Critical Culture in Chicago – Article #5: Artists Making Community

by Daniel Tucker

I’m always hearing arts organizations talk about “outreach.”

In 1999 Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker magazine that described Lois Weisberg, the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for city government here in Chicago, as a “connector.” While this article popularized the term, the concept has been utilized in sociology and the research of social networks for many years longer. And as a concept, it’s pretty straight forward – there are people in this world who know lots of people, are good at making introductions between people, and generally behave socially in a similar way as a “node” does on an communications network – connecting and redistributing connectivity.

Connecting people in service of building community is particularly impoverished at this historical moment. This is due in part to the new and unresolved networking potential of the Internet, yet there are certainly other material and psychic reasons for gradual fragmentation and alienation that are much more complex than communications technologies. While it can be easier than ever to accumulate “friends” through online social networking or mass distribute information via the web, those of us interested in artistic practices that have potential to affect and alter social relations know that getting together in the same room as others to dialogue about and enact our passions and commitments is as necessary now as ever.

With this final text in the five part series, I will focus on introducing individuals that do the hard work of building community in Chicago – in person. They don’t have fixed organizational affiliations and they float around town engaging and touching many projects, communities and spaces. This is intended to be an introduction to their work based on my observation of local cultural production over the last nine years. I must acknowledge that there are many other people involved in this work, that community is the result of more people’s participation than just those that organize and promote its existence and do projects to foster it, and that these are a few strong examples among many occurring simultaneously and historically here in Chicago.

Making Introductions

Nicole Garneau was born in Chicago and makes performances that use the city as a backdrop and as a material. In recent years she has taken to developing long term projects that combine research and playful acts in public space that help her and others think through challenging history. One such project was the 2005 series Heat05 where Garneau did one performance everyday (often enlisting the help of others) to honor and reflect on the nearly 500 lives list in a heat-wave in Chicago in 1995.

Dan S. Wang is the only person in this listing that does not actually live in Chicago, but his impact is so significant in this city that he had to be included. Dan strives to identify potential connections between disparate communities which should have a lot to share but because of various forms of segregation cannot seem to see one another. He was one of the founders of Mess Hall, has had a role in other southside institutions like Southside Community Art Center, Experimental Station and most notably at the Hyde Park Art Center where he recently completed curating 18 sessions of a monthly lecture series featuring local artists.

Another artist with tremendous influence on the southside of town, whom also carefully concocts collaborations between institutions in different corners of the city is Theaster Gates. Raised on the westside of the city, his roots in various communities run deep. Through the creation of a number of his own micro-institutions he blurs the line between an individual practitioner and a collective force, even creating elaborate mythologies around some of his more conceptual identities like the Yamaguchi Institute and the Black Monks of Mississippi. Gates makes things out of clay, he also pushes and pulls his audience throughout the city – encouraging them to learn to discover the place where they may live but do not yet know.

Unfortunately music, art and politics don’t mix as much as they should in Chicago, but one person who defies that dynamic is Damon Locks who fronts a band called The Eternals, DJs all around town, makes socially conscious collages and illustrations, and directs the content of The Population – a website that tries to bring together essays on the politics of architecture with interviews of punk musicians reflecting on their changing industry.

Two other musicians doing an immense amount of community organizing are Mark Messing and Jon Cates. Messing is the instigator of a number of large scale noise, music and dance exuding marching bands which tour the conventional music circuits, as well as street parties and protests. The marching bands often serve as connecting points for different communities in the city, at times through performing at fundraisers for activist causes or through bringing a large scale celebratory spectacle to a neighborhood picnic. Cates has been able to bridge his interest in new media and noise music through the curation of a number of festivals such as r4WB1t5 and gatherings like the Upgrade Chicago and Dorkbot. Many of his most frequent collaborators are the people of criticalartware, a collective research project about the early history of new media and making art inspired by those traditions.

Sometimes what is needed is for someone to just take the time to tell others about what is happening around town. Salem Collo-Julin is the person. She will take the time to send an email to her friends about an upcoming event organized by an out-of-town artist that would likely go under attended otherwise. She also brings people together as the administrator of GoChGo, an email listserv for artist-activists in Chicago that sometimes hosts physical conversations when the online dialogues do not suffice. She is also one of four Free Store organizers who turn empty lots into temporary chaotic malls of reciprocity (’bring something, take something’). One Free Store collaborator, Melinda Fries is the proprietor ofAusgang.com which documents the city (and other places) on a seasonal basis and has been a platform for Chicago’s and non-locals alike. Collo-Julin’s collaborators in the group Temporary Services play similar roles in other contexts: Marc Fischer hosts events dedicated to obscure music histories andspecial collections while Brett  Bloom and his partner Bonnie Fortune develop publications, exhibitions and gatherings like the 2008 “What we know of our past, What we demand of our future” which serve to clarify visions and cohere community for politically engaged artists.

Miguel Cortez is another person that keeps everyone in touch. From his own visual art and curating that often tackles politically urgent subjects, to being a force behind organizing artists in the Pilsen neighborhood where he lives via Pilsen Open Studios and art-pilsen.org, to his ten years of work running the Polvo venue, magazine, events newsletter and art making group he manages to draw people together. Now with Antena a gallery he operates out of his apartment, he has a new base for his same busy practice.

Jennifer Karmin is a local poet and performer with her hands in everything. Together with Lisa Janssen she programs the monthly Red Rover reading series – one of the more experimental of the local literary events. With Kathleen Duffy and others she is Anti-Gravity Surprise. Duffy bridges the gap between art, health and food politics with her dedicated efforts as an organizer for Campaign for Better Health Care and as the initiator of a drive to create a food cooperative.

Another person mixing ecology and art is Nance Klehm. Her diverse practice includes writing a column for the Arthur music magazine about edible weeds, leading walks in neighborhood parks and along streets to identify edible plants growing in public space, and teaching classes locally and abroad about the intersections of art, space, food and ecology. She sometimes makes work which is more familiar as sculpture or performance, but there is almost always a pedagogical or social component to the work – consistently engaging people in learning processes that help them to think about their bodies, the land, and food.

Aay Preston-Myint jumps between three ambitious projects and still manages to show up everywhere. He recently became affiliated with Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center on the far northside of the city. His other organizing work places him mainly on the southside where he collaborates with six other artists to run No Coast, a printmaking studio and shop that also hosts irregular events and popular 24 hours silk screening “epic” parties. Finally, the last leg of his practice situates him in the northwest-side neighborhood of Wicker Park where for the past five years he has collaborated with a rotating cast of friends to produce Chances, a monthly dance party for the young queer community that lacks cohesion and doesn’t relate to the commercialized atmosphere of the Chicago’s more prominent gay and lesbian ‘districts.’

A frequent collaborator of Preston-Myints, Charlie Vinz is another local figure who bridges disparate worlds. He works as an architect and diligently attempts to get architects, designers and educators to meet and talk and collaborate. One concrete contribution he has made to two local cultural venues, No Coast and the Orientation Center, has been to design and build recycled furniture customized to the uses of the spaces. He also hosts regular dialogues between those working as architectural educators, and teaches Chicago youth design principals through an after-school program. Education is a substantial recurring theme across many people’s work and backgrounds.

Two public school teachers who manage to bring critical culture into their classroom and still maintain active practices outside of school are Lavie Raven and Bert Stabler. Lavie Raven founded the University of Hip Hop and has collaborated with numerous others from Hekter Gonzalez to Trinidad Castillo and others at the Southwest Youth Collaborative to produce exciting and politically relevant arts education a since the mid ’90s.

Bert Stabler could easily be writing this article. He consistently writes texts that promote local activist art scene for Proximity magazine and other outlets, while also maintaining a connection to more eccentric art communities concerned with psychedelia and utopia. In the classroom on the far southside of the city, he has been known to develop creative curriculum using the music of Sun Ra and highway underpasses.

This article couldn’t be complete without mentioning the work of Ed Marszewski, the consistent force behind Lumpen and Proximity Magazines (organized with his wife Rachel and collaborator Mairead Case) and the Select and Version annual new media and public arts festivals. His rotating cast of collaborators includes most of the people listed in this article and countless like-minded cultural producers from outside Chicago – he is a local booster without being too provincial.

Chicago is a city where community organizing, in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, Saul Alinsky, Jesse Jackson, Fred Hampton is really strong. Numerous artists and arts organizations have integrated parts of these traditions into their work. One prominent example is Tom Tresser, an organizer who actually treats arts “scenes” as constituencies (in a political sense) which are ripe for organizing. He has tried to get more artists, who he identifies as insightful critical thinkers and actors, to run for political office. Additionally, he an organizer working to protest the current bid by the city to hose the 2016 Summer Olympic games with the coalition “No Games Chicago.”

Anne Elizabeth Moore comes out of publishing independent zines and magazines, a tradition she connected with as a teenager. She hates consumerism and commodification. That much is clear from her nearly two decades of hating on capitalism and the banal culture it encourages. In recent years her work has shifted from being primarily a writer and editor for magazines such as Punk Planet and In These Times to working as a curator, a public artist, public intellectual, and organizer of an ambitious series ofUnlympic participatory sporting events, another project intended to protest Chicago’s bid on the 2016 Olympics.

Laurie Jo Reynolds has been behind many group efforts from Brechtian theater productions to large scale social events like ASK ME! where everyday people with expertise sit behind booths and get to talk to everyday people with questions. These projects have often been produced under the name Chicago County Fair, but the grouping and its identity is quite loose. Most recently Reynolds has been a major force in a political organizing effort to reform a prison in Illinois that has been torturing prisoners in conditions worse than Guantanamo Bay for over ten years. For this work she has called upon the arts community heavily to produce symbolic events relating to the prison and has strategically used the special interest the arts receive to break the barrier of the media which refuse to write about torture in their backyard yet dedicate immense resources to promoting the entertainment industry.

Aaron Hughes is a relative newcomer to the city, but his impact cannot be understated. He is a local leader in the Iraq Veterans Against the War and has found ways to connect his art practice to his organizing efforts with that group. Connected to his recent thesis project concluding his graduate studies he developed Demilitarized U, a temporary learning space dedicated to the intersections of anti-war organizing, activist art practices, and countering military recruitment in the city, among other subjects.

Conclusion

One thing that is consistently said about culture in the city is that people are incredibly willing to collaborate. Its common to hear debates about what it means to “be a Chicago artist” or what local rootedness means in relationship to globalization. But these debates will not help us see one another differently, they will not negate the meaning of place or the presence of global connectivity in our lives – they can only distract and make us question our potential. It is for this reason that the work of the people listed above is so important – they are realizing in themselves and others a great potential. These people are going to create the new languages and frameworks that we need to see ourselves in relationship to one another in this age of fragmentation. They can do this because they reach across subcultures, scenes, disciplines and niches. Yet this is not “social work”, and its not professional networking – these are artists making community, for themselves and others.

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Daniel Tucker is one of the editors of AREA Chicago and is currently working on a book of interviews with activist-farmers throughout the US with Amy Franceschini, due out on Chronicle Books in 2010. see miscprojects.com

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