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.


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.


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 aestheic 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.


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.


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.


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.

Sculpture--->Garden (Venus XI)

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)


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) Reaveled 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.


1. Jenny Kender, “Against Hope,” The Brooklyn Rail, June 2019, 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.”


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.


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.

Kat Pick Cauleen Smith-1

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.


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.


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.”


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.

Living Architecture 6018North

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.

6018North - Living Architecture - Installation view of Entitled by Roni Packer (1)

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.


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.


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.


“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.


“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.


“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?



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.

On Monuments

It has been less than a year since violent hatred erupted on August 12, 2017 at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, fueled by the planned removal of a bronze statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. This horrific event has become the locus for the fiery debate about the fate of Confederate monuments, one that reignited some two years earlier when a self-identified white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, triggering a wave of fallen Confederate statues throughout the American South. Today, similar disputes embroil other kinds of controversial public statues and monuments (nationalist, colonialist, racist, misogynist), eliciting a whole host of responses about how to represent complex, often problematic histories, and what to do with the physical markers of those histories when they tarnish the democratic principles the present upholds.

Across the United States and elsewhere, cities have de-installed such statues and continue to do so, with many placed in warehouses or relocated to other sites. Some have been temporarily cloaked in tarps as they await their final outcome, while others are protected under historic preservation laws. The diversity of such actions suggests that there is no one solution, nor should there be, as each geo-political site has its own set of social conflicts and spatial conditions.

This was certainly true of Eastern Europe at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when statues of communist leaders and other Soviet symbols were either toppled or razed throughout the former Eastern bloc. Although Western media coverage imprinted a unified image of the mass elimination of Soviet icons from the newly democratic public sphere, their removal was actually quite varied. In Hungary, for instance, Soviet statues were moved to the outskirts of Budapest and reinstalled as what is now named The Memento Park Museum, an outdoor reliquary of some 40 public monuments from the former communist period. As I wrote elsewhere after experiencing the park in the mid-1990s, the museum’s purpose is not to celebrate the icons of this ideology but rather to serve as an educative environment to reflect on the socialist past. The efficacy of these memorial museums in Eastern Europe has been challenged by Hungarian art historian Edit Andras, who claims that they were created “well before their societies could have come to terms with their recent past.”  “All in all, elements of the socialist past were collected and put aside in quarantines,” she states. “The ready-made, pre-packaged public spaces for remembering the past excluded from the public.”(Note 1)

Communist statues from the Memento Park Museum, Hungary. Photo courtesy the museum website.

Communist statues from the Momento Park Museum, Hungary. Courtesy the museum website.

The problems of access and invisibility identified here cloud collective memory of the realities of totalitarian public space, a reality that has taken on a new guise in present-day Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing extremism. However, the politics of memory is quite different in the current context of the United States, where the durational aspect of Confederate statues and similar kinds of public monuments elicit an endless return to a traumatic history, while continuing to celebrate legacies of oppression.

Also revealed within the current debates are the varied definitions and functions of these historical symbols as monuments, memorials, statues, sculptures, or public art versus instruments of propaganda as in the East European context, although one might draw parallels between their political functions and the “psycho-social” relationships they elicit. Do they commemorate, celebrate or memorialize?  Or if engaged in the aesthetics of visual representation, are they works of art? With various exceptions, most of these monuments adhere to the formal and ideological conventions of Neoclassicism: colossal, figurative, equestrian, male, they embody a unified, idealized vision of the past, one rendered symbolically timeless and materially immovable. But now both the reality and illusion of their permanence has been shattered.

During the recent panel “Down with Monuments? On the Making and Unmaking of Public Memory” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) last fall, art historian W.J.T. Mitchell spoke about the contradictory nature of monuments and their corporeal relationship to the present. “Monuments want something that they ultimately can never have, which is immortality,” he argued. “The fundamental paradox built into monuments [is that] they keep the past alive, at the same time that they show that the past is past, the past is dead. In the case of the Confederate memorials, they have been brought back to life into the world of discussion and controversy.” (Note 2)

The tension between these kinds of bodily metaphors and the inherent inertness of monuments as physical objects is what drives current debates about whether or not these historic markers should be destroyed. It is also at the heart of the public art practice of Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose projections animate public sculptures to give voice to the living and to reclaim the public spaces of the city. For Wodiczko, the question of who or what to commemorate is as much about making visible those left out of mainstream narratives of history as it is about erasing the traumas of the past. “The history of the victors must be confronted and interrupted by the memory of the nameless or the tradition of the vanquished,” he writes. “Each time the experience of a stranger is shared and understood, the city revives and returns to its conscious life as a democratic hope to us all.” (Note 3)


Krzysztof Wodiczko, Abraham Lincoln: War Veterans Project, 2012. Installation view: Union Square, New York © Krzysztof Wodiczko. Produced and commissioned by More Art. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Thus the artist’s subjects are often the homeless and immigrants whose visages are superimposed onto existing public statues, transforming the unsung into momentary heroes. For his project Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection (2012), Wodiczko worked with American war veterans to create a series of video interviews that were projected onto a statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York’s Union Square Park. The veterans’ stories of loss and personal conflict appeared to emanate from Lincoln himself, a figure synonymous with the struggle for freedom and a symbol of the very issues at the core of today’s debates. At the same time, each veteran regardless of race, gender or ability embodied the sculpture with his or her own authority and subjectivity, repossessing this iconic, static form to engage with the park’s itinerant public.

The recent restaging of Wodiczko’s 1988 public projection at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, DC, as part of the exhibition “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s” (February 14-May 13, 2018) was a reminder of the power of images to unleash in the artist’s words “the nightmares of the past” and simultaneously speak to the horrors of the present. The work, depicting two disembodied hands, one holding a gun, the other a lit candle, positioned on either side of a set of microphones, was initially conceived in response to the political rhetoric around the death penalty and reproductive rights debated during the 1988 presidential campaign. However, the artist and the museum postponed the restaging planned for mid-February out of respect to those killed during the Parkland school shootings that occurred the day before on February 14. (The projection occurred in early March). The convergence here between past and present reinforces the critical apparatus so central to Wodiczko’s work. As the artist has stated:

“The thirty-year-old projection appears to me today strangely familiar and at once unbearably relevant. I wrote in 1988 that, more than ever before, the meaning of our monuments depends on our active role in turning them into sites of memory and critical evaluation of history as well as places of public discourse and action. It remains vitally true.” (Note 4)

Wodiczko’s public projections and interventions have been instrumental in shaping the spatial art practices championed by cultural theorist Rosalyn Deutsche, who looks to radical theories of democracy and urbanism that define public space as a social space of conflict rather than a physical environment. According to Deutsche, “Wodiczko’s project reinserts architectural objects into the surrounding city understood as a site of economic, social, and political processes. Consequently, it contests the belief that monumental buildings are stable, transcendent, permanent structures containing essential and universal meanings.” (Note 5) Thus Wodiczko’s work engages in a different kind of cultural mobility, and serves as a productive model for our current thinking about the role of public monuments and the creation of counter-memory.

Just as universalizing definitions of public space and collective memory are being challenged, so too are the forms that public monuments take. Enlisting artists to reconceptualize these statues’ physical, material forms is one strategy. Although Gillian Wearing’s recently unveiled statue of British suffragist Millicent Fawcett created for London’s Parliament Square follows the representational mold, commissioning artists like Wearing, known for her conceptual photographs and videos that explore the intersection between public and private identity, might signal the beginning of a reinvention of the figurative model, just as the portraits of the Obamas by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Shepherd have redefined presidential portraiture.

Another innovative approach is Monument Lab, a public art and history initiative in Philadelphia. The project originated in 2012, well before the recent controversies, but just completed a citywide exhibition in 2017, co-curated by artist Ken Lum and historian Paul M. Farber in collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia, of temporary monuments by 20 local and international artists. Projects, or what Monument Lab terms “prototypes,” ranged from temporary sculptures to public performances and interventions to sound and light installations to photographic murals. A large public component included a series of research labs that solicited proposals from city residents and others, now housed on the project website. This is a good example of how local public art agencies – given their existing infrastructures and roles as facilitators between artists, architects, city and community stakeholders, public and private interests – can serve as incubators for new ways of imagining monuments and help foster the necessary dialogues.

The idea of the anti-monument or what scholar Romi Crawford calls “fleeting monuments” shuns traditional monuments altogether in favor of memorials that are anti-heroic and temporal. As Crawford, a professor at SAIC, argued during her presentation for the “Down with Monuments?” panel, “One way to complicate the dialogue around monuments is to not take part at all, but rather to consider ways to mark histories of more minor events in decidedly un-monumental ways.” Her proposal emanates from her own research and curatorial work around the Wall of Respect, a now demolished public mural on Chicago’s South Side that sparked the beginning of the national mural movement in 1967, in which she invited artists to create ephemeral tributes to this significant artwork and to the Black cultural figures it celebrated.

Like the anti-monument, the counter-monument similarly commemorates less-celebrated, even uncomfortable histories, giving form and meaning to absence and loss, examples being Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC; Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library, a memorial to the Holocaust in Vienna; and the new National Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The counter-monument often occupies large public spaces, and although it adopts the principles of permanence, stasis, and monumentality, it operates critically – the past and present co-exist in an uneasy tension, in a state of perpetual remembrance.  This should be the role of all commemorative practices, and to create a social space for public reflection and open dialogue about the meaning and making of memory.



  1. Edit Andras, “Public Monuments in Changing Societies,” ARS 43, 2010, 1, p. 41. Accessed via on May 11, 2018:
  2. “Down with Monuments? On the Making and Unmaking of Public Memory” was held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, October 23, 2017.
  3. Krzysztof Wodiczko, “Designing for the City of Strangers,” in Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 4-6.
  4. Krzysztof Wodiczko as quoted in Artforum online
  5. Rosalyn Deutsche, “Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Projection and the Site of Urban ‘Revitalization,’” in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p. 6.

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.