Democracy in America | The National Camgaign
Chicago, IL

Question #1:
Who is your audience and how does your work mobilize them 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 Delaney, “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.

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?

AQUIL CHARLTON: Strategic and local are key words for us at the Crib. 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. But we’re experiencing—in more academic terms—it would be 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.

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 that 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 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 turntableism. We have graphic artists and visual artists and sculpturists that really 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.

BRETT BLOOM: We 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.

Question #2:
Given that the ways we make money impacts the type of culture we produce, how does the local economy affect your art practice? Or another way to look at it is, how do you work to obtain and share resources?

ELVIA RODRIGUEZ OCHOA: This really strikes at the core of where we’re from culturally, economically, politically. The three founders of Polvo—Miguel Cortez, Jesus Macarena, and I—are all from working class, immigrant Mexican households. If we wanted to get something done, you’d get your ass out there and work. So yes, we work like Mexicans (LAUGHTER). One of the groups that completely kicked our asses and inspired us to do this kind of work was the Zapatista movement coming out of Chiapas in the early ‘90s, where we looked at what these are people out in the middle of the Lacandon Jungle were doing. They don’t have running water. There’s no electricity for every household or anything like that. Yet, they could hook up and send their communiqués out to the world, which kept them from being destroyed. And so we asked ourselves, what the hell are we doing here in the middle of the most industrial nation in the world and people don’t know what we’re up to? We had to get out there and do it ourselves. We also come from an activist, self-help type of background, inspired by Black Panthers and the Young Lords. We said, well, we’re not going to sit around and wait for somebody else to do this stuff for us. If nobody else wants to pay attention, that’s not on us. But we have to be out there and we have to do something. Because the last thing that we should do is just be another group of people that sits around and bitches and moans about how things are without getting out and actually doing something about it. Some of the ways that we’ve been able to affect and help other people are when people want to come and show in our space, we say, that’s fine, do whatever you want to do with this space, just return it to its condition once you leave. And we don’t charge the person anything for doing that. If somebody wants to give us a little bit of change to help us out or if they make a sale from having a show there and they want to share from that, that’s cool. But, you know, we don’t force that gallery system of 50 percent or anything like that; it’s what people want to share with us. And people have been really positive and helpful in sharing resources. If they don’t have money some people will donate projectors and televisions and things like that. People are really about coming in and bartering and giving back because they’ve seen that we’ll open up and let them do what they feel they need to do in the space.

SARA BLACK: This question is obviously important to us at the group Material Exchange because it includes both resources and economies within the name. Conceptually, the local—sometimes makeshift or informal—economies and the dominant economies are practically the stuff of our work; it’s our material. We began by observing and tapping into the material rejects of these economies, in the art world specifically. We have discovered numerous conditions that enable these rejects to exist. Of course, these conditions are complicated and deep. Interestingly, we’ve recognized in some significant ways that a principled rejection of the broader market-based economy can easily make for an auto-exploitation by artists or is completely impossible in situations where artists have families and a bottom line that is not such that they can do a lot of work for free. Having those conditions in front of us has made for some really interesting investigations. We’ve been trying to maximize and extend other types of economies while consistently and creatively leveraging the dominant ones or getting inside of them. For instance, developing projects that bring the art typical externalization of labor costs to the table in a very conscious way. Trying to find alternative means to raise money to make work for, to use Jamie Calvin’s word, lean and agile small businesses that don’t get burdened down in the not-for-profit industrial complex. You can spend a lot of time and labor on very little return. So I’ve been experimenting with some interesting for-profit experiments in that way. Creating alliances and relationships with individuals of varying skills and resources is huge, such as material resources, space, and information, which communities like this provide. Specifically, the community at the Experimental Station has an incubator for projects of ours, like Back Story, a kind of small business incubator. Or the willing host of events, like the Putt-Putt that took place last year, which was a fundraiser game meeting space design thing. Places like this are a resource where at some moments the relationships there seem invisible in some ways. But at other times, it takes relaxing and allowing these resources to become visible over time and trusting that they’ll be there, because they’re already in place.

AMY PARTRIDGE: As a group we’re hysterical about the local and national economy, so this is the one question we absolutely wanted to answer. Also, because we’re really serious about the collaborative work, we collaboratively wrote an answer, which I’m editing right now. Okay: We find ourselves in broken institutions, in a state of constant precarity and temporary jobs that require us to amass cultural capital and marketable skills and marketable skill sets on our own dime. The neo-liberal order requires the individual to become the capitalist, to create the cultural capital, to navigate the marketplace as an independent contractor. We want to argue that this is a local economy that affects our cultural art practice. Because for us, space is a freedom, because we find ourselves in this economy, there must be those practices in which the amassing of capital, monetary or cultural, does not factor for us. That’s why we make cheap art, in the spirit of Bread and Puppet, from found or recycled materials that are ready to hand out and that we give away for free. That’s why we call ourselves the Cheap Art for Freedom Collective. We also believe that art must not be a commodity, so we produce all of our art collectively, and we do not seek individual or collective credit for our art. Our project can be described as an effort to practice our freedom to decorate the labyrinth. There’s something to say about how we share resources within our collective and our decision to assign a Minister of Money—fuck. We can talk about that at another time (LAUGHTER).
     The other thing I do want to say is that the CAFF really does seek to form loose chains of interdependence with other collectives and groups. Chains that enable us all to circulate what resources we have or can secure through economies based on mutual aid and not capital accumulation. This is our final statement in response to this question: If we’re going to build a viable countercultural social movement we have to overcome or bypass the current economies that bring us together as competitors for monetary and cultural capital. We must instead approach each other as brothers and sisters in solidarity. We believe this is the only way to slip through the neoconservative and neoliberal discourses of freedom that plague us as individuals and as a nation. The model of personal freedoms is wrongheaded. Freedom is a condition of interdependence and that’s why we call ourselves the Collective Anarchist Freedom Fuckers, as well (LAUGHTER). This is what we’re after.

NICOLE GARNEAU: One of the ways that I am currently supporting my work is by a full-time job. I see that as a resource. I have a full-time job in which having a public persona as an artist is an asset to my work. Also, it doesn’t really seem to get in the way of my work if I do things that are illegal or perverted (LAUGHTER). That’s a really important resource. That cannot be said of most of the jobs that I’ve ever had or most of the jobs that I know of. So I really look at it as a very, very significant resource. Also, it’s not that hard; I have energy at the end of the day to do anything, and I have health insurance. When I think about how to live, that’s one of the ways I think about it. Currently, my project, Uprising in Evidence, is being presented by Links Hall. They’re providing administrative support. They don’t give me money but they help me in a lot of ways with the whole administration of this project. That’s also a way of sharing resources. They already have an administrative structure; they’re trying to share it with me. I have a lot of networks that I’m trying to share with them. Currently, when I’m looking for support and applying for things, I feel I look more for time and space than grant money. Well, I have more luck getting time and space than grant money (LAUGHTER). I find that I can make use of time and space in terms of residencies and stuff like that; it works for me. In terms of grant money, I recently applied for a large grant where you can sit in on your panel discussion, which I really recommend to anyone. What I realized was that I was looking for support for these highly conceptual performance projects that are durational, that are outside, that involve audience participation, and public engagement, and all of that kind of stuff. First of all, the panel said it was more activism than art. Second, I realized that the panel really could not understand the aesthetic choices that I was making. So as a performer, I realized that funders are looking for virtuosity in performance. That’s what they want to see you give. It’s hard for people to understand as an aesthetic choice the lack of artifice and the charm and social engagement that’s required to get 20 people on the street to do what you want them to do, to participate in something. I look at that as a performance skill, but that’s not overall generally looked at as a performance skill they want to like. Because I have done a lot of theater and extremely presentational work I really understand the difference between those two things. And then evidence is an attempt to have a revenue stream. And it’s also an attempt to have a revenue stream that does not affect the performances, so the performances can be free on the street, radical, and unaffected by the revenue stream. The revenue stream just takes pictures of it and writes a paragraph about it and sells that part. It doesn’t matter what I do on the street, because I can still always take a picture of it and write a paragraph about it, and hopefully sell that. That’s what I’m going for.

MARIANNE FAIRBANKS: This is really important to us at Mess Hall. One thing I don’t think I mentioned before is that we’re not a non-profit and we’re not a business; we’re neither of those things. That’s a very specific decision that we made at the beginning. We’re always trying to figure out what that means for us, and it’s something that I don’t know whether audiences or participants who come [to events] question or not, but because it’s undefined there’s something different there. As a model, something really different about us is that we get our space for free. I very rarely hear about such a situation; our landlord has extended this space to us for free. It’s radical generosity and it’s something that we’re trying to continue to extend through what we do within the space. There’s so much surplus; it goes so far beyond materials. The material is just one way to access and to get people interested and to redistribute what we have. Also with skill shares there’s a great surplus of information and knowledge. If we can bring that into a space and share it and create these learning networks, that’s something that we’re really excited about. That’s how we obtain our resources, just by asking others to come and participate in that.

DAN PETERMAN: There are a lot of economic issues that have been very relevant for me and others involved at the Experimental Station. The way I would talk about it briefly is by exploring micro-economies. Being involved frequently in clusters of ideas, clusters of constellations of different projects, there’s always an active economy of what are the things that pay, what are the things that carry their own weight, and what are the things that are using energy and consuming energy, more energy than they’re providing? Those kinds of economies are really interesting to me. They relate to questions of diversity and how something can be sustained. The last thing I would add is the importance within these kinds of economies of looking for the little economic engines, the things that can flip something into a net positive within that kind of economy, and asking, what are those economic engines? That’s where the breadth of an approach to culture defined by this group is such an incredible resource because there are so many little interfaces that can become potential little economic engines that can be highly aesthetic, deeply thoughtful, and connect in society in so many different ways. How those things are strategically aligned is that ones that are very successful offset ones that are never going to break even. It’s about identifying those economies that might operate in one space, in a place like Mess Hall or Experimental Station, but also in an individual’s practice, for example, the teaching and the public service and the activism. Then that question of managing micro-economies becomes very relevant.

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 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 30 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, and 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 []. 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.

SARA BLACK: A few events that have brought a number of practitioners together in a critical way that I would include are Pathogeographies project, the Pedagogical Factory, and the latest conference at Mess Hall. 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 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.

Question #4
As an engaged artist or organization, how does your practice relate to existing social movements?

CRAIG HARSHAW: With this question I think we have to say what we mean by social movement. One of the things that was troubling about growing up in the United States when I did—I was born in 1965—was the absence of large scale social movements in my formative years. That’s partially due to the non-profit industrial complex—I’ll say it one more time (LAUGHTER)—which turned these things into a career track kind of thing. There was a neo-liberalization so you don’t see the kind of stuff that was happening with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers and all the things that you saw in the 1960s with the civil rights, black power, and other power movements. But with all that said, you’re born into the space you’re in. I think Inside Arts has always tried to directly relate to social movements, often going through NGOs. One of the things that we’ve found is that social activist NGOs, organizing groups, and activism groups often have very little relationship to culture. They may like it and they may especially, like hip-hop, like to use it to bring people in. But the idea of actually integrating it into the organization is often a very difficult thing to do. We’ve often played that role when we’ve gotten commissioned to do something and then felt, “Oh, it’s going to be too weird,” or “Are the graffiti artists going to paint in the bathroom?” It becomes this big thing. Part of engaging with that is figuring out what that break is about. The break is on both sides, both in how the artist community is so walled off and so elitist and so what art school is like, and then also in what’s going on with the professionalization [of the art field]. If you look back to the day when we had social movements, or you look at social movements like the Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil, in many of them throughout Latin America, Argentina, and Europe, art is very, very central. What we’ve always tried to do is have very specific campaigns we work on at Inside Arts that are throughout the organization. For example, we worked on the campaign to end the juvenile death penalty and integrated that into all of our public events, so that we’d mention it even if the event had nothing to do with the juvenile death penalty. For instance, you come to a poetry reading but you’re going to find out about [juvenile death penalty]. We’d do that with a number of kinds of things.
     The final thing I’ll say, which is the answer to other questions about audience but it relates to this: Social movements come out of the people and they come out of the working classes, the subaltern classes, and that’s not us for the most part, the intellectual classes. We might have some connections to that with our background. But that’s what makes it a little bit difficult, because when we don’t have the direct conduits to reach out and to figure out how it’s happening that makes it difficult. I think you have to do a lot of analysis: Analysis of who your participants are, analysis of who your audiences are, and analysis of how much you are allowing the working classes and subaltern classes to really participate in the intellectual formation of what you’re doing, because that’s where the real intellectual power is. It’s not among the people that pay and get the college degrees, etc.

DAVID ISAACSON: There are over 200 companies producing theater in Chicago, so they are definitely a social force within the city. There is a downtown theater district, heavily subsidized, composed of both large commercial and large not-for-profit theaters. But the vast majority of those 200 companies are very, very small organizations. The question that I ask myself is whether they collectively form a social movement or a political movement, and the answer, not surprisingly, is yes and no. Yes, because in many cases these small theaters either through the physical space they inhabit or their practices within a community are very much part of the fabric of neighborhoods and therefore a decentralized force, whereas, as we all know in Chicago, under the current Daley administration things have moved towards a centralized Loop-based, Millennium Park, 2016 Olympics, big project scenario. The small neighborhood theaters do present a countervailing force to that. They tend to be not-for-profit and more concerned with the cultural value of the work than the commodity value. They tend to be ensemble-based, so there’s collective decision making as a general rule. The content often tends to be very political, as opposed to the downtown larger theaters. It’s a point of pride that Chicago does political theater. Of course, it’s not across the board, but there’s a remarkable amount of work with direct political themes. Some neighborhood theaters are directly involved through education with youth in the community. All of those are things that would be thumbs up in terms of [an answer to the question] is it a political movement? The thumbs down aspects would be that there’s a lot of competition among theaters for limited resources and audiences, so there’s not much cooperative or collective action among the different theater companies. There’s a reliance on corporate funding from corporations such as Phillip Morris and Boeing, and that limits the free speech of those theater companies, not many of which would participate in a benefit for Kick Boeing to the Curb or organizations like that. There’s a lack of alliances between neighborhood theaters and neighborhood organizations. There could be a lot more utilization of theater spaces by community organizations as a resource. And there’s a lack of engagement on the part of theater companies, a lack of intellectual engagement with the fact that they often are either unwitting or witting instruments of gentrification and displacement.

SONJA MOORE: As educators and artists, the social movements that guide our practice can be divided in a few different categories. Some may seem more obvious, such as the gentrification of housing issues and the disruption of communities and families that has been going on in Chicago for quite some time; the youth really need to find a way to vocalize how they feel about that. [Another category is] education, but education in the sense that the youth, from what they’re telling us and the stories that they’re presenting through their art, is that it’s not so much the school itself—granted the condition of a lot of our school buildings and structures are bad—but that they’re more concerned with the pedagogical approaches that the teachers are taking within the classroom, as well as the material that they’re being presented. The youth that we’re working with in our own classrooms, in these workshops, and as drop-in artists and apprentice artists want to find ways to have us reeducate the teachers so that they’re teaching what they, the students, want to know and what they need to know, if they can’t rewrite the curriculum themselves. They’re also very concerned with this issue of youth criminalization, the fact that you cannot have four teenagers standing on a corner and the police drive by and that instantly constitutes a gang. Yes, maybe they all shouldn’t be wearing white tee-shirts and blue jeans, however, it’s their choice to do that; if they all want to look alike, that’s their option, that’s another issue altogether. There’s this movement—I don’t know if it’s necessarily officially recognized as a movement— but I believe it’s going on, not just on the South Side and not just with Kumba Links as an arts organization, but throughout Chicago and New York and California, to validate youth voices and to bring youth voices to the forefront. It’s happening in a number of different, exciting ways, whether it’s through video projects, through organizations like Street Level Youth Media, or through the Teen Poetry Slam, which is going on right now this weekend downtown.
     In our practice, first we try to recognize their issues; we don’t sugarcoat anything. When kids come in we say, “Hey, we’re all from different communities. Let’s first say that this is a safe space, it’s a neutral space. We’re not here to put each other down, but we’re here to learn from one another.” Then we move from that point to how can we now educate each other? What can you tell us about what’s going on in Englewood? What can you tell us about what’s going on in Pilsen? As an educator myself, I use those voices and those circle ups—we do a lot of circle up: pushing the desks and the tables back, and just have conversations or the kids do art, or we just talk about art. We help them to place their movements in historical contexts and help them to see the connections [by saying], yes, you’re telling us a lot about what’s going on in Pilsen. How does that connect to the movement of the Zapatistas? How is that similar to what’s been going on in the African-American community? What are the similarities? Let’s stop looking at these differences. It’s really kind of made us, as the adults, step back and change what we’re doing as teachers and as artists. I’ve been lucky to be in a school, the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago, where our directors have given me the venue to do this within the humanities department that I chair, to really push my teachers to go to that limit, to keep pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope. We were really excited recently when our students had their first social justice forum where they presented their feelings about these issues. We had ninth graders take up three classrooms with gentrification panels, CHA representatives and developers, and those kinds of things, but in creative ways. So those are the ways that the youth have informed our practice.

BRETT BLOOM: I travel extensively for the various ways in which I work for Temporary Services, for other collaborations as a writer, and as an activist. I’ve actually moved away from [Chicago] twice and it keeps pulling me back. Those moves have made me realize just how strong this culture that all those sitting in the room here today represent is. It’s really strong and it’s stronger than any other place I’ve been in all my travels. There’s so much here, it’s so deep, it’s really powerful. Listing the number of influences and the number of important social and cultural and political experiences I’ve had in the city, I can’t keep them all in my head. Some of them have been named here, but I could add about 15 to 20 more to that list and it still wouldn’t be sufficient. There’s a really rich, deep culture of this, whatever you call it, politically engaged, socially engaged, new genre public, experimental art; it has so many names because we’re all participating in multiple iterations of it. It’s funny, Chicago doesn’t really brag about itself like other places do, like New York or Los Angeles, in a way that it makes it visible outside of this place. We’re working so hard within the city, but I don’t hear people saying, “Oh, yeah, Chicago’s just an amazing place.” So I feel like I often have to be a cheerleader and say yay. I give people lists and lists of things, all the amazing stuff that’s happening in the city, because there really is so much. You go to other cities, larger cities, and you just don’t find the same amount of creativity.
     So in a way, there is this kind of movement, although it’s not an amalgamated movement, by any means; it’s across cultures, it’s across the whole territory of the city. AREA Chicago has been sussing this out through multiple issues. A lot of people have been working on this in different ways. I think there’s a long way to go with the things that could be developed, for instance, independent theater within the city. Like with our practice, we’re forced into all kinds of competition: competition for jobs, competition for the nearly nonexistent funding that dwindles every year on the national level. And it’s hard to even talk about funding on the local or state level because we know there are cuts every year. I feel already in and of itself that this community of people that would show up to a conversation like this is already a really strong force. Not to mention all the million and one things we all do outside of being able to come and talk about what we’re doing here today.
     One thing specifically that a couple of us in the group [Temporary Services] is trying to develop with several people, including Daniel Tucker, Dan Wong, and Amy Partridge, is this thing we’re calling the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor, which we’re just having a lot of conversations about at the moment. We’re discussing questions like how do you share resources, how do you get beyond this competition, how do you make things visible to themselves that aren’t normally visible to one another, how do you put food activism in relationship to critical art practices in relationship to radical ecology and experimental urban planning? Ultimately, how do you put these things in proximity to each other, not necessarily to collaborate, but to make them resonate. The thing we’re talking about within this Midwest Radical CultureCorridor is to activate all these things in relationship to each other, really celebrate what’s here.

DAN S. WANG: For this question, I’m interpreting social movements as political movements or political action. The first thing I would say is that for me, it’s an intimate relationship and a permanent one. But it exists in a perpetual state of discomfort, which I think can be very productive. The best example from the last few years for me has been lending the knowledge and skills that I’ve gotten through my art training and from my art practice to this neighborhood anti-war group called the Hyde Park Committee Against War and Racism. Amy Partridge and Rebecca Zorach were also very involved during the end of 2002 through the year 2003, from the lead up to the first year of the Iraq War. It was during a time when there were probably 8, 10, 12, I don’t know how many, small neighborhood anti-war organizations very active all over the city and this was one of them. In that group, those of us with more of an art background or some training or experience with issues of not just art but representations in general—we took the responsibility for managing and producing the representations for the group. Why was that important? Because as people who think a lot about representations, we understand that that’s how the movement advertises itself. That’s how the movement sees itself and understands itself. So there needs to be some thought and a deliberate process applied to the production of those representations. You could say that’s an example of a transversal practice, where you’re doing something based on the specific skills and the situation at hand, and whatever is the outcome can be seen or described or perceived as either art or political action. In so doing, in moving in that way, you widen that band, that zone of overlap, where the one becomes the other. And that’s very central to my own practice.

MARY PATTEN: The social movement that I would like to reference is the war on terrorism—a slightly unorthodox application of the term (LAUGHTER)—but not all social movements are necessarily progressive. In November of 2001, I initiated a project with other artists, educators, and organizers in Chicago to create a space against the prevailing tide, which was that you could not speak, you could not resist, you couldn’t have a dissenting voice at all. This was when White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned Americans, “You have to watch what you say.” The name of this multidisciplinary effort, “Project Enduring Look,” was a riff on the Pentagon’s name for their mop-up operation in Afghanistan. We were trying to give a different twist to the sense of Enduring Look, by saying let’s stop, let’s slow down, let’s really pay attention to the language and the feelings that are being summoned at this moment of crisis; let’s take back the terms of how we understand and make our political culture. I used the resources of the Art Institute, which at that time had the1926 Exhibition Studies space for experimental curatorial projects, and co-opted my curatorial practice class to make it happen. At the “anti-opening” in early February of 2002, silent projections in the gallery windows depicted scenes of broken buildings and ruined spaces. The gallery was closed while people gathered to talk and drink coffee in parked cars outside. The cars had been painted with keywords like “choices,” “labor,” “food,” “guilt,” etc. Project Enduring Look also included a version of ASK ME! organized by Laurie Jo Reynolds and Scott MacFarland; “Communi-K,” a youth art-interchange organized by Michael and Sam Piazza; performance lectures, spoken word events, video screenings, games, and ephemera by Michael Piazza, Therese Quinn, Sheelah Murthy, Video Machete, Emily Forman, Anuj Vaidya, Claire Pentecost, Sedika Mojadidi, Anti-gravity Surprise, Post-Impressionists for Peace, and many others. This was a crazily ambitious project, where we had two months to organize a plethora of non-stop events and performances that unfolded in an intense three and a half weeks. Soon after, I developed a class called “Terrorism: A Media History.” I don’t consider teaching to be a substitute for political activism, but I do think the classroom is a space to create a critical social and political culture. One of the first things we do in the class is to excavate the visual and linguistic rhetoric of “terrorism,” while resisting a final definition of what terrorism is. The goal is to open up discussion and get to the point where, to paraphrase Edward Said, we can see that it’s perhaps unhelpful to even use this term at all, that we should be discussing and debating the uses of political violence by multiple actors—including states—instead.
     The most recent project in this vein is in response to an initiative by Andrej Holm and other anti-gentrification activists and researchers in Berlin who have been targeted by Germany’s anti-terrorism laws. With their supporters, they have created the Coalition for the Immediate End to the 129a Proceedings. One of their projects is a contest asking writers, activists, artists, and concerned people in Germany and internationally to answer the question “What is terrorism?” I created a power point take-home quiz, which you’re all welcome to check out online at and

travis: There are no black queers on the South Side of Chicago (LAUGHTER). And I am vice president and treasurer of the American Veterans for Equal Rights, queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender organization, Vietnam veterans and all. And I am a Vietnam veteran (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE).

Question #5
These conversations come out of a nationwide concern about the fate of democracy. How do you see your projects tying into a larger national structure? Is organizing nationally productive? What are its limitations?

AMY PARTRIDGE: In our conversations we really were unsatisfied with this question, because we felt that democracy isn’t best understood in nationalist terms. We decided that populism was a better frame for thinking about democracy, and distinguished between populism and nationalism by defining populism as always imagining the local to be universal in a utopian way. We want to think about ourselves as a collective and the kinds of collaborative work we do with other collectives or other individuals as these distinct local nodes within a larger fabric. The other claim that we would like to make around democracy is that we believe that radical democracy is nothing more or less than the people mediating themselves to themselves at the local level. That means those local levels need to hook up into larger circuits of exchange where that mediation gets exchanged between local sites on a global scale, as well. This really does relate, and I’ll say this very briefly, to our understanding of social movements, in the sense that there are all these numerous social justice organizations, each and every one beautiful, but that these haven’t congealed into a progressive social movement in the present moment. The way we define a social movement is as a movement that exists on a large enough scale to impact the dominant social order, has consequences, either on a national or international scale, and is somehow able to transform the psyche of the nation or of a larger community of struggle. We really do think that the artist has an enormous amount of work to do in this process of fomenting radical democracy, fomenting an existing or a progressive social movement. Because, of course, there are social movements that are very active in the U.S., such as the religious right, that are very successful. As artists and as cultural workers and as educators we need to try to come up with the designs, the iconic images, the slogans, and the quotidian practices, that change the ideological landscape in such a way that we begin to understand our attempts to abolish prisons, to eradicate poverty, and to end the Israeli land grab in Palestine, and these are just three examples of a million as interdependent, as part of a movement. The last thing I want to say is we also want to make this Shout Out to Crime thing, because they circulate the rumor of an already existing, vibrant, anarchist social movement. The rumor here exists as first permission; it’s already here, come and join us. Get on board, right? We want to suggest that we need to build these social movements in these collaborative processes. We have a number of projects that we think of as building social movements between locals, which I haven’t really had a chance to discuss, but maybe later. But we really do want to suggest that the rumor of the social movement is itself a really effective mode of simply creating and fomenting a social movement.

CRAIG HARSHAW: When I first read this thing about the fate of democracy I thought, it would be nice if we established a democracy in North America, because we’ve never done that. It was the colonials that were staid based in slavery so (LAUGHTER) it’s not like the fate of democracy. But the fate of the idea that we could establish [a democracy] one day, is something that makes your heart sink when you see the direction that this country has been going under this administration. One of the things that I would say that’s really important about having a national, and actually an internationalist perspective, is how it can inspire local struggles. We do a lot of work in the Bay Area of California. And we also do an ongoing project in a small, rural community in Texas. The exchanges between our youth from Chicago and those places—we haven’t done as much with Texas, but with the Bay Area we have. When young people go out to the Bay Area they see a totally different political climate, even though I know if we had a circle of Bay Area people they would tell us it’s not that great. But when you just drop in and visit, the rooms don’t look like this when [people sit in a] circle, it’s going to be majority people of color, somebody’s going to take an ass-whooping (LAUGHTER). That’s just the truth if you’re talking about community and democracy and stuff like that. People aren’t using homophobic slurs everywhere or all the time, it’s just a really different environment. And young people see that and they realize, “They’re human.” We can go back and we can enact that. We can enact that at Inside Arts or we can enact that in our communities; we can say that. I’ll tell you one thing about national organizing: We went to this big national conference and we took some grade school and high school students from Rogers Park. In order to prepare for the conference, which had a lot to do with gender justice issues, we talked about the appropriate way to not identify a person’s gender unless you know. You say that’s a person, that’s a person. Well, these kids went back to their elementary school and they went to the principal and they demanded that their teachers be trained not to say, “That girl over there in the orange,” but to say “That person over there in the orange.” They demanded sensitivity training. The administration and the local school council said, “Okay.” They went ahead and did it. So I think it’s really important to have those inspirations from the way different things are.
     I’ll close by saying I always feel like the skunk at the party when people are talking about how great Chicago is, because I also have some critiques in Chicago about the larger social justice movement. For instance, the fact that it can feel like a closed club and that there’s not always enough space to let people in. While we’re thinking about this, I want to put out that a lot of the social activism art is happening in peoples’ living rooms, primarily women’s living rooms with African-American and Asian women and poor white women, when there’s no program that exists anymore. They’re doing that after-school program in there. It’s not going to have a name, it’s not going to have a logo, it’s not going to have all that stuff. But that’s what’s really keeping the potential that we could establish a democracy alive.

DAN PETERMAN: I have a hard time translating appropriate, local, small models into national models. I don’t consider how that transition occurs as an easy or assumed kind of evolution of ideas that have to get bigger without leaping into whole different frameworks. I’m really attracted to the idea of rumor, like the rumor that some localized model is happening all over the country. Even if that’s happening in one place, the rumor seems as good as anything. If that rumor floats around, eventually somebody can step into that model, actualize that rumor and make a new model that actually does operate at a different plane. But, often very aware of being the janitor of small models, I have a hard time suddenly saying, now this is part of a movement, part of a national network. I have a hard time making that translation because there’s so much you leave behind every time you leave town. There’s so much to do, so much within the small model. Somewhere within that chemistry, the evolution of ideas from the local to the national or however you want to change, however you want to kind of trace that art. I think it’s dangerous to assume that one thing just moves into that, without a radical reinvention. It’s not an argument for not doing it or not thinking that those ideas happen, but just a recognition that it’s awkward to think of it as a continuum of ideas.

SONJA MOORE: I want to answer the part of the question about whether organizing is nationally productive. I think that it is and it can be, specifically for Kuumba Lynx, but I can’t say nationally or prove what effect we’ve had on hip-hop in New York, because I’m not there on a day-to-day basis. But it’s effective for us within Chicago and with the youth that we work with, because that makes things real for them. They know that war is happening. They know that the state of hip-hop is kind of crazy. They know that there are immigration issues. But when we leave Chicago and they go somewhere else and they’re performing before an audience of people that actually validate them and want to know more, want to talk to them after the show, and want them to lead workshops with peers in the week that we’re there—that is very productive, because that gives them the sense of energy that we, as adults just talking to them, can’t do or haven’t been able to do. They’re that much more motivated when we come back to move towards action and to push us towards action in a fast-paced way.
     The ways that we’ve tied into larger national or international issues around the antiwar movement and militarist campaigns is through our work with School of the Americas Watch. Annually, for probably the last seven or eight years, we have performed at their big weekend thing that they do outside of School of the Americas in Columbus. We always take students with us to do that. Through our relationship with them we’ve been asked and invited to do presentations, workshops, and performances at—I can’t think of the name of it, it was like a three page long title—but basically it was a conference on race, racism, and democracy at San Francisco State University a few years back. Angela Davis was there, the kids got to meet her, got to talk to her, got to really just be inspired by her. We were also able to do an artist exchange in the Bay Area by doing a tour of their alley art murals. In exchange, we did a similar project in Uptown a couple of years ago. So that was a way to connect on a national scale. Internationally, we’ve done an artist exchange with a collective in Alamar, which is outside of Havana, in Cuba. Unfortunately, due to our wonderful democratic system, although we’d raised all the money, when the kids filled out all their paperwork a week before we were scheduled to get on the plane no one under 18 was allowed to go; that was a big blow to them. But they said, “Fine, we can just go to this other thing we turned down in Arizona against.” We were disappointed but they just said, “That’s fine, we can go to Cuba again, but we’ve got this other thing that we turned down anyway, so we’ll just do that” (LAUGHTER). They said, “But you got to represent, since only the adults can go, you got to do it the way we would have done it.” And we did it the way they would have done it, hopefully. Finally, we were able to send youth representatives to Venezuela, to the International Youth Conference that took place, I think it was about two or three years ago now, so they got to have the opportunity to exchange with youth from around the world and then come back and tell the students who weren’t able to go, infusing [them with] this new excitement. That made them say, “Okay, well, you know what? You guys are old. We know you know how to do e-mail and you’re really basic with the computer stuff. But we need to get on MySpace and we need YouTube and we need this. So can we take over the media aspect of Kuumba Lynx?” And we said, “Feel free!” (LAUGHTER). Thanks to them we are now on YouTube and Facebook and we have blogs. We have MySpace and all these kinds of things that as adults we hadn’t even thought about doing. That’s our way to make ourselves international in a way that we hadn’t even considered.

NICOLE GARNEAU: At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m trying to practice getting over my fear of being corny. I just wanted to put out there that what I’m really going for is a whole world in which justice prevails. We have love and respect for humanity and we live in harmony with the earth. If democracy is a means to that end, then by all means let’s go for it. Otherwise, we don’t need it. I really think of myself as participating in world transformation in a different way, through energy. I’m working the energy. I’m working the energy of my body. I’m working the energy of this room. I’m working the energy of the earth. I’m trying to let the earth work through me. I’m going all the way there. I’m just straight up going all the way there. I’m calling on my ancestors. I’m calling on my guides. All of your ancestors, all of your guides (LAUGHTER). The guides of whoever is in the room. I’m asking for everybody’s help. I’m inviting all the spirits to check right in to the work and help us transform this whole earth. It’s a spiritual choice and a spiritual practice, but it is not separated from me, from what I’m doing out when I’m doing these things in public. Because it’s creating neural pathways. Practicing being in public space. Practicing being out on the street. Practicing engaging with people in a loving and respectful way. People who you don’t know. People who are different from you. Just going ahead and practicing that and getting good at it. Because it’s a skill that we can learn and that we can get good at. I think it’s a revolutionary skill.

JENNIFER KARMIN: Our response to this question was connected to the idea that collaborative group work is a political form of making art and a political form of activism; we’re creating this model so we can take it back into our everyday lives. It seems very important to us. Overall, we do not believe that top-down organizing on a national level is the most productive way to start efforts for change. There are obstacles related to distance that make it very difficult to maintain the same sense of community that we see as a major necessity in this kind of organizing. On the other hand, bottom-up organizing seems to be a more successful form of change, because you can do it one person at a time. We feel that’s part of what we’ve seen, both in our activist work and in our artwork, and in the place in between that Anti Gravity Surprise lives in.

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