Planting the Future City

As I have mentioned many times here and throughout my critical practice, Rosalyn Deutsche’s book Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics has been an endless source of inspiration for me. Deutsche centers her discourse on public art in political reinventions of public space, looking to radical definitions of democracy and to analogies that equate cities with biological systems. Such analogies are even more prescient given our current pandemic that heightens the realities of the interconnectedness of humans, cities, and ecosystems and the social, economic, and environmental injustices that result when those links are destabilized. [Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times has just written about the “anti-urban” nature of the coronavirus that erodes the very essence of cities – centers of commerce and creativity where the everyday is lived communally and in shared public spaces.] (Note 1)

Deutsche’s investigations of the complex and sometimes contentious relationship among art, politics, and public space have broadened my understanding of what constitutes a democratic public sphere, which for Deutsche is necessitated by conflict and plurality. Her definition of the city as a spatial environment produced by diverse groups in a network of social relations has led me to expand my own definition of public space to include Earth’s ecology. Thus, much of my recent writing has focused on spatial art practices centered on environmentalism in urban communities, from sculptural interventions that make publics aware of the impact of human activity on Midwest bird species (Jenny Kendler) to city-scaled projects that connect citizens to local water systems and ecologies (Mary Miss). Likewise, I’ve been interested in neighborhood development projects spearheaded by artists, in particular women, who employ community and systems-based approaches to urban agriculture to address a broad range of environmental and economic issues, including physical and mental health.

Civic practice artist Frances Whitehead has been a leading figure in this regard, bridging contemporary art, civic engagement, and the discourse on climate change to create an integrative art of placemaking. In her pioneering works and writings, she positions the artist as an active agent in civic projects centered on sustainability and environmental renewal, asking  What Do Artists Know? as the basis for innovative thinking, creative problem-solving, and unique knowledge skills. In her role as lead artist for Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail (The 606), an adaptive-reuse project that repurposed an abandoned railway into an elevated greenway on the city’s northwest side, Whitehead proposed and facilitated designs solutions throughout the trail and adjacent parks, including the astronomical observatory at the western trailhead. A central component of The 606 is the phenological planting of flowering trees (native serviceberry and lilac shrubs), a living artwork developed by Whitehead. In addition to providing the near three-mile trail with spectacular blooms, the trees allow citizen-scientists to monitor the fluctuating temperatures of Lake Michigan on the seasonal patterns of the trail’s landscape. (Phenology is the study of animal and plant life cycles in relation to the seasons and the weather.) Over time, their recorded observations will serve as a database for understanding Chicago’s micro-climates and the impact of climate change.

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Community Lab Orchard Planting Day, Gary, Indiana (2017- ). Photo: Frances Whitehead, courtesy of the artist.

 

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Community Lab Orchard Planting Day Discussion, Gary, Indiana (2017- ). Video documentary still by RAVA films + courtesy of A Blade of Grass Foundation.

Whitehead’s most recent project, Fruit Futures Initiative Gary, is a multi-tiered community orchard project in Gary, Indiana, that provides food access and economic development to this post-industrial city plagued by a whole host of racial, economic, and environmental injustices. Working with neighborhood residents and the City of Gary, Whitehead is transforming vacant lots into foodsheds for fruit trees, engaging community members in planting, maintenance, and research, while they develop long-term stewardship and a sense of civic pride. A micro-orchard is the investigative site for exploring soil health and testing which fruiting trees and shrubs will thrive. According to the artist, Gary’s underlying soil consists of ancient sand deposits, an ecology hospitable to various fruit cultures, including gooseberries, raspberries, grapes, plums, and pears. Similar to the phenological planting of The 606, ornamental trees planted along the Broadway Street bus route will serve as visual indicators of climate and seasonal change and beautify the city’s downtown. For Whitehead, art becomes the interface between scientific and community forms of knowledge as well as the catalyst for regenerative design strategies that reimagine the future city, including Gary, for the common good.

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Community Lab Orchard installed, Gary, Indiana (Fall 2017- ). Photo: Frances Whitehead, courtesy of the artist.

The ecological practices of Chicago-based artists Sara Black, Melissa Potter, and Nance Klehm similarly engage broad publics in environmental issues and awareness through soil remediation, urban foraging, plant rehabilitation, and communal forms of gardening. Utilizing the time-based processes of carpentry and woodworking, Black’s materials-centered practice often rehabilitates diseased woods transforming them into quasi-architectural structures and sculptural objects that offer alternative narratives of human impact on the environment. In several works, she employs “the process of carbonization to reveal the elemental existence of carbon in lumber,” a material long extracted for human consumption but whose expressions of resiliency and new-found utility challenge human-centered notions of nature and ecology (Note 2) In collaboration with Amber Ginsburg, Black constructed 220 wood benches which were later transformed into charcoal then biochar – a material that promotes soil biodiversity and long-term carbon storage. The project was created under the auspices of Wormfarm Institute, a cultural and artist residency program in rural Reedsburg, Wisconsin, devoted to art and agriculture, through which the artists conducted public workshops and disseminated biochar to local farms.

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Felled tanoak tree at Landes-Hill Big Creek Reserve, Big Sur, CA. Image courtesy of Sara Black.

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Sara Black and Amber Ginsburg, 7,000 Marks (2016 -), pencils made from felled tanoak tree. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Working alongside scientists and environmentalists at the Landes-Hill Big Creek Reserve in California, the artists created 7,000 pencils from a felled tanoak tree infected with Sudden Oak Death in their ongoing project 7000 Marks (2016-), an homage to Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks (1982), in which he planted 7,000 oak trees in Kassel, Germany, as part of documenta 7. As the artists have stated, “Planting a tree poses a solution. Making a pencil offers a speculative tool.” (Note 3) The pencils circulate through exhibitions and collaborative drawing and writing workshops that also enable participants to learn about broader environmental issues, reframing Beuys’ ideas about the regenerative potential of art in the context of today’s Anthropocene.

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Film Still, Material Engagements (cinematography, Jelena Jovcic). Artist Melissa Potter at the Lurie Garden, Chicago. Image from a film in progress about papermaking as a feminist practice through the story of Chicago papermaker, Marilyn Sward. Image couresty of the aritist.

At the core of Melissa Potter’s interdisciplinary practice is a belief in the political potential of handcraft, with its rich and complex histories related to women’s labor and gendered ritual, in addressing ecological concerns. During her three-year collaboration with Chicago’s Lurie Garden, a 2.5-acre garden habitat in Millennium Park, Potter sources prairie grasses for her own papermaking practice and as educational material for her papermaking courses at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches. Her ongoing project Seeds InService, a collaboration with Maggie Puckett, plants gardens from endangered seeds to grow fibers for hand papermaking. Exhibitions and public workshops become spaces for community artmaking, education, and research on sustainable food production in land-challenged urban spaces, and distribution of heirloom seeds through handmade paper books. Central to Seeds InService’s activities is the sharing of stories about women as makers, activists, gardeners, and agriculturalists – who like seeds are the givers of life – these feminist histories are compiled alongside a survey of the collaborative’s work in their recent, self-published book An Illuminated Feminist Seed Bank (2019).

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The Papermaker’s Garden: Bosnian Magic Garden and The War Garden, 8th and Wabash, Chicago, IL. Circa 2017. Two of the many gardens over 5 years at this location exploring the ecofeminist intersection of art, health, women’s plants knowledge, personal and locational histories, and food production. Photo courtesy Mellissa Potter.

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The Papermaker’s Garden: Maggie Puckett gives a tour of the garden. 8th and Wabash, Chicago, IL. Circa 2016. Photo credit: Kitty Hubbard, courtesy of the artist.

Just as seeds are fundamental for growing the plant and food sources our planet needs to survive, so too is the soil that nurtures them. Soil is also the material that fuels the work of artist, author, and ecologist Nance Klehm, whose wide-ranging projects – including site-specific interventions that analyze the soil ecology of a given place and installations of decomposing materials that will later serve as compost – connect publics to the earth beneath their feet. Her lectures and workshops teach participants how to convert organic waste into nutrients for making healthy soil; in her urban foraging walks, citizens learn and sample the medicinal and edible plants found in urban landscapes. For Klehm, cities become diverse spatial fields for creative inquiry that reconnect citizens to the environment and to each other. “Who does this land, this place, this city and all its layers – open sky, tree canopy, shrub layer, grasses, forbs and crops, topsoil, subsoil and bedrock belong to?,” she asks. “Can we get back to this understanding of shared space as increasingly urbanized animals? It’s possible.” (Note 4)

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The Soil Keepers: Interviews with practitioners on the ground beneath our feet, by Nance Klehm (Chicago: Terra Fluxus Publishing, 2019).

The idea of place as a habitat for all life forms connects to the ideas of Bruno Latour, a key figure in today’s discourse on the environment, in particular our understanding of the interdependence between human and non-human entities and the distribution of resources among them. Latour expands the ideas set forth by the deep ecology movement of the 1970s that early on recognized the value of all living things and the need to sustain Earth’s richness and diversity. As I have noted elsewhere, his “actor-network” theory positions the human and natural world in a shifting network of relations, calling for a fundamental rethinking of how human and natural agents inhabit Earth. “We are not seeking agreement among all these overlapping agents, but we are learning to be dependent on them. No reduction, no harmony,” writes Latour. “The list of actors simply grows longer; the actors’ interests are encroaching on one another; all our powers of investigation are needed if we are to begin to find our place among these other actors.” (Note 5)

Just as “deep ecology” and Latour’s “actor-network” theory have fundamentally defined the discourse on climate change, so too have “deep engagement,” networked practices, and cross-disciplinary collaboration become foundational to today’s environmental art. Here, the city becomes the experimental ground where solutions to today’s challenges, including climate change, are tested through creative partnerships that include artists, architects, scientists, citizens, and neighborhood stakeholders. The collaborative, hybrid nature of these spatial art practices redefine the boundaries of disciplinary fields, contributing new kinds of dialogues to the discourse on art and the environment in the Anthropocene.

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Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982. Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan. Courtesy: Public Art Fund, New York. Photo: John McGrail.

Such practices also belong to various lineages of Land Art, as I was reminded by the recent exhibition of the work of Agnes Denes (Absolutes and Intermediates at the Shed, New York), whose Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982) remains one of the earliest and most iconic public works to address planetary distress through urban agriculture. Denes planted a two-acre wheat field in a landfill created when New York’s World Trade Center was built, converting material waste into fertile soil into wheat. Situated against the backdrop of the Twin Towers (former symbols of world trade and commerce) and facing the Statue of Liberty to the south, Wheatfield confronted the economic contradictions and social inequities embodied by the work’s site and modeled a new art form. The artist maintained the field over a four-month period, eventually harvesting over 1,000 pounds of golden wheat, which traveled to almost 30 cities around the globe in an exhibition about world hunger. Seeds from the project were free to the public and the hay was donated to the city’s mounted police for their horses.

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Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (Triptych), 1992—96, 1992/2013. Chromogenic print, 36 × 36″ (overall). Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

Wheatfield was documented in the Shed exhibition through photographs and a television interview with the artist and broadcast journalist Jane Pauley in a section devoted to Denes’ other public works, including Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 years (1992-96). The artist reclaimed a gravel pit in Finland by planting 11,000 trees in the shape of a large elliptical mound to create a forest that today has become one of the largest reclamation sites in the world. Denes has proposed a similar project for the Edgemere landfill in Queens, the speculative designs for which were on view alongside other unrealized projects.

Apparent here and throughout the exhibition is Denes’ prophetic and unique vision that has always combined scientific principles, philosophy, and aesthetics to address ecological issues and imagine possible futures – in the case of Tree Mountain, a virgin forest that will live for centuries. The future city is also the subject of the artist’s Pyramid Series (1970-), comprised of sculptures, drawings, and prints exhibited in the second-floor gallery, which also included two monumental models commissioned by the Shed. Here, Denes translates mathematical equations and linguistic ideas into transcendent, light-filled pyramidal forms that suggest alternative architectures for Earth’s adaption and human introspection.

For Denes, “the artist offers benign problem-solving for the challenges of the world,” as stated in a video that accompanied her public projects. In one passage, Denes offers the image of an octopus as a visualization for how artists create meaning, an image that still resonates with me. Paraphrasing her words: the main body of the octopus is knowledge; the tentacles are individual specializations; the role of art is to make connections.

These are just a few of the diverse array of collaborative approaches by which artists employ urban agriculture to foster connectivity, help us visualize the challenges of the present, and reimagine alternate futures. Some of these examples were also presented in an introduction to a panel I moderated last November as part of symposium at Bradley University on Midwest women artists working environmentally. (Note 6) The panel, Art Embracing Science, included Frances Whitehead and Sara Black to which I posed the following questions: How do you define our current environmental epoch? Given the dire conditions of today’s climate crisis, how do you sustain a sense of purpose? Whitehead suggested indigenous philosophies of place that reject universalizing terms such as the Anthropocene and invert the Euro-Western hierarchy of human over nature, referencing Maori walking practices she encountered in her various residences in New Zealand and that inspired her recent series of plant and map drawings. Instead, the locus of agency is found in deep rootedness to place and knowledge of local ecologies.

Black invoked the idea of Earth in hospice in which the role of artists (and all humankind) is to provide the planet with comfort and care. One might equate such an approach to our current pandemic whereby we are called upon to live respectively and mindfully both for ourselves and for others. While adopting a palliative approach to the environment assumes the inevitable, it also allows for planetary repair, as witnessed by the return of various wildlife to city streets and waterways during the Covid-19 quarantine. “Every place is the story of its own becoming,” states artist Newton Harrison, noting how after environmental catastrophe, every place regenerates its own ecosystem with new and resilient species adapting to altered conditions. (Note 7) The varied ecological practices of artists for whom soil and seed are material and agriculture a mode of production offer diverse paths towards climate adaption and regenerative development, planting the future city to come.

 Notes

  1. See Michael Kimmelman, “Can City Life Survive Coronavirus?,” The New York Times, March 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/world/europe/coronavirus-city-life.html?referringSource=articleShare. Accessed March 30, 2020.
  2. As stated by Sara Black, see http://www.sarablack.org/about/. Accessed March 30, 2020.
  3. Sara Black and Amber Ginsburg, “7000 Marks,” in Antennae, Issue 44, Summer 2018, page 68.
  4. Nance Klehm, “Introduction: Citizen Animal,” in The Soil Keepers: Interviews with practitioners on the ground beneath our feet (Chicago: Terra Fluxus Publishing, 2019), p. 6.
  5. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2018), p. 87.
  6. The symposium Midwest Women Arts Champions of the Environment: 1960s to the Present took place at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, November 7-8, 2019.
  7. Newton Harrison as stated in a lecture presented at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 9, 2019.

For the Common Good: Chicago Architecture Biennial’s “. . .and other such stories”

Just ending its 14-week run that coincided with the rise of global anti-government protests, the Chicago Teachers Strike, and devasting fires in Australia, this year’s iteration of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) offered a platform for projects, many collaborative and citizen-led, that explored the social function of architecture and its publics. Titled “. . . and other such stories,” the biennial took an activist approach to architecture and urban transformation using the Chicago Cultural Center and various satellite spaces as sites for alternative investigations of how we might shape and inhabit the world. It also positioned itself in stark contrast to CAB’s previous editions. Both the inaugural “The State of the Art of Architecture” (2015), a more conventional survey of the current field and its leading practitioners, and “Make New History” (2017), a rather insular view of the impact of modernist histories on the architecture of the present, revisited well-known narratives and isms often removed from the social issues with which architecture must contend. (See my previous reviews in this blog.)

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Settler Colonial City Project and American Indian Center, Decolonizing the Chicago Cultural Center (2019). Courtesy the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Cory DeWald.

Instead, Artistic Director Yesomi Umolu, alongside curators Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares, shaped an exhibition, more focused and smaller in scale, that gave voice to a wide spectrum of spatial practitioners, cultural producers, and everyday citizens. As stated by Angiama in a curatorial roundtable during CAB’s opening events, “Architects are not the only producers of space.” The result was series of critical models that challenged architectural orthodoxies by placing issues of access and displacement front and center, with several projects addressing land ownership, public housing, urban violence, and climate change. In fact, land acknowledgement and critical perspectives on Chicago’s colonial displacement of the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi nations from their indigenous homeland framed the exhibition. Projects by the American Indian Center and the Settler Colonial City Project, whose interventions took the form of public signage installed throughout the building, excavated complicated histories of territorial expansion, exploited labor and stolen resources behind the Cultural Center’s own construction. Originally the Chicago Public Library, it was built on unceded land.

Yet despite CAB’s more political aims for which I have advocated in my previous reviews, I found this installment of the biennial the most difficult to engage with for reasons I don’t fully understand. It amplified the issues and voices I have embraced throughout my critical practice and presented them in a series of immersive environments accessible to a broad range of interests and publics. It also extended the biennial’s reach beyond downtown and the Cultural Center, including for example, Bronzeville, where Borderless Studio is leading collaborative efforts to transform Anthony Overton Elementary School, one of fifty public schools closed in 2013, into a community resource center. (Note that this project was also featured in the 2017 CAB.) I guess for me, “. . .and other such stories” succeeded less as a presentation of multivocal perspectives on the essential challenges of architecture and design – which at times trafficked in its own kind of orthodoxy – but rather, in its conception of architecture as a social practice.

Positing architecture as a tool for social transformation and new forms of public engagement sees its parallel in the concept of The Commons, a collective spatial and social entity that advocates for the common good. A noun and a verb, a site of encounter and a process of mediation, spaces of commoning are elemental to many of today’s artistic and social movements, as well as citymaking and tactical urbanism. According to the authors of Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Research and the Utopia of the Everyday (Sternberg Press, 2016), “Beyond shared resources, commoning involves a self-defined community, commoners who are actively engaged in negotiating rules of access and use or the making of a social contract.” (Note 1)

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Cohabitation Strategies and Urban Front, Auditing Illegal Red Carpets in Barcelona’s Fira Montjuic (2019). Courtesy the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Cory DeWald.

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MSTC, Housing as Citizen Practice (2019). Courtesy the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Kendall McCaughtery.

Commoning then became the biennial’s leitmotif, with its focus on collaboration, interdisciplinary practices, research, and process-oriented approaches to urban change. Several projects addressed affordable housing. For example, Urban Front, a consultancy network of the collective Cohabitation Strategies, was represented by an interactive wall diagram that documents their ongoing work in Barcelona to redirect private development for more equitable housing. The housing shortage in Brazil was the focus of two projects, where we learned in an installation by MSTC (City Center’s Homeless People’s Movement) that over seven million families live without access to affordable housing despite an abundance of vacant properties. Videos, hand-painted protest signs and wooden benches with books and informational handouts showcased the various strategies deployed by MSTC to fight homelessness. A 500-foot wood armature equipped with documentary videos and installed on the building’s second-floor landing echoed the dimensions of apartment units in downtown São Paulo that the nonprofit group FICA (Community Rental Real Estate Fund) renovates then sells at affordable prices to those in need.

Re-Rooting + Redux (2019), by the Chicago-based Sweet Water Foundation, also employed a wooden structure in a timeline installation that traced the evolution of architecture and housing on the city’s South Side, including racist legacies of school segregation, redlining and urban blight. Inspired by Chicago workers cottages – an early and once ubiquitous example of affordable housing – the open-frame construction is also a replica of the structure that sits on the foundation’s central site in Englewood. Known as The Commons, this community anchor has become a resource for urban agriculture, art, and education focused on neighborhood development and regeneration. Their mission, in both name and spirt, typifies the practice of commoning at the heart of this year’s CAB.

Elsewhere, projects by the collaborative Territorial Agency, artists Oscar Tuazon and Carolina Caycedo explored oil and resource extraction, land and water rights, climate disaster and environmental justice. Caycedo’s powerful video A Gente Rio (We River) (2016) investigates the devasting environmental and economic impact of monumental dam disasters in Brazil. Combining quasi-abstract images of raging waters, documentary footage and the stories of local citizens, the artist makes visible the destructive forces of flooding and contamination on local communities and ecosystems, while simultaneously honoring rivers as a source of life.

Do Ho Suh, Robin Hood Gardens, (2018). Digital film with soundtrack, 33 minutes 25 seconds, looped. © Do Ho Suh. Courtesy the Chicago Architecture Biennial; the artist; Lehmann Maupin New York, Hong Kong and Seoul; and Victoria Miro London/Venice.

Caycedo and Tuazon were among several artists included in CAB, joining Tania Bruguera, Maria Gaspar, Theaster Gates, Alexandra Pirici, Jimmy Robert, Santiago X, and Do Ho Suh, the latter whose video installation of the demolition of the Robin Hood Gardens public housing in London offered one of the biennial’s most poetic moments. (Bruguera and Asociación de Arte Útil occupied the library of the Jane Adams Hull House Museum, one of CAB’s partner sites, where it served as an open public network to share resources on socially engaged art and architecture.) As such, “. . .and other such stories” was as much an art biennial as it was an architectural one, perhaps even more so, with its many artistic responses to the built environment and implicit critique of mainstream institutions of architecture. Likewise, adopting a transdisciplinary view of architecture produced an exhibition that shunned traditional forms of architectural display in favor of installations that operated as contemporary agoras, libraries, and information hubs activated by viewers. Revealed, too, was the adjectival function of commoning as both a descriptive of common values and a shared aesthetic, in the form of makeshift structures, everyday materials, and informal communication networks. This produced a kind of sameness throughout the exhibition, which depending on how one moved through the Cultural Center’s galleries and interior spaces sometimes leveled the soundscape of pluralistic voices and diverse content on view.

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Construct Lab, How Together (2019). Courtesy the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Kendall McCaugherty.

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Adrian Blackwell, Anarchitectural Library (against the neoliberal erasure of Chicago’s common spaces) (2019). Courtesy the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Kendall McCaugherty.

Yet within this flattened typography rose two of the biennial’s most definitive works, both dedicated to gun violence. A sound and text piece by Forensic Architecture and Invisible Institute offered alternate accounts of the events surrounding the 2018 police killing of 37-year-old Harith Augustus, a black barber and respected member of his Chicago South Shore community. Purposefully withholding images, the stark installation featured textual evidence from the collaborative’s own counter-investigation, as well as an audio recording with the solemn yet declarative words of poet Audrey Petty, “I will not watch another video of a black man murdered by police.”

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Mass Design Group and Hank Willis Thomas, The Gun Violence Memorial Project (2019). Courtesy the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo: Kendall McCaugherty.

The Gun Violence Memorial Project by MASS Design Group, in partnership with artist Hank Willis Thomas, honors victims of gun violence in the United States, both the lives lost and the loved ones left behind. Inhabiting the ground-floor lobby of the Cultural Center are four houses each built from 700 glass bricks and representing according to MASS’s website the number of Americans killed by guns in a week. Various objects of remembrance (toys, photographs, articles of clothing) chosen by the victim’s friends and family are placed inside the bricks, along with the name, birth and death dates of the person being memorialized. Projected on a nearby wall are video excerpts from a forthcoming documentary portraying personal stories of loss and the importance of the selected objects on display. Here, individual and collective memory, material expression and narrative and archival storytelling combine in a moving tribute that offers the capacity for change and healing. The monument will remain on view until February, then travel to the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, as part of an exhibition surveying the work of MASS, whose other projects include the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Such works successfully articulate the “other stories” of CAB’s central thesis, embodying architecture as advocacy. They also serve as a model for the kind of legacy projects that were part of the inaugural biennial’s original mandate though never realized and that future editions should aspire to conceive. To answer one of many questions posed by this year’s curatorial team, “How can architecture and planning be rearticulated for the common good?” (Note 2) One path: forgo the conventions of biennial exhibitions and make future editions of CAB The Commons – noun, adjective and verb.

Notes

  1. Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Research and the Utopia of the Everyday, eds. Anette Baldauf, et al. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), p. 21.
  2. Yesomi Umolu, Sepake Angiama, and Paulo Tavares, “The City Otherwise,” in the exhibition catalog for “. . .and other such stories” (Chicago Architecture Biennial in Association with Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019), p. 14.

Mapping the Waterways of Milwaukee with Mary Miss

The topography of the Upper Midwest is a patchwork of farms, prairies, flatlands, and large urban and industrial centers, diverse natural and built environments intimately tied to the Great Lakes and the region’s rivers. Within the current discourse on climate change, the impact of hurricanes and other environmental hazards upon coastal areas has somewhat overshadowed similar threats to inland communities and habitats. This year, excessive rainfall and swollen tributaries, many feeding into the Mississippi River, have devastated Midwest farmlands and river towns in what has been declared the Great Flood of 2019. Likewise, the waters of the Great Lakes are rising at unprecedented levels, altering ecosystems, eroding shorelines, and damaging housing and urban infrastructure. At the same time, the Great Lakes continue to provide North America with nearly 90% of its fresh water supply, with cities like Chicago and Milwaukee that border Lake Michigan spearheading efforts in water protection and stewardship.

With the goal to help the citizens of Milwaukee learn about the importance of water to the life of their city, artist Mary Miss has embarked on WaterMarks: An Atlas of Water for the City of Milwaukee, a multi-year project that fosters community and municipal partnerships to create public awareness around climate change. Known for her large-scale public art works centered on environmentalism in urban communities, New York-based Miss is a leading figure in spatial art practices that bridge sculpture, landscape design, architecture, and urban planning. Assuming the role of facilitator and creative protagonist, Miss takes a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development under the rubric of her City as Living Laboratory (CALL), a series of artist-led projects that connects local citizens, community stakeholders, scientists, and government agencies to address the environmental challenges facing cities.

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Proposed design of Vertical Marker for WaterMarks: An Atlas of Water for the City of Milwaukee.   Photo courtesy of CALL.

Miss has addressed environmental issues throughout her significant career, from her earthworks and public art works of the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s to recent, urban-scaled projects like WaterMarks. These early works—encompassing outdoor interventions, temporary sculptures, wooden pavilions and walkways—operated within “the expanded field” of contemporary art that disrupted the structural parameters of sculpture, landscape, and architecture, as explored by Rosalyn Krauss in her iconic essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which includes Miss.

Rivers and waterfronts figure prominently throughout Miss’s diverse, ecological practice. FLOW: (Can You See the River?) (2008-11), the first project in the artist’s CALL series, has served as a prototype for other CALL projects, including WaterMarks. Commissioned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art for its Art and Nature park (the museum and its campus have been renamed Newfields), FLOW made visible the importance of the White River to the city of Indianapolis. Here, approximately 100 markers were installed along a six-mile stretch of the White River that extends from the museum to downtown Indianapolis. Half of the markers were painted red to simulate map pins; the other half took the form of circular mirrors etched with informational texts and red dots corresponding to physical and digital mapping systems that connected viewers to the ecology of the White River and surrounding landscape.

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FLOW: (Can You See the River?) (2008-11), Indianapolis, IN. Photos courtesy of CALL.

True to CALL’s mission, WaterMarks similarly brings water awareness to Milwaukee, in what is conceived as a visual and conceptual atlas that maps water resources throughout the city. It also builds on Miss’s previous collaboration with the city in 1998-2001: the extension of Milwaukee’s Riverfront walkway to the downtown Historic Third Ward for which she created the preliminary designs. Originated in 2015, WaterMarks will unfold over the course of several years, with the project’s initial phase to focus on the Inner Harbor District, where the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers converge and flow into Lake Michigan. This is also the site of the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility that treats billions of gallons of water each year for the Greater Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin region. The plant’s smokestack rises 350 feet skyward and, when repurposed by Miss, will serve as WaterMarks’ central locus and beacon. To be equipped with a lighting system that will alert local citizens of impending rainfall, the stack will shine blue when the weather is clear and signal red when the forecast calls for rain, encouraging residents to reduce their water usage to help contain overflows of contaminated water.

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Designs for WaterMarks: An Atlas of Water for the City of Milwaukee. Top: Jones Island Marker. Middle: Inner Harbor District. Bottom: Proposed Vertical Markers. Photo courtesy of CALL.

Other project components respond to the Jones Island installation and will be sited in neighborhoods as well as redevelopment zones marked for environmental remediation. Among WaterMarks physical elements is a series of Vertical Markers, aluminum poles measuring between 25 and 40 feet, to be installed at locations across the city related to the story of water in Milwaukee. A single, illuminated red letter will be placed on top of each Vertical Marker (the Jones Island Marker, for example, will bear the letter “W”), transforming the poles into oversized map pins that plot a new cartography of water for the city. The first of these makers, realized in 2018, now stands in front of the UCC Acosta Middle School, a nonprofit technology and skilled-trades charter school predominately serving the city’s Latinx population. Through classroom projects and public workshops, students, local residents, and community partners shared water stories and explored water infrastructures in the neighborhood, then selected the letter “A” (Acosta, agua, A+, art) to represent their school and stand atop the marker.

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Vertical Marker with letter “A” in front of UCC Acosta Middle School. Photo courtesy of CALL.

The Vertical Markers not only create a unified iconography for this citywide project, but also build the foundation for new green infrastructure that supports and makes visible Milwaukee’s water system. They also extend the project’s reach beyond the downtown Riverfront to underserved and underinvested areas of the city, and to those disproportionately affected by climate-related catastrophes, including flooding and contaminated water. One such area is Milwaukee’s 30th Street Corridor, once an industrial hub and economic engine for the city and now a vacant brownfield site, slotted for environmental remediation.

The vision for the 30th Street Corridor and its current revitalization were the subject of a neighborhood walk organized by CALL and Jane’s Walk Milwaukee, the latter an international festival of citizen-organized walks named for urban theorist Jane Jacobs. I joined the walk on a cool spring day last May, where we gathered on what appeared to be a neglected parcel of land within a desolate industrial strip. What I discovered, instead, over the course of the 1.5-mile walk—led by artist Portia Cobb and environmental engineer Tory Kress (and accompanied by Miss)—was a site rich with possibility. Known as Green Tech Station, this partnership of the Northwest Side Community Redevelopment Corporation and the City of Milwaukee will transform the area into green infrastructure and an educational greenspace. Soil grading and tree planting happened last year with funds from an EPA Clean Up Grant; future plans call for educational signage, a walking path and public art. Already in place is a stormwater management system, a large rectangular basin layered with crushed stones and equipped with four bioswales to clean water and a cistern to store rainwater. AquaBlox help store and filter water, and also become seating to configure the space as an outdoor classroom for environmental education. After sharing the ways in which water nurtures and sustains us, we walked to Century City and learned about initiatives to remediate blight and cleanup groundwater contamination at this 84-acre site, a former automotive factory to be converted into a new business park. We then proceeded to a nearby residential neighborhood to hear from residents about grass-roots efforts to transform a local park.

Workshops, walks, public events, and collaborative projects led by local artists will similarly activate additional sites, allowing communities to come together and identify their own priorities and wants. Other components will include digital apps that indicate marker locations and offer ongoing project information. These various forms of mapping are part of WaterMarks’ extensive community engagement program to raise public awareness around water and to share common goals for sustainability.

In Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour argues for the necessity of on-the-ground, networked solutions to fight the current political challenges that thwart and deny the realities of climate change. “To resist this loss of a common orientation,” he writes, “we shall have to come down to earth; we shall have to land somewhere. So, we shall have to learn how to get our bearings, how to orient ourselves. And to do this we need something like a map of the positions imposed by the new landscape within which not only the affects of public life but also its stakes are being redefined.”(1)

Latour’s “actor-network” theory positions the human and natural world in a shifting network of relations, “in which all entities—air, soil, water, animals, and humans—are actors with agency.”(2) A network approach is the hallmark of CALL and Miss’s practice, which enlists a “constellation of heroes” and multiple visions reflective of the complexities and challenges of climate change through creative alliances.(3) This constellation includes artists, scientists, residents, city officials, and institutional partners, who through a process of deep engagement provide the knowledge and tools for individual communities to take ownership of each project.

Integral to the success and ongoing sustainability of CALL’s ambitious projects is responding to the specific needs of its respective sites, and connecting local citizens to city ecosystems and infrastructures. “Urban-scale projects are about systems,” Miss told me. “One of my strengths is the capacity for synthesis. I can chart a path through a complex situation.” A part of this path is to decipher complex environmental issues and make them tangible to broad publics. So too is disarming the “eco-anxiety” and language of fear around climate change to construct narratives of hope and empowerment without denying the realities of the challenges ahead. Merging aesthetic, scientific, and citizen-generated forms of inquiry, WaterMarks maps a way toward environmental renewal, operating at both “the scale of the city” and, in the words of Jane Jacobs, “with eyes on the street” to create a macro-micro view of the water ecologies of Milwaukee.

Notes

1. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2018), p. 2.

2. Bruno Latour as quoted by Maria Patricia Tinajero, “Ethical grounds: the aesthetic actions of soil, in Art, Theory and Practice in the Anthropocene, ed. Julie Reiss (Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2019), p. 88.

3. Mary Miss, “Creating a New Narrative About Climate Change: 1000 Steps,” in The Brooklyn Rail: https://brooklynrail.org/2019/06/criticspage/CREATING-A-NEW-NARRATIVE-ABOUT-CLIMATE-CHANGE-1000-STEPS.

 

For the Birds: Reimagining the Future with Jenny Kendler

Chicago is part of the Mississippi Flyway zone, one of the largest bird migration corridors in North America. It follows the Mississippi River some 2,500 miles from its most northern point in Minnesota southwards to the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Audubon Society, more than 325 bird species use the Mississippi Flyway. Growing up in the Midwest, these migratory patterns always defined the seasons: dark flocks flew south for winter; warbling swarms returned each spring. However, their ebbs and flows have now faded from my view, partially obscured by the skyline of the city, but more critically because of diminishing bird populations along the flight path of the Mississippi River.

Environmental artist and activist Jenny Kendler reminds us of the essential importance of the life and ecologies that make up the Mississippi Flyway in her empathetic works that speak urgently to the effects of climate change upon birds and humans alike. In fact, her practice and its varied forms – ranging from sculptural to sonic, from participatory to discrete actions – extends its advocacy to all species of our planet, making visible the critical issues at stake in the Anthropocene.

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Birds Watching, on view at Storm King. Printed reflective film mounted on aluminum on steel frame, 9ft. x 40 ft. x 1ft., 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Recently I met Kendler at The 606, an adaptive-reuse trailway on Chicago’s near northwest side and the site of her temporary sculpture Birds Watching (2018). We were joined by a group of students to whom she gave each and myself a four-leaf clover, as well as a red-breasted robin who sat perched atop the work’s monumental structure – an act of “artistic engagement” according to the artist. Initially shown in the group exhibition “Indicators: Artists on Climate Change” at Storm King Art Center last fall, Birds Watching inverts the hierarchical gaze of humans upon nonhuman species by confronting viewers and passersby with the watchful stare of 100 colorful birds’ eyes. Varying in hue and scale, each eye embodies a bird species currently in danger of extinction, among them the common raven, the sage grouse, several waterbirds and owls, including the snowy owl represented here with the largest eye. Fabricated from reflective sheeting used to make road signs and mounted on a forty-foot horizontal steel frame, the eyes emit a glimmering glare that emulates the refractive glow of a bird’s eye at night. Caught in a mutual gaze renders human and avian life equal and part of a shared ecosystem, an allure that is also aesthetic in which the viewer is transfixed by the work’s vibrant pattern of ocular forms.

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Birds Watching on The 606 elevated Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This reciprocal act of seeing and being seen becomes the impetus for a broader range of somatic and aesthetic experiences that extend beyond Kantian ideas about nature and the sublime. And while beauty in both content and form is integral to the efficacy of Kendler’s work, her interests ultimately lie in the viewer’s existential awakening to the impact of human activity on the environment, including their own. For Kendler, art is a form of “enchantment,” a concept not unlike artist and critic Suzi Gablik’s notion of “re-enchantment,” which imbues art with a higher moral purpose centered on social and environmental justice.

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The Playhead of Dawn, at the Arts Club of Chicago, 2018-19. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The global effects of climate change and habitat loss upon bird species across all regions of the world is the subtext for Kendler’s sonic work The Playhead of Dawn (2018-19). Living amidst the cacophony of an urban environment, we are no longer awakened by the whistles and trills of birds singing to greet the sunrise. Kendler rectifies this experiential injustice in her site-specific installation created in collaboration with sound artist Brian Kirkbride for the Arts Club of Chicago’s Garden Project series exhibited last winter and fall. Drawing on a massive database of recorded birdsongs, the four-channel sound piece played 240,000 field recordings of the planet’s 10,000 bird species that imagined the chorus of dawn as it unfolds across Earth in a single day. Each channel denoted the four regions of the world (Northernmost, Central North, Central South, Southermost), visually represented by four LED signs that scrolled the names of all the birds singing at a given moment and their locations. The signs and songs ran simultaneously over a twenty-four hour period (copying Earth’s rotation), thus one could track their aural experience in Chicago alongside, for example, that in Taiwan. While at once filling the courtyard garden and nearby cityscape with a continuous loop of avian song, the piece occasionally emitted the hum and din of human development, a major threat to bird populations.

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Tell It to the Birds, at Expo Chicago. Over 500 transformed thrift-store t-shirts, handmade geodesic dome, custom lichen-printed fabric, microphone, laptop with custom software, speakers, var. audio equipment & cables, LED lights, antique piano stool, scented lichen sound-collecting dish. Approx. 6 x 11 x 11 ft., 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kendler’s ongoing interest in avian conservation and ecologies is the focus of several other works, including the performance Offering (2017), in which the artist painted her left ear red and filled it with nectar as an offering to local hummingbirds. For Kendler, creating empathy between humans and nonhumans is fundamental to our understanding of the responsibility we share in our collective survival. In her multimedia installation Tell It to the Birds (2014), the artist designed an interactive space for interspecies dialog in the form of a confessional, whereby participants entered a shelter and shared a secret with nature. The domelike structure – its black exterior fashioned from recycled tshirts ; its interior covered in a green-hued, lichen-printed fabric  – suggested an inverted bird’s nest or animal shelter as well as Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, a symbol of utopian (now lost?) ideals. Inside, a microphone connected to custom computer software translated each confession into one of eleven birdsongs belonging to a bird species under threat, chosen by the viewer from a printed takeaway poster that served as a field guide. Embellished porcelain figurines of the endangered birds were displayed nearby on a series of small shelves mounted to walls swathed in a lichen-printed wallpaper that camouflaged the avian statues as a form of protection.

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Milkweed Dispersal Balloons, Archival inkjet print, 20 x 24 in., 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kendler created Tell It to the Birds in partnership with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy organization where she has been an artist in residence since 2014. NRDC has regularly partnered with artists working with climate-related issues at EXPO Chicago, the annual contemporary art fair where the work was on view, and on projects elsewhere, facilitating collaborations between artists and environmental experts. Kendler’s ongoing project Milkweed Dispersal Balloons (2014-) was also created during her residency with NRDC and in partnership with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, for which the work was initially conceived. Just as several bird populations are under threat, so too is the North American monarch, in large part due to commercial weed killers that destroy milkweed, this butterfly species’s sole source of food and thus survival. Traveling across the Midwest along the same migration path of the monarch, Kendler has outfitted a food cart with clear latex balloons filled with milkweed seeds; participants take the balloons home and pop them, distributing seeds that will later grow into plants for monarchs to feed.

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Sculpture–>Garden (Venus XII) fully biodegradable materials including soil and native prairie grass & flower seeds, September 2017. Burnham Wildlife Corridor, Chicago. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The generative and regenerative nature of such projects belongs to a practice that thoughtfully considers the impact and legacy of its own material forms. Thus several works are biodegradable, including a series of Venus statues crafted from soil and prairie seeds, and a library of books related to climate change “biocharred” then buried in the ground to replenish the soil with carbon. The cycles of loss and eventual renewal addressed here and throughout Kendler’s work perform an elegy that mourns what has been already lost and speaks to the realities of an uncertain future, while still calling for human action. However to address the crisis of extinction, Kendler is “against hope,” which she sees as a form of inaction, but rather for the creation of new models, in which art and artists assume an essential role. “Art is a form of enchantment, and therefore the opposite of despair,” Kendler has written. “When successful, art can extend a tenuous thread towards reconciliation, and envision worlds otherwise.” (1)

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The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity, 2007, by James Lovelock, Basic Books, 2008 pages. Documentation of book burial/carbon sequestration at Russel Kirt Prairie at the College of DuPage. Photo courtesy of the artist.

How contemporary artists, including Kendler, are responding to the ecological crisis was the subject of the recent symposium organized by Christie’s Education, New York, which explored the critical role of the arts in facilitating the dialog around climate change.(2) Revealed was a diverse array of collaborative approaches to which artists bring imaginative thinking and creative tools that help us visualize and conceptualize the challenges of the present and reimagine possible futures. Although Kendler’s works often circulate within artistic channels, whether a museum or gallery or culturally administered public site, the interdisciplinary nature of her research-based projects creates opportunities for forging new alliances around common goals for environmental remediation, at the same bringing ecological awareness to new publics. Thus balancing aesthetics and advocacy is at the core of Kendler’s environmental practice (or what artist Newton Harrison terms “counter-extinction work”), one that reminds us that human and other life forms are interdependent, coequal forces.

Notes

1. Jenny Kender, “Against Hope,” The Brooklyn Rail, June 2019, https://brooklynrail.org/2019/06/criticspage/Against-Hope. Accessed August 27, 2019.

2. The symposium The Role of Art in the Environmental Crisis took place at Christie’s Education, New York, June 11, 2019.

Public Encounters in St. Louis

What is a public? According to theorist Michael Warner, “a public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse,” a self-defined social space of dialogic interactions and interplays. For Warner, a counterpublic is similarly discursive but assumes a “conflictual relation to the dominant public,” by creating its own audiences and idioms through alternative forms of address. (1)

The idea of the “discursive public” forms the basis for Counterpublic, a new art triennial that reclaims the spatial environment of St. Louis as a body of distinct yet overlapping publics, each with their own cultural identity. Employing public art strategies as diverse as the communities from which they emanate, Counterpublic directly engaged the residents of the city’s Cherokee Street neighborhood through temporary commissions, performances, film screenings and communal events situated within the everyday spaces where people work and live. A lively nexus where four diverse neighborhoods intersect, Cherokee Street is an amalgam of creative ventures and family owned businesses serving the neighborhood’s majority Latinx , Black, and immigrant communities. It is also home to The Luminary, an experimental space for art and activism, and a leading voice for alternative culture in the region and beyond. Luminary co-founders Brea McAnally and James McAnally and curator Katherine Simone Reynolds organized the triennial as a forum for the exchange of ideas around immigration, citizenship and displacement using the Cherokee Street neighborhood as its subject and site.

Counterpublic was also created as an alternative to the growing number of biennials and triennials that have recently emerged throughout the Midwest, including the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Open Spaces in Kansas City, and Front International in Cleveland. Rather than emulating another large-scale event based on the rotating interests of outside curators and on established models that often prioritize cultural tourism over cultural investment, Counterpublic emanates from within the community. “We are adopting a triennial model but hijacking the language to do something different,” James McAnally told me. “Counterpublic is built from the ground up.”

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Rodolfo Marron III, Aquí Estamos – Estamos Aquí, customized cookies at Diana’s Bakery. Photograph by Brea McAnally.

Such ground-level projects have emerged in response to the current political climate and to life in post-Ferguson St. Louis, whose diverse communities – like those in cities elsewhere – have been significantly impacted by the pressing issues addressed by the triennial’s artists. However, in lieu of artworks that simply expose the social inequities and economic conflicts caused by public policy and uneven development, Counterpublic revealed how the public life of a city can be experienced in just a few blocks. Rejecting the notion of a single, unified public, the exhibition gave agency to the neighborhood’s often marginalized publics by offering varied platforms of engagement that bridged the divide between art and life. To this end, the triennial’s thirty-some works were sited in panaderías, small breweries, storefront windows and shops, as well as various outside spaces along a mile or so stretch of Cherokee Street. For local residents, these site-responsive interventions transfigured seemingly ordinary actions into subtle acts of resistance – what Michel de Certeau terms “the practice of everyday life” – as in Rodolfo Marron III’s customized cookies created for Diana’s Bakery with the words “Aquí Estamos” (We Are Here) and “No Nos Vamos” (We Won’t Go) scripted in colorful icing. Proceeds from the sale of the cookies benefit Latinos en Axión, a local nonprofit organization supporting Latinx rights.

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Fidencio Fifield-Perez, Boundary Object, paper tapestry at Flowers & Weeds. Photograph by Melissa Fandos.

The paper works of Fidencio Fifield-Perez layered the artist’s personal history as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient onto the public mission of Bridge Bread, a nearby bakery that provides job opportunities for the homeless. Envelopes that once couriered the many documents needed to verify Fifield-Perez’s legal status become the canvases for a series of meticulously painted potted plants, seen here as symbols of home and rootedness. Memory, transience, and displacement are interwoven in the artist’s related work on view at the gardening shop Flowers & Weeds. Utilizing maps and traditional Oaxacan paper-cutting techniques, Fifield-Perez appropriates this Mexican craft form used in celebrations and for honoring the dead to construct an intricate tapestry that despite its delicate, painted structure is suggestive of the chain-link fences that separate the US-Mexico border.

OOIEE, It Is Part Of It (Corner Chair 19.75 after Donald Judd), cast birdseed and steel sculptural objects, installation at Cherokee Buddhist Temple. Photograph courtesy of The Luminary.

For this outside viewer, individual works were experienced either by happenstance – such as a pair of Donald Judd chairs crafted from birdseed by OOIEE (Office Of Interior Establishing Exterior) and seated amidst a small garden in front of a Buddhist temple – or as a kind of scavenger hunt. The latter resulted in varying degrees of reward given the embedded nature of many projects whose exhibition was dependent on the hours and inclinations of their host sites. Whether through the process of discovery or with the aid of a printed map, the most powerful works were those that served a commemorative function, among them Theodore Kerr’s wall of posters honoring Robert Rayford, a black, gay St. Louis youth, who was one of the earliest known victims of HIV/AIDS. Kerr, also a writer and activist, is one of several artists who created projects through the Luminary’s residency program. His wheatpasted posters layering images of Rayford’s home, newspaper clippings, the Silence = Death logo and other documentary materials was accompanied by a series of public programs addressing HIV/AIDS within St. Louis’s Black community.

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Theodore Kerr, WHERE IT STARTS, wheatpasted posters. Photograph by Melissa Fandos.

The power of historical memory in catalyzing today’s protest movements around Black lives was also central to Cauleen Smith’s elegiac Sky Will Learn Sky, an homage to Black spiritualism and one of Counterpublic’s most defining moments. Smith’s themes of the transformative power of art and mysticism filled a former church now punk club into a space for radical thought and communion as manifested in a two-part installation. Upstairs, six banners made of orange vinyl heralded excerpts from a text by jazz musician turned swamini Alice Coltrane, and from which the work takes its title. The translucent banners emit their own ecclesiastical presence within the church’s sun-filled nave; they also carry Coltrane’s words – part revelation, part call to action – throughout the accompanying film Sojourner (2018) on view in the church’s darkened basement. The film’s setting is Noah Purifoy’s desert assemblage museum in Joshua Tree, where a group of women gather to envision a feminist utopia based on the ideas of Coltrane and other figures of Black spiritual activism.

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Cauleen Smith, Sky Will Learn Sky, vinyl banner installation at Treffpunkt. Photograph courtesy The Luminary.

The traditional role of art museums and institutions in defining the cultural narrative of a city was put to question throughout the triennial. The installation Monuments, Ruins and Forgetting by Joseph del Pesco and Jon Rubin challenged how the history of a neighborhood is defined, particularly one in transition, and became somewhat emblematic of Counterpublic as a whole. The artists transformed a vacant store across the street from The Luminary into a revolving national museum of “monuments,” “ruins” and “forgetting,” using yellow and black signage that rotated on the building’s façade. The outside front entrance served as an informal stage for a series of musical performances, although the building remained empty throughout the course of the triennial’s three-month run. While at once a symbol of gentrification and displacement, the evolving installation presented itself as a new kind of cultural infrastructure whereby a neighborhood remembers and imagines its own history.

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Joseph del Pesco and Jon Rubin, Monuments, Ruins and Forgetting, rotating installation at 2712 Cherokee Street. Photograph courtesy The Luminary.

Questions of who owns and has rightful access to the public sphere of the city were posed in the mobile sound monument Not Peaceable and Quiet (Piñata Sound System), a collaborative project by Matt Joynt, Josh Rios and Anthony Romero. The artists outfitted a bike recuperated from a failed bikeshare program with colorful fringed duct tape and a trailer with a sound system that played an audio track of digitized cumbia music. The sonic sculpture filled Cherokee Street with a loud, rhythmic backbeat, an act of purposeful defiance against the stricture of noise ordinances that often police and dispel communities of color from urban public spaces. Counter to conventional monuments that sit inert and silent, this performative work became a monument to mobility, empowerment, and musical celebration when activated by visitors and residents who were welcome to ride the bike throughout the neighborhood.

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Matt Joynt, Josh Rios, and Anthony Romero, Not Peaceable and Quiet (Piñata Sound System), 2019. Photograph by Ellen O’Shea. Courtesy The Luminary.

Not Peaceable and Quiet was also the subject of a related discussion and podcast hosted by Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art initiative devoted to rethinking public monuments. Currently in residence at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Monument Lab is facilitating a city-wide research project entitled Public Iconographies that solicits St. Louis residents to reflect on the past, present and future of its public markers and symbols. In addition to a series of community gatherings, the public is asked to submit proposals and hand-drawn maps that consider monuments both real and speculative for an upcoming atlas to be published this fall.

Both projects embrace the idea of listening as a means to connect to one’s community and environment. For the collaborative artists of Not Peaceable and Quiet, music transcends physical and geographic borders while also creating a sense of belonging. Public Iconographies mediates the dialogue on public monuments by catalyzing new conversations, productive argument, and in the words of Warner “interactive relations.” These are also the discursive tools at the heart of Counterpublic, which posits how art can create a space for social encounters in which lived experience supplants the homogeneous public sphere of “the city.”

Notes

Counterpublic was on view at various sites throughout the Cherokee Street neighborhood of St. Louis, April 13-July 13, 2019.

  1. Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version),” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 88, No. 4, November 2002, pp. 413-25.

To Belong: Narratives on Citizenship and Migration

Loss takes many forms. Within the last two years, I lost both my parents and a sister. Their passings were followed by much personal grief, of course, as well as an existential rethinking about the meaning of absence and belonging. What binds us to place, to each other, to the larger world? And while loss is inherent to the cycles of life that define who we are as human beings, catastrophic loss – whether by violence, poverty, social oppression, climate change, or environmental disaster – plagues our political present, rupturing the ties that connect us to home and to the earth beneath our feet. Mass movements in global migration come out of such devastation and upheaval, in 2018 displacing 68.5 million people according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (Note 1). This decade’s flow of people across physical and geopolitical borders has ignited contentious debates on the definition of citizenship and the role of government in protecting individual and collective rights.

Several recent exhibitions in Chicago broadly represented the critical, complex relationship between citizenship and immigration. Whether through material, spatial, or conceptual means, the artists, architects, and cross-disciplinary collaboratives on view imagined new forms of civil belonging to posit alternative visions of how we might inhabit the world. Together they countered mainstream narratives of mass migration and sensationalized images of the global refugee crisis by rejecting universalizing descriptions of the public citizen that exclude “plurality and difference.“ (Note 2) Instead, citizenship was presented as a diverse web of social relationships and territorial conditions through which the political subject navigates and lives.

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Entrance to 6018North and installation view of “Caught from the wind and anchored to the arch قوس قزح” 2018,” by Maryam Taghavi and Tom Burtonwood. Photo: Jesse Meredith.

Living Architecture

The more than 50 artists whose works comprised “Living Architecture” at 6018North explored the historical and continued role immigrants have played in the construction of Chicago’s cultural and civic identity, challenging views of immigration as a source of social conflict rather than continuity. Either immigrants themselves or first-generation Americans, these artists impart a humanistic, even corporal, view of the urban environment, whereby the city becomes a living, breathing entity built on the imagination and toil of immigrant labor, including artistic labor, rather than brick, glass and steel. This narrative reinforces the history of the exhibition’s site: a dilapidated nineteenth-century mansion in the city’s ethnically diverse Edgewater neighborhood that originally belonged to Max Eberhardt, a German immigrant and lawyer for immigrant rights. Eberhardt hired architect Arthur Woltersdorf, also a German immigrant and author of the book from which the exhibition takes its name, to design his home. Today it is 6018North, an alternative venue for experimental art directed by Tricia van Eck, who co-curated Living Architecture with Teresa Silva and Nathan Abhalter Smith. Using the building’s past and current history as its conceptual ground, 6018North became the architectural framework for this series of site-specific installations and interventions that made visible the contributions of immigrants to the creative life of the city.

Within the context of both the exhibition and the current discourse on migration, the red carpet that permanently graces the venue’s front steps became a heightened symbol of welcome, affirming 6018North’s role as a space for community and Chicago’s status as a Sanctuary City. However, Entre (Between), (2018), a vinyl banner by artist Alberto Aguilar that reads “iiiiiiin” on the exterior of the surrounding iron fence and “fluxxxxx” on its interior, places visitors in a state of purposeful uncertainty echoing the plight of the refugee.

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Installation view of “Entre (Between),” 2018, by Alberto Aguilar, sign paint on vinyl banner. Living Architecture at 6018North. Photo: Jesse Meredith.

Rights to entry and passage, how and for whom were addressed throughout the exhibition, from a mirrored archway by Tom Burtonwood and Maryam Taghavi installed just above the doorway that warps and skews one’s reflection as an illegible identity to Eugenia Cheng’s Sunset on the American Dream (2018) that greeted viewers once inside. Cheng’s wall-sized chalkboard drawing renders paths to U.S. citizenship as a giant family tree, identifying the many means to entry that have been taken or imposed, such as “visitor,” “born,” “slave,” and “immigrant,” the latter being the largest route/root. The artist’s choice of materials reinforces the history lesson the work is meant to convey – the United States has always been a nation of immigrants. But the artist’s message was tempered elsewhere in the exhibition when one encountered a fabric banner by Aram Han Sifuentes, in which the titular words “America Hasn’t Been Great Since 1492,” are emblazoned across a map of the world.

Living-Architecture-Eugenia Cheng, Sunset on the American Dream

Eugenia Cheng, “Sunset on the American Dream,” 2018, chalk on chalkboard paint. Photo: Paul Crisanti.

Two works by Kirsten Leenaars addressed the hopes and dreams of today’s immigrant and refugee youth. Part of the artist’s ongoing documentary project (Re)Housing the American Dream (2015-), this series of community-based programs gives youth the opportunity to voice their stories around housing and segregation. Represented within the exhibition was an offset print that states a manifesto for a fair and just future hung opposite the video New and Definitely Improved (2016). In the latter work, diverse middle-school students stand next to model dream houses they’ve constructed themselves and sell viewers on their merits and amenities. “This is a Trump-free zone,” states one young Latina. “Trump has never stepped foot in this house.”

The youth’s rather modest aspirations for basic comforts and freedoms were set in sharp relief when viewed against Roni Packer’s installation Entitled (2018) that transforms painted bubble wrap draped across a large window into a fanciful scrim of golden yellows and light. This common plastic used to protect and transport one’s belongings is used as a material metaphor for those who, as the title suggests, have the rights and resources to bring their personal possessions when entering one country from another.

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Installation view of “Entitled,” 2018, by Roni Packer. Photo: Paul Crisanti.

Such privileging has historically been afforded to earlier waves of European immigrants, the contradictory views on which are explored in two videos by Irina Botea Bucan. In Encountering Monumentalization (2018), a Romanian emigre living in Chicago and builder of public monuments expresses his conservative political beliefs. His views clash with the progressive ideals expressed in the opposing work Phalanster (2014), in which a history teacher shares his research about the Romanian city of Scaeni, whose nineteenth-century architectural structures are based on the socialist utopian theories of French philosopher Charles Fourier.

The exhibition’s stated themes of immigrant artistic labor were more directly addressed in those works that excavate the architectural histories of Chicago. The multimedia installation of Amanda Assaley and Qais Assali deconstructs the misappropriated architectural ornamentation used in the façade of the city’s Medinah Temple; like many Shriner buildings, it is an example of Moorish Revival architecture popular at the turn of the last century that often exoticized its sources. Concrete castings of the building’s decorative reliefs appear as toppled ruins across the floor of an upstairs room, drawing the viewer’s attention to the distorted geometric patterns and linguistic symbols that misrepresent Arab culture.

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Installation view of “Ahl Al Medinah, Shurafa’ Al Ayn,” 2018, by Amanda Assaley and Qais Assali. Photo: Jesse Meredith.

Jan Tichy brings his ongoing interest in László Moholy-Nagy to two installations that pay homage to the artist’s experimental works with light and to his role as founding director of the New Bauhaus (today the Illinois Institute of Technology). Both works are installed in bathrooms: downstairs, a red neon sign spells the word “Jew,” a reference to why this Hungarian-born artist fled Europe in 1937; upstairs, a video projection illuminates the dark room in geometric fields of white light reminiscent of Moholy’s own work. Transforming these intimate spaces of personal privacy into sites of refuge, Tichy reminds us of Chicago’s legacy as place of asylum, and of the integral role immigrant artists and architects have played in defining the city’s cultural heritage.

Stateless

Whereas “Living Architecture” presented a local, site-responsive take on immigration, “Stateless: Views of Global Migration” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography highlighted personal narratives of challenge and survival from the perspective of eight international artists and photographers, some themselves political refugees. Various works adopt a quasi-journalist approach. Daniel Castro Garcia’s large-format color photographs, for instance, follow the individual experiences of sub-Saharan migrants, particularly youth, who crossed the harrowing waters of the Mediterranean seeking asylum in Europe. Beginning in 2015, the photographer traveled to various refugee camps, which he revisited over the course of several months, an embedded practice – what Alfredo Cramerotti terms “witnessing” – that goes beyond mere reportage to impart a more empathetic view of this humanitarian crisis.

Daniel Castro Garcia , Catania, Sicily, Italy November 2015

Daniel Castro Garcia , “Catania, Sicily, Italy, November 2015,” 2015. Courtesy of the artist and East Wing, Dubai.

Basing her documentary project on interviews, Bissane Al Charif’s multimedia installation Women Memories (2013-16) shares the accounts of ten Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian women who left war-torn Syria for safety elsewhere. In one video, unidentified images of Damascus and Beirut (where some of the women now live) become the backdrop for captioned voiceovers of their individual memories of home; in a second video, the women imagine their lives in ten years as two young girls innocently dance and spin within a private interior. A grid of related photographs installed nearby depict personal objects (watches, jewelry, keys, IDs) that the women took with them, mementos from their former lives and talismans for an uncertain future.

Other artists employ strategies of role playing and reenactment that recast the political traumas of their subjects as staged scenes, creating highly subjective, even surrealistic images to construct psychological portraits of migration. For his black-and-white photo series Live, Love, Refugee (2015), Omar Imam worked with displaced Syrians living in a Lebanese refugee camp to recreate their nightmares and dreams, as a means for self-expression and eventual healing. Depicted is a diverse array of protagonists, each posed with a set of props within spare settings that often use the camp’s white tents as a theatrical backdrop . A quoted passage in handwritten text appears beneath each photo and reveals their individual heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories, including a mother who ate grass to convince her children it was food and a husband who performs television shows for his wife who is blind.

Omar Imam, Live, Love, Refugee

Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee,” 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.

An empty casino is the setting for Shimon Attie’s The Crossing (2017), a film whose actors are all Syrian refugees. Here, seven players sit lifeless around a roulette table; each places a bet then silently disappears from the scene until only one remains. Their elegant black attire hides the realities of the recent passage taken by many across the Mediterranean Sea; however, their stoic expressions and listless movements cannot mask the trauma of the experience. Attie’s slow-motion camera work and immersive installation, which also includes an audio track of water and wind, intensifies the work’s (and exhibition’s) themes of perilous journey, personal suffering, and risk.

Shimon Attie, Still from The Crossing

Shimon Attie, Still from “The Crossing,” 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Dimensions of Citizenship

The strength of “Stateless” was the voice it gave to individual stories of migration and to artists whose works offer alternative realities of the global refugee crisis. “Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos” also took a macro view of displacement and belonging, asking what means to be a citizen through the lens of architecture and design. Recently on view at Wrightwood 659, “Dimensions of Citizenship” was the official U.S. entry of the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, a joint curatorial project of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago, who served as co-commissioners. Reconfigured in Chicago for the spaces of this private venue devoted to architecture and socially engaged art, the exhibition identifies citizenship as fundamentally architectural. As the curatorial statement poses: “We define the term [citizenship] as a tangle of rights, responsibilities, and attachments linked to the built environment. How might architecture respond to, shape, and express the rhizomatic and paradoxical conditions of citizenship?”

The pluralistic dimensions of citizenship were conceived as a series of seven platforms or scales – Citizen, Civitas, Region, Nation, Globe, Network, Cosmos – that formed the exhibition’s organizing principle and to which seven transdisciplinary teams responded. The result was a diverse range of projects that proposed both on-the-ground solutions and speculative designs that right the injustices of exclusion and reformulate the conditions of belonging. The disparities between how one lives in the world and who controls access to resources are made visible in In Plain Sight (Globe), a data imaging project by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Robert Gerard Pietrusko with the Columbia Center for Spatial Research, shown here as a room-sized projection. Using Black Marble imagery (NASA satellite images of the earth at night), the work reveals in remarkable detail clusters of human activity: lights indicate major population centers, energy and power sources, while darkness reveals gaps in the network and areas of those living outside the grid. Such comparisons render, for example, the inequities of recovery efforts in the United States after hurricanes Harvey and Maria: Houston was without power for 11 days; Puerto Rico for 120. Not unlike Buckminster Fuller’s World Resource Inventory (1963), his influential research report that mapped the global distribution of resources, the applications for this seem endless and would hopefully become a tool for developing new infrastructure and energy sources in underserved areas of the world.

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“In Plain Sight,” by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Robert Gerard Pietrusko with the Columbia Center for Spatial Research, at Wrightwood 659. Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Chicago.

Environmental justice and remediation are explored in two projects that define citizenship as part of a larger ecosystem of shared responsibilities that transcend regional and national borders. Ecological Citizen (Region), a multimedia installation by the landscape architecture and design practice SCAPE, gathers physical objects (fascines, stacks of coir or biodegradable logs), a film and other documentary materials used in a case study of the intertidal landscape of the Venetian Lagoon, which is severely impacted by erosion. These architectural structures will later be deployed to help regenerate similarly threatened marshlands in other regions of the world. The environmental toll of Trump’s proposed Border Wall upon the Tijuana River Watershed is the subject of MEXUS: A Geography of Interdependence (Nation) by the San Diego based architectural practice Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman. A mural of the cross-border landscape reveals an interconnected network of mountains and waterways shared by the United States and Mexico, while a video reimagines the 2,000-mile stretch as a “transborder commons” where national interests give way to mutual values based on sustainability across the region.

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“Ecological Citizen,” by SCAPE at Wrightwood 659. Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Chicago.

These acts of environmental stewardship create a portrait of global citizenship based on collaboration and common goals for ecological equity. But as literary critic and theorist Lauren Berlant reminds us, citizenship, particularly in the United States, is “…best thought of as an intricate scene where competing forces, definitions and geographies of freedom and liberty are lived concretely.” The reality of these competing, often contradictory forces have created “…uneven access to the full benefits of citizenship,” Berlant continues, in which “…the historical conditions of legal and social belonging have been manipulated to serve the concentration of economic, racial and sexual power in the society’s ruling blocs.” (Note 3).

Histories of racial exclusion that have denied Black citizens visibility in the democratic public sphere are at the foundation of two works by Chicago-based collaborations that advocate for the personal rights and freedoms of Black citizenship. Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line) (Citizen) by Amanda Williams + Andres L. Hernandez and Shani Crowe, honors the lives of Black women in American cultural and political life. This monumental structure takes its parenthetical title from a quote by Harriet Tubman, in which the line toward freedom is imagined but never reached. Made of steel and several feet of hand-braided cords, the suspended form evokes a space-aged pod or protective cocoon that viewers can enter then sit on a hanging swing. The work’s themes of containment, transformation, and mobility combined with hair and other bodily symbols imagine a spatial dimension in which Black women rise versus merely exist. (Although outside the parameters of this exhibition, Williams brings similar themes to her recently commissioned public monument of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Our Destiny, Our Democracy, made in collaboration with Olalekan Jeyifous for Prospect Park, New York, as part of a new initiative to create public monuments commemorating women.)

02 Dimensions of Citizenship - Tom Harris

“Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line)” by Amanda Williams + Andres L. Hernandez and Shani Crowe, at Wrightwood 659. Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Chicago.

Stone Stories (Civitas) by Jeanne Gang/Studio Gang envisions new forms of civic monuments that challenge problematic histories of enslavement. Part of a waterfront revitalization project led by Gang in Memphis, TN, Stone Stories also mines the contested legacy of the site: once a thriving, commercial port along the Mississippi River built on the cotton industry and on slave labor, now unused and neglected. During the project’s initial phases, two confederate monuments, including one of Jefferson Davis that faced the riverfront, were removed amidst public demonstrations, transforming the landing’s uncomfortable past into new opportunities for its future. To this end, cobblestones that mark this six-mile stretch of this riverfront landscape form the artifactual basis for an ongoing public project that engages local citizens to imbue the repurposed stones with their own narratives for the creation of a new public monument. For “Dimesions of Citizenship,” some 500 cobblestones traveled from Memphis to Venice for the Biennale then Chicago, where they were reinstalled as a moundlike platform from which to view various materials documenting the history of the landing and proposals for its reincarnation. Also included was a video of community members who share their personal connections to Memphis, alongside their ideas for reclaiming the waterfront as a public space of civic pride.

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“Stone Stories” by Studio Gang at Wrightwood 659. Photo: Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Chicago.

The memorial function of both these projects resonated within the exhibition, connecting abstract definitions of citizenship as framed by the show’s seven scales to the “everyday lives of embodied subjects.” (Note 4) And while “Dimensions of Citizenship” offered a broad platform from which to consider architecture’s role in shaping the multiplicity of modern citizenship, I question the efficacy of the larger biennale project (whether for architecture or art) in channeling the discourse on citizenship and migration into moments for real change. I write this as the battered remains of a ship that carried almost 1,000 refugees who perished crossing the Mediterranean Sea is docked at the Arsenal in Venice as part of this year’s Biennale. The vessel originally left Libya for Europe in spring 2015 only to meet a devastating fate; it is now Barca Nostra, an artwork by Christoph Büchel that appropriates and re-presents the salvaged ship as a monument to those who died. I have not experienced the work but am troubled by the reframing of this artifact of human tragedy within the context of artworld consumption, where its value as an object of spectacle seems to supersede its function as an instrument for changing the political conditions at the core of this transnational crisis. In other words: How can art transfigure despair into political action? How do viewers respectfully mourn, then advocate for agency? How do we transform loss into belonging?

 

Notes

Exhibition information: “Living Architecture” was on view at 6018North September 3, 2018 – March 31, 2019, and will travel in new iterations to the Lubeznik Center in Michigan City, Indiana, November 1, 2019–January 4, 2020, and to the Chicago Cultural Center in summer 2020. “Stateless: Views of Global Migration,” was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, January 24 – March 31, 2-19. “Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos” premiered at the 16thInternational Architecture Biennale, and was on view at Wrightwood 659, February 28 – April 27, 2019.

  1. As cited by curator Natasha Egan in exhibition brochure for “Stateless: Views of Global Migration.”
  2. See Rosalyn Deutsche, “Agoraphobia,” in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1996), p. 310.
  3. Lauren Berlant, “Citizenship,” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, eds. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (New York and London: NY University Press, 2014), pp. 37-38.
  4. Ibid., p. 40.

Thank you!

It has been almost a year since my last posting to IN/SITE: Reflections on the Art of Place. I return with a grant from the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program, whose invaluable support for this project will enable me to continue to write about the intersections between art, architecture and urbanism. IN/SITE will continue to feature public works and urban renewal projects, mainly centered in the Midwest, in which artists play an integral or leading role, and remains committed to artists and public art practices centered on environmentalism. This grant also allows me to explore new models of critical writing that operate across the varied disciplines that are the subject of this blog, what Jane Rendell terms “Site-Writing,” or a “critical spatial practice” that operates between art and architecture. I am honored and humbled to receive this award and am excited for the year ahead.