Dara Greenwald is a media artist and PhD Candidate in the Electronic Art Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her collaborative work often takes the form of video, writing, public art, and cultural organizing around themes of social movement history and the commons. She worked at the Video Data Bank in Chicago from 1998-2005 and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. See http://www.daragreenwald.com/ for more information. This interview was conducted in May 2011.
Daniel Tucker: When did you first move Chicago and what communities did you become a part of then?
Dara Greenwald: I moved to Chicago in 1995. I had a bunch of friends I knew from college in Oberlin, OH who I moved in with. Some of them were getting a space to live, work, and make art in —which became the Butcher Shop. I also knew a number of people from the punk music scene and DC Riot Grrrl. I had worked at Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont the year before I moved to Chicago, and I really wanted to be involved with puppet stuff, so I started working at Redmoon Theater, which was a totally different theater than it is now. It was just a very small operation. But I started working on their community pageant, and that is another community of people who I got into contact with. I worked at the Chicago International Film Festival running the education program, where I met a lot of people who also crossed over with these different cultural scenes. So it was through doing arts administration and being involved in music scenes that I met a lot of people and entered these communities.
DT: Either in relation to the Butcher Shop or more generally can you talk about the importance of physical spaces and their significance in terms of developing community?
DG: Yeah, the most important spaces in terms of developing community for me in Chicago were the Rainbo Club, the Gold Star, and then the Empty Bottle (all are bars). It was really easy to be a part of a music community; because it was very club/bar based and you could just go any night and see someone you knew. That kind of crossed over with a lot of art circles, because a lot of artists would also hang out at the Rainbo. For four years I lived across the street from the Rainbo and down the street from the Gold Star. I used to call the Rainbo my living room. I would go there all the time, and I really don’t drink. I’d just go in, get a water, and hang out. A lot of people in the music scene worked there or hung out there. Those were really the most important social spaces for me during my first five years in Chicago.
And the Butcher Shop was an important space for me in terms of becoming an artist at all. They organized these community group shows and asked me if I wanted participate. And I’m like, “huh, okay.” I didn’t really style myself a visual artist when I moved to Chicago at all. I wrote for zines and particated in punk/DIY cultural production before that, and I did performance work and made some videos, but I never thought about it in a traditional gallery or career-ish way. But given the opportunity I did end up participating in a bunch of shows at the Butcher Shop.
DT: And what kind of stuff did you present there?
DG: Oh, what did we do? There were themed shows, a photo show, a “mother” show, and there was the Holiday Ball, which was a big community event. Part of the ball was an art show with Christmas themes (“Baby Jesus” or “Three Kings”)—I remember making posters for that, jokes about the Three Kings.
These were my first art shows outside of college. In college, I was in the dance and performance department and studied sculpture. But after college I was a public school teacher, and when I took a break from that and wanted to work in the arts, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to make it financially. I started out in arts administration, because I just couldn’t fathom how I could make a living actually making art.
DT: And then were the other people who were exhibiting at the Butcher Shop and participating in that community, were they in the same boat in terms of art, like you’re saying, where it was sort of not an intentional art practice?
DG: It was all mixed. Jim Finn was a filmmaker and Mike Lavery had studied art in college but works in politics now. A lot of people had studied art, but some people hadn’t. And people came in from a variety of directions and went out a variety of directions after that too.
DT: What was that like for you, to start to deal with representation of your ideas and interests in a kind of visual arts?
DG: My work was pretty conceptual then. I would start with my idea, then ask what form should it take? I had studied feminist art history and performance art and dance, so I had this theoretical foundation around representation as it related to gender and race politics. I also played music, very amateurishly, in a band called The Rope. I think we played our first show at the Butcher Shop as well.
DT: And at what point did the art that you were producing start to have more of a connection to your politics, or your sort of social justice activism?
DG: Well, I always found those things a little hard to connect. I feel like a lot of my art was feminist, so it took on a politics of representation—being a fierce woman who represents her body honestly. Being connected to feminist music, like the Riot Grrl scene, was very influential as well. So that was the politics. But then I had this other commitment to social justice, which was not necessarily the same as being involved in culture. Being involved in counterculture was just who I was, but it was not necessarily the same as social justice activities.
Starting in high school, I had always participated in both. I mentored underserved children and worked with the Coalition for the Homeless. Then I also participated in the punk/diy scene and did experimental dance performances. I never tried to mix them together, it was just two worlds I inhabited. It was always hard to have that split. When I was a public school teacher in D.C. that split was a hard part of my world. I was a full-time teacher and I worked in an underserved public school everyday, and then I would come home to my neighborhood, where all of the alternative culture people lived. I enjoyed being part of the counterculture, but I felt like my perspective on reality was extremely different than many of my non-teaching peers. Not that what I did was any more effective, but the kind of day-to-day grind of facing the manifestations of all of the social injustices in this country is unique to public school teachers in under-served areas. Every single thing: food injustice, health injustice, racism, sexism, all those things impact children who live in under-resourced areas. At the time, I felt I could be politically committed through being a teacher.
DT: When you were kind of existing in these two different worlds, did you talk to many people that operated more purely within one sector about this tension that you felt?
DG: Not so much. It was frustrating because people would have abstract theories about things that effected my daily life, classroom discipline for example. Theory about how classroom discipline is part of larger repressive social structures is important analysis and in one way could be true, but in another way, ideas like this were always coming from someone who hadn’t participated in teaching. Actually, a classroom that has structure is very conducive to learning for some people, while a free school model is great for others. I found that sometimes frustrating. I also just needed to sleep a lot more than most of my friends—I had to go to bed early because I went to work really early.
I was twenty-two and I was a full-time schoolteacher. I wasn’t even that much older than some of my students, really. I guess it was more normal for twenty-two year olds to work retail and be in a band and explore things. But in my mind I felt, it was time to start the work of contributing to social justice through education.
When I moved to Chicago, I decided I needed a break from teaching and wanted to work in the cultural sphere in some way. I worked at so many different arts organizations: I worked at Redmoon when it was really small, at the Chicago Film Festival, Kartemquin Films, Spertus Musuem, the Art Institute of Chicago, and then I worked for bands in the indie rock scene. Ultimately I still love teaching and much of my current work has an educational aspect.
DT: In that range of contexts that you were interacting with, were you seeing much engagement or connection between these sort of cultural producers and organizations and anything that was happening in terms of local politics?
DG: Not really. Redmoon did community pageants that anyone could perform in, and they were also connected to a nursing home. So it was kind of a community service model rather than a social transformation model. And that was cool. I think they might have stopped doing that.
And then I became a schoolteacher again in Chicago. And I felt like that was the beginning of trying to merge these things. I had read about charter schools in the Chicago Tribune. (This was before I understood that Charters were part of the privatization process.) I went to the Board of Education, and they gave me the list of approved schools which got me interested in ACT, the Academy of Communication Arts and Technology. These two women who were working at the Small Schools Workshop at UIC with Bill Ayers were developing this school called ACT. I had a meeting with them, and they hired me. The school is on the West Side. It had an interdisciplinary focus of merging arts and technology with all subject matters.
That was in 1997, so it was just two years after moving to Chicago from DC. I started teaching again, and it was great. It was a great experience, but I totally burned out.
DT: How long did you work there?
DG: Just one year. We were painting the walls and picking the textbooks. We did so much, it was the first year, the foundation. It was very fun and exciting teaching there. I felt like it was a better experience than D.C., but I ultimately decided that it was not for me. I felt like it was a personal failure, actually. I felt that this was something I wanted to be, but I couldn’t actually, in practice, be this full-time public schoolteacher. I was working eighty hours a week, and my other life just didn’t exist at all. Working was all I did. And it was so draining on all levels. Then I quit.
I really wanted to teach in a different context. I started looking into what other things you could do to teach. I had never wanted to get a PhD—although now I am getting one—because I didn’t ever want to be a specialist. I always saw myself as a generalist. Like, “Oh, I know something about music, and something about this, and something about that.” I knew so many people from undergrad who had gone straight into PhD programs, and they’re super specialists in a really specific small thing. But I felt that it wasn’t for me. And then I found out you can get an MFA and teach adults. I like to teach adults because I don’t really have what it takes effectively deal with the behavior issues of teenagers. Then I worked on developing a portfolio so I could get into an MFA program. At the same time, I started applying for jobs to pay the bills. I had a part-time job at the Gay and Lesbian Film Fest and when I was working there the Video Data Bank was doing a screening. I knew about the Video Data Bank because when I was in college I had studied feminist art history and we watched videos they distributed. When I was 19 I had also worked for Dara Birnbaum, a video artist whose work is in the Video Data Bank.
DT: What was your sense, as you were learning the city and these communities, what was your sense about what was happening politically or economically in the city in that moment? What was the sort of state of the city that you encountered as you…
DG: When I first moved there I loved it because it was inexpensive. It felt like a livable city then. There were lots of apartments and they were inexpensive, and there was a lot of DIY art and music activity. It was easy to enter all of these things. There were so many friends living near each other it was great. That’s how I felt—very open and easy. My vision of New York City, whether it was true or not, wasn’t that. Even though I always wanted to live in New York City, because I’m from New York and since childhood felt like it was a place I wanted to be, I felt like Chicago was a better start because it’s easier. But over time, I started getting pushed out of apartment after apartment, and the way development was working really upset me. It wasn’t very noticeable my first years. There were still a lot of old-school places, like old Polish diners. Almost none of them exist anymore. At first Chicago felt like it would always be that way, and then at a certain point it just turned, and started feeling uncontrollable, in terms of condos, in terms of the built environment, and business turn-over. It dispersed people so much that it completely changed what made up our social lives. And these things motivated me to try to understand gentrification and attempt to intervene in it.
DT: Something that I’m curious about with some of the different stuff that you were drawn to, for instance institutions such as Kartemquin or the Video Data Bank which actually have a long history of merging art and activism, is if that history was that something that you tapped into or cared about?
DG: Oh yeah. I like to know about where I am. So I wanted to know about how the Video Data Bank came to be, or how Kartemquin came to be. But I had participated in independent, engaged, non-corporate culture since I was young.
Aside from Pink Bloque, which was specifically an activist project—I’m not sure I have ever been so comfortable saying, ‘I’m an activist!’ At the same time, I have always been someone who feels like I want to change things—injustice makes me upset just like I hope it does for most people. I’ve always been hesitant about the activist identity because I think everyone should be an activist, in terms of not accepting a wack status quo. I hear people say they are dissatisfied with something in society but they are not activists so they can’t do anything about it. I wish everyone felt engaged in changing the world and that it was not confined by whether one identifies as an activist or not.
DT: What precipitated the creation of the Pink Bloque for you, or the instigation?
DG: I’ve gone to protests and been involved in social justice activism most of my life. I was working at the Video Data Bank and I had a pretty time-consuming job there. Blithe Riley, who was also working at VDB, told me that she was working on Ladyfest Midwest, and I knew about Ladyfest, because I had been involved in this music sub-culture and I knew some of the organizers of the first Ladyfest in Olympia. So I started getting involved in organizing Ladyfest Midwest Chicago. That was in ’99 or 2000, the festival took place in the summer of 2001. I’ve always liked cultural organizing. Even if it was just my birthday party, it would become a happening, an event where there were costumes and themes and such. I got very involved in Ladyfest and it became a huge event with fifty of us working together. It was challenging at times, but it was pretty great and pretty successful.
After the event we were all burnt out. The Department of Space and Land Reclamation was cool and had happened the April before. Between the WTO protests in Seattle in 99, working at Video Data Bank, organizing Ladyfest, and becoming familiar with a lot of tactical media and DSLR happening, I got really excited. There was this convergence of things that made me feel like I wanted to be involved in this kind of political culture, that there were possibilities for it—that there were possibilities of merging all these disparate threads of culture and politics. I had thought about going to Seattle but didn’t and then at the Video Data Bank we watched it in the office on Indymedia, which had just been developed. These connections and overlaps finally started happening for me in ways that seemed interesting and fun and not alienating.
Then September 11th happened a month after Ladyfest. After September 11th, all the patriotic battle cries made it seem like whatever the U.S. response was, it was going to be really intense. I felt a sense of urgency. I had been following the counter-globalization movement on the Internet, so I had seen many of the new protest tactics developing around the globe, like the Tute Bianche AKA White Overalls in Italy, and the Pink Blocks in Prague. I went to an organizing meeting in Chicago for an anti-war protest. There was an arts working group that I joined and I said, “Look, the world has really, really changed from the sixties to now, it’s just so much more saturated with media and information. I think the old protest tactics need a re-vamping.” I remember sitting in this meeting and saying, “I feel like I’m in this circle, this loop that we can’t get out of. We’re just going to keep doing the same old protest tactics over and over even though the world has changed. And we’re not going to get any new people involved.”
Somebody in the meeting responded, “Can’t we just at least play Give Peace a Chance? I’ll bring my guitar.” I felt like saying, “No, we can’t. We can’t just sing Give Peace a Chance. I know there was a Hip Hop Block at some protest I went to recently, where are they? We need other cultural forms in the street protest.” So that’s when I sent out an e-mail to friends who I knew through the music scene and Ladyfest, seeing if they wanted to wear pink to the next protest together. And we met up, and we wore pink. But it was an uncoordinated and very depressing protest. Our small group decided to have a more formal meeting, name ourselves the Pink Bloque, and we developed the project together from that point on.
DT: And what were some of the kinds of things that the Pink Bloque did?
DG: Well, mostly we did dance routines in the streets, which you can look at on pinkbloque.org, our archive website. We did coordinated dance routines to very popular mainstream songs, and we handed out political fliers to the crowds that gathered to watch. We did creative protest tactic workshops, we had a lot of meetings, and developed a lot of friendships, relationships, working methods, and ways of communicating.
DT: When you were out doing these kinds of actions, what were some of the kinds of reactions that you got?
DG: The reaction was usually mixed. Other protestors tried to turn the music off on occasion and said we were being inappropriate at a protest. Sometimes people would dance with us and loved it. Some people were very interested in what we were doing. We were always causing a scene, a spectacle, which of course we wanted to cause. People would want to talk to us, and we would talk to them about the issues we were protesting, like the Patriot Act.
DT: And you said you wanted to cause a spectacle. What was informing your thinking about that?
DG: Like I said, I had studied a lot of feminist performance theory prior, and other people in the group were also informed by these types of ideas. Our analysis was that you needed to do something different in this media-saturated world to get people’s attention. Our analysis started with the question, what’s the point of a protest? Partially, it’s a performance of your political views, although there are different kinds of protest. But if you’re doing a performance, you might want to think about your audience. We were thinking about a lot of things around those issues: what body languages and aesthetic languages, would speak to a public where they might stop what they’re doing for a second and engage. ‘The streets should for be for dancing and dialogue, not just for shopping,’ was one of our slogans.
DT: Based on several years of doing that work with a consistent group of people in a consistent place, for the most part, do you feel like there are lessons from that work that you continue to draw on or have informed other things you’ve done since?
DG: One of the things I liked is we were pretty focused. Maybe not politically, but in terms of what we were trying to—we were going to do dance routines. It wasn’t like, ‘oh, and we’re going to open this store front, and, oh, we’re also going to have this seminar.’ Many of us who had worked on Ladyfest had learned a lot from it. We didn’t want to do something on that scale. We didn’t want to do something totally open to whoever wanted to be part of it. We just wanted to do something that was tangible and doable. We were going to be a dance troop. We might have buttons this time, and we might have fliers the next, and we might decide to make matching outfits, but the overall action was consistent. I really liked that. Sometimes things are out of control in order to be open to “all the different possibilities that are going to happen, and we’re going to do them all.” Ultimately, all the possibilities can never happen anyway.
DT: At some point then, after working at the Video Data Bank and doing the Pink Bloque, you started to participate more in other curatorial projects and also in talking about the intersections of art and politics in a more academic or critical kind of discourse.
DG: I think so much of our theories, our collectively developed theories in Pink Bloque, came out of our practice together. People might have read stuff beforehand and been informed by it, but in terms of anyone speaking as the Pink Bloque about art and politics, the practice informed the theory more than the theory informing the practice.
We all felt we needed to do something about what was happening in the world. We developed this thing (the Pink Bloque), and then we developed all of these theoretical threads out of it because some of us enjoyed doing theoretical work.
DT: Since that time, you’ve invested a lot of energy in actually presenting and framing and writing histories of art and politics intersecting. Where did that come from?
DG: These intersections are exciting to me. When politics enters the dialog many people feel the need to ask “Is it still art?” I don’t need to call it art. Who cares? Better questions are: Is it interesting? Is it meaningful? There have been times when the political and the aesthetic avant-gardes have been very engaged with each other. I find those times and those stories to be the most exciting to me. I have found that a lot of people who are more committed to art for art’s sake, whatever that means, are very defensive and very questioning if you attempt to bring politics to art. That seems ahistorical to me. If you are an artist committed to social transformation, you can’t really do anything without certain people questioning it under the idea of defending “art’s neutrality” or some bullshit. But if somebody gives a talk about the aesthetics of photography, for example, I have never seen an audience member raise their hand and say, ‘um, excuse me. You only talked about aesthetics, what about the politics of these pieces?’ But the reverse always happens. There’s this weird defensiveness on the part of people who are very invested in aesthetics without context. I’m not sure what it is. A lot of things defend the status quo and no one is saying that’s a politic, but it obviously is a politic, a status quo politic.
DT: Do you feel like you’ve been a part of moments or groups or experiences where the aesthetic and the political avant-garde have really been in conversation?
DG: I do think that the counter-globalization movement, tactical media, the DSLR time, that there was a period that I experienced where it felt very exciting and that these things could help each other out. Riot Grrrl was another interesting moment. Here’s this cultural space we are in and there are these politics that are personal and political and they impact each other and we’re going to talk about them in the context of this culture, which is a music culture.
DT: Within Riot Grrl or musical contexts, what do you think is an example of those kind of—all that stuff meshing in a way that seemed significant to you.
DG: I don’t know. When I say culture I’m not talking about one night of something. It’s a whole lived experience of being in a certain time that things are happening in. It might not be a specific space, it may not even be one city. It may be a whole network of cities with spaces that people interact with, and zines and communications, and a set of ideas in the air. But then there’s also just your daily lived experience where these ideas are being tested, likely to both ill effect and positive effect. Sometimes I’ll talk to friends about how the intensity of that Riot Grrrl moment dissipated. Now you’ll go to shows and it will be a totally sexist environment and there will be no one trying to intervene in that. It’s kind of sad that it seems like less people are talking about ideas that are related oppression and violence in our lived daily experience in the cultural sphere.
DT: Something that you’ve talked about recently is that being a part of the Pink Bloque, one of the rich parts on a personal level was dancing on a regular basis.
DG: I really care about embodiment. I engage in a lot of academic contexts where embodiment is so removed. We’re all embodied if we’re here, alive; embodiment is being alive to me, in these vessels that we’re in, these bodies. And they communicate, they communicate lots of things. And in a lot of academic contexts, and activist contexts too, you speak—speaking is using your body, obviously—but there is more of an emphasis on what’s coming from this part of your body (points to head), instead of any other part of your body.
DT: The head.
DG: Yes, because your mouth is in you head. Yes, your head. Your brain is in your head, and your processing information and your delivering, and you’re reading this paper. The traditional form in the academic world is the reading of the academic paper without concern for the physical.
When you go to street demonstrations and protests you are using your body. There’s a lot of activist theory around putting our bodies on the line, but what else can we do with our bodies in those spaces? The Pink Bloque was proposing a different thing we can do with our bodies: have a dance party! And maybe we can even choreograph, maybe some of us can do the same dance moves together at the same time. Maybe we can move in concert for a little bit of this day.
DT: Did you think that those ideas that you all were experimenting with trickled out or affected people in other ways?
DG: Well, there were a couple of other groups that started dance troupes in other places. And the latest batch of [protest] marching bands started around that time. I don’t think it had anything to do with us. I think sometimes things just gel—there’s an energy in the air. Because a number of different people are doing things, and it’s generative of other people doing things and creating a richer culture.
DT: Is there anything else that you want to say in retrospect about your time in Chicago or the work that you were doing… and how it’s been formative for yourself or you ideas, in retrospect?
DG: I like doing things with other people. I like participating in things. I like doing things outside. While I was in Chicago a lot of group activities happened, and there was enough of a community, enough support, and enough spaces and resources to make it happen without commercial backing, or even not-for-profit backing. It was all D.I.Y., all the funding for every project we did in Chicago. It was cool that there was enough of a culture to support that. I spent ten years there, I really liked it. I have a lot of good friends from there.
DT: I’ll ask a few more little things, but nothing big. You, at some point in there, you started making video works and works that were your own individual pieces that started to bring together these interests…
DG: I had been making videos about gender-related things since college. Nothing that I ever distributed. The first video that I showed outside of my living room was about a rabbit in the hills of France. Have you ever seen that? It’s a fairytale about a rabbit who gets drunk. And then I made a video about my body, Bouncing In the Corner #36 DDD. I made that in 1999 and it was the first video I distributed. Then I made the Strategic Cyber Defense video, which was more inspired by Animal Charm. They were remixing old video, so tried my hand at that. Another thing I do with video is document ephemeral actions, which is something that I think is important. When you do these ephemeral, one-day events, or creative protests, they happen once, so I feel like it is important to document them. Those are the kind of videos I tend to want to coordinate and do.
DT: You’ve talked about strong communities as well as individual projects. Can you share any observations or thoughts you have on the connection between internal transformation that you’ve experienced versus more external or social/community transformation? [pause] How those are different or how they are connected or affect one another?
DG: For me they’re connected. I transform in relationship to others. Even the current transformation of my body is very internal and personal, but it is very communal too. The response to my health is communal, and that transforms me, too, in a different way. That transforms me in a totally different way than the disease transforms me.
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