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 Academia.edu on May 11, 2018: http://www.academia.edu/4241227/Public_Monuments_in_Changing_Societies.
  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 https://www.artforum.com/news/hirshhorn-postpones-krzysztof-wodiczko-projection-after-florida-school-shooting-74251.
  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,” http://www.svetlanaboym.com/offmodern.html. Accessed October 17, 2016.
  4. Research Report of the University of Chicago’s Consortium of Chicago School Research, “School Closings in Chicago: Understanding Families’ Choices and Constraints for New School Enrollment,” January 2015.



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

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


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

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

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

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

009 WEB Ross Barney Chicago Riverwalk Phase III[1]

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

Photo 5[1]

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Art and Ritual; Facebook and the Archive

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


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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


As noted by one follower:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The High Line

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

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

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

The High Line as damned by Jerry Saltz:

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

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


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

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


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

The Bloomingdale Trail

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

The Desire Path

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

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

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


  1. Rebecca Solnit, “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Viking, 2000), p. 176.
  2. Nikil Saval, “Uncommon Ground,” New York Times Magazine, November 13, 2016, p. 74.
  3. See Jerry Saltz http://www.vulture.com/2015/12/how-new-york-solved-the-problem-of-public-art.html. Last accessed December 19, 2016.
  4. See Frances Whitehead, http://www.the606.org/explore/arts/statement-from-the-leader-artist/.
  5. See http://art.thehighline.org/about/.
  6. Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (University of California Press, 2011), p. 158.
  7. Ibid. p. 161.

Art. Criticism. Now.

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

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

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

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


The Chicago Architecture Biennial 2.0: Axes and Praxes

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. See http://chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org/2017/.
  2. Svetlana Boym, “The Off-Modern Condition,” http://www.svetlanaboym.com/offmodern.html. Accessed October 17, 2016.