Question 3. Describe a local cultural event that productively expanded the social networks that your practice operates in. That is to say, the event produced a new sense of community that had political potential.
SALOME CHASNOFF: We [Beyondmedia Education] started working around the issues of the incarceration of women and its impact on families in the mid-‘90s. We did a series of tapes with formerly incarcerated women in the middle to late ‘90s. One that was released in 2001 was screened all over [the country]. Out of that grew this installation that we created with 17 different community groups. We also worked with a number of students at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute. As I briefly mentioned before, the project was called 30 Days of Art and Education on Women’s Incarceration. First of all, the process of making it was extremely collaborative and really created all these networks and relationships that hadn’t existed before. The project toured 5 sites in thirty days in Chicago, very diverse sites: a gallery, a church, a university, and so on. The installation was multimedia; it represented women’s stories on video and audio, interviews with their children, written works, and in a later form there was art by women who were incarcerated. Women in prison from around the country sent us arts and crafts that we sold at the exhibition and then sent the money back to them or deposited it in their accounts. After the first year, the installation continued to tour as Voices in Time, Lives in Limbo. Each location had a live performance by formerly incarcerated women and a “town hall” discussion on the issues with the audience. We also often had a panel with different activists, scholars, and former prisoners; many times one person was in all three of those roles. [The panels] looked at different issues surrounding the prison industrial complex and how it affects women. At each event not only did the relationships grow and multiply, but so did the documents: the documented evidence, the stories, the videos, the art objects, all multiplied. Finally, we started putting them on this website [www.womenandprison.org]. That’s the idea of it—it just continues to grow.
LAURIE PALMER: When the Tamms Poetry Committee did a project at Hyde Park Arts Center in December, Laurie Jo Reynolds showed her Space Ghost video at the same time as a number of poems written by prisoners were read. There was a very diverse audience, including relatives of prisoners, former prisoners, artists, activists, and poets. It was one of these circumstances when you realize that the false divisions that you carry around, such as thinking that artwork has to be either explicitly political or experimental and aesthetic—and therefore politically ineffective—just relaxed. This event made it abundantly clear that often those divisions are false, that you can make work that’s really powerful, which this video is, and it can do a number of things at once. It can touch a lot of people with different relationships to art. It can carry an enormous impact in terms of galvanizing peoples’ understandings and actions. The event was particularly powerful because there was such a wide range of backgrounds represented. The organizers’ ability to draw that audience together and connect us was a huge part of what made the event so powerful.
The other thing I wanted to mention isn’t an event but a space. The Chicago Cultural Center is free, it’s big, and there are tons of tables. You can go in there for about 12 hours of the day, and no one’s going to push you out. It has an incredible potential where this idea of accidental encounter, which I was thinking of in terms of contact, can happen and snowball.
MARY PATTEN: I would like to talk about the AIDS Actions for Healthcare, organized in Chicago in April 1990, in which cultural/artistic elements played a big role in realizing political potential. I’ll also touch on some questions that have been circulating recently about success, failure, how to measure effectiveness, and approaching the limits that define how we look at these things. The AIDS Actions occurred at the height of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and the AIDS movement nationally. ACT UP had not yet broken because of racism, sexism, internal differences, the incessant death toll, and burnout. The April 1990 demonstrations were organized by many groups – a collection of differences aimed at one thing, which was securing national healthcare. There was a 24-hour vigil at Cook County Hospital; rallies, caucus meetings, and affinity group planning; and an all-day march with civil disobedience actions targeting insurance companies, the American Medical Association, the city of Chicago, and Cook County. At the time, there were 15 empty beds in the AIDS ward at Cook County Hospital because County officials claimed they did not have enough money to install a separate bathroom for women. This was a moment when women with HIV/AIDS—people like Jeannie Pejko, Novella Dudley, and Ida Greathouse —were taking huge risks by coming out publicly. The culmination of the protests was an action organized by the Women’s Caucus. We semi-secretly dragged 15 mattresses through the alleys of downtown Chicago to block a major intersection in front of city hall. There were incredible layers of protection for this action. As dozens of women dressed in hospital gowns sat down on the mattresses, creating a makeshift AIDS ward and political theater in the street, we were surrounded by the People of Color Caucus. Our posters and chants proclaimed: “Women are dying! Fifteen beds!” Because mattresses are heavy, it was difficult for the police to move us quickly, so the arrests took awhile. We effectively blocked traffic and got a lot of press. Within a matter of days, the AIDS ward at Cook County Hospital was opened to women. This was one of those remarkable instances where we actually succeeded in achieving one of our demands. On the other hand, this came at a price: many people were brutalized and hurt. So there was both exuberance at an actual victory, and the pain and shock at the brutality of the arrests. It was not on a scale of what many poor people and people of color have to endure on a routine basis in this country at the hands of the police, but there was still a chilling effect. It’s amazing to realize how enormous an effort was required to realize one example of a basic democratic right such as access to healthcare, a right that should be guaranteed for all citizens.
TRAVIS: A recent political event or cultural event that impacted my work and my self was the death of Dr. Amadou Cisse here on campus [University of Chicago]. A lot of people had political responses, especially since he was black and was murdered in the black community. There was a lot of bloodletting on both sides of Stony Island. Being out there every day, listening to what was happening, listening to the input had an impact upon me. Also, noticing how the students who are activists on campus began to look at their work in the community and actually step up that work was really interesting to me. My relationship to the police force is something that I’m going to be doing in a piece later, but it was a very personal experience when the roundup was being handled; I was on the street before people were arrested. Most people don’t know the number of people, black men, who are on the street and rounded up summarily, simply because [their] skin is black. And yes, it did happen right here on Stony Island to me. But on the other side of that is that after the arrests were made, I suddenly found that campus police were smiling at me when they had never smiled before.
SARA BLACK: A few events that have brought a number of practitioners together in a critical way that I would include are Pathogeographies: Or Other People’s Baggage project (UIC Gallery 400, June/July 2007), the Pedagogical Factory (Hyde Park Art Center, July-September 2007), and the latest conference at Mess Hall (What We Know of Our Past, What We Demand of Our Future, January 2008). Those were pretty important experiences. And of course, numerous events here at the Experimental Station. I would like to add that for me, a lot of the visibly political activities organized around these events and spaces were less exemplary of the thing that is Chicago than the conversations, discussions, gatherings, dinners that have happened peripherally to the artwork or political activities. It’s in this peripheral activity that I see evidence of a culture being produced: a culture that is enacting what I think of as a true democracy with responsibility, empathy, and creativity at the heart of it, where the values suggest that everyone finds the greatest freedom when everyone acts to maximize the freedom of others, where we are only as free as our most disenfranchised person. That’s something that I have found in this community here that is really exciting and stellar and particular to this group of people in Chicago.
REBECCA ZORACH: When we corresponded by e-mail as a group about this question, we cited a lot of the things that have already been mentioned, so I won’t go over them. One of the things that emerged for me is the fact that there wasn’t necessarily a sense of a community being formed in that moment, but rather a set of partial moments where a connection was made or a network at an individual level was advanced. This is an ongoing creation of community that can’t be situated in one particular moment, but rather is something that happens over time, over a number of different encounters and different relationships. The other thing I would add is that coming from the point of view of Feel Tank, I think sometimes community is forged through a negative identification or bad feelings as much as through a positive experience; for instance, through resistance or protest or the negative feeling of existing within a bad institution that you want to change. It’s not always just a matter of going to a great art event where people feel community, but actually experiencing something bad that you want to change.
JON POUNDS: Within the politics of the local, one of the things that I hear in Chicago is that we’ve continued to see this real dissolution of the distance between artists and the audience, between the artists and the public. All of us are describing various ways in which the work is generated out of open-ended explorations; in some cases, the audience becomes a part of the performance, and that’s a welcome piece of it. That’s a really positive thing. One of the things that I would say we probably believe collectively is that everybody is more creative than they’re asked to be in the course of their ordinary lives. And that we, as artists, to use that honorific term, have some responsibility, not only to make our work and our life meaningful for ourselves and to make a living, but also to help other people to create the context in which they can experience their own creativity. To understand and impart why they are part of a larger creative community and not a larger divided community. I’ll just briefly describe a project we did last year. We’ve [Chicago Public Art Group] been developing a direct application mosaic process here in Chicago: we’re calling it Bricolage. Anyone can learn it quickly and it’s relatively easy to teach the basic techniques. We now have young people of color teaching elders how to do Bricolage. The young people become the skill-teaching artists on the project. When new volunteers come out to work, they will be introduced to the technique by a person they likely do not know—new roles are tested and new relationships are formed.
LAURIE JO REYNOLDS: I’m not really the spokesperson for Tamms Year Ten but one thing I want to say about it is that this new sense of community, knowing this new sense of community that we have, has been difficult for the reasons that I’ve described. There’s also this issue of who’s going to be public, and when. There are a lot of ex-offenders and family members who are afraid of retaliation in terms of talking about this. Also, of course, the prisoners themselves are afraid of retaliation. There’s this interesting aspect of trying to foreground the testimony of people, sometimes without names and sometimes with names, who can talk at events. That’s been an interesting conflict for us.
The other thing I was going to say, which is more to the point of the question, is the type of social events that were crucial to us were these letter writing sessions. We would get together and have potlucks inspired by Mess Hall; we would call them Potluck Down—they always combine words, you know. It was a lock down and a potluck, where you had to finish writing all the letters but you could be in a room with food. We would even have brunch lock downs. These things fulfilled social needs for us; they were social events. They were also the way to connect socially with prisoners who had no social contact and were in total isolation. We really did that because we thought that it was the only thing we could do for prisoners in isolation. In doing that really small act, we actually started to change the preconception in all of our minds that obviously that’s not all you can do for someone [in prison]. That never could have been eliminated without the process of getting to know each other, of writing back and forth through this systematic letter writing monthly, even weekly.
DANIEL TUCKER: For me personally, I locate the point of origin of a lot of the relationships and ideas that have compelled and motivated my work for the last six or seven years at the April 2001 Department of Space and Land Reclamation event. That was an event that made a really explicit attempt to bring together different kinds of audiences to play with their definitions and relationships between the organizers and the producers and the audience; all those lines were really blurry. That dynamic and the desire for that way of working have been perpetuated in work that I’ve done since then and in other spin-off projects that other people have done. The other dynamic that was inspired by that moment is a way of looking at the city. Actively produced through that cultural event there was a group of people getting together and thinking about the question of “What does contemporary capitalism look like on the ground in Chicago today? How does it influence our lives, the geography of the city, and the space and the qualities of the community?” Those questions have certainly been carried into the publication AREA Chicago.
DEBORAH STRATMAN: The “ASK ME” event that Laurie Jo Reynolds organized at the Cultural Center (and later, the Museum of Science and Industry, though I didn’t attend that one) a few years back was an incredible act of socio-cultural expansion. I spent a couple of hours there, as did many of the other strangers/visitors I met there while drifting about and stopping in at various information stations where a wild array of “specialists” held forth on their chosen specialty. It was an incredible constellation of generosity, democracy, agency and human expertise.
ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Local as in Chicago, or local as in “I was there myself?” I do a fair amount of work now nationally and internationally, which has been really great but has taken me out of Chicago for much of the last year. In Chicago, at Punk Planet, the long-standing independent cultural politics magazine I ran for 3 years, every event we did, from putting out an issue to throwing a literal event in an event venue, expanded both our social networks, our collaborative opportunities, and the political understanding of the issues we addressed with the mag. But for the most part, I don’t know that events necessarily have the kind of potential to spark political change. I think they can spur engagement, but change comes out of sustained communication, out of relationships between individuals. And that requires a lot more work than a single event.
THEASTER GATES: The event is more like a geographical phenomena: the Experimental Station. Dan Peterman and Connie Spreen at 6100 South Blackstone have provided a place from which many kinds of cultural feats could launch. My practice has grown so much out of the friendships developed at this place, so it’s quite difficult to understand exactly what happened. What seems clear is that there were reasons to come to this space. The space was open to hosting interesting ideas, Dan Peterman has an amazing cultural reach and has been an important critic to my art practice, and finally, many of the people interested in political engagement know that they have a space for shared values at the Experimental Station. This means that even though I am not sure of a particular curator’s name, if [he or she is] coming through the station, I want to be there. I trust that the curatorial edit is one that will engage me and the people coming represent a set of values that I believe in culturally, creatively, or otherwise. If there were to be an event to speak of, it would be a conversation that reflected on an exhibition at the Renaissance Society, Black Is, Black Ain’t. The event brought together scholars from the Art Schools with South Siders who had interest in collecting and knowing about Black Art along with a whole cadre of other listeners. The event was heated and loaded with race, class, and institutional tension, but it was 60 of the most passionate people who rarely get to be in the same room. Making space for the margins to meet is something that the Experimental Station is becoming masterful at.
AAY PRESTON-MYINT: Last year, the Chances [Chances Dances] organizers decided to use surplus funds and donations in order to create a float for the Pride parade [Annual Chicago Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade]. Rather than stage an intervention or feeder march, we decided to participate in the parade in order to gain more direct access to paradegoers as well as to repoliticize an identity-based event that has, over time, become co-opted by commercial sponsorship and promotes and exploits material and consumerist tendencies in the (gay) mainstream.
With the help of many of our Chances DJs, performers, and attendees, we constructed a witchcraft-inspired float asking spectators to “Summon a New Queer Reality,” continuing the tradition of the “witches” that came before us – 27 queers and allies selected for their contributions to culture, activism and justice. Images of these historic and contemporary figures were distributed to spectators in the form of paper masks, with biographical information and quotes on the back. The event made connections with paradegoers who were surprised to see some of their unsung heroes represented at the parade, or maybe did not expect to see political and educational information relevant to their identity. We also fostered connections with other organizations that heard of the project. The masks have recently been on display at Mess Hall as part of the What We Know of Our Past/What We Demand of Our Future lecture series, accompanied by a presentation on the float project. Outside of Chicago, [the floats] are currently being used as an educational tool for queer youth at the LGBT Resource Center in New York, and we are also working with Justseeds (Portland) on the possibility of distributing a silkcreened edition of the masks. The online archive of the project can be found at: chancesdances.org/pride07.
MIKE BANCROFT: The dedication ceremony of the Respect Signs memorial mural at the corner of North and Kimball brought together almost 100 people early on a Satuday morning in May. Attendees were an unlikely mix, from politicians and church leaders to families and local press. A reckless driver killed Alicia Coria and her sons Ivan and Diego Castro. Diego was in Nellie Windsor’s third grade ESL classroom at Stowe Elementary, where I had been doing residencies through the Building Community through the Arts Initiative with IPRAC [Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture]. Responding to the tragedy, we began to discuss how we could honor the memory of this tragic loss, while making the corner safer through a public intervention. Nellie, myself, and artist Anthony Rea helped the youth compose idioms and create life-size black plastic silhouettes of themselves. [The slogan] “Respect Signs” was selected and woven into the fencing with metallic Mylar streamers in Spanish/English, with the kids silhouettes zip-tied to the fence walking towards the corner. From this project, we have connected directly with the Alderman, the Congressman, and the Lieutenant Governor directly. These offices became advocates for the project after witnessing the incredibly diverse group of people mobilizing for healing which was celebrated at this dedication.
AMANDA GUITERREZ: I think that working and living in Pilsen has allowed me to expand my networks, beyond just art or just social activism. For me, having contact with the work of art spaces such as Polvo, the Flower Shop, and the Plaines Project has been really rich—not only because I’ve shown my work there, but also because they’ve allowed me an important experience of social practices within art networks. When I was developing En Memoria, several core questions were formed based on my experience here: What or who represents the “community?” Is that community divided based on cultural and class divisions? Is it really possible to stress cultural and class differences in order to overcome them, and create some kind of interrelation? Is that a utopian ideal?
On the other hand, I see that two of the places I mentioned are already closed, after exhaustive efforts to work within and for the “community,” leaving more questions about the relationships between the people who collaborate in these projects and the participants left behind (most of them teens, kids and community artists). I believe that there was a legitimate reason behind their existence: expanding cultural alternatives as a political tactic. But I’m not sure how aware, conscious, or critical the users or participants were during the process, and I wonder about the practical and ideological results of this as a political tactic.
MARK MESSING: Redmoon Theater used to perform in Logan Square on All Hallows Eve and eventually drew large crowds. The performance was designed to include as many people as possible in a ritual that was simple and not too specific (i.e. not indoctrinating) but always beautiful, invigorating, and very social. It was the biggest regular event I’ve seen that wasn’t sports-related or beer-related. So it was miraculous in that it brought large crowds of sober people to a public space induced to warm, human, thoughtful interaction. The theatrics, shrines, and sculptural objects were abstract enough so that people could make their own meaning out of the night. It was a little like a protest without a cause. I mean this in the best of ways: one of my favorite by-products of protests and marches is the way they are ad-hoc conventions where you get to meet the organizations serving the movement and you meet other people looking for a hook-up with the cause. So while the event was not politically themed, it created an occasion for people to meet.
As an institution, Redmoon Theater has benefited the community at large in the same way. When the call came to take to the streets en-masse to show American resistance to the invasion of Iraq, many of us formed an ad-hoc theater group easily, through the network of artists existing from formal arts institutions and especially Redmoon Theater. So while Redmoon the Institution did not participate in any street protests, the artists on the fringes of the institution self-organized overnight to bring a focused theatrical element to the protests. This focus not only allowed us to interject a visual statement into the mainstream media, [but we were also] interviewed by media [which allowed us to] threw our own sound bites into the debate. At the least, we were able to contribute to the message that “Not all Americans believe in world domination by force.” At the most, we found a way to connect with the long-term organizations building political institutions that do the things cultural institutions don’t do.