Culture in Action

 

When Mary Jane Jacob took over as guest curator of Sculpture Chicago after the success of her public sculpture project ‘Places With a Past’, Sculpture Chicago had an erratic ten-year history at best. From its inception, the non-profit organisation’s affiliation with River City Condominiums, the Printer’s Row and Dearborn Street Station developments, and the Chicago Dock and Canal Trust had overshadowed all but a few of the artworks it generated, making its brand of ragged and insensitive public art an even sorrier pawn than usual in the urban real estate development process. Jacob’s arrival promised not only to improve the sensitivity of Sculpture Chicago’s projects but also to greatly sophisticate it’s interaction with the city of Chicago, real estate developers, and major corporate and foundation underwriters. It should be noted that Jacob’s knowledge of the Chicago community dates back to her tenure as Chief Curator of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (1980-1986), particularly her facilitation of four magnificent satellite installations by Jannis Kounellis in conjunction with his 1986 retrospective.

‘Culture in Action’ set out to provide forums for culture in otherwise underserved communities by generating art from within the communities themselves, as opposed to simply serving up a local statue or mural. Each of its eight component projects was executed by an artist/community group team and was developed over an extended period of time, necessitating long-term relationships with each artist’s volunteer group, a host community centre, and community residents in general. The success of creating such labour-intensive and open-ended art experiences was underscored by the fact that the prevailing aesthetic trait of ‘Culture in Action’ was its invisibility: not only in the sense of many of its operations not being evident, but also of their not being easily consumed. By fundamentally contradicting high art’s aesthetic principles, its privileging of vision and the commensurate disengagement of passive viewers from static objects –i.e., the physically alienating experience of most cultural institutions – ‘Culture in Action’ framed its artists, its communities and its audience as the structure and content of its art.

Ironically, this decentralisation of Culture in Action was most often characterised as inconvenience by the art viewing public, a criticism often levelled against Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art due to its location in the upscale retail atmosphere of North Michigan Avenue, a condition ‘Culture in Action’ explicitly set out to circumvent. In this respect ‘Culture in Action’ was no less exclusive than Chicago’s esteemed cultural institutions in that it assumed community-based art to be de jure more accessible than art located in museums. This is a dangerously naïve assumption in such a territorial city as Chicago, one that two of the projects (by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and the team of Daniel J. Martinez and VinZula Kava) directly addressed. What happens when communities and their residents become the subjects of art? Prospects to be mined by underwriters on a social mission in the form of culture? The former question is an old one and the latter response indicates a looming dilemma, in that it appears that upper-level funding for public art and community projects currently exceeds the expressed need or desire for it, creating a situation where art (culture) is being dictated—even invented—by the agencies who sponsor it more than the artists and communities they serve. Sadly, the most telling aspect of ‘Culture in Action’ was the disparity between what Sculpture Chicago and its sponsors claimed to accomplish through these projects, what most of the artists knew was really possible, and the concomitant scepticism about whom the culture was really for.

For ‘Culture in Action’s artists, it was whomever showed up on a given day, but certainly not everybody, not even rhetorically. The success and lasting impact of such projects is the depth and quality of their participants’ engagement: it doesn’t matter how many people are involved so long as those people who do come are sufficiently enriched. Nor can such projects hope to solve any of their respective community’s problems; at best they can act as a first step towards increasing the general awareness of a community’s issues, which might then lead to changes in attitude—or someday, even results. However sympathetic Mary Jane Jacob might be to such subtleties as a curator, as a representative of a public service agency she seemed far more concerned with emphasizing ‘Culture in Action’s concrete accomplishments, thereby trivializing its more ephemeral, long-term effects. To borrow an observation by Witte de With director Chris Dercon on the hoopla surrounding Documenta IX: ‘I am reminded of [French Film critic Serge] Daney’s cautionary words whenever works of art come into the realm of publicity . . . and the visual effects and jargon of publicity take over the space that actually belongs to works of art. ‘Publicity’, wrote Daney, ‘is only interested in the exemplary, in the empirical, in evidence.’[1]

Take Mark Dion and the Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group. Dion began by conceiving of a counterintuitive way of teaching a group of Westside high school students about ecology and the interdependency of local ecosystems. Rather than choose a simple model where flora and fauna are few (and thus their ecological roles obvious), Dion began by taking his group on a field trip to two tropical rain forest preserves in Belize.[2]  To paraphrase Dion: appreciating and maintaining an ecosystem has as much to do with a sense of scale as it does with hard science. Even the middling complexity of Chicago’s environment obliterates whatever knowledge might be gained from mapping a simple textbook or laboratory ecosystem, so Dion reasoned that first studying the extraordinarily complex ecosystem of a rain forest would make a temperate, urban ecosystem seem manageable by comparison, and render its traits more pronounced and site-specific.

Once back in Chicago, the sculptural manifestation of Dion’s project involved procuring a site (the dormant headquarters of the former Lincoln Park Casting Club) and engaging the immediate ‘natural’ surroundings. Dion and his crew cleaned out all of the Club’s lockers, rearranged them in perpendicular stacks to create a series of stall-like spaces, and generally painted and cleaned up the place. A long room in the rear of the building reserved for fly-tying—replete with workstations of vices and flexible jeweller-style magnifying lamps—had the eerie charm of a 50s high school chemistry lab and remained intact. From here Dion and his group conducted micro-expeditions to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the lagoon and the surrounding park, collected samples, conducted discussions and experiments, and kept a running tally of all garbage collected during their outings (leading one CUEAG member to remark that the average park visitor must be a promiscuous, chain-smoking alcoholic). They also made very little art to speak of—although the accumulated materials and charts in just about any section of the Casting Club could have been recontextualised and framed as such. The beauty of Dion’s project was its indefiniteness, its constant activity and non-productiveness a parallel for his fascination with and scepticism of scientific method. The same might be said of Dion’s approach to art as a form of social betterment.

An equally subtle but more mischievous project was Naming Others: Manufacturing Yourself by Robert Peters and ‘Mushroom Pickers, Ghosts, Frogs and other “Others”.’ It was completely invisible and yet, absurdly, the most vision-based of the projects in that it was inspired by a 30-year-old list of ‘Terms of Abuse’ that Peters had discovered, an encyclopaedic account of derogatory names and slang compiled from the Chicago area. Peters became interested in the notion that, however inflammatory they might be, such terms were an integral part and product of Chicago culture. As a way of challenging Chicagoans to confront their prejudices, Peters first asked participants to fill out survey forms with as many contemporary terms of abuse as they could think of, all of which were then made available via a widely advertised toll-free telephone number. Callers could surf through the phone line’s network by choosing options from a series of generic menus (sex, occupation, religion, race), each of which served up a cacophony of relevant slurs (cracker, dune-coon, sperm bank, pointy-head, dick-for-brains) in addition to philosophical insights on the nature of language and naming.

When the detailed content of Peters’ project became apparent to them, the Ameritech company backed out of providing toll-free service for the survey, despite Peters’ entreaty that they try to appreciate the context in which it was being presented. Eventually they compromised by providing the toll-free number, but outfitted with a recorded disclaimer and a regular number that people interested in the survey could then call. Regardless of these corporate wranglings, Peters’ project was successful: he was wise enough to incorporate Ameritech’s reservations into the structure of his project as perverse proof of its complexity. As sociology, the survey results were highly informative and entertaining; and yet, since callers could categorically represent themselves however they wanted, the empirical veracity of the entire enterprise was undermined by its own perniciousness.

Writing on his public sculpture project for Münster, Michael Asher discussed the artist’s relationship to the power inherent in public art commissions.[3]  In such partnerships, power struggles of access and privilege develop between the artist’s desire to realise an otherwise unfeasible project and the interests of the projects’ sponsors. In believing that they can manage their budgets, the details of their sites, and therefore successfully shape the public’s experience of their work, artists often begin to believe that they can also control (if not blot out) the motives of their organisers and funders, their perceptions of the public, and the public’s perception of them. Thus, in public projects like ‘Culture in Action’, who’s in control not only determines the scale of a given project but the subsequent quality or quantity of its public role. ‘Culture in Action’ was most provocative and successful in precisely those areas that Sculpture Chicago couldn’t control; not because of any incompetence in the organisation or its facilitators, but because control in general breeds didacticism and allows few accidents or ambiguities to occur.

Of all of the artists in ‘Culture in Action’ the Chicago-based collaborative Haha (Richard House, Wendy Jacob, Laurie Palmer, John Ploof) and their volunteer group ‘Flood’ were perhaps the most familiar with the social and political terrains to be negotiated. They thus seemed most able to frame their proposal and realise their project without being deluded into thinking they were in control of things they weren’t, or worrying about accomplishments beyond the function and maintenance of their project. Haha began by making installations about beauty, community engagement and personal contact that operated outside the art world’s established structures. This was in 1987, the same year that Mary Jane Jacob left the Chicago MCA to become chief curator at MoCA in Los Angeles where she co-organised the wholly inbred ‘Forest of Signs’ exhibition in 1989. Thus it was perhaps Haha’s field experience that allowed them to take Sculpture Chicago’s social mission with a grain of salt and carry on in a practical and faithful way. The lasting impression of Flood: A Volunteer Network for Active Participation in Health Care was the group’s insistence that it remain modest and realistic in terms of what it might accomplish.

Flood began with Haha’s desire to create a community garden, where local residents might interact in the course of self-sustenance. Their research into urban gardening methods and their first-hand experience of the AIDS crisis led them to wonder how gardening might act as a sort of nurturing therapy for people with HIV and AIDS, and how hydroponic gardening—vegetables grown with nutrient-enriched water only, without soil—might be an alternative source of nutrition for people with HIV and AIDS, as well as a rich metaphor for people who need to monitor their systems very carefully in order to live. The fact that leafy vegetables like Swiss chard, mustard, kale, and collard greens are fast growing, less readily available, and rich in beta-Carotene (which has been linked to cancer prevention and tumour reduction) further focused the details of their project.

Flood, then, first entailed the construction of a hydroponic garden in a vacant storefront of their North-side neighbourhood, the materials and rent for which was provided by Sculpture Chicago. At the same time, members of Flood (the name given to the volunteer group) were enlisted and trained. Once the garden was up and running, networks for distributing the vegetables to local clinics were organised, along with regular discussions on safe sex, caring for people with AIDS, hydroponic gardening and how to get the word out. By the end of the summer, the group had also designed several in-home hydroponic gardening units that could be made from readily available hardware store materials.

Flood was also remarkably beautiful. The functional necessity of the garden gave its formal appearance an exhilarating ruthlessness and bluntness, a sense that in lieu of aesthetics every material decision and construction technique was dictated by the project’s technical demands. The plant stands were made of screwed metal and wooden pipe, metal strap hangers held clear plastic hoses in place, and PVC plastic plant troughs (with nylon stocking filters) were illuminated by ultraviolet lights. The installation was visually reminiscent of Kounellis’ untitled room (1967) at Galleria L’Atica, Rome, or Helen and Newton Harrison’s Lagoon (1973). Above the pipe structures and water pumps and beneath the cold glare of the lights, the plants wrinkled and stretched their leafy greenness, exalting their privileged status in the colourless room. The greens were at once vibrant and delicate, hearty and thread-like, patients themselves in a spick-and-span plant ward. The more one looked, the more the metaphor of the plants on their nutrient-enriched, group IV became evident. And yet this metaphor of illness and maintenance was deferred by Flood’s extroverted objective as the project moved freely from beauty to service and back again: if its medical practicality were to be challenged Flood asserted its symbolism as art; and if beauty was to be seen as an aesthetic cipher irrelevant to social concerns, there was still food and therapy for the sick. This dialectic was superseded however, by the notion that beauty and symbolism are relevant to assuaging pain, anxiety and self-esteem. Matisse lives.

The remaining projects were executed by Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler and a Resident Group of Odgen Courts Apartments (Eminent Domain, a ‘Tru-test EZ Paint’ colour chart to be displayed in local hardware stores, the names for which were conceived by the group as commentary on the drabness of government housing); Simon Grennan, Christopher Sperandio and twelve members of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers’ Union (The Workforce Makes the Candy of Their Dreams, which turned out to be a chocolate bar with almonds); Suzanne Lacy and a Coalition of Chicago Women (Full Circle, 100 limestone boulders fastened to sidewalks throughout Chicago with a bronze plaque commemorating a significant Chicago woman attached to each); Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and the Westtown Vecinos Video Channel (Tele-Vecindario: a Street-level Video Project); and Daniel J. Martinez, VinZula Kara, and the West Side Three-Point Marchers (Consequences of a Gesture).

Of these Manglano-Ovalle’s and Martinez and Kara’s were the least painfully obvious, particularly when each took to the streets in their host communities for a respective block party and an inter-neighbourhood parade. Throughout the summer Manglano-Ovalle had been working with a teenage video crew filming his predominantly Latino Westtown neighbourhood, conducting street interviews with residents on the concepts of territory, identity, ownership, and gentrification. These interviews became the context through which the youths learned technical video training and the subtler means of formulating questions, steering interviews and editing material—mediating information. These interviews and finished videotapes were the focal point of a culminating block party in late August, when some 60 televisions were installed up and down the street on front stoops, in resident houses and gardens, and in vacant lots. There was a stage for live music performances and step demonstrations. As the sun set, the streets filled with people, including members of rival Latino gangs who had participated to varying degrees in the video project and who had called a (temporary) truce for the occasion.

In July, Martinez, Kara, and the Three Point Marchers organised an ‘Absurdist Parade’ which began in Harrison Park (a.k.a. Zapata Park), a predominantly Mexican neighbourhood and finished to the north and west in Garfield Park, a predominantly black west side neighbourhood. Residents from each of the two neighbourhoods—who do not usually mix—participated in the free, come-one-come-all parade. However effective or meretricious as gestures, the street components of both Manglano-Ovalle’s and Martinez and Kara’s projects were successful in that their content was fundamentally uncontrollable. They bristled with the nervous energy of a social event that knows neither its magnitude nor its consequences, until those present take personal responsibility for the event and shape it into whatever they might.

Since the contemporary version of Public Art did not arise in order to meet the expressed desires of neglected communities, but as a proactive response to the suspicion held by a handful of perceptive artists and institutions that traditional art was having little if any effect on most of the population (particularly minority and lower-class communities), its difficulty has been finding methods to serve communities in ways that are relevant to them. How can the enthusiastic resources of foundation and corporate America be applied to meet the needs of beneficiaries without distorting culture beyond recognition in the process? It’s not surprising that the most sensitive and successful of recent public art has occurred at intimate levels, on the model of John Ahearn, John Malpede, or Rigoberto Torres. In these cases it is personal interest and motivation that precludes however much funding is available for a project. Thus, if anything can be learned from ‘Culture in Action’ it is that culture—at least culture in the anthropologically profound, socially embedded sense of the term—cannot be produced with the same expediency as art objects.

It is to Mary Jane Jacob’s credit that all of the artists in ‘Culture in Action’ were already personally involved in alternative art forms, politics, and community activism. But did Sculpture Chicago’s more sophisticated relationships with cultural funding institutions necessarily translate into more intelligent and effective public artworks? Or would these projects have happened anyway—on smaller scales definitely, perhaps in different places and over longer periods of time—just minus all the hoopla and hype? I think so. If that’s the case, Sculpture Chicago was only responsible for making them happen on a massive scale, together, adding little to the projects themselves but certainly following recent (government) guidelines that art be useful and have immediately measurable effects. It would be absurd to cite the dichotomy of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ art in the post-war Soviet Union as relevant to this discussion if it were not for Ilya Kabakov’s installation being on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art during most of July and August. The poetic justice of his Russian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, the poignancy of Incident at the Museum, or Water Music at the MCA, and the various ways he and his artist colleagues persevered throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s would suggest that culture ‘in action’ is usually not that which is underwritten.

Notes

1. Chris Dercon, ‘Am I Now Getting Sentimental?’, Parkett, no.33, September 1992, p.155.

2. Dion started by teaching weekly classes on a Saturday, initially to prepare for the trip and increasingly, afterwards, to reflect on the local situation by comparison. The narrative sequence of events is given in the project description of the book.

3. Michael Asher, Writings, 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979, Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1983, pp.164­–73.

 

This text was originally published in frieze, November–December, 1993, pp.22­–27.

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