by Daniel Tucker for H-Art Magazine Fall 2010What does it mean to survive? To provide for your basic needs? To have a supportive community? These questions were directly engaged in the summer of 2010 through three art projects focused on food, community and economics converged in the Chicago area. The artists hailed from San Francisco (Natasha Wheat), Seattle (Sarah Kavage) and Sydney (You Are Here aka Keg de Souza and Zanny Begg). While officially unrelated and quite different in execution, these initiatives all had noticeable overlap in their methods and concepts. This text will include a report on these three projects (with interviews with the artists and project documentation) and a reflection on Chicago’s unique position in attracting socially engaged artists and how it relates to the practices of local artists working here.
“Today we painted our house yellow with the help of Jillian who also brought delicious vegan blueberry and zucchini slice and a pile of gardening gloves and tools to donate. It was a hot day, so it was sweaty work, but after several hours we had the first coat done. When surveying our handiwork we chatted to Jimmy, the guy who lives over the road. He told us that the house had belonged to an old couple, the guy had worked in the steel mill and had died several years ago, his wife outlived him for a long time alone in the house before moving into another place and eventually dying. None of their children wanted to the house so it had become abandoned. He was pleased we were doing something with the space and told us that you ‘couldn’t miss that colour even at night!’” — a post from the artist group You Are Here (aka Keg de Souza and Zanny Begg) on their blog on July 23rd.
All Roads Lead To Mess Hall
The Chicago art space known as Mess Hall ties all three of these artist projects together. You Are Here were summer artists in residence there, Sarah Kavage is the fall artist in residence and Natasha Wheat was actively involved as a member of the cultural space that hosts exhibitions, meals, screenings and discussions on a regular basis when she was living here several years ago attending art school.Wheat returned for a short visit this summer to produce Self Contained at the Museum of Contemporary Art. For a week-long residency she attempted to reproduce the space of an orangerie (a type of building which grew oranges on Northern European estates such as the Palace of the Louvre before the French Revolution) in combination with the atmosphere of a social center akin to Mess Hall. Throughout the week there were several discussions with Chicago artists and food activists accompanied by citrus-themed meals prepared by local chefs. There was also a screening of La Commune, the epic film about the French Revolution by Peter Watkins. While apparently eclectic, the project’s central character, the orangerie structured the conceptual intentions of the project, as Wheat explains: “When the French people overthrew the government during the Paris Commune, the Louvre was turned into a munitions factory to build weapons, and the Orangerie at Versailles was used as a prison to hold the Communards before they were killed. They were essentially put on exhibition in the Orangerie before they were sent to death.” She continues dissecting her symbolic strategy, explaining that “Museums originated when the wealthy needed places to exhibit the exotic things that they had collected. I see the Orangerie as a metaphor for the Museum. I wanted to complicate that relationship, and my position and skepticism as an artist making a “socially engaged” project in a Museum space.”
Her installation included pamphlets about the Paris Commune, a reader with writings by various thinkers related to orangeries, the French Revolution, socially engaged art and museums. At its core was this social context combined with food (essential for any socializing!) and discussion.
Since 2008, Seattle artist and urban planner Sarah Kavage has been exploring the world of commodities trading and its influence on economics, farming, and what we eat. This past summer she was in Chicago, inserting herself into this system in a learn-by-doing experiment to discover how an abstract “wheat futures” contract connects to real wheat, real food and real people. She purchased a 1,000 bushel futures contract on the Chicago Board of Trade and also bought 1,000 bushels of real commodity wheat. After getting the wheat milled into flour, she began giving it away at food banks, soup kitchens, farmers markets and the like, encouraging people to nourish others with it and send her documentation.
Kavage explained that even though she has immersed herself in this work she has barely scratched the surface of understanding it. Like so many artists her work and research has taken her to engage with professionals in many different industries and required her to translate very complex information for non-expert audiences. “Futures trading is tough to explain, especially if you don’t know all that much about it yourself. I gave a talk to the students in an artisan baking class at Kendall College culinary school this summer. And as I was telling them about the futures markets – and this seems to happen pretty consistently – I could tell that some of them were getting it and some were completely glazing over. Then one of the students asked me to tell them specifically about my futures contract and that transaction, and once I explained what actually happened to me, they began to get it. So I’ve been doing that more and more. Something about telling one’s own personal experience, as opposed to the theory, seems to make it comprehensible. And when I think about it, that’s part of why I did this experiential project as opposed to just doing a bunch of research and writing an article about it.”
These artists were all drawn to Chicago for different reasons. For Wheat it was because of a museum invitation and a chance to interact with the arts community she had moved away from. Whereas for You Are Here (received funding from the Australian Council for the Arts) it was the proximity to Gary, Indiana – a postindustrial city getting hit particularly hard by the “Great Recession.”Begg and de Souza break down some of their initial interests in the region, “Survival is a pretty topical issue at the moment… even in mainstream politics people are beginning to talk seriously about issues such as economic crisis and climate change. For us in our project ReMake Estate we were interested in how these bigger issues boil down to the day to day economy of food distribution in an under resourced area such as Gary.
Gary has a pretty rich history; home to the Jackson family [Michael Jackson and his siblings were born there], the first major city to elect a Black Mayor (Richard Hatcher) and once a thriving Black Metropolis. But since the 1970s it has been a state of serious decline. Gary was named after Elbert H. Gary the founding chairman of U.S Steel and was once one of the world’s largest steel manufacturers, but today US Steel only produces less than 10% of the world steel. Many buildings in the downtown area are now empty as many of the white owned businesses left in the aftermath of Hatcher’s victory. This situation has been exasperated by the recent global financial crisis where Gary is at a point of bankruptcy.
So how does Gary survive in a situation like this? We were interested by the industries that are thriving in Gary such as Barber Shops, Beauty Salons, sex work, airbrush art and the informal economies of drugs and bootleg Michael Jackson merchandise. Our project directly engaged with the local initiatives that are seeking ways of self-empowerment and community control such as the Central District Organising Project (CDOP).
We wanted to work with an abandoned house – as there are so many in Gary – and these empty spaces brought together what we saw as some of the key issues in the area. Coming from Sydney too, where a tiny block of land sells for over half a million dollars, it was intriguing to us that poor people would be in a situation where they have to abandon a house.”
For Sarah Kavage it was the fact that the the Chicago Board of Trade is located here, and that because of decisions made long ago and geographic factors like the central location within the US and connection to important waterways that more commodities are traded on that market than anywhere else in the world. But she went on to explain what she found here: “I didn’t realize when I started this venture that Chicago had such a history of socially engaged artwork, and learning that was really inspiring. Throughout this whole process I’ve been really encouraged by all the people and organizations here not only doing amazing work, but creating a history and a language around it.
People in Chicago (the ones I interact with, anyway) are super intellectually engaged but in
a practical, grounded way. It’s so straightforward and Midwestern – enough talk, what can we actually do about this? Maybe I relate to that approach because I grew up in the Midwest, but it seems so balanced.”
Chicago is increasingly becoming associated with socially and politically engaged art. Despite our lack of institutional infrastructure for supporting such work, more and more people are coming here from other places to situate their work in the social fabric of the city, in its grassroots institutions and with what Wheat described as a “history of labor organizing and a more militant activist history” that effects the kinds of art work happening there, as opposed to her more hippie-influenced experiences on the west coast in Portland and San Francisco.
To be operating in a context which people associated with serious politics and serious survival issues has its benefits and challenges. While Chicago is no Gary, it is a place with deep contradictions. There is great wealth amassed here as the capital of the Great Lakes megaregion, but within our city limits and just outside in places like Gary Indiana and commodity farming communities of Illinois and Wisconsin experience even greater abandonment through industrial consolidation. The industrial and agricultural history that made this region spawned both inspiring labor history and dramatic consolidation of wealth and power.
Through the use of food, these three artist projects engaged subject matter as diverse as the french revolution, institutional critique, survival and the financial sector. Food became a lens to examine the complexity of the world, as well as a tool to organize diverse constituents into collaboration and collective action. As artists from here and elsewhere join residents and activists in the midst of incredible artistic and political history as well as the harsh reality of despair worsened by a recession, there could not be a better time to reimagine this area and our lives and harvest a better future.