July 4, 2012

Illinois and Imagining America

Walking tour of International District in Seattle during Imagining America conference, September 2010

I know that I am comparing apples and oranges when I complain that the University of Illinois is paying $175,000 to Lisa Troyer to leave but that it cannot find $5,000 to pay dues to maintain UIUC membership in Imagining America. Troyer is former chief of staff to former UI President Michael Hogan, and now a tenured professor in the UI Department of Psychology; she has agreed to drop her complaint against UI and go away. Despite the fact that these are very different decisions at at very large institution, I am still really angry that my institution chooses not to participate formally in Imagining America, which, to my mind, offers useful insights and promising directions forward for public universities. The UI membership just expired July 1, 2012. UIUC has been a member since 2001; membership for our institution costs a mere $5,000.

Imagining America (IA) http://imaginingamerica.org/ is a consortium of about 85 U.S. institutions of higher education founded in 1999 that foregrounds arts and humanities to foster “mutually beneficial campus-community partnerships that advance democratic scholarship and practice.” This spring, I gathered signatures on a letter to the upper administration asking that we pay our dues. Ruth Nicole Brown and I worked hard to make the case.  For UIUC to lose the benefits of this nationally important network would not only deprive us of collective insights on community-university partnerships, but also remove a significant forum for us to share our work, from Action.Research Illinois, to Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truth (SOLHOT), from hip-hop activism to public humanities.

While we assembled a few numbers to help the argument that Imagining America membership “pays off,” the qualitative and experiential aspects of participating in Imagining America better reflect its impact. One area of strategic involvement for the University of Illinois has been our campus-community relationships. In May 2009, the Civic Commitment Task Force published “Integrating Civic Commitment with the University’s Strategic Plan.” This document identified 10 goals in four areas—teaching, research, resources, and assessment. This three-year effort by a group of campus and community leaders addressed the need to prepare our students to be global citizens while at the same time affirming that civic commitment offers important, indeed crucial, research opportunities. Further, the task force argued that these efforts must bring in resources to sustain them, and methods to evaluate them. Imagining America recognizes that long-term involvement and responsive and responsible engagement are essential to collaborations that lead to high and positive impacts in people’s lives, whether through coursework, research or social change. Key questions demand ongoing investigation: What has worked, what has not worked, and why? This examination of the university and its publics is an enormous and generative opportunity; Imagining America fosters and supports these dialogues.

An Imagining America group recommended that an institution “evaluate and document community partnerships and public projects thoroughly, regularly, and using a range of appropriate methods.” Past efforts at UI have included Partnership Illinois, Urban Exchange, Civitas, and other projects as far back as the Community Advocacy Depot of 1969, but there have been few forums for assessing these projects.

IA’s 2008 Tenure Team Report, linked from their website made recommendations for supporting engaged scholarship. The team also noted that faculty of color, often from activist-oriented fields, indicated a “strong sense that pursuing academic public engagement was an unorthodox and risky early career option” for them. Meaningful, reciprocal engagement is critical to attract local young people and retain and promote underrepresented faculty. As Dr. Brown noted, Imagining America has provided her and her students “training, instruction, and professional development in performance studies,” for example, which is otherwise unavailable on this campus. Further, Imagining America provides valuable networking opportunities and tangible resources for career advancement in public scholarship.

Ruth Nicole Brown has articulated a vision and practice with SOLHOT that inspires me. I want to be part of the engaged scholarship that she describes, and I view Imagining America as one means to that goal. Really, is $5,000 too much to pay to help keep us/get us back on track? I think not.

March 21, 2011

Regional Relationships

The collaborative artist team, Regional Relationships (RR), has just launched its first edition! Matthew Friday, the first artist commissioned by RR, has been working in southern Ohio with flooded mines. He writes of “interlocking networks of abandoned mines” that number about 12,000. A bacteria has colonized the flooded underground areas and, as part of their digestive process, they “free” the acidic sulfur in the leftover coal, thus leading to acid mine drainage. “[S]everal thousand gallons of toxic sulfur hydroxide every week” flow through the ecosystem. Together with an environmental engineer from Ohio University, Dr. Guy Riefler, Matthew produced a neutralized tube of paint from the mine runoff; it’s ochre-colored. He provided a brush, a pen, and a tube of pigment, plus a sheet of paper, and invited participants to diagram their own relationships with nature/culture, what Matthew describes as “entangled collectives that make up the world [and] cannot be separated into neat categories….” To spark creation of diagrams, Matthew posed these questions: “Where does your water come from? What systems contribute to its production? What histories are folded into current form? What futures are being produced by the way we make use of it?”

My graduate seminar in Architecture happened to be discussing R. Buckminster Fuller last week, and Bucky’s ideas about Spaceship Earth. It seemed like as good a time as any to create a diagram about water in central Illinois, riffing off of the Buckminster Fuller Institute‘s Challenge, “an annual international design Challenge awarding $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.” We listed various aspects of the water cycle and watched the video about Jennifer Monson’s Mahomet Aquifer project that is linked from the blog. Students Matthew Goyak, Deven Gibbs, Jieyoung Lee, Shellie Halkyard, and Todd Mackinson created this wonderful illustration on March 17, 2011. The brown tint is the pigment from Matthew Friday.

Living Water Cycle

Living Water Cycle

February 14, 2010

Images from College Art Association 2010

The College Art Association’s annual conference met this year in Chicago. Apparently there were 4000 registrants, but many were unable to get there because of bad weather. Suzanne Lacy was awarded the CAA Distinguished Artist Lifetime Achievement Award, Griselda Pollock received the Distinguished Feminist Award, Holland Cotter received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art, and Dawoud Bey was the convocation speaker. A terrific start to the conference, in my book. The conference ended with an all-day series of panels organized by the Feminist Art Project, open to the public.

Artists Heather Ault and Bonnie Fortune at Feminist Art Project, Chicago

Artists Heather Ault and Bonnie Fortune at Feminist Art Project, Chicago

Sharon Irish and Suzanne Lacy at Minnesota Press booth

Sharon Irish and Suzanne Lacy at Minnesota Press booth

January 1, 2010

The Cover Controversy

In September of 2009, the graphic designer at the University of Minnesota Press presented an idea for the cover of my book on Suzanne Lacy. Suzanne and I had both agreed that one image from her “Anatomy Lessons” series might be a good choice. The designer chose one that was a close-up of her in a pool, from the mid-70s, and then also flipped the image. I loved it, but Suzanne understandably had reservations. She objected to the manipulation of her work by placing it upside down as a double. She also (again rightly) felt that this one work was not representative of her entire oeuvre and that it was removed from the context of her lengthy visual consideration of violence against women. While I agreed with her on all counts, I also felt strongly that the cover worked powerfully and that its effectiveness made it worth the distortions. I am still not sure that I did the right thing pushing for this cover, but here is what I wrote several months ago, in support of the cover.

September 29, 2009

My relationship with Suzanne Lacy has been one of the most important of my life. (Did I say thank you?)One of the basic points of my book is that art exists in the relationships among people, who are anything but easy and straightforward. So this conversation is both “only about a cover” and about “everything” at once. Given the time crunch, the anxiety levels on all sides, and the importance of the issues, I think it helps to say that this is challenging work!

Here’s why I want to proceed with the current cover (beyond my own personal response of “I love it”):

This book is for an art audience. Using this work makes sense because it is beautiful and repulsive and not well known.Suzanne’s work is not merely pretty or gentle, and often edgy. This work is beautiful and repulsive, calm and alarming, and difficult, one reason why it is so powerful. Film historian Bruce Elder noted that Stan Brakhage [and Lacy in turn] set up a “tension between responding with horror at the images [in his film], and responding to the real beauty of the images (for they are astoundingly beautiful); that this is the character of the film’s central tension [and] suggests that beauty and horror lie close to one another, an idea that has long been a key to radical aspiration in the arts.” This is radical art. I don’t use “radical” lightly—by “radical art” I mean that art challenges glib assumptions and damaging values that have otherwise been normalized and are invisible.

By turning the image upside down, while it is not what Suzanne did, in a way brings out another aspect of the original: that floating can be like flying, disorienting, that bodies turn in water and air, that shadows in water alter forms. That bodies exist in space.

This is a work from early in Suzanne’s career—one of a series that is aesthetically very strong. On the cover, it provides a jumpstart to the beginning of the book. On the cover it supports the themes of the book: body, feminism, space.

I think this is an award-winning cover. If it won a design award, of course that wouldn’t hurt me or Suzanne that I can conceive of, but more importantly, I think it would be a small triumph for art of the seventies that was informed by feminism. Now of course it doesn’t represent all of that decade and certainly not all of Suzanne’s work. I don’t think there is one image that can do that, particularly because Suzanne has worked across scales, media and issues.

If feminism is a political position that analyzes power relations among people in order to foster social justice, how does this cover support that? I think it works more like a tactic than anything else. It is a beginning. People pick up the book to find out what that image is about, and look at the color plates in the middle. (Libraries will bind the book so the cover won’t show, so that eliminates some readers from this cover discussion.) They might even read some of the text!

Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between

Book on artist Suzanne Lacy

Book on artist Suzanne Lacy

At long last, my book on Suzanne Lacy is coming out next month from the University of Minnesota Press. I will be tweaking my website over the next month to feature it more prominently, because this project was a very long haul and I am delighted to have it completed. I first corresponded with Suzanne in 1991 and worked with her a bit in Chicago in 1993. By 2000, I had made sufficient space in my life to start research on her work in earnest. From 2000 until 2008, then, I was immersed in archives, travel, article-writing, and generally trailing around after Suzanne, which was an intense, exhilarating endeavor.

I had long wanted to connect myself to someone whom I admired and learn their process from the inside. Because Suzanne is a most generous and amazing soul, I was able to be a participant-observer for a number of activities, as well as visit sites of many of her projects. I was able to fund Suzanne’s ten-day residency here in Urbana in 2001, and I visited her in Oakland and Los Angeles a lot.

Suzanne has just been awarded the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association and will come to Chicago to receive it in February 2010. Congratulations to her and many thanks to Jerri Allyn for spearheading the nomination process.

September 20, 2009

Guerilla Art Action Group

Five booklets from Half-Letter Press

Five booklets from Half-Letter Press

Temporary Services (TS)–through Half-Letter Press–has been producing wonderful little booklets of interviews, which now number five. One of the “Temporary Conversations” was with Jean Toche of the Guerilla Art Action Group (GAAG). Formed in 1969 and enduring through 1976, GAAG consisted of Jean Toche, Jon Hendricks, and Poppy Johnson, with occasional others. The bright orange booklet (2008) that features TS’s interview with Toche has illustrations provided by Jon Hendricks.

I really enjoyed driving back from Chicago with Brett Bloom of TS and hearing more about the process of this interview. The entire interview was conducted using snail mail!

One excerpt from the booklet–which you can buy from Half-Letter Press–that has been sticking with me, is a 1971 communique by Hendricks and Toche called Esthetics and Revolution:



Seems like a good description for getting through life in general.