A Day on the Lake


This weekend, I took a trip out to the Art Shanty Projects, a temporary community of artist-made structures on White Bear Lake, open to visitors during the month of February. Now in its 10th year, the Art Shanty Projects is bigger than ever, drawing artists and visitors from around Minnesota. Hot coffee in hand, my friend and I trekked with herds of families, couples, and pet dogs onto the ice for the afternoon. In pictures, here’s a review of our time there.

Note: Due to the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having … and the possibility of the lake ice melting, Art Shanty Projects has been moved to the shores of White Bear Lake. All the same fun, just on dry land.


Right out of the gate, we were greeted by a Matoska Tonka Pedal Bear rolling towards us across the lake. These bears, a cross between a tandem bike and a giant puppet, are powered by enthusiastic visitors pedaling away inside. The bears are a highlight of the projects this year and served as a companion to the performance art piece, Lady Bear the Polar Bear Puppet, by artist Kimberly Ford, performed on Saturday afternoon.


My friend and I took a spin on a smaller relative of the bear above. About halfway around the lake, I discovered that there wasn’t a chain attached to my set of pedals, and that my friend had been doing all of the leg work — a nice excuse for me to relax, enjoy the ride, and wave hello to another passing bear. Here’s our bear, featured below getting a little TLC.

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The first shanty we visited, “My Home is Minnesota” Shanty, prompts visitors to consider how Minnesota is (or isn’t) home to them. One woman’s practical response: “Where is home to me? Anywhere that’s warm!” Wise words.


In this collaboration between a poet and a printmaker, visitors are also invited to edit and create written pieces on the subject of home. When we stopped by, Britt, the printmaker, was outside making drawings of her observations of Shanty Town. “My Home is Minnesota” is exemplary of the sort of community-generated art you’ll find through most of the shanties on White Bear Lake.


That said, “My Home is Minnesota” Shanty’s story is a bit of an oddball: Though most most of the shanties will be dismantled after the festival closes later this month, this structure will have an afterlife at the home of the hobbyist who built it from reclaimed barn wood. As Julie, the writer, told me, this “Frankenbarn” helped tie together another theme for their project – recycling: in this case, recycling of the resulting texts, ideas, wood, and structures.


When it was time for a snack, we stopped by Chef Shanty, where Jeremy, of Eat on the Loose, was serving chipotle potato salad. The salad found its companion in an on-site potato stamp craft project, the results of which decorated the walls. The snacks and projects in Chef Shanty will change each weekend; chefs from Il Foro and Third Bird will be coming to give demonstrations on a variety of topics, from curing salmon to making sauces. When we walked in, Jeremy was explaining how to grill romaine lettuce.



From there, we headed to AstroLounge. The artist collective Err asks, “How do people see the universe, and what tools do they use to build their understanding of it?” Here, astronomy and astrology coexist – you can look up your star sign or browse through scientific textbooks. A full program of activities includes tarot readings and conversations with skeptics of astrology alike.


Here, two people make a wish on a “star.”


Shanti Shanty: a shanty turned inside-out. One of only shanties whose main feature wasn’t inside, visitors spin this shanty like a Tibetan prayer wheel, prompting meditations on spirituality and our relationship to the environment. To commune further with nature, you can “send a message to the wind.”


After avoiding the cold for so long, in visiting the Art Shanty Projects it’s nice to tackle the season head-on, and have fun doing so. It’s a great way to get a close to nature, art, and a lively community of artists.

The Art Shanty Projects is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm, February 6–28, 2016. Find directions here.


From Pixels to Pavement

Communities are built on shared stories, not communication platforms. The activity of people coming together in common cause – for arguments, activism, person-to-person exchange of expertise and experiences – has little to do with the CMS or social media used to do so. Our modes of communication are evolving, certainly, but it strikes me that […]

PHONEBOOK-4-COVER-915x515Communities are built on shared stories, not communication platforms. The activity of people coming together in common cause – for arguments, activism, person-to-person exchange of expertise and experiences – has little to do with the CMS or social media used to do so. Our modes of communication are evolving, certainly, but it strikes me that the roots of community – real community – remain remarkably constant. That sense of belonging, of fellow-feeling, that comes from participation in a vibrant community is, as ever, firmly rooted in the realm of human connection first, even if those connections are made in digital rather than physical space. (Indeed, physical proximity matters less and less in the formation of communities, thanks to the ease of connecting with like-minded folks across great distances in real time. Everywhere is local online.)

The infrastructures of communication by which a group’s members engage one another don’t, in themselves, create communities. But look closely at the support systems and embedded interests of the platforms on which we assemble, and it’s just as clear how and where we house that human exchange – particularly online – matters deeply.

Who owns and operates the “free” social media platform your community uses for its gatherings? How is work and personal information you upload to your individual profile in a “community” database used by the website hosting it? Who moderates your conversations? Who created the algorithm that determines what is gleaned for the information feed you see from those you “follow”? And to what end is that data being shaped? If your community is using a commercially-owned, proprietary platform to conduct its conversations, who pays for it? Specifically, what (or who) is being sold in the process?

The various modes of communication we use now don’t, themselves, create our communities. But the media we choose for those interactions surely shapes them. Commercial media platforms are in the business of business: the for-profit social Web is designed with invisible fencing and incentives built-in, corralling and nudging its users’ energies and conversations (more or less adeptly) in profitable directions. There’s nothing necessarily evil about the arrangement. But we’d be wise to remember that when we gin up conversation around a community question on Facebook, mobilize around viral hashtags on Twitter, exchange “likes” and “shares” and clever GIFs on Tumblr, we’re effectively working someone else’s party.

For arts communities, in particular, issues of equity and access, inclusion and visibility in our shared stories are too important to leave in the hands of salesmen. I want to see more open-source platform creation, more web-savvy intention, from the code up, at the foundation of arts communities coming together online. I want artists and independent-minded cultural producers to build transparent, responsive digital spaces for themselves that might better connect community members in conversation, from pixels to pavement, in ways that reflect the values they hold in common. Our modes of communication, as conscious communities, need to reflect the shared stakes and benefits, arguments and activism that draw us together in the first place.

This essay was originally published in PHONEBOOK 4, (Chicago, IL: Threewalls, 2015). 


It’s Time to Expand the Field of “Regional” Arts Writing

  I like sociologist Alison Gerber’s definition of an artist. Her way of wrestling with the vocabulary of artistic practice and “field” resonates with my own attempts to wrangle the lexicon of contemporary art-making and criticism. For her short contribution to Temporary Art Review’s rolling Hand in Glove “social response,” she writes: “When I say […]



Photo: Florian Klauer (Unsplash)

I like sociologist Alison Gerber’s definition of an artist. Her way of wrestling with the vocabulary of artistic practice and “field” resonates with my own attempts to wrangle the lexicon of contemporary art-making and criticism. For her short contribution to Temporary Art Review’s rolling Hand in Glove “social response,” she writes:

“When I say artists, I don’t mean you and your friends. I didn’t really know that, not in my bones, until I became a quote-unquote scientist, until I sat down for a year or two and puzzled out what, exactly, I meant when I said ‘artist’ – and, more importantly, what I wanted to mean, what world I imagined when I conjured these artists. For the past few years, I’ve defined ‘artists’ for my own purposes with a proxy for artistic practice: the exhibition of artworks in public. I’ve drawn on rosters I constructed from the kinds of places where we encounter artworks: diverse presenting institutions that include galleries and museums, to be sure, but also cafes, studio crawls, churches, city streets.”

That notion of making work to share, somehow, with others in a public sphere seems to me crucial. After all, the soul of art lives not primarily in the act of a work’s creation, but in the dynamic, conversational space where two minds meet in the experience of it. It doesn’t matter if that work is presented in a gallery or on a stage or in a derelict city lot; what matters are the stories we tell each other about what we see there, the human labor of the making and sharing of it for that purpose.

Art so made and presented for others’ consideration amounts to a kind of blind query, a call from one mind to others like it. And that call is what good arts criticism answers – it’s a completion of the work, in a sense, accepting the artist’s invitation to look, to argue, to parse meaning or mystery, to find affinity there, or not.

At Mn Artists, our mission and mandate has always focused, first, around the needs of the regional arts community and improving the lives of working Minnesota artists. And for 13 years, our organization has included among its offerings a dedicated space and budget for homegrown arts writing and critical dialogue. But local artists are hungry for more than just visibility in a digital space; they want criticism and arts journalism that goes beyond simply holding a mirror up to local arts activities. Minnesota’s artists are educated, talented, sophisticated makers looking to connect their own practices here with larger currents of cultural work and conversation. They’re eager to have eyes from outside looking at work happening locally, but also invested in looking up and out and responding to what’s going on beyond our state’s borders.

Arts publishing that is mindful of its regional roots and local relevance doesn’t preclude engagement with artists, organizations, and audiences who are like-minded but may be working elsewhere. Indeed, the local arts scene is only enlivened further by those more far-reaching connections. And thanks to stability afforded by support from the McKnight Foundation and our home within the Walker Art Center, Mn Artists’ editorial efforts can afford to take a long view, to incubate that wider-network of artists, critics, and organizations across the country over time. We also have the breathing room to build a deep archive of editorial content covering disciplines – like dance, new music and jazz, poetry, visual art, social practice – that aren’t commercially viable fodder for in-depth coverage in most for-profit publications. As communities of practice and interest coalesce in the digital landscape, strict adherence to regional geographical boundaries in our editorial coverage, as a web-based platform for artists, seems not only less desirable, but even counterproductive to serving their demonstrated interests.

And so our strategies for publishing “regional” arts writing and criticism have, over the years, broadened. In recent years, we’ve adopted a wide-angle editorial strategy that serves the regional arts community by bringing outside writers, artists, and viewpoints into the fold of our coverage. Ultimately, we’re after writing and critical response with authentic regional flavor, local relevance, and a distinctively Upper Midwestern voice, but which isn’t bound by provincialism or needlessly small spheres of coverage. To my mind, it’s a declaration that the writing and artworks made in Minnesota are clearly strong enough, broadly relevant enough to resonate with audiences both here and far beyond the region.

Read more contributions to the Hand in Glove “Social Response” on Temporary Art Review.

Hand in Glove: An Introduction and Recommended Reading

—The following is excerpted from an editorial statement for Hand in Glove written by James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review. Artist-centric practices have continued to normalize as a dominant way of working in response to economic necessity, socially-aware apertures and numerous other factors. Hand-in-Glove has been a formative platform for gathering in this emergent field […]


—The following is excerpted from an editorial statement for Hand in Glove written by James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review.

Artist-centric practices have continued to normalize as a dominant way of working in response to economic necessity, socially-aware apertures and numerous other factors. Hand-in-Glove has been a formative platform for gathering in this emergent field since its first iteration, organized by Threewalls in Chicago in 2011. Now, paired with the launch of the nascent Common Field network, it is arriving at a pivotal moment for the field more broadly. Questions of the sustainability of this notoriously precarious activity, paired with latent institutionalization and professionalization within the field, are more pressing than ever as practitioners gather to consider the paradigms and platforms through which we engage.

Hand-in-Glove, in its own words, is “an itinerant gathering created by and for the practitioners in the field of alternative art spaces, projects and organizations” that “will investigate the contexts and conditions of artist-led culture across the country.”

As perhaps the only national gathering consistently focusing on the field of alternative art spaces, projects and organizations, the evolution of Hand-in-Glove also acts as a speculative narrative about the arc of this practice. It is “by and for” the field, offering an opportunity for necessary self-assessment about both its current dynamics and future shape.

The field, such as it is – this artist-centered, alternative terrain – is formalizing. It is inscribed in institutions mobilizing down and taking on more flexible forms, as well as small scale organizations organizing through networks of support. The field is also continually shifting – projects redirecting or shuttering, organizers moving and leaving their positions, questions of sustainability, growth, equity and access always on a precipice. Hand-in-Glove is a meeting point for these complex dynamics, offering a moment of reflection on both its own development since 2011 as well as the evolutions around artist-centric practice over the past several years.

Over the next several weeks, Temporary Art ReviewMn Artists, and Common Field are embarking on collaborative and cross-platform editorial project, a social response to Hand-in-Glove, featuring framing texts on the convening, commissioned essays, and critical responses to this year’s convening, September 17 through 20, in the Twin Cities.

With these conversations, in writing and in person, we’re attempting to open a porous space in which we ask these questions back to ourselves:

What is our common field of practice and how do we advance it?

What are models of growth that don’t use the mechanisms of institutionalization?

Can we articulate our position of artist-centricity in tangible terms?

Are we successfully embodying the kind of art world we wish to see more broadly?


Weigh in with your own thoughts here or in the ongoing conversational threads unspooling over the coming weeks on Temporary Art Review, in their section for the Hand in Glove “Social Response.”

To prepare for the Hand in Glove convening this week, we’ve been reading up, compiling resources and links to landmark articles in this burgeoning field. Below, you’ll find a selection of suggested articles and essays, notable web resources and books, that might help us navigate as we get the lay of the land for this emerging common field.


  • Robert Gard’s landmark essay on arts development in smaller towns as “a laboratory through which the vision for a region is reformulated and extended,” at the forefront of a larger, national renaissance in arts and culture: “The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan” (aka “The Windmill Book”)
  • A chapter from the book, Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of The Arts in the United States, in which Maryo Gard Ewell offers valuable historical context for current trends in community-rooted, socially-engaged art: “Arts-Based Community Development: Where Did We Come From?
  • Burn the Maps” by Art of the Rural founder Matthew Fluharty on redrawing the maps of the cultural center and periphery to account for evolving demographic, cultural, and economic realities in “rural” America (Mn Artists)
  • Lane Relyea with Katy Siegel” on the historical and future implications of DIY, contemporary post-studio practices, and the M.F.A. as a rising art world institution (The Brooklyn Rail)


  • Art Practical’s double-issue on “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” includes a wide-ranging assortment of essays – from writers working in economics, sociology, art history, performance studies, dance, film studies, and literature – which explore the intersections of art, activism, artistic service, compensation and labor.
  • Ben Davis’s “9.5 Theses on Art and Class
  • Sociologist Alison Gerber’s piece on art and the state, “The Nightmare Audit of an Indie Artist.” (Narratively)
  • Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy’s “Moral Views of Market Society” (The Annual Review of Sociology)
  • From Julia Bryan-Wilson’s book, Art Workers, the essay, “From Artists to Art Workers,” unpacks the implications cultural labor in the political sphere: “art work is no longer confined to describing aesthetic methods, acts of making, or art objects—the traditional referents of the term—but is implicated in artists’ collective working conditions, the demolition of the capitalist art market, and even revolution.”
  • Loren Nosan on carving out new pathways for successful artistic practice, outside the realm of “the immensely powerful consumerist machine” and the institutional and credentialing systems which perpetuate it: “Artists of the World, Unite!” (Galleryell)


  • Critic Ben Davis untangles some of the nuances in the question of what it means to be a political artist today in “A Critique of Social Practice Art” (International Socialist Review)
  • Is Social Practice Gentrifying Community Arts?Bad At Sports’ incisive dispatch from the Creative Time Summit (NYC), The Association of American Cultures (Providence, RI), and Hand in Glove (New Orleans): August – October 2013
  • In “Disasters Align,” Red76 founder Sam Gould makes the case for a rangier sort of socially-engaged art that forgoes easy, art world-friendly categories like “social practice” in favor of articulating a field of practice that embraces more disruptive, unabashedly irrational work and interaction. (Mn Artists)
  • An Xiao Mina writes on the nexus of artists, the internet, and social movements in “An Activism of Affirmation” (
  •  “Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Arts Institutions”  documents remarks from a lively conversation at Assembly, a social practice gathering held last year in Portland, Ore., compiled by Ariana Jacob, on the question: Does social practice belong in museums?  (Mn Artists)


Monica Sheets offers two suggestions, writing: “These are some oldies but goodies that seem to still be highly relevant regarding the danger for (neoliberal) instrumentalization of artists’ work and socially engaged art’s problematic relationship to the political.”

Seattle’s and/or organization founder, Anne Focke, writes: “In the late 1980s, several hundred people met twice at remote locations on two islands, one on the U.S. east coast and one on the west, to consider “the creative support of the creative artist.” Sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), the first conference was held in May 1986 at Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York and the second in November 1988 on Orcas Island near the Canadian border in Washington state. These two gatherings brought together artists, arts funders, and dedicated people from organizations that serve artists. For two days (Montauk) or four days (Orcas) they talked, performed, argued, ate together, played together, and tackled critical concerns beyond the arts. They also built life-long friendships and professional relationships and provoked questions that remain today.”

Noteworthy websites and online resources:

Suggestions for further reading:

Many thanks to Maia Murphy, Maria Sykes, Alison Gerber, Shanai Matteson, Colin Kloecker, Andy Sturdevant, James McAnally, Monica Sheets, Abigail Satinsky, Jehra Patrick, Emily Gastineau, Anne Focke, Shawn(ta) Smith Cruz, and Paul Bonin Rodriguez for their contributions to the list.

Conference information:

Hand in Glove 2015 (#HIG2015) will take place September 17 – 20 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information on topics, sessions, and related events, visit the convening’s website:

Let’s consider this a working document – please feel free to add your own reading suggestions in the comments.

Superscript Required Reading

Later this week, critics and artists, journalists, editors, and all manner of people interested in the future of cultural media online will convene at the Walker Art Center for Superscript, an international conference (the first-of-its-kind, as far as we can tell) on “the future of arts criticism and journalism in a digital age.” Our featured […]


Later this week, critics and artists, journalists, editors, and all manner of people interested in the future of cultural media online will convene at the Walker Art Center for Superscript, an international conference (the first-of-its-kind, as far as we can tell) on “the future of arts criticism and journalism in a digital age.” Our featured speakers hail from an array of outlets, large and small: from Rhizome, e-flux and frieze to VICE, Pitchfork, and BuzzFeed Books; from Temporary Art Review and The New Inquiry to Creative Time Reports and the Los Angeles Times.

We’re more interested in articulating nuanced questions for consideration than offering definitive answers:

What’s the role of the “professional” critic?

Is virality killing or cultivating new audiences for the arts?

What are the promising models for funding and sustaining substantive arts reporting and criticism?

How is the web changing the way artists tell their stories or expand their practices—or how we think about art? 

We have been reading up, mulling essays and think-pieces, polemics and manifestos on the present and future issues in the field by a motley assortment of inspired artists, critics, and media folk from a range of disciplines and platforms. Below you’ll find a shortlist of the thought-provoking pieces we bookmarked and shared as we made our preparations. Please do weigh in where you see gaps in our list, and leave your own recommended reading suggestions in the comments.

Topic: Criticism, Credibility, and Collusion

Topic: Sustainability, Growth, and Ethics

Topic: Connectivity and Community

Topic: Artists as Cultural First Responders

Related information:

Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age is a three-day conference, copresented by Walker Art Center and Mn Artists (May 28–30, 2015). Here’s a list of all the ways you can participate in the conversations and events surrounding Superscript (whether you attend in person or not).

Presented as part of

Does Social Practice Belong in Museums? Artist Janaki Ranpura Responds

Recently, Mn Artists posted excerpts from a live debate on the question, “Does social practice belong in art museums?,” posed by Ariana Jacob to the audience of practitioners on hand at last summer’s Assembly in Portland, Ore.. We asked some Minnesota artists to weigh in as well. The following response comes from Janaki Ranpura, an artist who works […]

Photo from Assembly: A Social Practice Get-Together, held in Portland, Ore. last summer

Photo from Assembly: A Social Practice Get-Together, held in Portland, Ore. last summer

Recently, Mn Artists posted excerpts from a live debate on the question, “Does social practice belong in art museums?,” posed by Ariana Jacob to the audience of practitioners on hand at last summer’s Assembly in Portland, Ore.. We asked some Minnesota artists to weigh in as well. The following response comes from Janaki Ranpura, an artist who works in performance for stage and public space. Her work, Socially I Am Awkward, was part of the recent thinking, making, living exhibition at the University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery. (You can read a related essay by Walker Art Center’s Ashley Duffalo, on the difficulty of having critical conversation about such art practices, over at the main Mn Artists homepage.)

Social practice art will inevitably be represented and addressed in public institutions, including museums. This seems appropriate and beneficial to deepening the practice of artists and improving the understanding of this term.

What’s at stake?  Legitimization from institutions on one hand and, on the other, being taken seriously as artists who are delegitimizing institutions. But being taken seriously by whom?

This dichotomy assumes that the point of social practice art is to destabilize. That is not the point of this term to me. It is the point of art, but not in any way unique to social practice. Being in a museum is not art per se. Museums are a showcase for art; they mediate between art makers and the public. They also have a function of educating artists about other artists, but there are lots of forums for that, and that function is not unique to museums.

In this context, what is social practice?   Relational. It is not a term that describes outcomes; it addresses things that raise themselves up as relevant in the course of making work. These things are interdisciplinary connections and a performance aesthetic. Here, by “performance” I mean the ways that live people react to each other and to space. Results can be community building, landscape — but that is not the focus of the term. The term, “social practice,” entails a focus on intersubjective awareness and awareness of experience of a tactile space. I add tactile because the form is live. The showing up and showing off in galleries is about the legacy of a present moment. “Social practice art” does not apply to pieces that can exist without their author present; the author/artist is the conductor of a symphonic experience of presence.

The role of museums for this form.   I’m referring, then, to social practice as interior experience. It necessarily follows that such practice escapes recording. So, what can be put into a museum? Traces.

And a history of a moment is not in any way an unusual thing to put in a museum. It is, in fact, what museums mostly truck in: showing objects with vibrancy (i.e., phenomenological potency) that remind and point to the circumstance of humanity at the time of their creation. The highest of the high continue to generate primary experience — that is, what is being seen right then — as well as referencing a significant past (what I consider as an evaluative criteria). Many, many objects in collections do not do this, and sometimes this sensation is not even universal, but rather extremely circumstantial and particular. Given this, museums can, through layout and didactics, encourage in their visitors the right headspace to discover the experiential and/or phenomenological groove an object offers.

Further explanation about that: the museum provides a place quiet enough to allow primary experience (a phenomenological be-here-now) to happen, and that primary experience is triggered by objects (when I say “objects,” I’m including space and pictures). It is clear that my stance is that of an experiential artist, calling the museum simply a box in which you have experiences … but it’s usually a sophisticated box, mind you. And this thing about sophistication brings me to another point.

What’s great about museums is that there are a bunch of professionals there. What’s great about professionals is that they spend lots and lots of hours doing the thing they do. What’s great about spending lots and lots of hours is that getting good at anything takes practice. So, there are these professionals spending a lot of hours thinking about deepening the discourse of art — and it’s for the public. What a brilliant gift to civil society. It seems to me spoiled to reject that public gift. The whole point of an artistic life is to deepen the discourse. I want to do that with the best people, and museums help grow some of those people through the curators they cultivate. All this isn’t to say that I believe in educated opinions to the exclusion of amateur ones. But I would say it by way of countering the troubling argument that only naïve participants constitute a genuine public.

Interconnectedness: Grab as many hands as possible.

This leads me to an interesting observation noted in Dorothy Chansky’s review of Shannon Jackson (PDF): that assuming an anti-institutional stance, for an artist, occupies the same space of political consciousness as the neo-liberal stance that no government is good government. We are all still using the roads, the power lines, and drinking clean water. We are all paying into the museum; it is a utility to feed the public mind. To turn your back on using public institutions is akin to assuming that it is possible to live in society and simultaneously be autonomous. The term “social practice” is particularly ill-suited to that mindset.

Talking about necessary interconnectedness leads me to funding models. Funding is not within what I mean by “practicing art” – I think of the struggle to attain personal keenness and excellence, and figuring out how to transmit it, when I use that phrase. But it is certainly smart for an artist to fund life and meaning with a Robin Hood approach: that is, make sale-able objects to fund the invisible (internal, personal) experiments of social practice. This is not corrupting, it is just clever. If you are going to be an artist, it’s a lot more fun if you’re also a fox.

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In sum: social practice is about internal experience. That experience is not recordable. It is, in its ripples outside the immediate moment, hard to share. Therefore, it can only be shared as a historical phenomenon. The best examples of such practice leave historical traces that are physically vibrant enough to trigger some kind of secondary experience of immediacy (post-immediacy, phenomenology, whatever you choose to call it). We, as artists, want to share our work with as many people as possible. Museums are good collaborators in figuring out how to do that with integrity. If you don’t agree with my stance that disruption is not a purview unique to social practice, but belongs to all art in general, you will not agree with any of the rest of what is said here.

Janaki Ranpura shapes performer / participant relationships in non-traditional spaces. She has been a fellow at the Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis for the past three years, where she created Ububu, a play with actors and marionettes. She is a member of Public Art St Paul’s City Art Collaboratory, a think tank of artists and scientists working on urban issues. She’s in the process of developing Your Heart Is In My Mouth, a toy theater performance about family history developed through Pillsbury House Theater and with installation components created while in residence at the MacDowell Colony. She has received awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Forecast Public Art, the Jerome Foundation, and a Citation of Excellence for her large-scale shadow theater piece, Lovesick Sea Play. She worked on Baby Marx with Pedro Reyes at Art Basel Parcours and the Walker Art Center. She trained with Larry Reed’s company, Shadowlight, at École Lecoq and at Yale University.

Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Art Institutions

It seems like everywhere you look today, artists are working collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in public and community settings and well outside the traditional context of the art museum. The desire by artists to directly engage the world, their diversity of approaches, and the collective and collaborative ways their work is made […]

Janaki Ranpura's project for the ongoing exhibit at the Katherine E. Nash Museum, thinking making living, on view through December 13.

Janaki Ranpura’s project at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery for thinking making living, on view through December 13.

It seems like everywhere you look today, artists are working collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in public and community settings and well outside the traditional context of the art museum. The desire by artists to directly engage the world, their diversity of approaches, and the collective and collaborative ways their work is made has spurred heated debates about the role of art in the world today.   Tangled in histories of activism, community organizing, and avant-garde aspirations to merge art and life, socially-engaged art practices challenge the very institutions that have traditionally educated, presented, and supported contemporary artists, namely the art school and the museum.

“Art Inside Out: Socially Engaged Art and Institutions” will be the focus of conversation between Roger Cummings, Natasha Pestich, Christina Schmid, Colleen Sheehy, and Sarah Schultz, as part of the exhibition, thinking making living, at the Nash Gallery. (Wednesday, December 10 at 6 pm).  Knowing such conversations are happening among friends and peers elsewhere, we invited Portland-based artist Ariana Jacob, to share some of the proceedings from this past summer’s rousing Assembly: A Social Practice Get-together that took place at the Portland Art Museum.

The following debate project was organized for the Assembly by Ariana Jacob, who invited the six members of the debate teams, as well as the gathered audience, to respond to the question: Does social practice belong in art museums?


This question was chosen not because there is a pressing need to resolve that matter one way or another, but as a prompt that could push to the surface the power dynamics of the overlapping and oppositional interests at play in this still forming field of art practice.

On the team advocating that social practice belongs IN museums: Phaedra Livingstone, professor of Museum Studies at the University of Oregon, Sheetal Prajapati from the Education Department at MoMA, and Harrell Fletcher, Director of the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University – the program that organized the Assembly event. On the team arguing for social practice to resist incorporation and remain OUTside of museums: Amy Harwood, co-founder of the outdoor artist residency Signal Fire, Deborah Fisher, executive director of A Blade of Grass, an organization focused on supporting socially engaged art, and Paul Ramirez Jonas, an artist who has worked within the field of social practice both inside and outside of museums.

The debate teams were invited to set the stage by having each member make a position statement, and the audience was invited to respond to these stances with their own comments and questions. These were followed by a period of dialogue, first between the debate team members and then opening up to a free flow between audience and panelists.

The IN-museum side pointed out that there has been a long history of parallel development towards public engagement practices within museum education departments that naturally correspond with social practice art. They acknowledged that there are real reasons why museums are perceived as elitist spaces but argued that this could be changed faster by artists and museum practitioners working together from inside the institution to make more inclusive institutional practices and to more fully live up to their ideals as a public space and a public good. The INside also pointed out that within the existing art economy museums are more compatible financial backers of social practice art than the existing commercial gallery world, where sale-ability is paramount.

The OUTside brought up strong concerns about the price of compromising the work by fitting it into museum sanctioned forms where it no longer has the wildness that gives it power. They astutely pointed out that museums are physically and financially structured around the collection and display of objects, and that unless that changes, social practice will always be at a disadvantage negotiating for recognition within those institutional structures. They also strategically made a call to refuse working with museums unless museums do more to present this work in the context of art discourse, as opposed to education and outreach, on the grounds that museums have more to gain from social practice work’s ability to generate their own audiences than these artists have to gain from getting access to the preestablished art audiences that come with a museum.

The atmosphere was intentionally rowdy. Time was kept by the electric guitar virtuoso, LKN, who drowned out speakers with screamingly beautiful heavy metal riffs regardless of whether they were well credentialed or unknown. For the first half of the debate people were not allowed to respond directly to each other and instead could only voice their own questions and statements, which accelerated the flow of ideas but heated up the room with frustration. Speakers, both on the stage and on the floor, were rewarded with shots of mezcal for sharing their thoughts. The rules of the debate were changed on the fly midway through to make more time for discussion between the audience and the debaters. For the most part each person was only called upon to speak once, allowing as many different voices to be heard as possible and making sure no-one dominated the floor. By the end, much of the audience had joined the debate, and yet the room was still filled with an urgency to articulate all the perspectives that had not been expressed.  As with a more traditional Oxford-style debates, the audience was asked to vote before and after the discussion to indicate how persuasive each side had been in making their case. While there was a slight movement from OUT towards IN throughout the course of the night, the final vote was a tie – a fitting end to the proceedings, resisting the charged desire to resolve the conflict, and instead re-emphasizing the importance of laying bare the different stakes at work in the field.

What follows are some key excerpts edited down from the live debate[1]:

Introduction by Ariana Jacob:

Think of this debate as a public conversation. Conversation as a form of practice is central to my interests as an artist. To many people, conversation implies an arena that is limited to politeness and agreement, when in fact, conflict is a crucial element of dialogue. Conflict points out what matters to us, where we draw our lines to take a stand. And conflict undeniably has energy. Disagreement illuminates the places where we can potentially think new thoughts. When we notice we are disagreeing with someone it reveals the edges of our own thinking, and even if we are not going to end up agreeing, there is a chance that we can get a different perspective on the echo chamber of our own established lines of reasoning. I wanted to bring a form of conflict into this forum on socially engaged art and see what would come forth from exposing and discussing some of our underlying fault lines. The relationship between socially engaged art and institutions is a complicated one. On the one hand social practice is born out of the impulse to take art out of sanctioned spaces and bring it into everyday life places and interpersonal forms. So it might be a form of backtracking to be finding ourselves back at the threshold of the museum. But on the other hand socially engaged artists have a lot to gain from being taken seriously in the discourse of art and museums have a lot to gain from the way that social practice shifts the relationship with audience towards participation and personal involvement.

The debate starts with the question: Does social practice belong in art museums? But then it moves out from there, as different stakes are brought forward in the conversation.

Opening Statements:

Phaedra Livingstone advocating for social practice to be IN museums:

I am here to assert that the art museum and social practice are perfectly compatible. Your very presence here in this space embodies my first assertion arguing for museums. I’d like to take a poll now. Who here feels that museums are elitist? (Most people raised their hands.) Now, who here feels that museums are a public good? (Again most people raise their hand and one audience member calls out, “they should be.”) Museums are complex institutions with many layers and I think it is fair to answer in the positive to both those questions.

There has long been an over-emphasis on the role of collections in the public understanding of museums. But as visitors, we actually experience the museum through programming, not through collections. We might experience collections in that programming, but it is programming we are experiencing. As we experience it, the art museum is a public space for programming with the goal of serving and developing civil society, and therefore is a prime venue for social practice. If you believe that museums are elitist or exclusive and you, as an artist, wish to change that, then the art museum is precisely where you need to do that work. The alternative is to create a new institution for showcasing art which will likewise face sociopolitical realities that will require management, and hence the dance of principled compromise. As a realist I want to improve the real world rather than invest in an imagined utopia that may actually be worse than what we’ve already got.

Amy Harwood arguing for social practice to stay OUT of museums:

My primary role in the arts community is as a totally devoted audience member. I’m not a committed maker or even a critic, but art is about the only thing these days that brings me back from spending time out in the wild. I have spent the most recent half of my life committed to environmental activism. I am unapologetic about this while maintaining some reservations about the history of my predecessors. One of the many debates in the environmental movement is about the utility of wilderness. As some of you may know this summer is the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act. This remains the strongest piece of legislation ever written in this soon forsaken nation. I recommend that you all read it someday. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of legislation, total poetry. It applies from the core of the earth to the atmosphere, which is so beautiful to think about. As I thought about this question of how socially engaged art interacts with museums and institutions I saw a corollary to wilderness: How do we ensure accessibility without debasement? What is compromised by this strategy? Does the construct of an institution undermine wildness? Ultimately, who is in charge? I think these questions, and questions of whether our institutions are just menageries of the rich and temples to cultural production are absolutely critical as my generation inherits the power of our predecessors. The art world is currently reflecting a community complicit with capitalist empire. I implore all artists who have the courage to be true interveners: to align themselves against that shit wherever it arises. Ultimately I can’t evaluate anything without resorting to my years of love affair with wild places, and just as I question the utility of wilderness areas to stave off the destruction of the natural world through a few hard to reach places, I would question the role of museums to represent the wild and free artistic expression of socially engaged art.

Sheetal Prajapati for IN:

When we think of art, we tend to think of art objects, but this is a mistake. The real art is the experience of making or encountering an object or an idea. When the work is separated from these experiences it is separated from life. These are the ideas from John Dewey’s Art & Experience and these ideas continue to serve as the core tenants of museum education practiced today, as they have been for decades. As I was thinking about the question of this debate, these thoughts from Dewey brought me to question the question itself. I think what we are actually debating is where does socially engaged art belong in art museums? Traditionally art has always belonged in collections and exhibitions, and essentially to curators, who steward, research, collect and display artworks. I want to argue that social practice art belongs in education departments. Museum education departments have been engaging in social practice for decades.  They have historically served as the most democratic and welcoming face of museums. Like artists who are drawn to social practice as their medium, in part because it is more free from the art market and other structural rigidities that exist in the “art world,” so educators have found museums to be the educative spaces that are largely free of the standards and practices of traditional educational institutions. There continues to be a range of valid and serious criticism of museums as elitist or closed spaces for larger publics, but most of the time these conversations ignore or omit the work of education departments. Our work is often invisible and commodified for the sake of funding exhibitions and other curatorial based practices. I would propose that like museum educators, social practice artists are thinking less about status and power, and more about openness, outreach, inclusion, facilitating action, inspiring creativity, and taking part in long term societal practice that develops culturally and socially active citizens.  One might even consider that social practice within the sphere of the art world may actually have been inspired by educative practice, but I suppose that is another debate.

Deborah Fisher for OUT:

I want to cut to the chase and talk about power and resources in a really direct way. How is value accrued around art? How is value accrued around social practice? What drives value in museums? I am an arts organization, and specifically I am A Blade of Grass, which is organized entirely around driving resources to social practice. So these are really, really important questions to me. And while is difficult to be on the side of the debate against museums as an arts organization, I think that museums are organized around objects in a way that is too important to ignore. It is ok for any of us to declare that art is about experience, or art is about creativity, but doing that disavows how museums actually run, and get their money, and become economically sustainable. They run because they work with collectors and their collections. They take care of those objects and everything is organized around those objects. Socially engaged art is interesting, and potentially revolutionary, because it is organized around a different value proposition. We value stuff in this society. Maybe social practice is a way to shift value in society towards relationships, experiences, and the sensation of interdependency. But how will we really be able to do that revolutionary work of valuing those experiences instead of the objects which can be sold so readily? I don’t think that museums are structured to be able to do this new work on an economic level. Theaster Gates does a really good job working around this structural problem: he sells a lot of art objects to fund other work that isn’t object based. But I think when you put these projects back into the museum, since the museum’s value is being driven so much around objects, the work winds up being documentation instead of the art, or the work itself gets distorted.

Harrell Fletcher for IN:

As an artist who has worked with lots of different institutions – and also outside of them – I came from a time period when there wasn’t a term social practice and there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding for this kind of work either.  So for me it has been really incredible to see the last ten years of development and how much things have changed.  When I see things like at the Hammer, where Allison Agsten is a public engagement curator that is a really interesting to me. I agree that yes, museums are not set up for social practice style work, or performance, or dance, or music, or any other of those kinds of things to take place in them normally, but they are incredible spaces, public spaces.  And it is great to realize that there is this sort of public real estate that for the most part isn’t being activated, it is just housing static objects – which is an important role, but I think it can do other things as well. It is an amazing thing to have institutions welcome in, as the Portland Art Museum has done with Shine A Light for the last five years, another way of using the space, and engaging with the public, making the museum relevant to people who it might not ordinarily be relevant to. My sense is that yes, social practice, however you decide to define it, does have a place in the museum – and it has a place in the grocery store, and in the park and the farmers market, the internet and in publications, and that this is a way of valuing that kind of work, and the more ways that exist the less necessary it is to feel like you have to follow  commercial route, which was what seemed like the only route when I was in graduate school, the only one that professors talked to me about for sure. Now sometimes I work with education departments, sometimes I work with curatorial, and sometimes I work completely outside of the institution. As an artist that is what I want.  I am a strong advocate for inclusion in all areas. Though it is difficult, and I have definitely experienced all sorts of challenges and adversity trying to work with institutions, including this one, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavor and one that will benefit both artists who work in this capacity and the institutions that do a variety of things, including now promoting social practice as well.

Paul Ramirez Jonas for OUT:

I come from a position where I am object maker who partakes of the sins of exhibitions, and I also make some things that now are labelled socially engaged art, so I’ve seen both sides and I am still trying to figure it out, but today I will say that I am vehemently opposed to presenting socially engaged art in art museums, specifically.  I think what I value in socially engaged art is its ability to convene audiences and make publics, it is about public making, as we are now assembled here, not in an exhibition. Each venue has a pre-made public, a ready-made public – in the theater, in the museum, in the movies. But we are in the business of trying to convene a public outside of these already prescribed formats. However museums do want to show socially engaged art – in science museums, in history museums in other museums, non-art museums. We are being asked to be part of a transaction: museums are offering us something and we artists are offering something in return. We are offering engagement, we are offering some ability to convene certain kinds of publics, and museums give us contexts. When I show in an art museum I want the benefit of the art museum, and that benefit is to put me in the context of art history. It is not a gallery, it is a museum, its job is to historicize and put my work in context. But museums of art don’t really know what to do with us. They know what to do with relics, performances, relics of performances, it is always shown in exhibition mode. They are not willing to reinvent the exhibition to accommodate this kind of work so there is no benefit to us if the work has to be violently transformed to fit that mode. When you see an exhibition of Fluxus it is not Fluxus, it is an exhibition of remnants of Fluxus. So what I would ask is, what do we have to gain if they can not put us in the context of art discourse and filter our access to the museum through the education department? For that reason I think we should refuse, until they can figure out how to give us a different mode of presentation that can accommodate this form of art.

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

Excerpts from audience statements and the discussion that followed:

Mack McFarland: I’m really curious about the inside argument that museums should deal with social practice is through the education department. I’ve heard many artists and many museums workers describe the education department as the ghetto of the museum, based on budgetary hierarchies between the various departments and the amount of respect that education departments get. And while that evokes the issue of where most revolutions start… none the less, if we aren’t going to put this work into the place of curatorial, where the big dollars are, then I am a little hesitant to give my vote to the IN side.

Sarah Wolf-Newlands: I just want to say that the fight to be more inclusive is going on within the institutions, I’ve seen that at the Walker and I see it here at the Portland Art Museum. I think it happens on a daily basis within museum education departments.

Audience[2]: How Deborah framed the idea that museums are built around objects was really useful. To me this creates an entry point to the whole reason that this matters, because I believe in art that is the experience, is the intersection of power, is the thing happening and not a representation. The danger and the violence that institutionalizing or locating this work in more formal structures is that they insist upon creating representations.

Cameron Cartiere: My question is for Paul: So, if we resist and refuse to work with museums, how can we actually help with the change if we are not in there, in the conversation? While we could, eventually, hopefully, leave it to the museums to figure out, it will happen a hell of a lot faster if we are in there, doing it with them.

Sheetal: I think with every major avant garde and contemporary art movement in history, museums are always last to the party. We are the last ones to figure out how it fits into our collections and into our archives. I know this doesn’t sound fantastic, but I think this is the reality that we live in, which is that that museums are going to figure it out eventually, just like we did for everything else. I refuse to think that because it is ephemeral it can’t be collected. To me that is false, it can be collected: performance art is, video art is, digital art is – we are going to figure it out. This is the nature of the institution. I am not saying it is perfect, but it is inevitable.

Audience:  At what price are we going to figure out how to put all these kinds of art we are talking about tonight in a box?  I think that the real value – especially at this point of time in human history – of social practice art is its ability to interrupt.

Grace Hwang: I think I am in this unique position here, because I did work at the MoMA in the Education Department for about 7 years, and I did, I do, really identify with that work. I really saw the museum as this learning laboratory, a place of freedom outside the classroom.  I felt classrooms were not the places where I wanted to pursue teaching. But I also felt that I had limited agency as a contractual employee of the museum. I had a certain degree of freedom in what I could do, but it was really limiting. So, when I saw an e-flux ad go out for Shine A Light (a night of socially engaged art projects by students from the Portland State University Social Practice MFA program taking place within the Portland Art Museum), I felt both like this is what I already do as a museum educator, but then also like there was a curtain lifting and that maybe on the other side, as an artist, I would have more agency in creating these freeing spaces, which is the path I have now chosen.

Sheetal: I will say this: I am still figuring out how to share power. I work at an institution that holds a lot of power, yes. And my job is to try and figure out how to rework that structure, and find a space where artists are collaborating with us and not doing work in service of us.

Justice: One of the big things that museums do is establish authority and one of the things that social practice does is diffuse authority. So how can you possibly reconcile those two forces?

Tori Abernathy: I guess the issue that arises is to what extent the museum actually is a public place that is available to a lot of people. Like many people have brought up, obviously there are barriers to access that extend far beyond the price of the ticket. The value of the arts, especially the kind that many of us here practice, is its ability to intervene in people’s everyday spaces.

Paul: The museum should be a site of public engagement for artists in the context of art. I can go to the Met and have a martini while listening to a string quartet. The string quartet is engaging in public engagement – but not in the context of art. And we are artists, we do not want to be the string quartet while people drink martinis. We do not want to be part of the education department. We want the museum to show us in the context of art. The museum has to cooperate and do their part of the bargain. Getting in the collection is not so relevant, but the context of the discourse – we want discourse. We actually know how to present art outside of the discourse of art. But the museum only has one thing to offer us: it is that discourse, and if they do not give it to us…then we are out!

Amy: I would say, too, that with social practice art, one of its tenets is unpredictability, and that is something that makes me show up. I actually think that social practice involves some of the worst organizing that I have ever seen — as somebody who is a professional organizer, it is terrifying to see how bad people can be at organizing, because there are training programs and skills available for those things. But I show up anyway, because it is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in unpredictable behavior. So, what I hear you all saying is: how do we control that in a way that doesn’t limit its wildness? And my point in making this metaphor is, like – no, don’t.  Just don’t control it. That lack of control is the whole point. That’s the thing that is the most exciting and gets people to actually show up.

Harrell: If we are going to function as artists, and the value system is through the art museum, but they only collect something once it is done, or once that artist is dead – it does not help people very much in their career and in their life now, like with paying the rent. We have to find systems in which social practice artists can be supported, so that this work can flourish and develop, which means there have to be these institutional support systems and probably skipping over the commercial realm that is normally the gatekeeper for art work.

Paul: My intention in advocating for refusal is rhetorical, but also more precise: I would hate for social practice work to have to be deformed by adapting itself to museum practices that are not adapting to them. Education departments are willing to adapt themselves, but curatorial departments are not, so the goal shouldn’t be to get into the museum at whatever price.

Audience: The museum has always been a site of historicity. and not necessarily of contemporary practice or art making. I am wondering if the museum could be a site for social practice, but not necessarily for collecting it, at least at this time. I don’t think that that is necessarily problematic. I think about artists like Sol Lewitt, who people often cite as being a grandfather of social practice: what happened with him was that new kinds of space were created so that his work could be properly exhibited. That has happened in so many instances that I am not sure if it is a question of whether this work belongs in art museums, but what role museums can play in raising our art forms to a level of needing to be preserved for future generations.

Deborah: The question becomes: what kinds of institutions can do the work of transforming something so ephemeral? Of extracting the value and sending it to the next place? What helps to really make something like that lastingly valuable?

Patricia Vazquez: A thought I have is about how institutions can become outdated, how they have life-span.  I just wonder at which stage in its life span the museum, as institution, is right now? Museums have been around for thousands of years, and I’m wondering if socially engaged art can change museums from the inside, or whether it is a better match for creating new institutions.

Cris Scorza: I want to bring the conversation back, maybe change the question: how does social practice interact in the art museum? Let’s remove the word “belong,” like someone said earlier. I think, yes, there are so many of us that are risk-takers, and we welcome you in! Yes, we stay behind in the process, but we are trying to catch up as quickly as we can. Yes, Lygia Clark didn’t have an exhibition until 50 years later, but we now want to walk the line together and start collecting this work and presenting it to our audiences. The museum’s resources, this auditorium that we are all sharing, is your auditorium. Our role as museums is civic engagement. These institutions belong to you – you ought to transform them.

Concluding statements:

Megan Grace Harned for OUT:

When we put this work into museums does that power stifle and suffocate it, and remove the obligation for museums to reflect on their role and power in society in terms of social justice?

Audience for IN:

If social practice doesn’t belong in museums, then that is awesome, because that probably means that it really does belong in museums, since that is when the most interesting stuff comes out: when you put something where it doesn’t belong.

Deborah for OUT:

It is really important if the goal of this work is transformation to ensure that we are never complicit in an existing power structure. So, the question is: how do you structure participation in these institutions in a way that is not complicit?

Harrell for IN:

I am just going to cite what we have just experienced here, tonight: Ariana’s social practice project, this debate, has happened within a museum. You guys can decide for yourself whether there was any value to it or not for it to be here.

[1] Thank you to Madelyn Freeman, Stephanie Parrish of the Portland Art Museum, Roya Amirsoleymani of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and the PSU Social Practice MFA Program for helping make this debate exist.

[2] My apologies to those people whose voices I did not recognize in the recording or whose names I do not know.

Ariana Jacob makes artwork that uses conversation as medium and as a subjective research method. Her work explores experiences of interdependence and disconnection, questions her own idealistic beliefs, and investigates how people make culture and culture makes people.  She received her MFA in Art & Social Practice from Portland State University. Her work has been included in the NW Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum, Disjecta’s Portland 2012 Biennial, The Open Engagement Conference and the Discourse and Discord Symposium at the Walker Art Center.

Readers, where do you stand? Make your case in the comments.

Recap: Lane Relyea on DIY Culture, Alternate Art Spaces and Making Objects into Subjects

The crowd that squeezed into Midway on November 12 to hear Lane Relyea’s talk, “Subjects of the Institution of Art,” could easily have filled the auditorium at the Walker, but Relyea’s message would have felt dulled had it been ensconced in such an “institution.”  Midway’s library was a particularly apt setting for Relyea’s thought-provoking discussion. […]

Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

The crowd that squeezed into Midway on November 12 to hear Lane Relyea’s talk, “Subjects of the Institution of Art,” could easily have filled the auditorium at the Walker, but Relyea’s message would have felt dulled had it been ensconced in such an “institution.”  Midway’s library was a particularly apt setting for Relyea’s thought-provoking discussion. This gallery library is an exemplary iteration of the “your” in Relyea’s recent book Your Everyday Art World, in which he explores the burgeoning trend for art spaces at every level to multiply platforms for interaction and greater opportunity for feedback loops with their visitors. It’s worth noting that this alternative art space, once housed in St. Paul’s Midway area, actually reduced the square footage for its gallery to accommodate its library’s expansion, literally opening up more of its dedicated physical space to written intellectual discourse around visual art in an effort to foster more back-and forth conversation between viewer, artist and art object.

But Lane Relyea’s presence in the library was symbolic and powerful for other reasons, too. See, Relyea was here, in Minneapolis, at a particularly fertile time in our cities’ creative history — the late ’80s and early ’90s.  I was here, too, caught in the fringes of the era’s creative skirts as a punked-out teenager, one of many who were filing into neighborhood basements, garages, and various and sundry other alternative spaces made available to us. And Relyea was at the center of that scene, writing and editing Artpaper, a local publication which put a serious critical cast on the DIY activity sprouting around him.

relyea-everydayartworld Lane_Relyea_large

He has since stayed true to these roots, noting over the years the perverse ways in which neo-liberal capitalist mechanisms have corporatized this earlier era’s DIY fervor into the ideal “prosumer” — today’s in-flux, self-reliant, hyper-flexible ideal worker. These mythical free agents work for themselves outside of the establishment, contracting and piece-mealing their many gigs and professional roles together in an unstable mix of a, wait… This sounds an awful lot like what every artist has to do today to develop and maintain their artistic persona. Relyea’s recent work ingeniously shows how the current conception of the ideal worker resembles an artist, now more than ever before. He even notes Daniel Fisk’s argument that the MFA is the new MBA, articulated in the book Free Agent Nation, as creativity and entrepreneurship more closely align.

At first, it might seem that Relyea is just another critical voice upset at how a fractured economic landscape has left so many of us to despair of doing better, interminably in desperate straits.  But he brings to that discussion a welcome nuance, thoughtful insights into how one might navigate the many layered strata of the art world. He’s less interested in assigning blame for a failing system than he is in illuminating the ways all its various cogs and wheels function simultaneously.  But make no mistake: this is no Seven Days in the Art World. Your Everyday Art World looks far outside what Relyea would call the Fordist model (i.e. the system by which artwork passes through various hands – dealers, collectors, museum curators and collections – to be packaged as an elite, luxury good). It has traditionally been the gatekeepers — critics and dealers — who seize upon the work of emerging artists (almost exclusively functioning in the NY/LA axis)  and usher them into success.  But we now operate in a post-Fordist society, one dominated by large horizontal networks — meaning this current market system can easily be superseded and chart already how it is becoming less dominant.

This is where small, radiant beams of light fall through the cracks in the art system, especially in “far-flung sites of production” like the Twin Cities.  This new, decentralized system, Relyea argues, has the potential to overtake the outmoded critic/dealer model through a convergence of several key developments — one of which is the increasing importance of networks that help art move beyond objectification to prioritize fostering connections between artists, audiences and discourses.  In the end, he says, art subjects emerge out of such interactions, and these art subjects also feed back into the work itself. Thus the art, as object, cannot be isolated, aloof or proscribed from those interactions. Despite the imperative for these burgeoning art networks to be rooted in a scene of artists and interested parties coalescing together, geography hardly matters. The site of such interactions can be set in any remote locale and still be relevant to the larger cultural conversations.

You simply can’t discount the rising tide of people, the sheer number of artists rolling out of the 270 MFA programs in the US, he says. (Fun fact: he tested the audience, challenging us to guess which state has no MFA program; I thought Alaska, but it is, in fact, Wyoming). This new wave of highly educated, creative workers cannot be absorbed by the elite, dealer/critic paradigm. Rather, they appear to be rejuvenating the DIY spirit of their underground forbearers, producing art subjects (and objects) worthy of note and also well outside the usual coastal axis of cultural influence.

The net effect of this activity, Relyea says, is the creation of a “federation of systems” — far-flung, geographically remote scenes that do not fit into the usual gallery complex, in places like Kansas City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Orleans or, his example, the art space, Elsewhere, in Greensboro, N.C.  This loose coalition of artists and independent spaces has many drivers — it is a highly inclusive system where creative value is invested in links, connections and interfaces. It’s no accident that this is the same terminology used in new media networks: this is the system of the future. And our local art scene, here in the Twin Cities, is poised to be a major player within it.  Indeed, the increased decentralization of these new cultural systems favor the literal center, the American Midwest, as notions of value shift further from discreet art objects given attention by high-end art magazines which, until now, haven’t much bothered with work made in “flyover” country.

Relyea highlighted a particular federation, Common Field, a newly formed umbrella by which disparate art spaces, organizations, and free agents (Relyea included) work in concert and mutually support each other.  Notably, this network also includes the Soap Factory, the largest contemporary art exhibition space in the US (which, incidentally, finally got the nod from New York for their insanely popular and populist Haunted Basement) and Works Progress, a progressive creative placemaking organization without a brick-and-mortar anchor — both of which will host the next Hand in Glove conference in Minneapolis, September 17–20, 2015.

Sure, there is a utopian feel to all this, but Relyea seems to be making the case that artists are hardy, robust activators with everything they need to make stuff happen — with or without funding, 501(c)(3) status or not. For Relyea, no cash sales are needed, because it is people, art subjects and artists, who replenish the scene. This more generous, people-focused conception of artistic worth eradicates the necessity for product differentiation, opening the possibility for a greater equality in market value, too.  By this measure, all work is valuable in so far as it endeavors to support the whole.  We especially need to remember this utopian ideal, he’s saying, in our overstretched, workaday artistic lives, where making time to create discrete objects feels less meaningful than setting aside space to create connections between art subjects.

I know, I’m barely skimming the surface of what Relyea’s premise means to Minnesota artists.  In keeping with the aim of producing and integrating art subjects, I welcome your feedback, response and further dialogue to my recap of Relyea’s recent talk. I’m especially curious to hear from you who also went to the lecture at Midway. What’s your take on these issues raised in Relyea’s visit? And did you know: this website, Mn Artists, was originally developed to fill in the gap Artpaper left when it folded? (For more on that history, see Neal Cuthbert’s interview for the Walker from a couple of years ago.)

Related links and event information:

Another lecture in this vein is coming soon: David Joselit, author of After Art, will discuss “Heritage and Debt” and further consider how contemporary art functions within globalized networks. Joselit will speak in the Walker Cinema, December 3 at 7 p.m. The event is free  and open to the public.

Sheila Dickinson is a St. Paul native and wrote her first art review of a Shane Cullen exhibition at the Orchard Gallery in Derry, Northern Ireland, a key DIY artspace in another remote art location that Relyea highlights in his book Your Everyday Art World. She wrote her dissertation on contemporary Irish art at University College, Dublin.

Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography on Collaboration, Choice and Chance

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen […]

HIJACK's Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

HIJACK’s Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder
Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder in November 2013 about the premiere of HIJACK’s redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye last year at the Walker Art Center.

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography Project)

At HIJACK, do you direct your performers? If you do, how? And, if you don’t, what else do you do that might be analogous to directing? Or, maybe you don’t consider that – directing – at all?

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

There are times when we deliberately do not direct and, actually, very specifically don’t even look at people as they’re working. And that’s a specific choice, to have everybody in the room working at the same time, including us, rather than standing apart as directors, separate and looking on.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography Project)

Do you do that a lot, and rely on it as a strategy?


I like that privacy. We’ve worked with big groups: including ourselves, there are nine in this piece and there were twelve in the work last the winter. So often, we’ve done work with just the two of us in the room, and much of that time nobody is watching. We were really interested in expanding that experience of working to include larger groups of dancers.

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

How is it, if you do work where you show somebody some moves, there’s a clear right and wrong, a quality of assessment enters the work – the sense that there’s a very specific shape you’re supposed to do. One of the things we have to try to communicate to our dancers is how to approach the instructions that they’re being given. We know how much they’re inclined to be rigorous and to frantically stick to the rules. But we want to hold on to a sense of humor about the process. It’s impossible to let go of the direction once given. As long as the approach we’re after is clear to our dancers, it’s our job to keep the directions, to keep the rules about what they’re doing, such that they don’t need continuous direction from us. We want them to have the space to solve problems and figure out how to be, how to do things in the moment within the scores that we’ve given them.


What’s your motivation for working this way? Is it about sharing the way that you approach a dance?  Is it about instilling a desire for dancers to have to find the way in for themselves? Or, is it about letting the work be about something more, or other, than what you’d get with explicit instructions?


It’s just about finding the right people. It’s funny: you have to have inquisitive people for this approach to work. And, boy, have we hit the jackpot! We didn’t pick people with similar backgrounds to ours, or even to each other, but they’ve all been amazing. This way of working takes a sense of humor too. For us, the question of direction has come up pretty late in the process: like, “oops we’ve said almost nothing to them about what to do.” And actually, often we just don’t interfere because we love what they’re doing already. Sometimes keeping our mouths shut is the best direction we can give, because even telling them what we like can ruin it.


What percentage of your aesthetic, if you had to come up with a percentage, would you say is based on failure, in relationship to choreographing for other people?


That’s such a good question! Failure!


I’m sorry, I’m just dying to ask.


We’re really into being non-sequential and bouncing back and forth to various things. We’re really into corrections, lately, so it helps to have…


To make it more difficult?


It helps to have something be wrong, so that it can be corrected. We like to have both the wrong thing and the right thing present. For example: take a page with some of the writing crossed out. You can still read the words behind the crossed-out parts — you can see both the finished text and what has been done wrong. Both are still worth reading. There’s something valuable in simply seeing that it’s wrong, being able to read through the scribble.

I can’t give a percentage, because it goes around and around for me, in terms of what actually constitutes failure. I mean, what if the work ends up failing in the right way? Is that still failure? I don’t know. I love the way a mistake turns into success; it feels like a necessary duality behind what’s improvised and what’s set. I don’t even know where to define the two edges.


I actually don’t think failure is a part of our aesthetic. We could just as easily answer Otto’s question by saying 0% of our aesthetic derives from that.  I think it’s clear for us and everyone who dances that the goal is perfection, always. That’s actually very important. Holding on to a sense of humor about failing is not the same as saying, “It doesn’t really matter if my arm is here or there.” That’s never a dancer’s feeling while executing a move.


Never mark it.


Never mark it.


Do you think about dramaturgy? Is it important to your work, or not? Does it even come up?


I need a definition, and then you might have an answer right away.


That’s part of my question though. What does “dramaturgy” mean to you?


I mean, I hear the word dramaturge a lot. I know choreographers, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, are hiring people to do that with them or for them… I think of it as having someone who’s specifically paying attention to the way that the images and the arc of the piece are personally and culturally relevant.

 I don’t feel the need to hire someone on the outside. That is probably because there’s two of us at the helm already, so we’re often doing the work of a dramaturge for each other. Besides, we make a point of showing work as we’re making it, especially using protocols where we glean a lot of description from audiences about what people are seeing and what it’s making them think of. We’re getting that information as we’re making the work. I think making sure there’s someone paying attention to the communication of narrative and imagery, whether it’s the choreographer or someone else, is really important. Otherwise, it’s easy to get myopic, to get swept away by the sensation of movement. We’ve definitely experienced that in group work over the years – times where we got lost in the beauty of the work of the group so that we lost track of the other stuff a dramaturge could see and hold on to.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.


We’d not really worked with any dramaturgical support until recently, with Super Nature.


Who’d you work with?


A woman from Germany: Stefanie Hahnzog.


Yes, and she’s trained as a theater dramaturge.


And did she come to Minneapolis while you were making the work?


No, we were in Germany. She came to Hamburg and dramaturged while we were in process and then we did a little exchange after.


She watched videos [of our rehearsals], and then we talked together on Skype.


Beyond that, Otto and I just did our own problem-solving.


Right. We thought: We don’t need to hire outside for a dramaturge because we talk about it already. The two of us talk about the piece all the time, so why do we need anyone else? But at the same time, having the advantage of more people there with us, talking about it, was itself very interesting.


I’ve noticed that you just call yourselves HIJACK. Other than that, do you call yourselves “choreographers” or “dance artists”? How do you refer to what you do?


We call ourselves a “choreographic collaboration.”


Your avoidance of labeling seems interesting, maybe important.


What do you call yourselves?




We do a lot of directing…


What does “doing a lot of directing” look or sound like for you?


I don’t know, Kristin; you’re in, like, three of our pieces. What do you think it sounds like?


The thing is, I don’t think of myself as feeling highly directed by you two.


Think about that duo you did with Karen [Sherman] on the table…


Do you mean then that, when you work, it’s tightly scored?


We would watch what you guys were doing, and then we would give you feedback. Something like, “Make sure you change the rhythm of the way you’re doing this, because if you don’t, I have a hard time seeing what’s happening,” for instance.


Yeah, and then I ignored you. (Laughter) I just don’t remember a sense of being closely directed.


That’s good, because you, as a dancer, have to be in it. I mean, the piece still has a score, and I did give you feedback. We said things like, “Don’t do this as much, do that more.” We’d let you know where we saw particularly vibrant moments; or something like, “This thing you just did really distracted me from what I want to see right now.” But at the same time, we know: you have to perform it. You have to survive that situation without the work being set. So, I can understand why that would be a broader experience of direction than the idea of us just giving you some little tips along the way.


This is common way of directing for us, too, I think. It’s actually a lot like what we do in our Contact Improv class every week: we just take turns watching. In a sense, someone else does your score. Then, sometimes, five of us might be doing a movement, including Arwen and I, and we’re really trying to get a very unified attack, a coherent energy and shape in our movement. One of my favorite ways to accomplish that is to have one person sit out and watch, each one of us in turn, while the others repeat the movement. That gives everybody power; and, sometimes, the act of watching is, itself, enlightening.


Let’s talk a little bit about the seeds of new projects. Where do you begin?


I usually travel with a list of every piece we’ve ever done.


Usually, the way we start a piece is by trying to do the opposite of the thing we’ve just completed.


The MANCC Residency was a kind of seed time for new work: we articulated our interests and each of us had three hours a day to direct independently.


And you never talked in the evenings about what you were going to do, you just kind of did it on your own, in the moment?


The planning, directing, leading in the rehearsal was independent…


What about a vision for the whole, big picture? How did that fit in the process?


That’s how we were designing the whole commission project, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.


Was that the first time that you had done work that way?


Well, it was the first time that we were thinking of making a single piece together. I mean, we’ve made pieces for each other when one of us was directing and choreographing and the other one was dancing.


We did that, for years, before we made something for ourselves jointly.


We’ve had rehearsals where we specifically take turns for set amounts of time. But to go for multiple weeks with, you know, the morning is mine and the afternoon is hers – making things independently in the knowledge that the culmination of the work was ultimately going to be one piece – that was new for us. It presented a large problem upon leaving the residency, actually: we ended up with two completely separate pieces. And we came back and we performed a couple of cabaret evenings performing the work in progress: Friday night we did Kristin’s piece, and Saturday night we did mine. We were really stumped for a long time about what to do with the material that came from that process, because these separate pieces we created had been developed more fully than usual, on their own, without being connected.


So, what did you do next to bring them together?


We made something completely different from them. Little by little, we have put some of that independently created stuff back in. But it was a huge quandary for a while, how to create one, united work from that material.


When you’re choosing a title, or figuring out the starting point for the next piece – does it always feel like putting on awkward clothing? I mean, do you need the new work to begin in a place of discomfort? I mention it because, earlier, you brought up the word “comfort”? Is that unease the starting point?


No, not always. I can think of specific examples where we’ve actually started with an idea to create more comfort and more ease – maybe in the dance-making itself, or in our collaboration, in our conversation.


There is some movement, some stretches of dancing, where A and B are next to each other and are very uncomfortable in sequence. It’s very inconvenient to have your body in once place and then need to lurch into the next. And if it does get convenient, then we change the score. Or, some movements are selected specifically because we love them, they’re favorites. We’re interested in watching what happens to something over time, especially what happens when we put those very inconvenient moves next to each other. And if you do the movements, even inconvenient ones, the same way for months, everything smooths out, regardless, with practice. If you perform the movements with the same music playing, even if you think you’re ignoring the music, you’re not. You’re starting to dance to the music.

"smithsoniansmith (as is)" at Bedlam Theatre Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists

smithsoniansmith (as is) at Bedlam Theatre. Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists


When you go about making an evening-length piece, does that change the way you’re making the work? I ask, because when I watched smithsoniansmith — and I only saw it at Bedlam, I didn’t see it at the official opening – my feeling was, this is not evening-length.


You wanted more…


No. No, it’s just that what I saw were smaller pieces put together. It just didn’t seem like something conceived as a single, evening-length work.  And I‘m curious if the process of making that work, because it was just the two of you and Scott Heron, someone you hadn’t worked with on other pieces, affected the outcome. But it sounds like that “commissioning a piece” sort of feeling was a force in the room for the whole three years of development of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.


I felt the same way about smithsoniansmith. Our thinking about “novel” movement and slow development in this latest project — things coming back around, unraveling — absolutely came from a reaction to that “commissioning a piece” feeling. A lot of the other longer pieces we’ve made were like a bunch of little pieces strung together; we believed that those individual pieces informed each other, but there was less of a sense that we needed to work toward a single, evening-length sort of feeling in the work.

We did make a number of small pieces, short pieces, as we were making this, but the way that these new pieces come together and overlap – the way the individual elements kaleidoscope and splinter off each other, how some of the same vocabulary is used in different pieces – allows each section to have a very different character, but when you put them all together, it feels less a string of pearls and more of a whole.


From the very beginning of our work on redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, we were intentional about seeking out pleasing examples of wholeness — things that were almost a little too big, or too complex, to keep that  sense of whole alive and perceptible. For example, I started making an effort to read, and stick with longer books, novels. I tend to prefer shorter things; I love short fiction. So, I wanted to deliberately find sustained activities, routines and cycles that pushed toward longer durations of time and that require an expanded attention span.

I mean, you can make something that’s 60 minutes long, but still just episodic – just episodic — and maybe that’s what smithsoniansmith is. That said, the two of us like dense things. But we’re also anti-filler; we have a strong aversion to wasting anyone’s time. So, from the beginning of making this larger work, we struggled with: How can we tolerate asking an audience to look at one thing that lasts so long and still have it feel rich and specific the whole time? How do we do that both compositionally and as dancers, performing in the moment?


Trying to figure out, compositionally, how the sound was going to work was a big part of figuring out that sense of the whole. It presented a challenge, because we like to work with found sound and often with pop sounds and those all have complete arcs of their own…


And those songs are usually three minutes long.


Right! So, what do you do with all those distinct beginnings, middles, and ends? How do you move away from an episodic feeling to something more unified? That was a big puzzle.


So the music for redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye is also found sound?


It is.


And you guys have mixed it up and played with those sounds? And you’re the mix master, the cutter, Kristin?


There’s a huge question in that, about whether a pop song from the radio counts as found sound, whether or not we should ever manipulate or edit anything so “found.” Where’s the thread in those smaller parts, the “whole”? We wondered: Can we find any sound sources that we like that are already 60 minutes long?


We both listened to a lot of movie scores – looking for a “whole” sound with a significant duration.


The problem is that’s someone else’s story.




Changing the subject: Are you going to tour the piece?


We’re not opposed to touring the whole thing, but right now…


(Singing) — it’s a Walker show


Yes, and we’ve been trying to figure out: What does that mean?


Yeah, we’ve taken our shows all over, but there’s just no space that’s like the McGuire Theater. The luxury and the height of its space, what the lighting designer (Heidi Eckwall) was able to do in the Walker – it’s really hard to replicate in other spaces.


We’re getting ruined by the Walker. (Laughter)


It’s gorgeous! But you get so in love with the beauty of the space and with being able to use the proportionality it offers, that the timing of everything gets shifted. Every time you remount the work after it’s been produced for the McGuire Theater, stuff that was maybe happening in the back corner of that expansive space, you just can’t see in less well-appointed venues.


I’m laughing, because everything that Arwen said before about abundance and fullness — big space, big time, big cast — is very true; we both say it a lot, and we mean it. But at the same time, especially at the very beginning, we thought and talked a lot about avoiding that “doing the big show at the Walker” thing. We want to, somehow, stay outside of that; otherwise, we’d be making something that wasn’t really of us. So we thought a lot about the everyday reality of our dance lives, and said, “We’ve been teaching Contact Improv Wednesday morning, every Wednesday morning, for 12 years. It must be important to us.” So, we decided, that experience needed to be a building block of the new commission. And that wasn’t only about including Contact Improvisation, but making sure to put what we do at the center. We very deliberately sampled from movement that happened in that class in our rehearsals for the new work — specifically, every week. The cast of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye was influenced by people who were dedicated to that class. We wanted the work to be about “practice” and “class-ness,” in general.


Let’s talk about the brass tacks of collaboration. Both HIJACK and BodyCartography Project have been in two-person collaborative teams that have worked together for 15 years or more.


Okay: Sex or no sex? Which is the better model? (Laughter)


Well, if you have sex — if you’re hetero – then you just end up making more kids. So, stop doing it after you got one.


We’re very civilized. We keep sex and procreation separate.


And that’s a wrap. Awesome! Thank you!


Yeah, thank you!


HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon & Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning Contact Improvisation class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon & Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, into a trio for small and/or awkward spaces.

As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project, Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.

Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by Read a related exchange between these artists, on “How to Move Bodies in Space” here.

The Columnest: The Footlocker

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We […]

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We hadn’t picked out these things. We had acquired them at garage sales or in boxes of hand-me-downs, but that didn’t make us like them any less. Annually, these clothes had the strange appeal of seeming to belong to other children, of promising to make us other children when we put them on.

When my mother quit doing this, I don’t remember. I suppose we grew up and our now-bulkier winter things could be better stored in big Tupperwares under our beds. And then, there was the fact that we lived in Florida—north Florida, where there is a seasonal change known to residents as “winter,” but Florida nevertheless. In fact, looking back, I can hardly understand what it was all about, the footlocker, the mothballs. As a college student in Florida, I knew I had gloves, but I had no idea where they were. My warmest winter garment in regular use was an unlined leather jacket.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Maybe the winter clothes were a holdover from my mother’s own childhood. She grew up in Florida too, but somehow I imagine the world was a little colder then. My grandmother (another Floridian) routinely wore wool scarves and lined skirt suits. And I have a turn-of-the-century photograph of some mysterious old Aunt Amy standing in a full-length, long-sleeved wool dress, digging the point of her umbrella into the parched grass of central Florida. She looks unhappy, but not quite melting in her heavy clothes. Yes, the Little Ice Age, that must be it. Ended in about 1985, right?

Or, perhaps the winter clothes had to do with our annual trip to North Carolina: one week in the mountains every October. The first year we went, I was four-and-a-half, and it was the farthest north I’d ever been. We stayed that year in a house belonging to a minister friend of my grandmother’s, or to a minister friend of her minister—at any rate, it was a preacher’s house, a big house, a big old box of a house set in a sloping yard full of fallen leaves. About the actual inside of the house I remember very little, but I remember its basement. A basement! This was practically unheard of in Florida. And this basement had little windows high in the walls—too high for us to see out of, but a little swing hung from the basement rafters, and at the top of its arc my brother and I could see the brown leaves that lay bedded in all around the house.

A swing in the basement of a preacher’s house? What kind of gothic horror had we stumbled into? Surely I remember it wrong. That may be: I’ve never asked anyone in my family about this memory of mine. I like it too much; even if it’s wrong, I’m keeping it.

That is how childhood memories work, isn’t it? No one is ever quite sure about them. “I remember it this way—which is funny, because it couldn’t have been.” Or, as my father says in preface, when he’s uncertain whether he’s retelling his memory or someone else’s or a memory reconstructed from a photograph: “This may be an implanted memory.” For all their central vividness—of first-felt emotion, of self-making—childhood memories can be strangely fuzzy around the edges.

I recall a few I eventually had to reject as impossible. One involved my grandmother telling how my father (aged two or three) tumbled off the top of a two-story building and cracked his head open. In another, a pet crayfish marvelously revived—not only after death, but after I had chucked its body into the trash. A closer acquaintance with the consistency of the universe obliged me to give them both up: cracked heads stay cracked, dead crawdads stay dead. And the giving up, after some initial puzzlement, was easy: one must have been a misunderstanding, the other a dream confused with life.

I would be a different person if I had kept those memories; I gave up them up to become myself.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The footlocker held more than our warm clothes; in lower layers, it preserved cast-offs of my mother’s, things she was done wearing. Did she save them for me? I did eventually take a pintucked smock, red with white cuffs and collar and a pattern of tiny moons and suns. But the fringed suede miniskirt and vest set—I never even tried it on, and I don’t know why. My mother quit mentioning it was there. Her wedding dress, too—I used to see that every so often, lying folded under the floating shelf in the footlocker, off-white, empire-waist, with daisy chain embroidery. She didn’t bring it up when I came to be married, and neither did I.

Sometimes it seems that this whole set of memories—the footlocker, the strangers’ clothes (because my mother’s old clothes, too, described a stranger, someone I would never know), the house in Dillard with the basement swing—belongs to someone else. It’s tinged with the sunset orange of the seventies, a decade I don’t remember, though it made me. When I look this way, I become historical to myself, as curious as that photo of Aunt Amy. What is she thinking, how old is she? What does she already know? What has she given up to get here?

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

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