Question 1. Who is your audience, and how does your work mobilize it towards strategic local concerns?
LAURIE PALMER: I’m interested in the provocation this question creates, because I don’t really think I make that separation of an audience for part of my work. I wanted to talk about an example of that. These days I’m more interested in a learning-from situation, rather than a teaching-towards, so to speak. I teach for a living, so . . . [LAUGHTER]. Part of what I do as an artist is try to make spaces and situations for—well, I wanted to quote Samuel Delany, “maximum contact.” Here is a quote from his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue: “Given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when the greatest number of people understand, appreciate, and seek out inter-class contact and communication, conducted in a mode of good will.” It’s understated for Samuel Delaney. But I’m interested in this idea of contact (which he borrows from Jane Jacobs), and the kind of interaction that can happen on both sides. The example I wanted to give is this: I’m a white person living in an almost entirely black neighborhood right now, on the West Side of Chicago. Part of my work is trying to figure out how to be engaged in the neighborhood in a way that is most productive in terms of stemming the gentrification forces that are at work and that I am a part of, and also in getting to know my neighbors and the issues of greatest concern here. Recently, we’ve been asked across the alley to be part of a girls’ empowerment group. It’s a complicated situation because the older black women who are starting this are Christian, and it’s a faith-based project. My girlfriend and I are queer and want to participate, but we’re trying to find shared ground. I’m bringing this up as an example of contact, because for one thing, we met across the alley through a public space. And in this case, I’m being mobilized, not the other way around. But I’m also interested in figuring out how to bring what I can to this effort from my experiences and connections as an artist.
JENNIFER KARMIN: I want to expand on the idea of the accidental encounter: Anti Gravity Surprise takes this concept very literally. We are hoping to surprise people with art in public spaces where they’re not normally going to see it. When we were looking at these questions together, we specifically thought about how we don’t like the term “audience” because it implies an us-and-them-ness that we don’t think belongs to our work at all. We really see the general public or whoever encounters the work as co-collaborators and creative partners in the work. It’s participatory work; they’re interacting together in some way. It’s essential to the nature of what we’re doing.
TRAVIS: My audience is primarily black South Side Chicagoans. They’re the people that I work with but the work is designed to travel beyond that boundary. I’m mostly interested in making sure that the audience looks at the idea of living in an industrial environment, and as a South Side black person in an industrial [environment], what does that mean? If you’re creating art, then maybe your art should look different. Maybe there’s someplace else that you’ll go in terms of your own status in a city like Chicago, because in the black community, art for art’s sake is not a traditional value. So what does it mean to the black student, as well as the family, as well as the old people who are creating things in an industrial environment? And that gets me into the environment itself. Where can you go with what you have, what you throw away?
REBECCA ZORACH: I think that our [Feel Tank Chicago] audiences are ad hoc and produced by events. Sometimes our audience is just ourselves for certain things. We also try to be parasitical in other contexts and audiences and produce minor displacements in different kinds of contexts, like an academic context or an art context. So we don’t have a single kind of audience that we think we speak to or work with. One of the other things we wanted to think about with this question was the idea of the local, and perhaps this will come up later in relation to the other question about the national. We try to relate on some level to the local. But in terms of developing an imaginary for the international, national, the Chicago-specific, or even the very, very local, in the sense of the body, we try to think about the ways in which individual emotions might be thought of as collective and not necessarily private. We problematize what location might mean in the kinds of work that we’re trying to do. For example, when we think of the body as a site or the collective as a site, we’re trying to actually work with the question of “what is the local.”
JON POUNDS: A lot of our [Chicago Public Art Group] work is really locally based. One of the things that we like to do, in terms of helping people to approach the work with a fresh eye, is to use psychogeography and surrealistic games, because then people approach a conversation without anticipation or expectations, and in a sense the ground is leveled. No one knows exactly what the outcome will be. With psychogeography, when you go out, everybody can participate and say, “What is the experience of this space? What is the experience of this direction? What do we notice here that we would like to change?” There are a series of things that are about affect that really help us expand the audience, because it’s not simply about what can we make here. Rather, it’s about, “How do we want to transform this?” That sense of transformation is what makes the connection between our audiences. If I were to speak of the various residents and populations with which we work, it’s the ability to anticipate transformation that I think makes them a community.
AQUIL CHARLTON: Strategic and local are key words for us at the Crib [The Crib Collective]. As far as our audience, we primarily seek to collaborate with young black and Latino people. More often than not, they’re public school students, or maybe public school used-to-be students. Or young people at large in the neighborhood. We’re experiencing—in more academic terms—a pedagogy of geography. Simply put, young people are learning from the environment that they’re in, and so I think that there are these learned behaviors about who to communicate with and how and why not and those sorts of things. As a result, there are boundaries that create, or at least contribute to, violence and separation and function in a divide-and-conquer manner. We are trying to mobilize strategically at a local level, because we are living in a situation where we have young people who have every reason on the planet to figure out how to work together, as they are the majority of this neighborhood and, culturally, make up the majority of this city. Learning from the history of movements like the Harold Washington campaign and various other movements, particularly in Chicago, there are a million reasons why black and brown youth have a reason and have a much more viable movement working together than working against each other. What we’re trying to do is mobilize this capacity for dialogue and collaboration and working together strategically to hopefully create a model in Chicago for how that could work across neighborhoods. Because Chicago is super-segregated.
LAURIE JO REYNOLDS: I wasn’t going to answer this question, but I think I will. In terms of our [The Tamms Year Ten Campaign] audience, it’s anybody who’s willing to be part of this campaign, contribute to this campaign, or take anything that they’re already doing and just say it’s part of this campaign [LAUGHTER]. We think of ourselves as this hub. Obviously, there are a lot of people doing activism on this subject or close to this subject. Or they’re doing performance art or making videos or plays or whatever that relate to this subject. We’re trying to be this series of mirrors that all reflect over to Year Ten right now, for the anniversary; we’re also calling for legislation to end torture at Tamms.
The other thing I was going to say on this subject, just to give you kind of a map of our campaign, is that since [prisoners are] our audience, most people in our campaign have never met each other [LAUGHTER]. We have no illusions that there’s ever going to be any kind of moment where there’s a town hall meeting where people make decisions and we all see each other. For one thing, all of the people that initiated or inspired this are prisoners, so we’ll never see them unless we visit, and then we only get to see one a day. The prisoners gave us their family member contacts. Those family members live in different states, or all over Illinois. We have called them, but most of the prisoners don’t have phone numbers for their family members so we’ve also had to send mail. We have this connection where we call and update family members. Some of them are very sick and old and can’t ever come to a meeting, but they want to be updated. Sometimes we give them rides to the meetings. So there’s that.
Finally, there’s this group of people who are attorneys we’re working with for the long-term strategy. They’re people who’ve litigated on behalf of Tamms and worked very hard to get ahold of people. Bill Ryan of the Illinois Moratorium Project is working with legislators. Nobody ever sees those people except me and occasionally another person. So there are these strange channels of communication across the campaign, where we’re trying to say, “Well, this is what they said, and that’s what they said, and well, the family members don’t want that.” It’s a very bizarre map. Of course, e-mail is a crucial part of any kind of political organizing, but most of the people in our campaign don’t have e-mail, either.
DAN PETERMAN: I wanted to talk a little bit about audience in relation to the Experimental Station, because for me it’s fundamental to what makes this model exciting, what makes it work. It’s the fact that we can be an anchor point for widely disparate communities that can engage meaningfully and create abundant opportunity for accidental encounters. Which doesn’t mean it’s reduced into an anything goes kind of place, but rather it becomes a place where there are really thoughtful, engaged people, who are able to do things. What I see frequently is that somebody who comes for one thing, whether it’s a bike repair or a bread bake that goes on in the oven, that inevitably there’s a rubbing up against other things: performances or an opening of some kind, a garden-related event or an urban ecology event. I derive a deep satisfaction from those kinds of encounters, especially when it really fires peoples’ imaginations about getting involved, putting small organizations and ideas into motion. In the last two weeks, two people have come to me and said, “Could I ever teach a class?” One was beekeeping. Another one was from a retired opera singer who wants to do master voice lessons here in the acoustics of this space. So that’s a small example. I’ll leave with one quick example of the way that it spins beyond a deliberate construction of who the audience is and allows for an openness. It comes out of some of the food programming and is related to the kitchen and the gardens, which is one of the core interests for several of the people involved here. Recently, we were approached by a farmer downstate who sells organic produce here in Chicago; he wanted to help farmers in another part of Illinois who had serious flood damage this winter by throwing a benefit. He realized that being in the city at a place like the Experimental Station would be a great way to tap into an economic source. The farmer’s audience was from one part of Illinois, but here in Chicago we could help support a benefit reaching out to those farmers. So farmers helped farmers through this little urban hub here, which I would have never anticipated. That notion of letting connections and audiences spin out—that’s a big part of what goes on here.
SONJA MOORE: Our [Kuumba Lynx] audience is primarily youth. We do work with some adults and teachers, but our main focus has always been on the youth of Chicago. Every adult member or educator or teaching artist that works with Kuumba Lynx represents different communities within the 77, 78 communities of Chicago. The way in which we’ve all come together is through the fact that we’ve all been raised through the hip-hop culture, primarily coming out of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In a lot of ways, we’ve become disgusted with the direction that the art form has taken and the representations of hip-hop and what it is or what it was supposed to be. [We] remember back to what would be our golden years growing up, when [hip-hop] did have a stronger community-based focus, where it was interested in mobilizing and educating people about the issues in the community. That’s our hook when we go into our classrooms, or when we do performances or residencies, or if it’s a street fair; hip-hop is our hook. I am a spoken word artist. They have been able to persuade me to do dance performances, which I try to get out of as much as possible. And being that I’m one of the oldest people in the group, I am now able to use my age to defer [LAUGHTER] anything that is not spoken word-oriented. Spoken word is my hook to get students. Sometimes I can put it to a beat, so maybe students will see me as an emcee, but I do not take that title.
We’ve also used graffiti arts as a way [to address students]. We have DJs that we work with, and they teach turntablism. We have graphic artists and visual artists and sculptors who teach set design. We use all of those different tools, including dancers and choreographers that can come in and really get the kids interested in developing their skills or what they’re interested in. Once we hook them with the contemporary beat or flow or footwork dance move, then we bring them in and we kind of give them the history. Sure, graff[iti] artists like to tag and scribble but scribbling is not really the art. The art is when you take your colors and you mix them and you tell a story, whether it’s your story, your community’s story, or the story of your grandmother’s migration from Mexico to Chicago.
Getting [the kids] to really know the history behind the art after we’ve hooked them—that’s our edutainment kind of piece. We’ve found that once they know that history and feel that they’re in a safe space to voice their concerns and their issues they stay, and they also bring their friends. It’s been this continuous organic flow of young people over the last 11 to 12 years, where we’ve got students who are now in college or graduating from college and they’re doing Kuumba Lynx-type things on their campuses and they’re coming back now saying, “Hey, I’m graduating. I got a degree in theater. What can I do to help Kuumba Lynx still keep doing what they’re doing?” Which is great, because while I’m middle-aged, I know that I’m getting older and I want to be able to pass these things on. We use that family sense, but we also use the media and the hip-hop edge to bring them in and mobilize them towards doing more progressive things in their communities.
MARIANNE FAIRBANKS: There was debate around this question in the responses that I got from our other key holders [at Mess Hall]. The term “audience” and the idea of strategizing implies that every effort is an activist-based effort, and that’s not necessarily the case in what we do. There is something to be said about this space in between audience and participant. One thing that did come up is an overlapping idea of “audience.” When we first started at Mess Hall, we were up in Rogers Park. So we knew that, being situated in a neighborhood, there’s a specific, local audience. One thing that has been most exciting to me as an organizer for Mess Hall is that different events can pull in a huge, different, wide range of audiences. I realize I just said I was uncomfortable with that word, so let’s say “participants,” people who will come to the space. There’s this accidental overlapping or accidental experience that can happen in the space that it is sometimes the most exciting. Sometimes specific campaigns or strategic mobilizing comes out of something that has been organized but it might not be the plan going into the event.
BRETT BLOOM: We [Temporary Services] often experiment with what our audiences can be. We started out with a real desire to get away from the way we are taught that art should be put out into the world and the kinds of people it should engage. We immediately had to look for different strategies for creating new kinds of audiences. We weren’t sure of how they would manifest themselves. Oftentimes we’re more effective in other locations. We do work locally, and we also work regionally, nationally, and internationally. We like to work in a multiplicity of ways and see them all as interconnected, no one being more privileged or more important than the other; all these things are so interlinked. There’s really no such thing as a local anymore without its global iterations and the global capital and global power that has an impact upon them. One example of the experiments we’ve undertaken in creating new kinds of audiences for the work we do is a project called The Library Project: we invited over 100 people to give us books to surreptitiously shelve in the Harold Washington Library, which is a pre-existing public infrastructure—a library—but which is bureaucraticized to the point where you can’t open it up or play with it in some really highly creative ways. This was in 2002, and it’s still unfolding. Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re the audience of some of the books that were placed into the stacks. Some of them are regular books that would never be ordered. Some of them are books that people have gone to check out and then have been entered into the system by the librarians. Some of them were immediately removed from the shelves but actually kept by sympathetic librarians. There’s an afterlife of the project that celebrates this opening up of what’s called a democratic structure, a structure to foster democracy, but it’s really a closed bureaucratic situation. The audience continues to unfold on multiple fronts.
EDRA SOTO: I think my audience is people I work with, studied with, friends and some part of the art community that is interested in whatever it is that I have to say at the time I am exhibiting. I think it is important to comment about our times but stay true to your concerns. I’m not necessarily going to decide to comment on, for instance, Obama because he is the man of the hour. I respect and care about some current manifestations. I am motivated to make art about current issues, as I have many times in my practice, but when I feel saturated with issues that I am surrounded by everyday, I tend to take a tangent and work on something that I usually feel is being unattended or overlooked.
WAFAA BILAL: In political art, the artist develops a strategy to reach a specific audience. Hence, the audience determines the project. It’s hard to say “This is my audience,” because every new project has a new audience. Sometimes the project is targeting the politically engaged, and since they are already engaged, you don’t want the work to agitate but rather to function as a physical or virtual platform for them to come together. In Domestic Tension, I intentionally placed myself in a public space – a gallery – accessible to anyone who wanted to come and be part of the project. I walked into the gallery with the notion that I would stay there in imposed confinement for 30 days. I intentionally did not bring any food or drink; I placed the responsibility of my sustenance in the hands of the community – to bring them together and foster interaction between them.
For us as artists to truly involve communities, we have to break out of the boundaries of art galleries and establishments. These confined places are only meant for a very specific audience. How can we capitalize on building community by establishing physical and virtual platforms? Platforms like Domestic Tension allow the community to come together on multiple levels. Local and international struggles are so interconnected. By bringing the community together on a larger issue, it becomes easier for the community to work together on local concerns.
AAY PRESTON-MYINT: Chances‘ audience is the greater queer/LGBTIQ community of Chicago and its allies. We are primarily a social gathering space, formed in order to give a free, unsponsored and gender-neutral alternative to the mainstream Boystown crowd (Chicago’s gay village) as well as the primarily heterosexual scene in Wicker Park, where our event takes place. To this end, we open our gathering to DJs, performers, and organizations as a site for action and collaboration. This ranges from hosting performers, such as members of Girlie-Q Burlesque (Chicago), Blood Bath and Beyond (Austin) and Club Lyfestile (Philadelphia), to providing a publicity/fundraising venue for advocate and activist organizations like the Howard Brown Health Center and Chicago Dyke March.
Chances also functions as a site for individual action and education by hosting themed parties that tie in to political issues at large. For instance, on the fifth anniversary of the “War On Terror” in Iraq, Chances organizers put together a zine of historical and economical information on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, registered partygoers to vote, gathered signatures for anti-war statements to be delivered to state senators, and used projectors to display a curated video response by local artist Ethan White. Other issues presented have included global warming (“Chances on Ice”), Black history, and environmental protection (“Jungle Chances”).
NANCE KLEHM: My work is pretty diverse but does largely take place in public space or the space of my home. My audience is folks who value and engage creatively and/or ecologically with their local environment. My work has an experientially pedagogical approach that aims to create contexts to learn in and communities of learners. By forming connections with others, by gaining experience in practical skills, people make changes within their households and small circles of friends. [Then a few people find] ways to mobilize larger groups of people, or policy makers, around ecological, food, or waste issues.
TOUFIC EL RASSI: I try to target people who ordinarily would not study the Middle East and the history of US intervention in that region, but at the same time I hate to limit myself. So I try to make my work accessible to as many people as possible. I use the graphic novel as a way of bridging the gap between the traditional monograph and the so-called “low brow” art of the cartoonist. In other words, I believe that more people are more likely to pick up a book with words and pictures when it comes to certain topics, like the Middle East. My first book, Arab in America [Arab in America: A True Story of Growing Up in America (Last Gasp Press, 2008)], is a memoir of growing up in this country [and] experiencing racism as an Arab, but it relates to most people who have been victims of discrimination or alienation. So in that respect, I have a good-sized audience. Mobilizing people politically can only happen if there is enough knowledge or exposure around a certain issue, like US intervention in the Middle East, and I try to expose the unjust policies of the US in my work.
AMANDA GUTIERREZ: My audience varies depending on the topics I’m working with. The continuous thread through all my recent work is immigration as an event that creates a rupture in a subject’s memory. So the video series A brief history of fictions develops several issues related with subjects such as immigration and displacement in the context of class struggle. The projects are developed with documentary strategies; they are structured by first-person testimonials. Secondary footage disguises each persona while it reveals their spatial context. Most of the time, the audience for this series is made up of people of the art community and other artists; in that way it reflects my own position. Some projects within the series are site-specific and more representative of local concerns or issues. En Memoria, En Tres Tiempos, and Unseen Persona are three examples of this treatment, where subjects are represented by interviews with locals (people who work or live in the place). During the performance, the interviews are re-enacted by a non-actor who has different physical and even ideological characteristics. This strategy attempts to highlight a critical view of the subject’s circumstances and context.