.

In chronicling their immediate environments within the context of their everyday rituals, Lee and Koenen present taxonomies of place, not unlike Bernd and Hilla Becher whose serial photographs of industrial structures offer topological studies of the last vestiges of the machine age. However, Lee and Koenen operate from a decidedly subjective point of view, sharing a more diaristic record of their respective landscapes, which despite their imposed parameters reveal nature as an unstable entity that changes over time.

Likewise, their use of social media openly exposes their artistic intentions and the processes behind their photographs’ construction. For instance, on one recent morning Koenen presented a bit of an aberration from her usual sunrises with an image of an ascending sun seen from within the netting of a spider’s web, whose maker clung to the window as if a sentinel. Here, the artist shifted our expected view of the distant landscape to a close-up of a spider and its delicate tracery.


As noted by one follower:

Doug VanderHoof Serious congratulations for taking a successful body of work in a new direction. It’s one thing to take an idea that just isn’t working and to try a new thing. But this is creative risk taking writ small. Everybody likes the current work; I’ll change it.

The above comment and those posted in response to Lee’s Train View reveal that Facebook has also become a discursive space for the public sharing of commentary and ideas about art. User interactions, including Likes, Comments, and Shares, function as a kind of critical discourse, or what Brian Dritcour, who sees Yelp’s crowd-sourced reviews as a form of citizen journalism, terms “vernacular criticism.” Dritcour argues that Yelp and other social-media platforms, with their rating metrics, have the potential to “reset art criticism” and usher a return to judgment, a view shared by critic Orit Gat:

The reason to consider Yelp, Amazon, or similar websites’ relationship to criticism is rooted in a historical moment in which users’ accounts of an experience or a product began to be framed as reviews. As with many other online concepts that caught on, these contributions were framed as “reviews” early on and came to define our continued use of the term for years to come. (See: Facebook’s “like” button.) (Note 3)

Gat, Dritcour, and others have written a lot about the impact of social media on criticism, both its potentials and problematics, and the proliferation of networked communities around art. Zachary Kaplan, of Rhizome, has written about the technological challenges of archiving these discussions on Facebook due to its inherent limitations and the fact that user interactions are generated through each user’s software. (Note 4) It is not my intention here to cover this same territory, other than to point out that vital conversations are happening on Facebook around art and photographic practices, such as those of Koenen and Lee, and that these regular exchanges are, in their own right, a form of ritual that reinforce the work’s production and meaning.

The photograph as both document and shared experience is also at the center of an archival project by Milwaukee-based artist Paul Druecke, whose A Social Event Archive – recently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum (May 12-August 13, 2017) – is an analog or pre-digital example of the kind of practices I am discussing here. Druecke initiated his project in 1997 with an interest in understanding how social interactions are documented and shared by inviting the general public to submit personal snapshots of a “social occasion, public or private, current or historical,” to a physical archive he amassed for ten years. The exhibition, organized on the occasion of the project’s twenty-year anniversary, showcased its 731 images alongside works from the museum’s collection selected by Druecke that share the archive’s central images and themes. Birthdays, holidays, dances, picnics, funerals, and other kinds of gatherings and rituals are commemorated, in both color and black and white, offering meditations on individual and collective memory, the construction of social relationships, and the power of family and community.

Caption: A Social Event Archive, 1997–2007. 4 of 731 chromogenic prints, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and The Green Gallery, Milwaukee. Copyright Paul Druecke.

Important to note is that Druecke’s project “predates and predicts Instagram and Facebook and the blurring of private and public that such social media platforms allow.” (Note 5) Yet like Koenen and Lee, he reveals how everyday images, whether physical or digital, personal memorials or landscapes, can foster social exchange through private and participatory acts of ritual.



  1. Curatorial statement by Lisa Dorman in exhibition press release,
  2. As stated by the artist in a Facebook post dated November 17, 2014.
  3. Orit Gat, “Art Criticism in the Age of Yelp,” Rhizome, November 12, 2013
  4. Zachary Kaplan, “The Accidental Archivist: Criticism on Facebook, and How to Preserve It,” Rhizome, May 29, 2014
  5. Lisa Sutcliffe, “Democratic Impulse: Paul Druecke’s A Social Event Archive,” in exhibition catalog, A Social Event Archive (Milwaukee Art Museum, 2017), p. 7.

I Walk the Line: On the Art and Politics of Walking in the City

I walk a lot. I walk to get from one destination to another. I walk to clear a space in my head. I walk to connect to my neighborhood, to my city, and to those places less familiar. I have never been good at reading a map (or folding one), thus I often let my impressions and senses guide me, or when lost, ask others to point the way.

There is a romance to walking, linked to our need to connect to nature and the physical environment, as well as our will to be alone. However, walking in the city is a profoundly public experience, one that we continually negotiate, and it is through this negotiation that we can better understand the political complexities of public space. Who owns public space? What are the commonly understood rights to its use and access? How does walking both engage and circumvent the spatial order of a city? How does it map new territories of freedom?

For writer Rebecca Solnit, walking is central to urban citizenship and to our participation in public life.

“Walking is only the beginning of citizenship, but through it the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof. Walking the streets is what links up reading the map with living one’s life, the personal microcosm with the public macrocosm; it makes sense of the maze all around.” (Note 1)

Walking is also central to several new urban projects that link the pleasure of walking with city revitalization. These include converted rail lines, riverwalks, public promenades and other design projects that advocate for a city’s walkability through creative reuse. Part of the New Urbanism movement, such spaces have become beacons for addressing a whole host of socio-economic issues – diversity and connectivity, alternative transportation routes, sustainable green spaces – with walking as the human action that steers these hybrid landscapes.

Elevated greenways like The High Line in New York and The Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago provide a respite from the daily march on the sidewalk below along with transitory views of the city or a neighborhood where one is suspended between the street and the skyline. This spatial suspension places the walker in both a physical and psychological state of in-between, not just between the sky and the ground or between one entry or endpoint and another, but between nature and urban, past and present, public and private.

The High Line

Reclaiming the industrial ruin as a new infrastructure for nature and leisure has also created new ecologies for art, sites that host and commission a broad range of public projects, from sculptures in situ to temporary installations to billboards to outdoor performances. While not necessarily reinventing public art, these pedestrian parks are catalyzing a new interest in public and spatial art practices, and in the case of The High Line, which courses through Chelsea and delivers one moving south to the steps of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, art is one economic engine driving their development.

I walked The High Line a couple of times during various trips to New York. Once in 2014 when the extension at 34th street or the Rail Yards was just completed, and more recently this past fall. Each time I am taken by the enormity of Manhattan’s cityscape and the sweeping views of the Hudson River, whose watery expanse follows as you wander. I found myself disheartened upon my last visit, however, at the rampant development and new construction that is happening both along the trail and as a byproduct of it; cranes and scaffolding obstruct the magnificent views and hinder easy passage, while jack hammers interrupt the reverie.

The popularity of such parks, along with their narrow paths, large crowds, and cacophony of offerings, including art, and the gentrifying development they generate, has prompted some critics to declare them theme parks. (Note 2)

The High Line as damned by Jerry Saltz:

“The trend I mean is this: toward ersatz, privatized public spaces built by developers; sterile, user-friendly, cleansed adult playgrounds with generic environments that produce the innocuous stupor of elevator music; inane urban utopias with promenades, perches, pleasant embellishments, rest stops, refreshments, and compliance codes.” (Note 3)

Elsewhere in his article, Saltz nonetheless credits the High Line and other similar park developments with ushering in “a new golden age of public art.” I agree for the most part, although my response to the work I have seen on the High Line is rather mixed. Part of this is subjective, of course, and I am limited to what is on view while I am there, but some of the work seems like a new version of plop art, the kind of public sculptures that populated corporate and city plazas in the 1970s, with the High Line as an outdoor showroom for the Chelsea galleries below. Works and exhibitions are curated or commissioned under the auspices of High Line Art, and it is the commissioned works that I have been most drawn to, particularly Barbara Kruger’s recent billboard whose message BLIND IDEALISM IS REACTIONARY, SCARY, DEADLY, installed previous to the November election, became a haunting harbinger to Trump’s dangerous conservatism.


Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Blind Idealism Is…)” 2016. A High Line Commission, on view March 2016 – March 2017. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

One of the most memorable works I experienced on the High Line remains Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways, an homage to the Hudson, which the artist photographed during a 700-minute journey along the river over the course of a single day. Finch then translated the varied palette of the river’s surface captured in his photographs into 700 panes of colored glass installed in a series of grids at the park’s Chelsea Market Passage. For me, this work, on view temporarily and commissioned in partnership with Creative Time, succeeded in its poetic sensitivity to the physical and historical conditions of its site, and should serve as one model for the kind of site responsiveness that public art should aspire to.


Spencer Finch, “The River that Flows Both Ways,” 2009. A High Line Commission. Photo courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

The Bloomingdale Trail

The Bloomingdale Trail, the centerpiece of what is commonly known as The 606, in Chicago is a decidedly more residential adaptive reuse project, an abandoned train line converted to a path for walking and biking that runs straight through 2.7 miles of the city’s west side neighborhoods. Like the High Line, it is the result of a coalition of public and private partners, among them the City of Chicago, the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit, and Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a volunteer group of community residents. However, its genesis is quite different, as it originated under the city’s Department of Planning and Development to bring more public green space to the neighborhood of Logan Square, including in addition to the converted train line six access parks. The 606 opened in June 2015 and remains a work in progress: plants and trees will fill in as they grow and change with the cycles of the season; additional spaces for public events and gatherings, such as a skate plaza, are planned.

The 606’s art program also differs considerably from High Line Art, with the trail itself conceived and designed as a work of art, one that merges creative engineering, landscape design and expanded definitions of community and public art. Thus less an exhibition space than a cultural space that integrates art and artists throughout the evolution of the site, it accommodates both performance and material art practices, traditional art forms and new, temporary artworks and those that are ongoing. The art program was conceived and guided by Francis Whitehead, a Chicago-based artist whose transdisciplinary work combines environmental advocacy, creative placemaking and collaboration across a broad range of stakeholders to create experiential models of public art. The program’s mission as stated by Whitehead on The 606 website:

“Fully ’embedded’ into the engineering and landscape design team, we have worked collaboratively to synthesize local site conditions with a broad range of contemporary art ideas to form a place-based, experiential approach. The concept that culture and sustainability are deeply linked underpins the arts strategies and creates the ethos of the Arts program, which manifests ‘place’ at multiple scales: local, bioregional, global and virtual. This ‘arts thinking’ has generated plans for several hybrid sites and landscape features across the length of The 606. These ’embedded artworks’ double as park amenities, performance venues or sites for public learning.” (Note 4)


Aerial View of Ridgeway Observatory and trailhead on The Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago. Photo by Colin Hinkl. Courtesy of The Trust for Public Land.

One of these embedded artworks, for example, in an earthwork-observatory at the park’s western trailhead, a mound that offers a raised vantage point to view the sun set then spirals into an OZ-like road that gently leads strollers to the trail. Many of the temporary artworks unveiled upon the park’s opening follow more established models of public art – a billboard by Kay Rosen and a mural series by Louis de Marco – and are no longer on view, while Chakaia Booker’s Brick House, a large serpentine sculpture constructed from the artist’s signature used tires, remains at the trail’s Damen Arts Plaza. Two additional murals have since been installed, and various community processions, such as the now annual Walk with Light and The 606 Soundscape, a weekend soundwalk and listening workshop led by artists, have taken place on the trail.


Above: Chakaia Booker, “Brick House.” Below:  Walk with Light public procession. Both photos by Adam Alexander. Courtesy of The Trust for Public Land.

A Walk with Light on the 606 trail December 20, 2015.

Unlike High Line Art, directed by Friends of the High Line (who also raise private funds to support 98% of the High Line’s operating budget), (Note 5) The 606’s cultural arm is administered by three entities: the Trust for Public Land, The Chicago Park District, and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. The arts program is still rather nascent and an online campaign is currently underway to raise funds to support future works, including Turning Sky, by the collaborative Luftwerk that will translate weather data into a system of LED lights to illuminate the Milwaukee Avenue bridge.

Walking the Bloomingdale Trail is a study in economic contrasts, in which I often feel like both a trespasser and a voyeur. Depending on which direction one travels or which trailhead one enters, one witnesses a sloping landscape of wealth: less affluent communities, many Latinx, reside near the trail’s west end, while luxury homes and condominiums inhabit the east end. But this uneven development is giving way to increasing property taxes and rising rents at the expense of longtime residents, who last May organized a protest (a militant form of walking) on the trail over concerns that the accelerated gentrification that has followed in The 606’s wake will displace them.

The Desire Path

Such concerns are very real and at the center of the complex labyrinth of issues that these trail parks illicit: the privatization or semi-privatization of public space; gentrification and displacement; city planning overriding community needs and interests. And yet to my mind these elevated greenways are some of the more progressive, certainly largest, public works projects to have emerged over the last decade. With similar projects elsewhere and others underway, now is the time to assess their failures and successes to determine how cities can invest in infrastructure reuse to create healthy public-private-community partnerships that share common goals. Part of this success is to attach public subsidies to these parks that reinvest in the neighborhoods they traverse and that support fair and affordable housing. Art and culture are integral components of such public spaces, with best practices being those that value artists as community members and creative placemakers rather than pawns for real-estate investment. Likewise, Percent for Art ordinances should be broadened to include these trail parks under the rubric of public spaces to ensure that cities support innovative public art and that communities are part of the process. Most importantly, it is imperative that the focus remains on their original mission – to encourage and support walking in the city.

For theorist Michel de Certeau, there is a “rhetoric” to walking in the city, written by ordinary citizens or walkers, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.” (Note 6) “The walking of passers-by offers a series of turns (tours) and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures,’” he continues. “The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path.” (Note 7)

When walking these pedestrian parks, such narratives are often linear and rather scripted, versus those that wind, bend, twist, backtrack or steer off course. These “tours” and “detours” are essential for the return to walking as a form of self-agency, and for creating a kind of “desire path” that is personal and orthogonal. Their straight lines, however, are a given. Instead, delete the political drama, conceive as an exquisite corpse, and above all feed our desire for wanderlust.


  1. Rebecca Solnit, “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Viking, 2000), p. 176.
  2. Nikil Saval, “Uncommon Ground,” New York Times Magazine, November 13, 2016, p. 74.
  3. See Jerry Saltz Last accessed December 19, 2016.
  4. See Frances Whitehead,
  5. See
  6. Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (University of California Press, 2011), p. 158.
  7. Ibid. p. 161.

Art. Criticism. Now.

As I am confronted with this blank page after the disastrous results of the election, I must admit I feel lost as to what I am supposed to do next. I can tell you how I feel; like others, I feel angry, betrayed, confused, afraid, but thankfully not alone. But now even those sentiments feel overused. There is a familiarity to this, not unlike the early aftermath of 9/11, when many of us in the art world questioned the importance of what we do and asked ourselves what is art’s role in times of uncertainty and struggle. What we soon discovered, and will again if we haven’t already, is that art is central to who we are as humans and as a culture. Artists are creative thinkers who challenge, expand, educate, disrupt, and revision the world in ways that others cannot.

The task of the critic is not dissimilar to that of the artist. Our charge is to use the power of words to elicit, extend and mediate the dialogue, to inform and educate, to re/frame the view, to challenge the status quo.

The resolve of art and artists will be tested once again with the imminent return of the culture wars, started by Ronald Reagan, reignited by Trump. Now is the time for critics to take back the discursive function of public space and re-energize the critical apparatus of alternative media and the art press. Above all, our primary mandate is to uphold the rights to free expression and free speech, including our own.

On November 9, 2016, art criticism found its renewed purpose; as a critic I did too.


The Chicago Architecture Biennial 2.0: Axes and Praxes

The recent announcement of the new artistic team to lead the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) has prompted me to consider some of the political dynamics at play and to share a few ideas about what I think the next installment of CAB could be. Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of the Los Angeles-based firm Johnston Marklee are its Artistic Directors, following 2015’s Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, with Todd Palmer, of Chicago’s National Public Housing Museum, as Executive Director.

Johnston Marklee brings an insider’s perspective to the project both as a participant in the inaugural biennial and as practicing architects. Their clean, minimalist designs favor bold geometry (polyhedrons, stacked or interlocking rectangular planes, dramatic curved volumes) and the integration of public and private spaces, an aesthetic they have brought to several high-profile residential houses and to various art-related commissions, among them a new campus for the UCLA Graduate Art Studios in Culver City, California, the Grand Traiano Art Complex in Grottaferrata, Italy, and the Menil Drawing Institute, Houston, Texas, opening next year.  The architects often collaborate with designers and artists (for example, Luisa Lambri, Marianne Mueller, Jack Pierson, James Welling) in their initial research, an interdisciplinary process revealed in a series of photo collages that render their housing projects as abstract forms and on view at the Chicago Cultural Center during the first edition of CAB.


Johnston Marklee, Installation view of “House is a House is a House is a House is a House,” photo collage series, at the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2016. Photo by Steve Hall. Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Johnston and Lee’s connection to Chicago extends beyond their new roles as the biennial’s Artistic Directors. Their firm is leading the redesign of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) interior spaces, which includes the creation of an “engagement zone” for public events and education programs, and the relocation of the restaurant to street level. Their intervention in the current MCA café A Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid, an aluminum gridded ceiling structure and wall graphic, references the “poetic rationalism” of architect Josef Paul Kleihues’ original building, and also hints at their proposed design.


Johnston Marklee, Installation view of “Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (Oct 1, 2015–November 18, 2016). Photo by Nathan Keay. © MCA Chicago.

Johnston Marklee was also chosen as the architecture firm for the proposed Green Line Arts Center, part of The Arts Block development, a 100,000-square foot stretch of East Garfield Boulevard to be converted into an arts corridor. The Arts Block is a project of the University of Chicago and will be led by artist Theaster Gates, whose Stony Island Arts Bank opened under the auspices of last year’s biennial and whose close relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the driving force behind CAB, is well known. While building on existing relationships isn’t necessarily a bad thing, one might ask, under what process and criteria is CAB leadership chosen?


Johnston Marklee, Proposed design for Green Line Arts Center, Entry view. Photo Courtesy Arts + Public Life, University of Chicago.

Johnston Marklee’s vision for CAB offers, perhaps, some insights, and is based on the following themes: the axis between history and modernity, and the axis between architecture and art. To this first axis, their vision calls for a “rediscovering of [architecture’s] own roots and traditions,” in response to the field’s fascination with the new and the “latest micro-trends.” As declared in their press statement: “The insistence on being unprecedented and unrelated to architectures of the past reached new heights at the beginning of the millennium, as more and more architects became reluctant to consider what they do as being part of a larger collective project or part of a longer architectural history.” (Note 1) However, definitions of modernity are never clearly articulated nor are the architectural histories to be reconsidered. My hope is that the well-known platitudes of Western modernism and its architectural icons, such as the many that occupy the Chicago skyline, are not the only histories to be examined. Likewise, their claim for an architecture that “celebrates shared values” seem at odds with what we now know of the modernist project. Post-modernism and global art and architectural histories have argued the importance of local political conditions on local production and given us a more horizontal view of cultural history, one that stresses plurality and difference rather than commonalities.

Svetlayna Boym’s idea of the “off-modern” might be a useful, alternative frame to consider architectural history:

“‘Off-modern’ is a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project. It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side-alleys of modern history at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic and technological narratives of modernization and progress.” (Note 2)

The second axis to be explored – the juncture between architecture and art – seems to take a more multidisciplinary view, with Johnston Marklee noting the evolution of both practices in relation to public space, site-specificity, and changing national and civic identities. As I have written elsewhere in this blog, such collaborations have the potential for re-inventing the urban landscape, both as a physical and social space, for creating new points of public access and opportunities for community engagement, and for offering creative problem-solving to the many social challenges cities face.

With this in mind, I was somewhat skeptical when it was publicized that the opening of CAB 2017 (September 16- December 31, 2017) would coincide with next year’s EXPO Chicago (September 13-17, 2017), the annual fair of contemporary and modern art. EXPO Chicago then announced its partnership with the Palais de Tokyo in Paris for an artist residency program at Mana Contemporary Chicago and an off-site public exhibition of international artists to run during CAB, with the Graham Foundation to select emerging local architects to work with curator Katell Jaffres on the exhibition design. Such alignments have their advantages, however, EXPO Chicago is first and foremost about commerce, and while one might argue that architecture is too, I worry that profit and “festivalism” will supersede the productive experimentation that the axis of architecture and art can foster, and will favor exhibition over experience, spectatorship over participation.

Granted, this is just one component of a larger program, much of which is still to be determined. What is known publicly is that The Cultural Center will once again serve as the main hub; the design competition for students of local architecture schools will also be a component of the 2017 edition. For the inaugural biennial, students worked in collaboration with international architectural firms on a series of proposed lakefront kiosks as part of what CAB identified as its “legacy projects,” although to date none have been realized, with the exception of Chicago Horizon by Ultramoderne, winner of the BP prize and not part of the student competition.

Re-envisioning the legacy projects as a series of think tanks, where students work in tandem with established architects to realize solutions to real-life problems (e.g., temporary shelters for refugees and flood victims, rebuilding communities after war and natural disaster, environmental development, gun violence) would have more impact. As mentioned in my earlier post reviewing the first CAB, Jeanne Gang’s Polis Station, a re-mapping of the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago to curb police violence and build community relations, is one such example. In fact, establishing the whole of CAB as an incubator for architectural experimentation, research and advocacy, one that deftly balances a local/global vision, would define itself and the biennial model as something more than a showcase. Keep the locus at the Chicago Culture Center, but extend the biennial’s reach and presence into the city’s neighborhoods; involve communities throughout the planning process and often. Use the critical stance of the “off-modern” to, as Boym suggests, embrace the peripheral, make visible lesser-known traditions, create new affinities. Explore site-specificity in all its forms and permutations.

The Chicago art world is known for its spirit of collaboration, grass-roots politics and for defining art as a social practice; Chicago architecture for its invention and trans-disciplinary approach to architecture and design, as evinced by the New Bauhaus whose importance and legacy remain foundational and can be witnessed in the current exhibition “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” at the Art Institute of Chicago (to January 3, 2017). It is within the realm of public space that art and architecture, as essential components of urban design, uphold and, sometimes, contest the political imaginary. CAB has the potential to do the same.


  1. See
  2. Svetlana Boym, “The Off-Modern Condition,” Accessed October 17, 2016.

Towards An Architectural Journalism

Towards an Architectural Journalism, or Criticism as a Spatial Practice

Alfredo Cramerotti’s book Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform without Informing (2007) explores the relationship between contemporary art and documentary journalism, challenging established definitions of each. This blurring of the margins between art and journalism Cramerotti terms Aesthetic Journalism, a strain of contemporary art in which artists using the tools and methodologies of investigative journalism — archival and field research, interviewing, documentary and narrative storytelling, surveys, infographics and other display formats — offer alternative views of reality, political and otherwise, than those presented by mainstream media. The result of the artist’s research operates within an artistic context not the channels of the news media, although it is used as a critical instrument of investigation for a whole host of social, cultural and political situations that challenge notions of journalistic truth and objectivity.

As a critic originally trained in the Woodward-Bernstein school of investigative journalism and who came to the field of art criticism in the mid-1980s via my aborted aspirations to become a political reporter, Cramerotti’s text has been deeply influential to my search for new critical models. If the field of art has become the new laboratory for journalistic experimentation, what can we as journalists take from the world of art? What constitutes a creative critical practice? What forms might an “artistic turn” in criticism take?

In an attempt to answer these questions, it is helpful to look at some of these artistic models. Cramerotti traces some of the roots of Aesthetic Journalism to certain conceptual art practices of the 1960s, citing works by Martha Rosler and Hans Haacke, while noting the importance of Documenta X (1997), one of the first large-scale representations of this hybrid practice. Some of the contemporary artists and projects he notes include Alfredo Jaar, the Atlas Group, the collaborative Multiplicity, Renee Green, Lucas Einsele and several others who employ information systems to explore political subjects. To this sample I would add the artists: Hito Steyrel, whose videos combine new documentary forms and highly subjective narratives to critique the ways in which images are controlled and disseminated; Yael Bartana, whose films and videos pastiche traditional documentary techniques and socialist-realist propaganda to speak to issues of nationalism; Irina Botea, whose videos employ role-playing and re-enactment techniques to remediate moments of historical trauma; Trevor Paglen, whose photographic practice unmasks covert government information systems and makes visible the politics of surveillance.

This shared trajectory of art and journalism has operated within a number of gallery and museum exhibitions as well. One such key example is the exhibition “The Last Newspaper” (on view at the New Museum, New York, in 2010), a group show surveying how various artists approach the news. Included, for instance, were a recreation of William Pope.L’s performance Eating the Wall Street Journal; a redo of Hans Haacke’s The News, a live feed of the daily news via a TELEX machine; Alexandra Mir’s oversized drawings of the front pages of The New York Post; and Angel Naverez and Valerie Tevene’s video interview of The New York Times obit editor, entitled A Dutiful Scrivener.

New Museum_Benoit Pailley_Haacke_Bowers_4thFl_6423

Hans Haacke, The News, in “The Last Newspaper,” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

New Museum_Beniot Pailley_Aleksandra_Mir_6494

Alexandra Mir, Mail Bomb Alert and Let’s Go Get ‘Em, 2007, in “The Last Newspaper,” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

In addition to individual artworks were a number of partner organizations (ex. StoryCorps) and artist collectives, who facilitated public dialogues and interactive information sharing sessions, and staged on-site micro-newsrooms that reported on and responded to the artworks and ideas within the exhibition. The Barcelona-based Latitudes produced a weekly newspaper that documented the show during its ten-month run in lieu of an exhibition catalog, soliciting viewers to pitch editorial content. Issues of The New City Reader, a large format tabloid produced by Joseph Grima and Kazys Varnelis, were postered in public places throughout the city.

New Museum_Benoit Pailley_3rdfloor_6456e

Third Floor Gallery View of “The Last Newspaper,” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

New Museum_Last_Newspaper_catalogueimage_17662[1]

The Last Newspaper Catalogue, edited by Latitudes. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: New Museum.

I am interested in these kinds of embedded or “pop-up” media environments as potential models for reimagining the 21st-century newsroom and for offering architectural structures/infrastructures that are site responsive, adaptable, permeable. An “Architectural Journalism,” if you will, then, offers a physical space for various forms of on-site publishing, as well as a discursive space that activates the production of critical dialogue with multiple participants that is immediate and in direct conversation with the works on view.

One sees connections between these spaces and various alternative media practices of the 1970s, some of which are explored in the current traveling exhibition “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” an examination of global architectural and design practices of the 1960s and ‘70s organized by the Walker Art Center. Here, DIY architecture, experiential media environments and independent publishing projects (ex. The Whole Earth Catalog) capture the utopic spirit of the hippie movement and the emergent technologies that shaped today’s online world, while offering an alternative vision of modernism.

Projects by the San-Francisco collaborative Ant Farm and architect Ken Isaacs are important to my argument here. Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network (1971), a multi-tiered project in which this collective of architects working alongside media artists proposed a series of information exchanges using trucks and vans outfitted with media equipment. Part road trip, part roadside pedagogy, the goal, as envisioned through drawings, texts, videos and other documentary materials, was to create a mobile architecture that would traverse the United States to document encounters with the American public and to create an alternative network for the exchange of ideas.


Drawing of Truckstop Network by Doug Michels. Ant Farm Archive at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Courtesy Chip Lord.


Above and below: View of  exhibition “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” 2015; Ant Farm, Media Van v.08, 2008. Photo: Greg Beckel, Copyright Walker Art Center.


Isaacs’ Knowledge Box (1962/2009), an experimental learning chamber for which I served as a curatorial advisor, eschews the traditional classroom for “environmental concepts of education.” Upon entering the darkened chamber, the viewer is suddenly immersed in a rapid montage of sounds and images via a slide program or “magazine” of vintage black-and-white photographs culled from Life magazine. This experimental environment brings about a social awareness that allows the viewer to bring his or her own experience to the learning process. The ultimate goal: a transformation of consciousness.


Ken Isaacs, Knowledge Box, 2009, Exterior View, Exhibition “Learning Modern,” Sullivan Galleries, School  of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Danny Hsu.

Writing about his “alpha chambers” in 1967:

“It was necessary to develop a situational, experiential tool which could break the culture grip and provide purchase to the new data assemblies which were being ignored and excluded from the current worldview. The communications environment had to be shocking, evocative and total. Culture itself is such a pervasive ubiquity that nothing less than a total tool could deal with it. The only communication situation would be one which offered the probability of deep and total involvement for the participant.” (Note 1).


View of  exhibition “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” 2015; Ken Isaacs, Knowledge Box, Interior view, 1962/2009. Photo: Greg Beckel. Copyright Walker Art Center.

The Knowledge Box was originally created in 1962 in collaboration with students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, where Isaacs taught, and recast in 2009. Its design is based on Isaacs’s idea of the matrix, a three-dimensional grid that forms the central concept and building component of all his work, including his popular Living Structures. These total living units were often referred to as information structures, given the architect’s integration of what he termed “pholages,” scrims or panels of photographs collaged from popular magazines in which the viewer creates meaning through the juxtaposition of images.

More contemporary examples of participatory critical practices, or what I am now terming Architectural Journalism — again a journalism that is both dialogical and spatial – are found in several experimental, independent publishing projects, mainly spearheaded by artists. Self-publishing is central to the practice of the Chicago-based collaborative Temporary Services (Marc Fisher and Brett Bloom), whose public projects often include books, posters, newspapers, and other forms of printed matter, published under the auspices of their publishing imprint Half-Letter Press. For Publishing Clearing House, a temporary print shop created for and sited within the group exhibition “A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action” (on view at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in fall 2014), Temporary Services invited collaborators (artists, writers, youth groups) to develop and produce new publications “in-situ” during the exhibition.

SAIC_Temporary Services_1_james prinz

Temporary Services, Publishing Clearing House, 2014. Installation view, “A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: James Prinz.

Elsewhere, this artist collaborative has created installations within exhibitions where self-published books are suspended eye level from the ceiling in clusters or “book clouds” to offer an open and shared space for collective reading. For Temporary Services, books and publications are inherently social, from their material inception to the economies of labor involved in production to the experience of the reader. “Printed materials actively inhabit our spaces and exist as social entities,” the artists have stated. “[T]hey are a social-spatial currency.” (Note 2)

Other publishing projects such as Green Lantern Press in Chicago and Publication Studio in Portland, Oregon, share similar interests in the social and, in particular, community function of publishing artists books through their multi-disciplinary programs that combine publications with exhibitions, residencies and public events that foster conversation. Publication Studio co-founder Matthew Stadler describes publications as “the creation of a public.” “The public is created through deliberate, willful acts: the circulation of texts, discussions and gatherings in physical space, and the maintenance of a related digital commons,” says Stadler. “These construct a common space of conversation, a public space, which beckons a public into being. This is publication in its fullest sense.” (Note 3)

A more interventional model of art publishing that directly engages broad publics in public spaces is the artist-run newsstand, in which artists install newspaper kiosks on city streets and in subways for the distribution of independently produced artists books, periodicals and zines. Recent projects in New York (ALLDAYEVERYDAY and Petrella’s Imports), Toronto (The Artists Newsstand), and San Francisco (The Grand Newsstand) suggest a growing trend, although many appear to be rather temporal. I see affinities here between the artist newsstand and the information kiosks envisioned by Rodchenko and other Russian Constructivist artists, as well as Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer’s 1924 design for a newspaper stand. The function of Rodchenko’s kiosk, while highly influential but never realized, was the dissemination of publicity and information for the Soviet state. This was to be achieved through the integration of multiple information systems into one architectural structure: “a large clock, a huge billboard positioned above the building, a speaker’s rostrum, a screen for advertisements, a place for posters, and a space for the sale of books and newspapers.” (Note 4)

The community function of a Newspaper Kiosk (1999) designed by the Rotterdam-based architectural studio of Dré Wapenaar resides in its ability to adapt to various public sites and in the creation of an intimate space for social rather than economic exchange. Known for his tentlike structures, Wapenaaar’s Newspaper Kiosk is similarly constructed from a tensile canvas stretched over a steel armature, the interior of which houses wood seats and shelving.


According to Fieke Konijn:

“The Newspaper Kiosk has been deployed in the Rotterdam public library and in the atrium of The Hague’s city hall. It is precisely in such surroundings in which the piece comes into its own, standing like a communications satellite returned to earth from space, an airy defence against the surrounding hustle and bustle. Readers sit with their backs to each other on a circular wooden platform in the middle of the tent. This attitude allows them to immerse themselves in the newspapers placed on the counter in the outer circle. Passers-by only see their legs, which they can rest on a circular bar. In this tent, Wapenaar has opted for movement from the centre outwards, which strikes me as a good metaphor for communication. The reading does take place in temporary isolation, but the shared seat can nonetheless make it an occasion for contact between readers.”(Note 5)


While these examples might be viewed as more critical artistic practices versus artistic critical practices, the participatory and social dynamics of these publication projects is what interests me and what I am hoping to recuperate for art criticism. Combined with the experiential encounters offered by the various media environments discussed here, criticism might also be a physical and spatial practice. This might manifest in more micro- and pop-up newsrooms sited within exhibition spaces, community centers, libraries, schools, or public parks; or publication residencies. More roaming mobile media units that allow easy public access and idea sharing across social media and other wide-ranging technologies. The reinvention of the newspaper kiosk as a social hub for the distribution of art publication and critical exchange. In the end, Architectural Journalism is criticism in its most public sense.


  1. Ken Isaacs, “Alpha Chambers,” in Dot Zero, no. 4, 1967, p. 40.See also, my interview with Isaacs:
  2. Temporary Services, Publishing in the Realm of Plant Fibers and Electrons, 2014, pp. 8-9.
  3. See Accessesed May 18, 2016.
  4. Victor Margolin, “Visions of the Future: Rodchenko and Lissitzky, 1917-1921,” The Struggle for Utopia (University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 17.
  5. See