– an earlier version of this essay was published in the Jan/Feb issue of Art Focus Oklahoma–
Kansas City’s First Friday is usually a passive motion where one follows along silently gliding into different galleries and gathering treats from differing food trucks. The Crossroads Arts District has established itself as a space for varied audiences to engage with art. In the heat of the summer, these First Friday’s erupt with people willing to stop and put their eyes on something. With Guerrilla Docents fellow Kansas City-based art critic Blair Schulman and I have a central goal; to take that passive looking and use it as a catalyst for conversation.
This surging crowd may have a lot to do with things beyond art; the prospect of free food, drinks, and a party atmosphere on a Friday night. It seems that culturally we have shut out the general public from the art conversation, but in Kansas City this crowd just grows larger. More often than not major newspapers have laid off their visual art critics on staff. The art world itself often buries its head in a language that is illegible to those without the education to discern meaning from it. Art education is slowly being pulled from the core curriculum of elementary and secondary schools, making talking about it or understanding how something is made a foreign concept. Culturally the arts are still vibrant, through music, videogames, and film, where the languages used in popular criticism allow audiences to interact on a deeper level. Yet in an image-based culture we are letting go of how deeply important an awareness of critical analysis can be.
The art of First Friday sometimes does seem to get pushed aside for the food vendors, fire breathers, and other entertainment. That’s where Schulman and I come in. On one of the most crowded blocks of the Crossroads Arts District we found our first post this July and established ourselves as Guerrilla Docents. This concept originated in an editing room, with fellow Kansas City art writers working on why it is we are frustrated with First Fridays. It seems like a great concept to get people involved, yes, but it also has a tendency to shut out any kind of vivid conversation or discovery. Most attendees eat, shop, and quietly watch the art through the window or pass it by. If someone spends more than thirty seconds looking, let alone talking, it is a rare occurrence.
Guerrilla docents is simple. Schulman and I stand outside in our all-black attire and ask First Friday attendees a simple question: “Would you like to come on an art tour?”
Our first evening at this was in August of 2015. Kansas City-based artist Madeline Gallucci was exhibiting some of her new brightly colored abstract work at Beggars Table Church and Gallery. Located right in the center of the busiest First Friday block with an easy walk-up, this was going to be the perfect spot to attempt to engage people who were likely just out to enjoy their Friday night. Schulman and I began asking strangers, “Do you want to talk about art?!” which seemed to most like the entry to a pyramid scheme. One group of adults that had “never talked about art before” were prompted by the crowd to chug their beers and join in. With a simple question we had infiltrated the party atmosphere, convincing the revelers to do some thinking.
After climbing the stairs, we brought the group over to a series of Gallucci’s collages. Her work became the perfect world for these participants to explore. Bright pinks, teals, and lime green pepper a collaged surface, with a wide range of shapes and mark-making—the colors evoke memories of children’s advertising from the early 1990s. In front of these collages, we used a modified version of a museum educational strategy known as Visual Thinking Strategies; we turned the tour on the viewers to find context clues as to what the work is about. Rather than dictating facts, the group found their own answers to questions about what they saw in the work. This process of interpretation validated their opinions and observational knowledge.
Our group started off just pointing out shapes. They found hidden images in the abstractions, uncovering sharks, ambiguous arms, band-aids, and pickles. Once we moved to another piece the group started to see their own personal experience in the work. “That looks like a sickle cell” and “… that one is totally mitochondria!” Our tour guinea pigs revealed their status as medical students through their observations. Group after group this same situation continued, with each new group following Schulman and myself up the flight of stairs and in turn discovering narratives in the work rather than processing through gallery after gallery with eyes half open.
Since our first Guerrilla Docents, Schulman and I have continued this practice on weather permitting First Fridays. Sometimes the environments we chose taught us lessons about how the space may or may not be ideal for conversation. Other times we realize that informally exploring the gallery with those already there yields the best result. During October’s First Friday we stopped by artist run alternative gallery Front/Space’s Exhibition More of Less featuring the work of Jessica Simorte, Max Manning, and Peter Shear. There we had a young boy tell us the narrative of his favorite artwork by finding the shape of a high speed train in the work and then running about the gallery, acting out his discovery. Visual art can make people come together and others completely come to life; it’s just a matter of how we’re able to continue to find meaning in the things we see.