Counterpublic : a Future-Visioned Triennial
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Counterpublic : a Future-Visioned Triennial

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Counterpublic : a Future-Visioned Triennial
Sky Will Learn Sky by Cauleen Smith at Treffpunkt/Fellowship. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

Sitting in a church basement, on a restored pew, I was waiting for the second loop of Cauleen Smith’s film Soujourner (2018).  The film, and her subsequent installation, Sky Will Learn Sky, is a part of Counterpublic, a triennial public art exhibition organized by Brea McAnally, James McAnally, and Katherine Simóne Reynolds of The Luminary in St. Louis, Missouri. As I watched the Afro-Futurist figures walk in procession through (the desert landscape) of Joshua Tree, California I felt witness to one part protest and one part celebration of blackness.

Given the circumstances I knew of St. Louis, with brutal police shootings and some tone-deaf choices on work shown in the recent past by cultural institutions (example: the Kelley Walker exhibition at CAM STL discussed here in 2017 by Kahlil Irving, also a participating artist of Counterpublic), Smith’s film is refreshing and vulnerable, showcasing revolutionary energy that demands a move away from the status quo.

Soujourner recalls two specific moments for me about Kansas City in the last year.  The church installation itself recalls Nick Cave’s HyDyve , one of the most visited installations at 2018’s Open Spaces biennial. Second, the film seemed to be in direct conversation with Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, who also headlined for Open Spaces’ musical component.  Even with this recall, Counterpublic is radically different, if not the opposite of Open Spaces. If Kansas City can learn anything from an overpopulated panoply of global festivals, Counterpublic should be their guidance counselor.

Rodolfo Marron III’s collaboration with Diana’s Bakery. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

There are a few key points that made Counterpublic stand out from the noise of so many art world events, most of them around uniting alternative perspectives. This is a dynamic art exhibition for the art world’s imagined future. We recognize that the current world of biennials, art fairs, and the pyramid gallery system primarily serves the elite class, often known as the art market or gray market. In its current form, the art world maintains a patina that is very white, very male, and incredibly classist. There are occasions where institutions make efforts to celebrate works by diverse artists, but it doesn’t happen often enough. The concepts behind most contemporary art exhibitions betray their supposed cultural conversation when academic posturing is only understood by those privileged enough to understand the language acrobatics necessary to participate. Artworks are not seen to exist outside of this lustered scope and the artists and art spaces on the fringes often take up the responsibility of growing new alternatives to these prevailing systems.

In our relationship to the world we like to envision, artists unfortunately function as creative placemakers and are seen as the catalyst for displacement in working-class neighborhoods. Once a space or place has been inhabited by artists, it is followed by a coffee shop, and gentrification ensues. While walking through the exhibition with James McAnally,  one of its three caretakers, we stopped in Teatopia to see Digital Margins by Jerome Harris, Serubiri Moses, and Gee Wesley where I felt a little uneasy.

All I could think at first was “yikes!”, an art installation in a tea shop in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood. These were all harbingers of displacement. But I looked more closely. This installation was a free library on mostly African-artist centric theory, where one could read, make photocopies, and bind their research for the taking. Not only did this make me hyper-aware of my cis-white dominant scope of research and a need to dig deeper,  but James also pointed out this tea shop, was a black-owned business. So shame on me for thinking I knew the whole story as soon as I walked through the door. This triennial was directly supporting the neighborhood that was growing on its own, this is the point of success that focuses on qualitative experiences of artists and their neighbors.

Fidencio Fifield-Perez installed at Flowers and Weeds. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

Mostly, Counterpublic is humble in nature. The presentation of works are quiet and subdued, a scavenger hunt considerate of its neighbors, lacking the flamboyance of other festivals like it that can often be obtrusive. Unlike Kansas City’s Open Spaces, where installations, exhibitions, and events were spread out over the entirety of the city, this exhibition was walkable, entirely on foot. Most of the spaces were existing businesses — a bakery, a flower shop, a mechanic. Artists were called to make work that was to be a part of the already flourishing Cherokee Street neighborhood. I ended up buying objects and meals along my route, supporting these local spaces that have existed before and will continue to exist long after Counterpublic. This was an example of caretaker  James McAnally’s concept of “wild building “ that I quoted to critique Open Spaces months ago. The Luminary wasn’t focused on building something new, but bringing attention to the ways in which art could participate in and amplify the structures that already exist.

Walkability between the works allowed for conversation and contemplation. Accessibility was another key factor. Folks had the option to interact directly with the work by attending performances, following the free newspaper maps, indirectly, by viewing the works and participating in the actions such as a Latinx reading library, or purchasing a cookie collaboration by Rodolfo Marron III that supported both the local bakery and grassroots immigration advocacy group Latinos en Axion.  In this regard, the art visitor was elevated to a member of this community. A participant, not someone on the outside looking in.

José Guadalupe Garza and Miriam Ruiz’s collaborative library and gathering space in El Chico Bakery. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

I had the opportunity to speak with several of the artists in Counterpublic. José Guadalupe Garza and Miriam Ruiz are facilitating programming, along with overseeing the growth of a free local micro-library inside of El Chico Bakery. We discussed how their collaboration related to the word Ojalá (God Willing, which appears on Garza’s banner along Cherokee) in regards to everything from the practicality of the white cube as an art space, to whether or not people even think their work is art. The conversation floated around the aesthetic choices as a center but moved in and out to conversations on the relevancy of the art market to these contexts and neighborhoods. At one point Meriam discussed the books as “mirrors, or portals of possibility” as most of the writing was Latinx writers or Spanish translations of pop culture icons like Harry Potter. The shelf, filled with mostly fiction, was intentional. Again, this was a space to enter world building, to imagine futures not yet possible, rather than being complacent about the status quo.

The world of Counterpublic seems to function beyond the current art market and imagines community outside of capital itself. These works focus on conversations beyond the capacity for monetization. I spoke with Marissa Dembkoski, another Counterpublic artist,  about their banner installation along Cherokee Street., and the exhibition as a whole impacting the art community. We discussed a broad contrast between Counterpublic and Open Spaces. To Dembkoski, this exhibition was building a community that could be sustained and grow with those who participate. As a whole this triennial was attempting to be the mirror of fiction, to take action and create a world in which we could reflect on it a portal of possibility.

Ojalá, a banner by José Guadalupe Garza. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

The following day I met with Azikiwe Mohammed, who was both a part of Counterpublic and The Luminary’s artist residency. He set up a portrait studio for the community and was interested in access, the self, and how we experience history. I felt that Mohammed was responding to the call put forth by an artist like Cauleen Smith, “What is a black utopian community? What does it mean to celebrate the image of blackness?” We discussed at length, both image and access. I looked at the printed portraits within his studio and recognized a sense of self on display that was considerate of the artist looking, crafting the portraits as capsules of identity.  In the figures, there was a performance of being looked at on display that was hyper-aware of the disconnect the camera can bring complicating the artist/ subject relationship through a machine that has its own complicated history.

Azikiwe Mohammed’s Armor Photo Studio.  Image courtesy of The Luminary.

Mohammad spoke of Shirley cards which proved color film photography’s anti-blackness. It wasn’t until photography companies wanted to better document chocolate and wood furniture that there was a correction to the near invisibility of black bodies in film. Our sense of self is often built through how we are perceived by others. And that perception becomes certain through becoming an image, once printed as a physical object. Mohammad offered to print all of the portraits he took of people in the community, intentionally.

It is through the physical object that the self has a sense of permanence. In the digital world, in our phones, our selfies and camera rolls are ideas, they can be lost and forgotten, but prints are objects, they need to be physically destroyed. There is a radical act of the self becoming physical. As Mohammad said, “The self is affirmed through becoming physical… storage is an extension of memory in the digital, our hard drives are full of other people’s memories, but our homes are the places where we are told that we’re correct, especially to people of color.” Photos make the attempt to bridge the gap between memory, idea and the objects that solidify them. This project and its radical visibility kept me thinking further about the performative nature of ourselves.

Azikiwe Mohammed’s Armor Photo Studio.  Image courtesy of The Luminary.

Yowshein Kuo and I spoke in the Carrillo Western Wear retailer where he had his work exhibited. On snap-button western shirts, he adorned iron-on patches of murals, famous paintings, guns, and phrases. Kuo was searching for ways to bridge solidarity between minority groups. The phrase “World Restart” kept making an appearance, referencing the world as a video game, which immediately brought my memory from the western wear store to Hito Steyrel’s Factory of the Sun, which as a narrative video critiques cultural attitudes of life being more akin to a restart in a video game. We discussed the cowboy as a costume; the hat, boots, and snap button shirts as symbols of power and armor. The cowboy is the hero figure of a lost future we all want to believe in. They symbolize hope and opportunity, the American dream of westward expansion which has already found its end. It is only through these fictions that we continue to enforce a sanguine outlook on the future.

I thought of Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism where she discusses how we form attachments to our objects of desire. It is not the objects itself we seek, but the proximity to that objects and the promises they brings with they. We all want to believe in the fictions we construct, in the promises that allow us to encounter the futures we want to have, nostalgia for the dead futures of past generations, we seek our sense of security through acknowledging the vulnerability that all of our actions are a performance.

Yowshien Kuo at Carrillo Western Wear. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

Sitting in the front row of Chlöe Bass’ performance at Artist Art Banquet Theater, also on Cherokee St. This is a Film version 1.8  was a hybrid of text-based storytelling and fragments of video clips from the Chicago Film Archives and elsewhere. At one point, Bass quoted another writing from  Lauren Berlant in a way that gave me chills regarding my own expectations and projections in relation to life.“i didn’t think it would turn out this way is the secret epitaph of intimacy”…“intimate lives produce a fantasy that the private life is the real”

The audience wavered in and out of closed eyes and open, as the black screen called us to work in a space of imagination. Watching old home movies capture an African-American family dancing, celebrating, being in a space of togetherness, of wholeness, of home. Bass discussed our desire for shared public and private spaces, and how Counterpublic was addressing this need. Creating tiny pockets of experience that share the work of others in informal settings. In these spaces we are informed less about context of the artist and more about the neighborhood.

I didn’t expect this exhibition to seem even the least bit celebratory. The giant work by Joseph del Pesco and Jon Rubin, set to be painted a large sign signifying THE MUSEUM OF RUINS, felt out of place here amongst the rest of the works. This neighborhood, this exhibition was far from a ruin. Counterpublic‘s intention seems to celebrate working-class and force an interaction between the predominantly white audiences of contemporary art and the neighborhoods they occupy.

Joseph del Pesco and Jon Rubin at 2712 Cherokee Street. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

Fast forward to Kansas City. It hasn’t quite been six months since Open Spaces closed, and already the artists are feeling the effects. This biennial was a spectacle to showcase the glory of the city as an arts destination. The restrictions for participation rendered most artist-run spaces in the town unable to participate. Yet Counterpublic made space for honoring the existing community as it stands, whether it be artist-run spaces or neighborhood businesses and gathering points. It called art viewers to experience work in these uncommon spaces, questioning the gaps and segregation that often end in gentrification. The siloing of artists in working-class neighborhoods allows them to be made quiet catalysts of displacement by developers. The Drugstore, the studio space in midtown Kansas City where I have been working for the last five years, is closing in its current location. Alongside other artist studios in town, like Kunstram KC on Oak St. This is the ripple effect of the Open Spaces mentality in Kansas City. The desire was to celebrate an arts town but it left a lot of us without any space to make work.

While I see these changes happening in tandem, I don’t think that Open Spaces reached a wide enough audience to cast a net that amplified gentrification, it occurred during a significant nexus point. This is all happening at a moment where the relationship between Kansas City and national developers are growing wildly. These companies are charging crazy rent based on speculation— the kind you would find in cities like Chicago — forcing citywide increases without reasonable improvements to space or infrastructure. These are the catalysts that displace artists and working class folks. Kansas City and private donors spent a lot of money promoting and funding Open Spaces;  I look back at the financials and wish the money of the festival could have, and in the future will be, invested into organizations, exhibitions or spaces that positively impact communities considering the long term effects of their relationship to the city as a whole.

Both in Kansas City and beyond, artists need to stay aware and vigilant of our relationship to issues of race and class in our neighborhoods, art spaces, and agendas. It needs to be a distinct part of our memory. The disparate fractioning that is often felt in these neighborhoods needs to transform into an attitude of action and togetherness. Cherokee Street is named after the indigenous populations of the Illini Confederacy that have been systematically uprooted, honored only through a crude monument of a Cherokee man at the start of the district. Artist Damain Dineyazhi placed letterpress signs in the window of the corner venue facing said statue, that critique this notion itself. We must look at how history is written and remembered and recognize how it is often utilized for propaganda rather than clarity to recolor the images of the past in our mind.

Chlöe Bass’ installation at Mesa Home. Image courtesy of The Luminary.

To end, I would like to return to Bass’ performance, with a quote she recited from a psychoanalyst on memory.

“Argentine-Mexican analyst Nestor Braunstein “Freudian memory is a three-sided coin. In addition to forgetting there is repression. Which is the unconscious deciding what, how, and how much is remembered and forgotten. Freudian memory is unfaithful to historical truth. To the chronicling of real events. It acts not as a supposed objective journalist we know does not exist, but rather it distorts memories and mixes them with fantasies, with familiar novels and individual myths. In other words, the context in which the memory is recounted is just as decisive as the text itself of what is remembered.”

As artists, in this space, we must make choices about what will be remembered of these neighborhoods where we share space. We must honor those who are already there and take action in solidarity with them as to not speed up their erasure. This is an opportunity for artists to step away from the studio and into action based organizations that fight waves of development, displacement, and underpay. We must stand up to the elaborate and well-financed spectacles of the current Art World and start to build the fictional worlds that we want to inhabit. We can nostalgically wonder and be haunted by the future of success that will never come, or we can choose to build a new world, outside of our current scope of what is possible that challenges what we face and what  the future can hold
Through collaborative building, we can live in and inhabit an emergent strategy.  We can find the places in which our voices will be heard, where the privileges of some can help amplify the voices of others. This new fictional world will be organized. Where “Sky Will Learn Sky” I look forward to these processions put forth in the film world of Cauleen Smith and through the curatorial voices of the folks at the Luminary.  To end with a quote from James McAnally in his Manifesto for an Art Organization we can Live In and With “Artists may often be both the perpetrator and the victim, yet we must actively oppose these new social roles.”


Counterpublic is on view in the Cherokee Neighborhood of St. Louis, MO from April 13-July 13 2019. More information on the exhibition and where to see it, including hours, performances, and accessibility notes are available on counterpublic.us/sites

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