When Art Sparks Social Engagement – Transcript

April 21, 2020 / 1 Comment / Uncategorized

Cathy Byrd: Fresh Art International presents conversations about creativity in the 21st century. This is Fresh Art International. I’m Cathy Byrd. No matter where we live on this planet, we find ourselves sharing a sense of imbalance and uncertainty these days. Experimental art, by nature embracing risk and precarity, can seize this moment to play a vital role in empowering us. Today we take you to a place where art meets the world. We delve into projects that connect with communities and environments, introducing curators and artists whose passion is social engagement. Their experiments in relational aesthetics, participatory performances, interactive installations, community events, and inside-outside exhibitions invite viewers to become co-creators and to take ownership in the creative process. We’ll begin with curator Jochen Volz. In 2016, we met to talk about his approach to organizing the São Paulo Biennial, titled Live Uncertainty. The international art exhibition stands apart from most. Free and open to the public, the biennial takes place in a legendary pavilion at the heart of this city’s most popular park.

Today, we’re taking you to Brazil for the opening of the 32nd São Paulo Biennial. I meet curator Jochen Volz inside the pavilion that has been home to the exhibition most of its life. We’re sitting in a room with glass walls looking out onto Ibirapuera Park, a vast urban green space that surrounds this building. A team led by architects Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa designed this building, the park, and an array of other venues to commemorate São Paulo’s four-hundredth anniversary in 1954. These days, up to 200,000 people a day gather here to immerse themselves in nature and culture. The international contemporary art exhibition, free and open to the public, welcomes a huge number of visitors, many for their first encounter with art. Jochen Volz and his team designed the layout of the 32nd biennial to resonate with the park’s spatial dynamic.

I love the way you designed the biennial’s face like a garden.

Jochen Volz: If you look at the experiences from past editions, very often the biennial has been structured on a more urban principle. So you create a corridor and you create blocks and halls and paths. In urban logic, things do compare by size, which is of course very different from the garden, because in the garden nobody would ever think that it’s weird that you have a very big bamboo group and a small stone garden. You would never think that the small stone garden is so small or less important because you are actually touched by scale and not by size. The idea of a scale in which everything has its own scale is much more interesting. What we’re trying to do is to take this logic into the commissioning process and into the development of an exhibition architecture that would actually allow for large presentations and small ones, each to their scale. And that allows for a visitor to have an experience with a very diverse form of art making on different scales. The logic and the methodology of the garden became a key.

CB: I love how healthy this biennial feels. Considering the theme, let’s talk about the title for a minute.

JV: We thought about uncertainty and how uncertainty is a guiding principle in the arts, but it’s so little talked about elsewhere. When it’s used in other fields of society, then it’s always linked to notions of fear or notions of crisis. But in the arts, the idea of uncertainty and chance and improvisation are very, very present. They are rather a guiding principle.

CB: Part of the creative process.

JV: Exactly—part of the creating process through the eyes of the arts. One could imagine other ways to understand uncertainty as a guiding principle. In other fields, if you think about uncertainty, you need to think about everything you took for granted—and maybe it’s not so easy to take it for granted any longer. The forms of knowledge or the ideas that have been dominating our understanding of the world and our role in it, are maybe also not so solid as we thought they were. To open up for an alternative idea of knowledge or looking at other forms of knowledge that may be complementary to ours and not necessarily the opposite, to allow for contradictions, to allow for the melting of different ideas. That’s something that the artists do all the time: appropriating ideas and concepts from different cultural backgrounds or from different science forms. That is something exciting that we wanted to talk about and bring in.

CB: Right. So it’s in a way, it’s a call to action. Live Uncertainty, right? Let’s just live it. Let’s do it. Let’s dive in. And it looks like all of these artists have. I love how they’ve taken your challenge and what they’ve done with it. With the earthworks that are inside, I loved your description this morning of how the light and the light from outside are invited into the space. In some of the pieces that [idea] is very transparent, like Rachel Rose’s, with the light from outside interacting with the video upstairs. I thought that was gorgeous. And then Anawana Haloba also will have that interaction with the outdoors. Was that throughout your idea, as you were seeking artists who were aware of what’s outside?

JV: There was a certain desire from all of us curators to look at artists and practices that are at least open to other forms of information and to the outside or to the other side, or to this idea of an unknown dimension which could somehow fit into what we do. It became almost a kind of uncertainty. Then it also became a methodology to work with a lot of artists, who have been commissioned to do something, who were invited to develop a project and whose outcome is very much based on the discussions we had over the last one and a half years, and who have responded in sometimes very direct and sometimes more distant ways to this conversation and also to a changing reality that we live in.

CB: I think the reality that we are living in Brazil right now—I think you have an advantage being based here. You’ve invited artists to respond to political circumstances. Today, there was a protest interrupting the press conference. I don’t speak Portuguese, so tell me what was happening there.

JV: The political instability over the last months has been kind of almost going in parallel to the development of our project. And I believe that many of the themes that the biennial wants to talk about or is talking about—be it the distribution of resources, other knowledge forms, allowing for diversity or creating this plural space, or the question of indigenous cultures—all of these aspects are very important in our curatorial project from the very beginning. And they became more and more relevant. What is going on in Brazil at the moment is a parliamentary political power dispute, but of course it adds another layer much, much more violent behind that. All of these questions are probably about the resources, about the rights, about social equality, about privileges, justice for some and not for others. What happened today was a protest. 

JV: It was a manifestation by a group of artists rather spontaneously to organize themselves and use the platform of the press conference to express their standpoint. It’s good that the biennial can be this platform that allows for this form of manifestation and allows for a plural space where different opinions can exist. And it’s fine.

CB: I think so too. I’m thinking about the fact that you’re talking about privilege, and a lot of times people think of art as a privileged space and art space has been a privileged space. But this biennial is free to the public and it’s very open to these political statements as well as going out into the community.

JV: The biennial in São Paulo has a very specific characteristic, I would say, which is that it’s probably one of the art events in the world with the largest audience having first contact with art, which has to do with its location in a very popular park. There are a series of spontaneous projects. For example, the project of OPAVIVARÁ!, which will be activating several times throughout the exhibition period and in different spots throughout the city. And there’s a performance by Donna Kukama, which has happened in three different locations, one in Consolação Cemetery, one in the Museu Afro Brasil, and one in the pavilion building of the biennial. One performance is for four days non-stop by [William] Pope.L.

William Pope.L: It’s a mixture of some of the gestures you see in festas de debutante and this protest manifestation’s actions. It switches back and forth almost from the political to the romantic and back. So for some, the festa de debutante is an outmoded form of coming of age. This is an extreme version. This actually comes from the idea of countries having a civil function of parenting and the citizens acting out or, you know, simply bowing under, doing as they’re told.

CB: The performance makes a loop inside the city, taking the same path each day.

WP: Part of the cyclical nature of humanity—how do you say?—It suggests more meaning because it has a structure now. 

CB: What environments were you seeking to cross through?

WP: A working class neighborhood, neighborhoods that are more “rundown,” gated neighborhoods (of which there are many here), neighborhoods where there are people who just are hanging out in closets, neighborhoods where people are just doing their daily business, like Avenue Paulista, stuff like that. There’s tons and tons of people most of the times of day; you sort of weave your way through it. And there are certain streets here where people are elbow to elbow and there are vehicles like two inches from you. So there’s very dense, hilly neighborhoods that you have to fight your way through. And there are some that are just very spacious.

CB: Pope.L wrote the lyrics for the soundtrack. Two hours-long, the track features a male voice, alternating with an atmospheric musical composition designed to transcend the big city soundscape. Pope.L worked with the team to achieve Baile, a remarkable four-day endurance project that empathizes with recent political theatrics in Brazil.

JV: There’s been lots of collaborations with different groups, be it theater groups, be it musicians, be it people who work with embroidery; different artisans. These collaborations actually also allow for a totally new network for the biennial. So this idea of a very huge outreach and a very huge first contact to art, is something extremely inspiring, I think, for all of us and for all the artists—to think what this role is of art within society.

CB: The history of labor has inspired more than a few artists’ projects at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a.k.a. MASS MoCA. The museum grew from an abandoned industrial complex just outside the city of North Adams. Over the span of a decade, curator Susan Cross has invited artists to experiment in this historically rich setting. Some of her projects have altered visitor encounters with the architectural space itself, while others have forged new social experiences with its history. After inviting seven artists to create site-specific installations for a show titled Material World, Cross organized a 2011 exhibition that sparked social engagement at MASS MoCA as never before. The Workers: Precarity/Invisibility/Mobility sparked a remarkable community response, resonating with intensifying labor issues that are tied to today’s globalized economy. The time and place were a perfect fit. The former factory and the building that MASS MoCA now occupies was closed in the 1980s due to intense international competition that left nearly a third of the community out of work. The decline of North Adams echoes the demise of many abandoned factory towns in the United States and abroad. Many in these communities have lost a way of life due to advances in technology and a never ending search for cheap labor.

Susan Cross: We’re located on what we call a “campus” of incredible 19th-century industrial buildings. It’s sort of a rambling place with lots of courtyards and secret little spots. I always tell people that when they are walking through and move from one building to the next, that they’ll often get lost. And it’s just like being in Venice, Italy. You have to give yourself over to that and you can discover so many things, both in terms of the art and also in the buildings. The history of the building goes back to the 1800s and it was an old printworks. They printed textiles and would actually send scouts to Europe and identify some of the more popular patterns and come back and make them in the U.S. It was a really flourishing business and had a big national profile, but then in the early 1900s, the business was replaced by Sprague Electric. They made capacitors, among other things, but that was what they were known for. They too had a very big national profile and both companies hired thousands of people from the city and really were part of the fabric of the city. So when the last few workers left Sprague Electric in the 1980s, they left an economic and emotional void in the city. Through MASS MoCA, the idea was born to take over this incredible historic space and create something new out of it and use the museum as an engine for a new creative economy.

So many of the artists that come to MASS MoCA to do projects there, they’re so excited to engage with that history, which is so timely as well. We’re still working through issues of labor or how economies are changing. It’s a topic that I’m always thinking about in part because of where I am. This building keeps me in mind of workers’ histories and the present. So that exhibition,The Workers, grows out of that present-day knowledge that North Adams in the region is redefining its labor force and its economy, and it has this very rich history. It’s also related to Material World in that some of those pieces like Michael Beutler’s, were dealing with Sprague Electric history. His piece was looking at a nearby engineering marvel called the Hoosac Tunnel, which was built in the 1870s. It was a technical marvel, but took a lot of labor and people died. In fact, his ghostly rendition of the tunnel was a sort of a nod to many of the ghost hunters who come out because it supposedly haunted—

CB: That could draw a whole different audience.

SC: Well, interestingly, those related to The Workers—but that show in a way grew out of Material World in the sense that The Workers really got us additional audiences. Suddenly labor unions were calling me. It was really interesting: that topic was very personal and striking to a lot of people who hadn’t perhaps come to MASS MoCA before. That was a great way to engage others. In fact, one of the works in the show was a performative piece by Santiago Sierra, who does very emotionally and physically intense and sometimes very controversial works about labor because he re-enacts the problems of labor in his own practice. I’ve dealt with industrial labor a lot in different shows, but this piece was actually thinking about military workers. I recruited several soldiers to perform in this space. And so that was another audience that suddenly became aware of the museum in a way that they hadn’t before.

CB: How resonant it must be with the history of the community outside and the global economy, the competition for work, the uncertainty of the future of what it means to work, and what professions are going to be available, and which individuals are going to feel like they’re being left behind if they’re not keeping up with technology. All that must’ve resonated incredibly with the people who visited.

SC: It did, and some of the former Sprague employees work at MASS MoCA now in different capacities. Often we reach out to them and many came to that show. And also we’re involved with the Bureau for Open Culture project. That was part of The Workers. I invited James Voorhies to come and take over a building which we hadn’t yet used. He did a series of programs and exhibitions and activities, one of which really dealt with Sprague’s history and tapped into the memories of former employees who still live nearby. That engagement was so powerful. It engaged people on so many different levels, including with a beer garden, which was a wonderful way to get all the different constituencies that are part of our region, who come from different backgrounds, but it was also a nod to intellectual salons. While people were drinking their beer, there’d be artists or other thinkers talking about certain projects. It was another moment within MASS MoCA’s campus that just really welcomed the community.

CB: I reached out to James Voorhies to learn more about the Bureau of Open Culture, a nomadic curatorial project that lives to amplify how we engage with art—a great match for The Workers exhibition at MASS MoCA. Let’s describe the Bureau for Open Culture, what is it exactly?

James Voorhies: It’s a way to gather a wide range of activity that is producing public-facing work that often connects or inhabits different institutions—to really think about how people engage with the ideas presented by artists and in exhibitions. It encapsulates my practice, which is dedicated to interrogating and expanding the behavior of an institution. It originated in Columbus College of Art and Design in 2007. At that time, there was a gallery, of course, and we made exhibitions in the gallery. But we also were making exhibitions in empty storefront spaces as well as commissioning projects with hot air balloons that were in open fields in Ohio, and also producing a lot of publications. Often an exhibition program is identified so strongly with a gallery—Bureau of Open Culture was the way to gather this activity conceptually and geographically under a single umbrella. “Bureau” has a sense of administration, of keeping order, of curating, and “open culture” means really attempting to think more expansively about the different culture producers that are invited into the realm of contemporary art.

CB: Well, in the definition that I’ve seen of the Bureau for Open Culture, you suggest you’re forging intersections among art, design, education, and consumer culture, and pushing against the way institutions address and engage audiences. But don’t you think that the way they’re engaging has just been naturally evolving with contemporary culture?

JaV: I think even over the last ten years, the ways in which institutions connect with their publics are changing drastically. And a lot of this actually comes out of the nineties, initiated by artists who are categorized under relational aesthetics. One might think of Rirkrit Tiravanija as a kind of go-to among these artists who were pushing what kind of activity could take place in a “white cube,” meaning that you could actually inhabit it by consuming food together in the space in a kind of disorderly fashion that really suppresses that pristine space. So over time, curators have picked up that activity in the white cube to help push against how an institution behaves. And then increasingly more mainstream or large scale institutions are utilizing time-based activity and ways of gathering people inside the institution much differently than they did 15 years ago.

CB: Well, let’s talk about how you got involved with the concept of The Workers: Precarity/Invisibility/Mobility at MASS MoCA with curator Susan Cross.

JaV: I was living in North Adams, teaching at Bennington College—art history and critical theory. It’s a small community in the arts there and Susan and I quite quickly became friends. She was talking about this exhibition, The Workers and I really appreciated that she understood the different questions that the Bureau for Open Culture was asking in terms of relationships with artists and the value of cultural production—also these questions around the precarity of the immaterial worker: how you and others and all of us are like this constant production of content. But what is the value of that, which is so particularly different than around MASS MoCA at Sprague Electric where people clocked in and worked in the space; they clocked out and they left. Now, what’s interesting is that MASS MoCA is filled with content by artists and curators. It’s actually almost produced around the clock. 

[Excerpt from There Is Only Light (We Do Not Know What To Do With Other Worlds) performance-reading, July 2011, MASS MoCA. Produced by Bureau for Open Culture] Voice 1: 1861: Arnold Print Works is established under the name Arnold, Harvey, & Company. 1870: Arnold Print Works has one hundred employees. 1872: Fire breaks out, resulting in destroyed work and loss of profit. It was the morning of December 27, 1872, when Arnold Print Works was visited by a disruptive fire. The principal building of Arnold Print Works was burned down. Instead of being ruined, the company rose from the ashes. After the fire, Arnold Print Works moved forward with steady and progressive strides under the influence of a massive financier and scientific skills. Labor continued. Labor was triumphant. 1905: The city’s largest single employer, 3200 employees. 1942: Arnold Print Works closes. 1942: Arnold Print Works turns into Sprague Electric. Sprague Electric was the major component to the city of North Adams and the lifestyle of its employees. It employed 4,137 workers in a community of 18,000. It was the town’s highest employer. The plant prospered during World War II, and a long time afterwards. There was no longer any way to distinguish between work and leisure, or between economic activities and other aspects of human life.

JaV: The Workers was asking those kinds of questions and there was overlap with the Bureau of Open Culture. It progressed quite naturally at these discussions. And Susan graciously invited us to inhabit the building behind the main exhibition spaces—a small building that became the headquarters where we were for about four months, working as a studio. It became a shop where a collective called Red 76 sold local cultural materials from butter that was produced in Vermont, to books and leather goods produced by people in Massachusetts. It also became the site of constant production of culture and art and bringing people together.

CB: You expanded on the architectural space and the history of MASS MoCA —the building itself; seeing the site as a manufacturing site by creating these opportunities to think about what that looks like in contemporary life.

JaV: Yeah. I think it speaks to many post-industrial towns today that have these amazing physical reminders of the kind of labor that took place in those cities and then how many of those are no longer used or used to a lesser extent than they were. This consumption of culture and art is often becoming a destination and also a source of economic sustenance. It’s a really interesting situation to look at from the point of view of the role of artists and culture-makers in these places—and how they’re almost the new workers.

CB: I think it’s interesting how you built out this space for the public conversations, performances, installations, workshops, the little shop, spaces for visiting artists, writers, designers, and thinkers to work… and a beer garden! 

JaV: That was really important. People come to the Berkshires because it’s such a lovely place, particularly in the summer. I was just thinking about how I, Susan, others—we live there. How nice it would be to sit at picnic tables in that grassy area along the river in the evenings? In terms of consumer culture, I really like to think about how these very familiar forms, like a beer garden or a bookshop, are ways to unify people from very different backgrounds. How can the form of a beer garden be presented so people can experience it just as a beer garden? Then people can also come there and because they’ll see different advertisements and tabletop materials with the dates of artist talks that will take place in the beer garden or a walk around the Berkshires learning about the different histories of the environment and the river that was changed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The beer garden or a bookshop is a bit of a “net” to help art reach people who may not understand at first that that’s what they’re engaging with.

CB: It became sort of a wayfinding device. It led to knowledge acquisition that led to experiences. It was a social space. You actually have a legacy. Susan tells me that the space has been claimed by another artist who’s operating in a similar way, using that beer garden again.

JaV: I’ve watched that transform over the years. That’s so rewarding to think that we could be there and initiate something and other artists or the institution continues to build on it. It was such an unforgettable experience—I think that sometimes happens in these things. It’s the combination of the personalities of the artists and the time and attention we have to give to something, and just the undivided support from the institution. But even support meaning challenges—like how the institution (MASS MoCA and Susan) were really engaged with how to make it better by asking lots of questions. I love that kind of working relationship.

CB: The exhibition unfolded in modules. In one image that Susan shared with me, we see a sailboat that appears to be made of foraged materials and the sail looks like a banner? 

JaV: That was done by Dylan Gauthier and Kendra Sullivan. There was a series of boat-building workshops by a collective called Free Seas, based in Brooklyn. They came up over a period of weeks and just looked around and thought about what kind of projects they would like to do, how they would like to engage with the ecology of the area. We held informal workshops with people in the area and then concluded the summer with a module of a public boat-building workshop. Part of that also is looking at the materials at hand and the banners, and how they could be utilized or repurposed for sails. That was such a rewarding experience because it was just like we’re making these boats out of bamboo and other recycled materials and wrapping the bamboo frames with the banners. But by that time it was September and we had really poured through a number of people. We had to galvanize the community in a way that people were constantly coming to the event. We built boats, we put them on top of the cars— it’s so gorgeous in the Berkshires—then we just went up to North Pond, which was a good destination during the summer and spent the remainder of the afternoon on the lake with these boats.

CB: Did the sail work, actually, or were you paddling? 

JaV: Paddling mostly. Yeah. 

CB: Still the effect of the visual is fabulous.

JaV: All the models had these particular themes that were guided by artists and then we helped essentially produce them. I think in terms of your questions around engaging the viewer, that’s the responsibility I see as a curator, as an institution: how to see what the artist wants to do, understand how to communicate it to a public, and then begin to round that public up over time so that they feel as if they have something at stake in what you’re doing.

CB: The last thing I wanted to go into was this reading performance that took place using a script with quotes from original interviews with former employees of Sprague Electric, which is the factory that once occupied the building of MASS MoCA.

JaV: That was a really special project. Cassandra Troyan, Nate Padavick, and then another photographer and an artist named Timothy Nazzaro did this history of MASS MoCA and Sprague Electric. It was really fascinating how it had transformed from a factory producing these electric pieces to what is MASS MoCA. We were just really interested in hearing more from the employees, many of whom had dedicated decades of their life to Sprague Electric. And we had informal recorded interviews of them, basically just reflecting on their time at Sprague Electric, as well as just the changes in MASS MoCA from being a factory town to becoming a post-industrial cultural production area. We recorded all of those and interwove them with different transcripts from public meetings in Massachusetts in the seventies that were looking at the crisis, basically that was happening because so many factories were closing and a lot of the work was being sent overseas. We interwove parts of the transcript from employees with the more formal minutes of a government that was actually trying to deal with this crisis in the seventies.

[Excerpt from There Is Only Light (We Do Not Know What To Do With Other Worlds) performance-reading, July 2011, MASS MoCA. Produced by Bureau for Open Culture] Voice 2: I was sort of caretaker after Sprague Electric had moved and they left tons of desk cables, filing cabinets, metal chairs. We put them out in the yard and sold them: $5 for a file cabinet, $15 for a table. It was probably because I was involved in the boiler room and then I had enough knowledge of all the facilities and also the building itself, because I was always wondering around for different things. So I knew it; knew every nook and cranny of the place. So they figured I’d be the one to close it down.

CB: In what ways did your involvement with the workers and your occupation of that empty space at MASS MoCA, and your engagement with communities there influence your practice moving forward?

JaV: It reinforced some of the things I was aware of and just the importance of how something that one is producing within the realm of contemporary art that might be really complex and impenetrable can be made successful. How can you make an idea by an artist that is asking, say, about the ecology or this history mean something to a greater number of people without sacrificing the quality of the work? It’s a really fine balance that a lot of institutions are facing today. It really influenced my work at the Carpenter Center because before coming here, I was the director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard, also thinking about how to connect the exhibitions better to the areas so that they have something at stake in what you’re doing. We ended up opening a bookshop there with a Berlin-based bookseller called Motto Books. I learned a lot from MASS MoCA that helped prepare for this project, meaning: looking around at contexts in the Boston area and thinking about what are the institutions and who are the people who would want to be involved in this, by having something at stake in it, by presenting their books, or creating a forum that was open enough that they could contribute to it. It was such a great learning experience.

CB: In 2012, curator Stephanie Smith traced the historical roots of hospitality as conceptual art practice with an exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Artnot only displayed the history of this idea, but also initiated participatory events and offered meals in collaboration with local artists and communities. Smith continues to expand on her interest in socially-engaged art as a curator at the new Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Stephanie Smith: I’m one of the curators who’s been doing this since I was essentially a puppy. I really started working in contemporary art institutions when I was in college during internships, so late eighties, early nineties forward. There have been a lot of changes in the field during that time and it’s been exciting to see the ways that institutions are flexing their muscles to find new ways to support what artists have been doing for quite a while. Of course, we always follow where artists lead us. In my case, I was really fortunate to have an extraordinary example. I was working at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, a wonderful non-collecting institution, as a curatorial assistant at the same time that Project Row Houses was just coming into being. It is a truly extraordinary example of community-based strategic creative practice, where you really do have woven into the bones of an institution an understanding that part of its function is to be working in steady, evolving relation with the community.

CB: I loved that because Rick Lowe, the founder of Project Row Houses, has really understood from the very beginning what it meant to embed himself as part of a community and grow from that experience of knowing the people that live there and creating a space that responds to that population and stimulates them and invites others to share it. I just think he’s amazing.

SS: Absolutely. And the teams of other people that have worked with Rick over the years have also been really thoughtful in terms of thinking about what distinct role could that institution play within the particular arts ecology in Houston, as well as in relation to the specific needs and desires of their neighbors, as well as with an international are conversation. I think they’ve been able to be really relevant in part by understanding that they have roles to play that are kind of overlapping roles within each of those spheres of activity and influence. That’s certainly something that I couldn’t have articulated in that way at the time, but I know that it was a great model for me and something that I continue to think about; thinking about where we are in the field right now. There’s just a huge uptick in institutional interest in supporting participatory forms of art-making as well as performative work. And there’s a recognition that in addition to the kind of quiet moments of contemplation that institutions want to foster in relation to specific static works of art—which are deeply important and part of the work of museums, creating those kinds of moments and opportunities with depth and heart and meaning—it’s also really exciting to think about the kinds of energy that can be activated when bringing time-based forms of work into institutional spaces and also participatory projects. In the latter case, there’s sometimes really interesting negotiations that need to happen as institutions try to figure out how to be good hosts for those projects, especially when they are both participatory and socially engaged. The institutions are really mindful of the ethical implications of the work that they’re doing and how they’re holding relationships that are started, so it’s not something that’s just catnip for millennials who are seeking participation and fearing missing out and those sorts of clichés, but actually substantive engagement.

CB: That exhibition you presented in 2012 encompasses both of those elements—the participatory and temporality, time-based engagement—that was called Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. I found that project super fun, but also provocative.

SS: On the one hand, it functioned to create an opportunity for people to have encounters with static objects and that ranged from sculptures to paintings to artifacts. And it allowed us to see a kind of long historical range of participatory practice. Artists orchestrated meals and kind of convivial experiences. We traced the history back to 1930 to what I would claim as one key point of origin. You could argue that there were others, but one key point of origin was when the Italian Futurists—a group of radical artists working from the late 1910s forward—created a “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking” and it was distributed in the most public way possible as a text in a newspaper. But looking from that point forward, we were able to make an argument about a long thread of activity within a range of contemporary art practices; to link them back to this early point, to use the capacity of the museum to make that kind of argument, and to let it unfold through a series of encounters that one might have moving through a sequence of galleries where you would encounter text and objects or the kind of mood and atmosphere and installation within the gallery. Then we also took advantage of the participatory nature of many of the recent projects to stage events that happened inside the museum and throughout the city that gave people opportunities to encounter the work in a full sensory way, because the show wouldn’t have made sense if it were only to be looked at—it had to also be something that could be smelled and tasted and consumed. What happened in the museum provided a kind of historical ballast, and what happened out in the world (or in the museum in a time-based way) provided life and energy and vitality and a rich experience. 

CB: Tell me about the context of being in a university, at the University of Chicago, in a university museum. How did that influence (or did it influence) the way the concept was developed and presented? 

SS: University art museums, or university art institutions more generally, are really one of the great platforms in the U.S. for experimental interdisciplinary work. Certainly they provide both spur and support for exhibition making that is intentionally experimental and boundary-crossing and that brings together people that have a rich range of knowledge, experience, and perspectives.

CB: I wanted to talk about a few of the artists you invited to participate in. Let’s start with Theaster Gates. He obviously is a huge influence in Chicago through Dorchester Projects and all that he’s done on the South Side, developing projects that integrate that community with the rest of the city.

SS: For Feast, we conceptualized a project that took two different forms. So we were really thinking through this question of what aspect of the practice could be well-supported within the gallery setting and what would be best held onsite at Dorchester Projects, which is a group of houses on Chicago’s South Side, a fairly quick drive from University of Chicago and the Smart Museum. There’s a kind of geographic proximity, but they’re not quite right next to each other. And those are houses that Theaster has been purchasing over a number of years and turning into a site for all kinds of different creative and community-based activities. Soul food and cooking and meals have been part of the ways that he’s activated that site. So it was an installation itself within the museum—there was a direct connection to what happened at Dorchester Projects because we arranged to have a series of dinners that Theaster orchestrated and hosted that happened in one of the houses: a very warm space with all this beautifully reclaimed wood and long, skinny table. So people were all kind of close together and we had somewhere between twenty and thirty people at each of these dinners. The guest list was half curated by the Smart and Theaster working in collaboration on an interesting mix of people, and then half of the seats at the table were by chance, by lottery. You could submit your name online or by coming into the Smart, and then we would have these drawings to select the other half of the attendees. These dinners were beautiful! They were sequenced with a real sense of ritual.

Theaster Gates: The Soul Food Pavilion is kind of an idea to me—it’s the opportunity to make a space, convert a space, transform a space into one where amazing food interactions can happen. And they’ll happen around the question or the conversation about the foods of Black people.

[Theaster Gates, FEAST, SMART Museum of Art, University of Chicago] Male voice: So what we did is we took this catfish and we gently sloped it so that it stayed moist…

TG: You know, the history of foods in America for African-Americans is a really complicated story.

[FEAST] Male voice: Chow-chow kept coming up, which is this collaboration of many vegetables. And this pickled essence allows many dishes to really, really take on a character that is familiar in the real deep heart of the South.

TG: These foods represented a kind of inferior relationship to a really dark past.

[FEAST] Male Voice: So these are greens that are good with smoked turkey and the hoecakes. When people were working in the fields, they would mix this cornmeal together and cook them on the sides of steel of the hoe. 

TG: The dinners for me, they give me an opportunity to leverage ritual, to ask hard questions, maybe in ways that people don’t normally talk about in Chicago with groups of people who don’t normally get together. 

SS: Theaster would plan them and punctuate them with different moments of musical performance and collaboration with his musical collaborators who are called the Black Monks of Mississippi. They would have sermons where he would invite colleagues, friends, neighbors, and other creative practitioners to speak in whatever way made sense to them. Then he was working in collaboration with a great set of chefs who were really committed to soul food, connected to a restaurant called mk—a great restaurant in Chicago. The folks who were involved in preparing different aspects of the meal would also explain the dishes. And then in between, you would have conversations that would very often dig into topics connected to the history of soul food, the way that art functions in society, what was going on the block—a set of topics that felt joyful and sorrowful and urgent and real.

CB: Well, I also loved how you brought in the relationship with the Fluxus movement by inviting Alison Knowles and her Identical Lunch into the conversation.

SS: Yeah, that was really a special part of the project. We chose to focus on her Identical Lunch project, which involved eating the same tuna fish sandwich over an extended period and creating a focused ritual of that practice. So at the Smart we did two things: we had the lunch out on view in the gallery and we had it available on the menu in our café. You could go purchase that particular tuna fish sandwich prepared according to Alison Knowles’s specifications and eat that lunch and participate in her conceptual artwork.

CB: I thought it was funny. I was reading the story of The Identical Lunch and that she herself just was in the habit of ordering the one thing she thought was edible at a certain diner, and she would just order the same thing because it was safe. And then it became a performance.

SS: Yeah, it’s beautiful. I mean, the genius of Fluxus overall is that it focused attention on small aspects of everyday experience that can be transformed into something extraordinary through that precise care and you see the reframing potential.

CB: Well, I think you achieved it beautifully. Just by nature, this exhibition engaged with viewers on so many levels.

SS: It was fun to watch people engaging with the show and it was also really exciting when the exhibition traveled. We were able to collaborate with several other institutions to send Feast across the country after it closed at the Smart. In each venue, the institutions hosted some of the projects that had been part of the Smart Museum’s original presentation and hosted new events. Then they also customized and brought in new projects that were relevant to their audiences and institutions.

CB: What did you take away from the Feast experience that has influenced your projects since then?

SS: Overall, the major thing that I took away from Feast was a recognition that there’s great enthusiasm and appetite on the part of audiences right now to engage with projects like Feast that create opportunities to dig to social issues, that touch on topics that are percolating within society, and that give people opportunities to have a range of experiences—including more traditional ways of navigating institutions, but also opening up new kinds of experiences that allow them to connect with art and with other people in surprising ways.

CB: Well, that leads me to where you are right now with Declaration at the ICA. You’ve interpreted that philosophy in a big way in this inaugural exhibition.

SS: We just opened our doors to the public for the very first time as a brand new non-collecting contemporary art institution at Virginia Commonwealth University. The response so far has been very, very positive both in terms of press response and public engagement. Richmond is a city that hasn’t had an institution of this scale solely dedicated to contemporary art. It was really exciting to see so many people coming out to be part of our opening events, which were at full capacity—we had six thousand people through the ICA. It was the most diverse crowd I’ve ever been with in a visual arts institution in the United States. In all of the ways that you can think about, diversity can really engage crowds of people looking at art and connecting with each other. They were absolutely responding to not only the more traditional works, but also really engaging with a number of participatory and collaboratively produced works.

CB: There’s art that speaks in many ways for looking, for listening, for participating. And you also have projects that collaborate with Richmonders.

SS: It felt very important to declare our intention as an institution to be a place that is looking at the edge of the new. We also wanted to create projects that reflect many of the ways that art is functioning now. That includes painting and photography, of course, but also sound works, media works, participatory works, performance—things that are inside the institution and also extending out into the world. We also wanted to declare our commitment to the socially transformative power of art and artists. So all of those aspirations are made manifest in the show and Marinella Senatore has developed Estman Radio: Richmond, which is a first U.S. presentation of her ongoing project, Estman Radio, which has been presented at the Palais de Tokyo and other venues outside the U.S. And it’s essentially an installation; it has a very particular design, look, and function. It’s set up to function as a recording space, so it occupies one of our galleries and during public hours, visitors can drop in and use this recording setup to make their own declaration.

CB: I was just going to say they can come and record a declaration.

SS: They can indeed. People are leaving their recordings and they can then get uploaded by Marinella’s team on to the Estman Radio podcast site. That happens on an ongoing basis over the course of the exhibition and then they will remain there as an archive after the show closes.

Marinella Senatore: Hello, my name is Marinella Senatore. I’m talking from Italy, in Rome, where I’m based. Since 2006, I’ve worked within the field of contemporary art, making participatory and socially-engaged projects involving entire communities in our works. For the exhibition Declaration at ICA, I will present the project that I started some years ago. It’s called Estman Radio; it’s free radio actually, podcast radio that everybody can contribute to. What you see when you enter our room is actually a mini radio station. You will find a table which reminds you of a very old-fashioned radio station and several displays where you can also listen to previous contributions to the radio. You can record the following very easy instructions—anything from music to debate or dialogue; you can leave a message for the others. The theme of Declaration can be a starting point if they want or just a suggestion, but they are absolutely free to do what they want.

CB: I love how she creates these opportunities for you to be creative. 

SS: Absolutely, and we’re partnering with a local community-organized radio station that will be doing a kind of “best of” compilation that they’ll broadcast further. 

[Marinella Senatore and Estman Radio recording, courtesy Marinella Senatore and Virginia Commonwealth University Institute for Contemporary Art] Voice from Estman Radio: Richmond: These were the true Black people images. When I walked into the first gallery of the Posing Beauty show, I thought, there’s so much familiar here. I knew many of the images better but than that, I recognized the ones I hadn’t seen before. And whether contrived or caught, journalistic or advertized or artistic or all of that at once. I wanted to mind-test, to memory-test each one for authenticity—authentic beauty, inner beauty, social beauty, defensive beauty, beauty as tool, as weapon—captured, held, immortalized, institutionalized, mainstreamed, bought, collected, interpreted. And we delivered. 

SS: We’re also inviting several local colleagues who are great conversationalists and interested in radio as a medium. They will be hosting certain sessions over the run of the exhibition as well. There’ll be some curated conversations in addition to the more casual and completely public discussions.

CB: Congratulations on this project. I think it takes you up to a whole other level of viewer engagement. There’s so many dimensions to this—what do you think?

SS: Absolutely. I mean, hopefully there aren’t so many dimensions that it’s overwhelming. But we really did want to start with this primary declaration on the part of the ICA as a part of our driving sense of ourselves as an institution that we believe in the socially transformative power of art and artists. Whether that takes the form of an encounter with a painting in the gallery or a performance out in the city, we want to be sure that we’re providing a rich range of opportunities for people to connect with art and each other in ways that matter here and now.

CB: This is Fresh Art International. I’m Cathy Byrd. In today’s conversations about art that sparks social engagement, we introduce curators and artists who consistently seek ways to connect with individuals and communities in the world outside the art scene. We share their personal philosophies about social experiences and how they work alongside the infrastructure of museums and art biennials. We invite you to think about how these artists and curators have elected to pose enduring questions about the meaning of art. In work that translates the diverse activities of labor unions, communal dinners, beer gardens, and political protests, they offer potent reminders of our collective capacity for change. 

When Art Sparks Social Engagement – Transcript

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