Chicago Art Series: Article #1 on History

This is the first in a five part series I will be writing about Chicago art for the Belgian art magazine H-Art. This first article appeared in their 44th issue in early December 2008.

Series Description: Chicago Illinois USA is a place where people pass through and people settle. In terms of cultural work, it is a city where people work hard, build community and navigate the dynamics of little economic support for their work, intense local politics, harsh conditions and a level of affordability in living (compared to other major urban centers) that opens up room for experimentation. In the absence of economic and institutional support for this experimentation, the city has produced a robust infrastructure and community for self-organized and independent culture – often committing much of its energy to addressing local and regional political concerns and social issues. This series of articles will be an introduction to the city and its critical cultural experimentation, written from the perspective of a young magazine editor, writer, and curator committed to navigating the city. Look for five such glimpses into Chicago socially and politically engaged culture to appear in H-Art over the next year. The next article will survey a number of the groups and spaces currently dotting the landscape in Chicago.

November 15th 2008 – Article #1 – Chicago: Introduction and History
by Daniel Tucker

In the late 1960s, cities in the U.S. saw its people struggling for civil rights, protesting the war in Vietnam and fighting for their lives. Chicago, nestled on the southern edge of Lake Michigan and in the center of “mid-western” agricultural and post-industrial States, saw more than its fair share of social unrest in that period. The third most populous city in the U.S., its unique migration patterns over the course of 100 years produced a diversity of heritage and backgrounds with the potential for cross fertilization as well as cultural clashes. In 1966 southern civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. moved his operation to Chicago in a symbolic effort to fight for fair housing and jobs in the North. The next year, in the majority African-American neighborhood of Bronzeville, a massive mural project slowly came into being, with every day of painting producing an informal public arts festival and forum for thinkers, activists and cultural producers to gather. The mural was dubbed “The Wall of Respect” and was initiated by the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a short-lived coalition of artists and thinkers. The diversity of portraits on the wall featured historical figures from the struggle to abolish slavery, labor leaders, Marxists, civil-rights organizers, Afro-centric nationalists, jazz musicians, poets and philosophers. The depiction of a broad spectrum of historical and present day figures provided numerous points of entry for the surrounding community to connect with the work, while they brought their own experiences literally to the streets as the Mural unfolded. One of the photographers of the wall, who was also associated with the broadly defined Black Arts Movement of the time, Bob Crawford has called the Wall of Respect “An outdoor community center.”

In subsequent years the OBAC would eventually fade and transform into AFRICOBRA, a collective of artists that exists to this day. They are joined by the Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians (AACM) and Third World Publishing as self-organized cultural institutions in serving primarily Black Chicago.

This was a catalytic moment – just one of many which I will briefly touch upon here. In future essays I will focus primarily on contemporary cultural practices, and so it is my goal now to introduce a number of flashpoints in the last 40 years that provide the context on which the activist and socially engaged artists of today are continuing to develop and build upon.

Concurrent with this history of the Black Arts Movement was an expanding muralist movement which intersected with most of the diverse communities in the city, something that has always been a challenge. That movement saw its most concrete coordination in the 1971 founding of the Chicago Mural Group, which was later renamed as the Chicago Public Art Group and exists to this day – a pillar of the tradition of U.S. style “Community Arts”. Lesser known but related history is the Chicago Womens Liberation Union’s poster making group headed by Estelle Carol, which would have connections to a wide variety of second wave feminist work including the JANE group which provided underground abortions before they were legalized in 1973.

The commitment of muralists to representing social struggles has ties to the fact that Chicago was also a hub for media activism in the form of Film and early video work. Groups like Kartimquinn, now an institution of documentary filmmaking, were working alongside groups like the loose knit Media Burn (now an online archive) and the TV commercial producers turned lefty documentarians, the Chicago Film Group. All three had formally experimental approaches to representing social movements of the time. Chicago Film Group took the form of educational public service announcements and turned it on its head in their “Urban Crisis and the New Militants” series which tried to represent leftist youth movements of the late 1960s into educational films to be shown in schools. The films had such titles as “Law and Order vs. Dissent”, “The Right to Dissent: A Press Conference” and “Social Confrontation: The Battle of Michigan Avenue.” Kartimquinn made one short work, “What the Fuck Are These Red Squares” which responded to the Yippie frontman Abbie Hoffman’s provocation for students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during a lecture who were making conceptual art in a time of war. The film documents a group discussion between the students soon after about the role of art in the political and social struggles of the time.

Another connection to the students from the Art Institute is the broadly defined indigenous art movement known as the Chicago Imagists. This name accounts for a wide variety of young art students who were making surrealist and grotesque representational art in the late 60s and were showing their work at the Hyde Park Art Center on the southside. Groups from the time included the Hairy Who and Monster Roster and included well-known artists such as Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and Barbara Rossi. The group is less coherent as an art movement than people typically acknowledged, with a branch regularly showing work in exhibitions curated by Don Baum, as well as participating in northside galleries like Gallery Bugs Bunny, which was a temporary exhibition project designed to protest the Art Institute’s 1968 “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage” exhibition.

Gallery Bugs Bunny was founded by a Chicago branch of Surrealists, headed by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, who found connection with simultaneously occuring developments of French, British and Danish situationists; as well as the tradition the Wobblies, the branch of the US organized labor movement that made the best use of culture. They ran a radical bookstore in addition to the gallery and have continued the legacy to this day in the form of Charles H. Kerr publishing house.

The final example of late ’60s art that I will address is an event which is only begining to be examined and better understood – The Chicago Artist Boycott. Following the police brutality and suppression of anti-war sentiment at the Chicago meetings of the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, artists from all over the country signed on to a statement saying they would not show art in Chicago for one year as a protest. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenburg, and Barnett Newman all signed. Then soon after Richard Feigen Gallery convinced Claes Oldenburg and dozens of other artists to participate in an exhibition in Chicago entitled “The Richard J. Daley Exhibition.” This show was remounted 40 years later this fall 2008 at the galleries of DePaul University and was the site for a weekend long symposium on Chicago in 1968.

While the boom of slick commercial art emerged from the rubble of a 1970s economic recession, it was actually Chicago which produced the first precurser to the now ubiquitous art fair in the Chicago International Art Expo. But commercial art was not then and never has been the strong suit of this midwestern city. The 1980s saw an continuation of much of this work in the informal spaces of Axe Street Arena, which drew from the now-strong tradition of surrealist and situationist-inspired art, mail art, and publishing as well as making connections with the emergent hip hop, graffiti and punk rock subcultures of the times. A more institutional space for critical and socially engaged visual and performance art, Randolph Street Gallery, emerged in 1979 and did not close its doors until 1998.

In the late 1980s the performance troupe Theater Oobleck migrated to town from nearby Michigan and changed the theater landscape with their collectively produced director-free productions about current events. Theater Oobleck would cross paths with the dance and improvised music practices at another emergent institution, Links Hall, which was founded in 1978 and continues to this day to operate in a space shared by the Chicago Womens Health Clinic, a direct decedent of the JANE abortion group. The time also required strategic responses to emerging social issues in the form of AIDS. The local branch of ACT-UP produced performative protest actions ranging from early ad-busting through replacing public transit advertisements to dragging fifteen mattresses into a downtown intersection to demand the opening of beds for women in the AIDS clinic of the public hospital.

As the international art market produced more trade shows and international survey exhibitions, one such event Sculpture Chicago (SC), tried something new. In 1993 they invited former Museum of Contemporary Art curator Mary Jane Jacobs to produce “Culture in Action.” Considering the stiffness of the SC board and track record, the resulting event series was a surprising contrast to what they were known for producing. Jacobs would use this event to bring together a number of artists who would go on to define the terrain by which “Relational Aesthetics” and “Social Practices” would be based. Eight projects would make up the exhibition, including Haha, Robert Peters, and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle whom were all residents of the city. Other contributors included Daniel J. Martinez, Mark Dion, Simon Grennan collaborating with Christopher Sperandio, Mel Ziegler collaborating with Kate Ericson, and Suzanne Lacy. The concept was simple, pair contemporary artists up with a non-art community to engage in a relevant social issue and see what happens. What happened by many accounts was less meaningful than the work which was already happening in the city on an ongoing basis.

Manglano-Ovalle’s contribution to this project, Street Level Video, would involve a temporary video collective of youth addressing issues of community and gang violence, which led to a series of street parties on the west side of the city in which young people and neighborhood residents would make video works about their lives and show them on the streets. This would lay the ground work for Street Level Youth Media (SLYM), a non-profit organization that would continue to grow for another fifteen years. This practice would predict the development of a number of similar youth oriented video/art/activism projects that would evolve in the mid and late 1990s, and would gradually form into a whole field of professional practice and study termed “Youth Media.” Chicago would become home to a great many such organizations from Video Machete to Insight Arts and Beyondmedia, to name only a few. This emergent field would continue the legacy of sensitive listening and community responsiveness developed in the “community art” work of the muralists and the early video activism. It would evolve into a profession all its own, based on the infusion of significant amounts of funding that would accompany the corporate-responsibility drive to bridge the “technological divide.”

Despite a number of criticisms being written in the subsequent years, Culture in Action would receive mostly positive attention due to the interesting combination of artists and a significant push to promote the project to the non-local art press. Two years later SC brought on Joyce Fernandes to curate “Re-Inventing the Garden City” which included Pepón Osorio and Dennis Adams, and Chicago residents Ellen Rothenberg and Miroslaw Rogala.

This work I have described built on the history of work which had been happening in Chicago for years, as well as an upsurge of long term projects and collectives. Inspiring work in the Pilsen neighborhood included Calles y Suenos, a gallery and mostly-Latino punk performance space which is said to have been directly inspired by Axe St. Arena of the ’80s and be continued today in the lineage of the Polvo art collective and gallery in the same neighborhood. Also growing out of the Axe St. Arena years would be ongoing collaborations by artists such as Michael Piazza, Bertha Husband and Jim Duignan. Another such project by Dan Peterman involved setting up shop in a recycling center which was friendly to cultural producers in an area just south of the University of Chicago’s base in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Peterman would develop his own practice in response to the ecological discourse of that context, but would also work with others to transform the space into an informal cultural center which included self-publishing; furniture, car and bike repair; and an artist residency/exhibition space. The residency known as Monk Parakeet would bring in such international artists as Rirkrit Tiravanija, NSK, Christophe Büchel, Superflex, and Art Strategy & Landscape 3-day international artist workshop. The space would also provide a context for new projects to emerge with long time Chicago artists like Michael Piazza or with younger collaboratives such as Temporary Services or the Suburban gallery. While this work was halted significantly by a devastating fire in 2001, the work continues today in the rebuilt and slightly more formalized Experimental Station.

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