May 6, 2009

Beyond the Chief by Edgar Heap of Birds

"Beyond the Chief" by Edgar Heap of Birds, 2009

We are privileged to have an installation by Hock E Aye Vi/Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois. I wrote about being a docent with the work in the previous post. But I wanted to reflect a little more on this powerful work. The backwards writing (FIGHTING ILLINI), which refers to the name of the University of Illinois sports teams, struck me first as mirror writing, which then led me to think about reflection. The way in which Heap of Birds prompts reflection by the use of official-looking signage along an ordinary campus street strikes me as a supremely effective way to repetitively insert the question of “who is hosting whom” in the landscape. It not only encourages reflection, but a reflexive query, “how do I fit in this picture?” because the pedestrian IS in the scene as one walks by.

All of the peoples named in the signs at one time lived in and with this land. Many were forcibly removed, or killed, but of course their descendants continue to live today, mostly not in Illinois. This land grant university is built upon land that does not belong to it…as various broken treaties and outright theft attest. So, Heap of Birds prompts us to reverse the post-colonial claims by reversing the writing. Further, he reclaims the land, in a sense, by installing signs that remind us of those who have come before, and the land that nurtures us. We re-read the landscape.

The signs are declarations: straightforward statements that subtly prompt questions. The metallic, highway- sign surfaces seem official yet make the observer wonder about other directions and instructions that should be questioned. They are ironic and funny too. I like the juxtaposition of the signs with the regular no parking sign and the parking meters. Heap of Birds’ signs are street furniture that call for attitudinal shifts and policy changes. I fully support the purchase of this work so that we can have permanent reminders of the history and present/ce of indigenous people on campus in the form of this public art work.

April 18, 2009

To You, Little Bigger than a Sweet Summer Pink Peach

Jong Il Ma, 2008 sculpture at Socrates Sculpture Park

This three-dimensional colorful drawing that is a joyous tangle in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York City, captures the energy and delight I have been feeling since the trees began to blossom here and the tulips and daffodils are popping open. The sculptor named it “To You, Little Bigger than a Sweet Summer Pink Peach.” I guess right after it was installed last fall, a big storm blew it on its side. It has since been put upright, though I am not sure it matters.

I have been re-reading philosopher Bruce Wilshire on field theory and he noted that there “seems to be only a field of dynamically reciprocating and dancing energies, interlacing ‘nodes’ within a ‘field.'” The zooming curves and swooping colors here animate this otherwise unremarkable park and make tangible the ideas of Bruce Wilshire on the importance of the arts in challenging old divisions and inventories.

Detail of Jong Il Ma sculpture

Detail of Jong Il Ma sculpture

View of Manhattan from Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, across Jong Il Ma sculpture

View of Manhattan from Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, across Jong Il Ma sculpture

December 9, 2008


Sarah Ross, Mobile Suit

Sarah Ross, Mobile Suit

Another inspiring link from Sarah Ross: Actions, a show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). The exhibit includes suits that transform into swings, mobile pool tables, urban farms, dumpster diving, and Sarah’s own velour suits for urban lounging. The table wedged between freeway columns activates the space in a way that creates intimacy. CCA has also issued a Call to Actions on their playful website.

Table inserted, SYN

Table inserted, SYN

December 8, 2008

Imagining America, Part One

Promotional material for Cornerstone Theater's "For All Time"

Promotional material for Cornerstone Theater

A friend recently asked me what two things I learned from attending the annual conference of Imagining America in early October 2008. In general, I will say that 1) it matters to see people in their home milieu, and 2) it demystified public engagement work for me. The conference was quite small, and mostly West Coasters, which makes sense given that it was in Los Angeles. So to be able to see what Angelenos are doing in Los Angeles meant that I saw evidence of incredibly hard work, against tall odds, by a relatively few people.

Judy Baca gave the keynote address and told the story of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which she founded in Venice (CA) thirty years ago. Now with a certain level of support, she creates digital murals at the Cesar Chavez Digital Mural Lab, funded by the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is on the faculty. I wrote about that Lab in a previous post on April 11, 2008.

So many other activities from the last few years had a presence in Los Angeles:

  • The Bresee Community Center and the Echo Park Film Center, among others, supported youth in creating media about important issues, like gentrification. Stephanie Cisneros, for example, created “Echo Park: A Different View,” which is about 8 minutes long and available on YouTube. Some of the Spanish-to-English translations are a little off, but it gives a real feel for a rapidly changing neighborhood around 2004.
  • Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe, started by Father Greg Boyle, provides jobs  for former gang members and good food for the community. I brought home a copy of the DVD, “Father G and the Homeboys,” narrated by Martin Sheen. It tells the story of an organization being built up, burned down, and otherwise hugely challenged over the last twenty years.
  • I was able to see a read-through of the Cornerstone Theater‘s “For All Time,” part of their Justice Cycle. This featured a large cast depicting experiences and attitudes toward punishment and retribution on the part of victims, families, and incarcerated people.
  • Michael John Garces and Paula Donnelly from the Cornerstone Theater led a group of about 40 of us in an engaging workshop on “Turning Community Stories into Art.” The Cornerstone is an ensemble-based company in LA that combines professional actors and community members in productions that are often original works. They’ve been refining their techniques for over twenty years.  It was great to participate in their cultural mapping exercises, and sample some of the ways they draw stories out of people with whom they co-create performances.
December 3, 2008


I learned this cool word–gallimaufry–from a recent interview with Germaine Greer. She said it meant “a thing of threads and patches” and my dictionary says, “hodge podge.” In any case, it is an apt word for the meanderings I post here and my daily life, for that matter.

Mobile Pieces on exhibit

Mobile Pieces on exhibit

The artist Sarah Ross had an exhibit at Northwestern University that opened in October, InAction. She created mobile pieces that people can remove from the gallery and take with them to a public place that needs some “InAction.” These pieces include pads, pillows, and other lounging “equipment” that folks can use to lie down in a plaza, or otherwise “do nothing” in public.

drawing of mobile pieces in use

drawing of mobile pieces in use

November 20, 2008

Aesthetics and Protest

The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest #6 is out! There are some very fine pieces in it too. Thanks to Robby Herbst, I was able to look it over. Amy Franceschini is interviewed by Christina Ulke on the San Francisco Victory Gardens+2007. Urban agriculture is on the rise, coast to coast. Amy F’s folks were farmers and each had very different takes on the politics of food, but she has her own version, including teaming up with Slow Food Nation to garden in front of SF’s City Hall. There are some nice b&w photos of the garden juxtaposed with the Beaux-Arts municipal headquarters. I got to meet Christina when we were together on the Political Equator 2 trip over a year ago. So, I am glad to “reconnect” with her in print.

There’s an article about InCUBATE, closer to my neck of the woods: the Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and the Everyday, in Chicago. They are committed to exploring a range of sources for support of cultural production. The late Ben Schaafsma, the author of this article and co-founder of InCUBATE, cited one of my favorite books, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (South End Press, 2007). (Ben died October 25, 2008, at age 26, after being struck by a car while walking in NYC. What a loss!)

Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune tell readers about the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor and the Library of Radiant Optimism. It was a pleasure to gather at Bonnie and Brett’s house last summer to hear about part of the mobile symposium around food security issues that they helped organize. Continental Drift (Brian Holmes‘ ruminations on neoliberal globalization and then some) started in Champaign-Urbana and moved north and west. They’ve already collectively published a book about some of what they learned: A Call to Farms!

I really liked learning about Julianna Parr’s crafts nights that she holds in bars. Googly eyes, paper, gluesticks, whatever, and a few drinks, really gets the conversations going! Speaking of conversation Daniel Tucker and Nato Thompson staged regional meetups with particular invited guests to talk about models of art and activism, in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Baltimore, New York City, and Chicago. They had a set series of questions and asked individuals to speak about two or three of them, very briefly. Suzanne Lacy was part of the Los Angeles conversation. The questions were about how art motivates an audience, how the local economy affects people’s art practice, how a particular artistic event expanded social networks and offered political potential, how a politically-engaged art practice relates to social movements, and how these practices tie into larger, national structures. Christina Ulke quoted Lozeh Luna: “DETRAS DE NOSOTROS ESTAMOS USTEDES,” a saying that has a wonderful Mobius strip-like meaning. Not sure I know what radical aesthetics are, but I liked this issue of JOAAP. Keep it up!

August 15, 2008


Holding hands in the subway tile mosaic

Holding hands in the subway tile mosaic

Jane Rendell wrote in 2000: “…[A]rchitecture takes inspiration from other spatial arts. Architects can learn possible tactics and strategies from the work of feminists in dance, film, art and writing, as well as those artists operating in the public spaces of the city, for example, Niki de Saint Phalle, Maya Lin and Suzanne Lacy.”

I want to add “should” in Jane’s written statement above. Jane’s 2006 book, Art and Architecture: A Place Between, offers so many ideas for the design professions, building on her previous work.

July 16, 2008

Active History

There’s a conference coming up in the Fall of 2008 in Toronto called “Active History.” I have been having email “conversations” with several colleagues about the roles that history plays in contemporary art practice, in design studios, and in community settings. Nick Brown reminded me of a couple of efforts in Pittsburgh and in Toronto that engage in what Greg Sholette and his group called REPOhistory

: The Missing Plaque Project in Toronto and the Howling Mob Society. The Toronto-based group (really one artist, Tim Groves) creates posters on overlooked historical events.
The Howling Mob Society focuses on the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and makes markers telling about the events related to that strike, one of which is on the left here. When markers like this, or posters, or actions in public occur on the streets it is a kind of informal education, with layers of a site uncovered that many don’t know about. The Active History conference will include sessions on community research, archeology, labor history (or as they say in Canada, labour history), and grassroots activism.

April 11, 2008

Cesar Chavez Digital/Mural Lab

Together with UCLA, the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), founded by Judy Baca in Los Angeles 28 years back, runs the only lab that creates community-based digitally-generated public art for murals, the Cesar Chavez Digital/Mural Lab. SPARC also works with folks to create banners, websites, performances, video and public monuments.

“The Great Wall of Los Angeles” is pictured above. Started by Judy with local teens in 1976, and added to for the next 25 years, it is now in need of restoration. SPARC also has published a lot about muralism and has archives related to mural creation, so it is a great resource.

March 25, 2008

Mali Intersection, Urbana Crossroads

Isn’t this cool? What a way to mark an intersection! Here’s what artist Janet Goldner writes about it:
The Association Segou-Laben, a group of artists in Segou [Mali] including bogolan artist Boubacar Doumbia and sculptor Amahiguere Dolo, invited me to collaborate with them to create a steel sculpture for a traffic circle on the major highway that leads from Bamako to the north of the country. The work is based on Bamana history, symbolism and mythology. The sculpture plays an important role in of the renewal of Segou.

I just came from an Urbana City Council meeting where it was voted to table the public arts commission again, although the council seems to be moving toward consensus. But some of what is lacking for me in these meetings is the kind of imagery and creative energy evident in this collaborative Malian work. The talkiness of meetings, the sterility of the room, the formality of Robert’s Rules of Order don’t come close to sparking imaginations or galvanizing people around some wonderful visual marker on a major intersection. Instead our crossroads are marked by another humdrum three-story panel-brick building that will have more shops, places to spend money if you have it. I know, these commercial properties generate taxes, and maybe some jobs, not a small thing. But I’d rather have a crazy, large-scale piece of art.