By Leah Gallant
Bryce in ‘the pit,’ his installation space at the Commerce Center.
In your bio statement, you write that your work focuses on “’making things’ and ‘making things happen’ in the studio and in the public domain.” What’s the connection between your more stationary art objects and social practice work?
The thing that unites all my work is an interest in community as both a concept and a medium. Working with actual communities and seeing what sort of impacts can be had through art as intervention is really interesting to me. But I also think about discrete art objects, more studio- or gallery–oriented art, as a place for meditation on community, social structures, and civic structures. So one is a thinking space and one is a doing space, and they feed off of one another.
Some of your work as an art instructor seems to parallel your own practice in terms of community engagement. For example, for the Institute for Progressive Humanities’ summer partnership with Kinloch Learning Center, you had students design and build their own doghouses, which were then auctioned off to raise funding for the Center’s programming. How does your teaching relate to your own process of making?
Teaching keeps me energized about making things. I don’t like to work in a cloistered set-apart space, I like active shared spaces–I never have my own studio. For me, so much of teaching is modeling the behaviors that we’re trying to instill in our students. So if I want my students to be active, hardworking, and investigative, then I need to do those things, and there’s no better way to do that than to invite them to participate in my activities and those of other artists in the area. The doghouse project was at the tail end of a year of community based work in Kinloch, a traditionally all-black city within St. Louis County, which has arisen as the result of racial segregation. As part of the Kinloch project we adopted this friendly stray dog named Fred. When we realized he had heartworm disease and it would take around a thousand dollars to treat him, we saw the opportunity to use Fred as the lynchpin for a fundraising campaign for both the dog and the learning center. So we had students from Washington University come in and design build these doghouses and auction them off. We raised nearly seven thousand dollars for the center and cured Fred. Underneath all of that I’m interested in St. Louis and desegregation, and the history of that is always tied up in bussing—meaning bussing low income students to better schools, which are predominantly white. So I really enjoyed the opportunity to take my white privileged students and bus them to what is believed to be the center of poverty in the city of St. Louis, and have them realize that these people are people, and they’re just like them. So there’s a subversive bent there as well.
You work with a wide range of materials, using really durable materials for outdoor sculptures but also incorporating performance, air, branding, etc. into other pieces. How do you match material to concept?
I’m really interested in materiality—texture, weight, and line, but also the metaphor and baggage that comes with different materials. So the work in the Commerce Center is in many ways very selfish, because for me it’s just a tremendous pleasure to work with this stuff that’s very light and reusable. So sometimes the material has more to do with my pleasure–I really love to weld and I love to do woodworking. Sometimes it’s about making and enjoying that making experience and being rewarded physically and mentally. With the more conceptual, gallery-driven work, that’s rewarding in a different way. It’s more of an intellectual gratification of finding the right element to communicate a very specific sensation or suggest an attitude or a perspective. It’s just different ways of gratifying that need, the need to make something communicate. It’s across the board because it’s both a physical reward and an intellectual reward I’m interested in.
Recently you’ve been making work that relates to your hometown in Ferguson, Missouri. How does your relationship to the community inform this body of work?
All of the recent work that deals with Ferguson is obviously very directly related to my unique perspective as someone from Ferguson, and someone who is still very deeply connected there. I run Jeske Sculpture Park there, my family still lives there, and I go back and forth quite frequently, so it was an interesting experience to be here in South Bend working at Notre Dame watching on CNN live feed what was happening at home. The work about Ferguson was mostly born of frustration with not only what happened but how it happened. It’s very difficult to see the media portray a community you’re very proud of in a way that isn’t accurate. I think it was really important that the conversation about violence against young African-American men and women happened—it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed—but Ferguson is certainly not the center of racial injustice in the United States. So the piece dealing with branding. ‘#Ferguson,’ talks about how my community has been permanently branded by people who are not from the city of Ferguson.
Bryce Robinson, Suburban Laboratory
How does your work on Ferguson relate to your own racial identity?
I grew up and lived in a community that’s predominantly African American. I don’t identify as African American, but I think that a lot of unfair associations that are projected on African American people in North St. Louis County have also been projected onto me and my community at large. People from other parts of the region perpetuate the idea of North St Louis County as a lower-income, poor, disenfranchised place, and regardless of your race, in the city of St. Louis, if you say that you’re from North County, people associate you with being poor, and assume that if you’re not black you certainly must live by black people. So though I’m not black, I think that my perception of my community and where I grew up is inextricably tied to how black people are unfairly perceived, and I see the fate of my community really tied to the fate of the African American community in St. Louis. Through all the research that I did when I was in graduate school and leaving graduate school, I got a greater understanding of how racism has really shaped St. Louis into what it is today. I think because of that history, it’s a weaker community than it could be. It’s certainly not a place of equality, but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in that, you know, that we can identify those problems and work to right them.
Bryce Robinson, Rising Hive
Your piece in the Commerce Center uses the same materials as ‘Rising Hive,’ and is part of a larger body of work that explores hives and structures and how smaller parts or individuals can form a cohesive group. What do you hope building a structure in the 14-ft pit will bring to the larger project or your interests in community as medium?
I became interested in this thing called emergence theory, which is this idea that a bunch of unthinking components doing their thing can lead to complex, sophisticated higher-level behavior. Cells in your body, for example, or ants in a hive do this–what seem like small or unthinking actions can lead to a more interesting result in a larger organism or system. It’s going to have a different title, but it’s the same sort of material, which is perforated steel shelving, laboratory glass, and some components I fabricated myself. I’m really interested in the restrictions of the material I’m working with—I’ve set a rule that I never cut the glass, although I accidentally break glass from time to time. By using it in these different spaces and conditions, I hope to see what naturally arises out of these little interactions and little individual decisions. I’m really interested in using this material and expanding on it as a building kit, and seeing over the course of the years what sorts of different iterations arise as a result of my work with it. I was really drawn to the space I’m working in in the Commerce Center, which is incredibly inhospitable. The work here in the Commerce Center isn’t really about Ferguson, but I think it certainly relates in dealing with a tremendous set of challenges and seeing if we can get a positive outcome as a result of countless individual actions.
For more of Bryce’s work, go to his website at http://www.bryceolenrobinson.com/
Photo credit: Bryce Robinson, Leah Gallant
By Leah Gallant
Nalani in her installation space in the Commerce Center.
You started off as a painter, but now make more sculptural and installation-based work. How do you think your training informed your current work?
I started out as a really figurative painter because I was interested in people and the human form. When I got to Whitman College, I took more sculpture classes, but my sculpture work began as figurative too. As I looked at more work, I realized I was really drawn to people like Doris Salcedo or Mona Hatoum—artists who use objects like chairs and beds that relate to or represent figures. So I challenged myself to take the figure out of my work and use these other objects to represent people. I still think my background as a painter has been really helpful in terms of composition and other formal elements. And it showed up in my installation at the Birdsell, where I was doing watercolor paintings on the walls. It was nice to find a way to integrate painting back into installation.
You’ve mentioned that your work is influenced by the gender studies classes you took while at Whitman College. Do you think going to a liberal arts school shaped your practice in other ways?
I think going to a liberal arts school was really important to my work. I was able to take a lot of other classes, such as gender studies, and be around people who were thinking about those ideas, but not through art. I think part of how that experience shaped my work is the idea of the personal being political. That was an idea that I first found more through feminist writing and oral histories. In some of my pieces it’s more blatant, such as ‘Small Spaces,’ a group of ceramic dresses. It’s about how we perform our gender and are confined to certain gender roles, and that’s why I used this really hard material for the piece. The dresses are both cages that you get stuck in, but also this defense mechanism or armor.
Unlike some artists whose work deals with gender and the domestic sphere, you don’t limit yourself to traditionally feminine materials and ways of making—you not only work in ceramics and sewing, but also wood, cement, etc. What’s the relationship between your materials and subject matter?
In painting, the material is a given, and it’s all about choosing the subject matter. So when I transitioned to sculpture, the material began to define the subject itself. I often start by finding a material that I’m interested in. I’ll see a chair that I’m really excited about, or the texture and color of the tea, and then that serves as a jumping off point for the rest of the work.
Your recent work, ‘Rupture,’ which was included in the South Bend Selfie show at the South Bend Museum of Art, feels much less representational than your other work – it’s more about material and abstracted form. Do you think you’re turning away from using recognizable objects in your work?
I’m not necessarily moving in that direction, but I am continually trying to find the balance between having a really recognizable object but also transforming it enough that it becomes something new. Having these recognizable objects is a way for people to enter the work and relate to it, and it certainly influences the way that I interact with everyday objects now. By thinking of them as art material, I continue to approach objects differently because I always see that potential, and I hope it does the same thing for people who interact with the work.
You fill a lot of roles at the Birdsell Project—you’re a working artist yourself, but you also run the show. How does working on the administrative side of an arts organization shape your own practice? Or is it just giving you less time to work on things?
Having less time has actually been a good influence on me because it’s forced me to be more decisive—I have to be more efficient in my process. At the same time, I think it’s been necessary to have the art process, because it is very different from the administrative side, and it gives me a chance to really slow down again. In addition, looking at so many people’s work and reading what they have to say about their art has been a really nice way of relating to other artists and thinking more about what people here in the city are making. It’s made art-making a less solitary process.
You and the rest of the Birdsell crew have already done an incredible job of bringing the art scene you want to see in South Bend here by starting this really impressive project. What do you like about the state of the arts here, and what opportunities would you like to see for South Bend artists?
There are a lot of people doing interesting things for the arts, and it does feel like a supportive community already. When we started the Birdsell Project, there were a couple of people who said, “You guys are crazy, what are you doing,” but overwhelmingly people have been really supportive and interested in getting involved. I think the fact that Steve Mihaljevic (Owner of the Birdsell Mansion) and David Matthews (Owner of the Commerce Center) are willing to let us use their buildings for this project, shows the kind of opportunities and support that do exist in this community. And what we quickly learned during the application process for the first show was how many artists there are in South Bend who are making really interesting work. We really owe the success of our first show, and this project, to all the artists who participated and the incredible work they installed.
In South Bend there are so many exciting opportunities for repurposing unused buildings here. People have been doing this already–we’re definitely not the first ones. Colfax Campus and Notre Dame Center for Art and Culture are both in rehabbed buildings that are now art spaces. Lang Lab influenced us a lot. In terms of opportunities for artists, there are a lot of connections between the South Bend art scene and the universities, but I think there’s always room for more. Also, I think creating opportunities for emerging artists and finding ways to connect people who are already working is important. And by just jumping into this, not really knowing what we’re doing but learning it along the way, my hope is that it’ll influence other people to do similar things.
What’s the most ridiculous thing you’re willing to share from behind the scenes with the Birdsell Project?
Since we’re very short on funds we decided to cater the closing reception for the Birdsell installation ourselves. We borrowed the Purple Porch Coop’s kitchen after they closed at night, which meant starting cooking at 9pm. The day before the reception, we were up until 5:30am making food. And then we brought it all back to my family’s house and stuffed it in the refrigerator, and my brother proceeded to accidentally eat half of our desserts. He ate all the brownies that were meant for the whole reception. We found him very ill-feeling the next morning, so then my mom ended up jumping in and making a ridiculous amount of brownies. But it worked out, and people liked the food!
Photo credit: Nalani Stolz, Peter Ringenberg, and Leah Gallant
By Leah Gallant
Much of your work draws on Catholic imagery and references. How does your faith drive your work? How do you see your work in relationship to canonical Western Christian art?
I first started dealing with spiritual and religious themes—and therefore also Christian themes—a couple of years ago. I had a realization that I think a lot of artists—Albert Herbert comes to mind—who deal with those sorts of themes had at some point in their lives, which is that I am a religious person. It’s part of my identity, it’s just a certain quality that I have, and I wanted to make art that was true to that quality. That’s when I made the self-portrait piece, ‘Night Call to Samuel,’ which is about that realization, and also about vocation in general. However, just because I’m making work that draws on this long history of Christian art doesn’t mean that I want to just engage with the West. Especially since I am a Catholic, which is the universal church that’s spread across the globe, I think that element of my religion will lend itself to making work that could be appreciated by a number of different cultures. One role model that I could look to is the Estonian Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt. The New York Times recently praised his music’s quality of an almost universal spiritualism that still did not deny his own specific religion.
Liam Cawley, Night Call to Samuel
A lot of art in the canon was produced under a very specific relationship between artists and the church. What are your thoughts on being an artist, and a Catholic, and a Catholic artist in 2015, when there’s a very different relationship between the Church and the state, as well as between artists and benefactors of contemporary art?
It certainly makes the art world more diverse, which I think is a good thing. However, I think there’s a perceived rift between art and the church. The late St. John Paul II wrote about this in his 1999 letter to artists, in which he emphasizes his desire for the church and the arts to have a relationship again where the church valued contemporary artists and contemporary artists considered the church in a more serious way than how a lot of people today do. This is also similar to a sentiment that Neo-Marxist sociologist Jürgen Habermas has put forth in his theory on a post-secular society, which is that the project of secularism, which is a mainly European project, and is based in Enlightenment values that believes that reason will overtake religion, has not succeeded, and this can be seen in the Eurocentric nature of that claim, where in global society religion still plays a very important role for most people across the globe. So Jürgen Habermas and Pope John Paul II would have both wanted to see a society where religion has no institutionalized place perhaps in the secular square but is not silenced in the secular square. I think Jürgen Habermas said something along the lines of ‘to disclude religious voices in the public square is distinctly illiberal.’ And I think that extends to the art world in a sense. I don’t feel as though I’m being particularly excluded—I was given a place at this residency; I haven’t had a heck of a lot of opposition at Notre Dame (which probably isn’t very surprising). But I know that there is a trend, which I encountered first in James Elkins’ book, ‘On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art,’ against religious ideas in contemporary art. But there’s also a sociological trend and in some ways an artistic trend towards their consideration.
When I think of most of the contemporary artists or artworks that deal with Christian themes, I think of pieces like Chris Ofili’s ‘Black Madonna’—pieces that have a much more complicated and often critical perspective on Christianity.
The Black Madonna is a really complicated one. But I think a lot of the opposition to that piece was against the elephant dung present, which Ofili explained is a sort of sacred object in I think several African cultures, so in that regard would not be critical. However, what I always thought was more suspect about that piece were the collaged angels out of pornographic images, so it is definitely very complex. And I hope to be complex too. But I believe that complexity does not have to be a wholesale criticism of faith.
Who or what are some of your major influences?
In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, I’d also say that with my thesis, which dealt with ideas of apophatic theology, I was very influenced by the work of Bill Viola and his work with the writings of St. John of the Cross. I have also been influenced by philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, and I’ve drawn inspiration from the sparse yet continued lineage of artists who have dealt with spiritual and religious topics and themes to this day—anyone from Van Gogh, Rouault, and Chagall to Stephen de Staebler, Jeni Spota, and Makoto Fujimura.
Liam Cawley, Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir
One of the things I find most appealing about your work is its playfulness. ‘Night call to Samuel,’ for example, shows you startled, black coffee in hand, and your thesis, ‘Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir,’ is a triptych with twenty four noisemakers that randomly turn on. What role does humor play in your work?
I think it’s good to have some levity. I’ve never considered myself to really be dealing with humor in the same way that some artists do, as a primary theme. But the theme depicted in ‘Night Call to Samuel’ does reference a scene that I experienced many times in undergrad— staying up until 3am in the morning with a cup of black coffee and seeing things out of the corner of your eye in a state of sleep deprivation.
Liam Cawley, Memento Mori
‘Memento Mori,’ on the other hand, a 7.5 ft tall sculpture that viewers can walk inside to be reminded of the fleeting nature of life, has a much more solemn air. What were your intentions with that piece?
I wanted to experiment with ways that the viewer can associate themselves and interact with a three dimensional object that they couldn’t with a panting on a wall. So I think the idea that it would be placed relatively close to the wall so you could go between it and the wall and then sort of be engulfed or inside or forced to interact with it very closely came first, and then I made decisions on materials that I wanted to use, the interior side is covered in tar, which has an interesting texture, absorbs light in a very interesting way, and also has a very strong smell that would be emphasized by the forced proximity of the viewer. And once I had decided on the materials that I wanted to use and the idea of being enclosed in the space, that was when I started to think about themes of funerary embalment. In ancient Egypt they would cover the mummy in tar, and the piece is very coffin-shaped. I was also thinking about what tar is–it’s dead matter from pre-historic times.
What are you planning for your grotto-like installation space in the basement of the Commerce Center?
I would describe it as more catacomb-like—it’s very stony and subterranean but still clearly man-made, and has a number of Roman arches. I hope to convert this space into a sort of twenty-first century Roman catacomb to memorialize the twenty-first century martyrs, of which there are many, although I’m focusing on the Egyptian Copts who were killed by ISIS/ISOL in Syria last February.
Of the resident artists this summer, you’re one of two who grew up in South Bend. How has the growing local art scene shaped your own practice?
It’s made me really happy! It’s really edifying to see South Bend grow—not only in the art scene, but our music scene has been blossoming as well. Downtown is vibrant in a way it never was when I was a child. It was really great as a developing artist to have this dynamic environment that was between being a post-industrial rust belt town—I think it made it to some lists of the most dying cities in the nation – and being a more cultural location. I’ve heard stories about what South Bend was in the eighties, and I’m really glad to see the town that I grew up in moving towards a new vitality and a new cultural importance.
Photo Credit: Liam Cawley and Leah Gallant
“Art? Poetry? What are you going to do with that?”
Guest blog post by Sade Murphy
I have been forced to ask myself this question as I watch black people gunned down by a militarized police force and while intersectional feminists I know are sent rape and death threats on twitter. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about what’s going on in the rest of the world. Everywhere, violence. From environmental to economic, racialized, gendered and oppressively ubiquitous. In the face of the desolate present, what do I think I will accomplish in doing what most people consider to be interesting but unproductive?
My overwhelming response: “Burn this bitch down.”
I want my poetry to be an act of intellectual arson. I want to alchemize the words on the page into power raw enough to torch the internal structures to which we are shackled and made soulsick. I want to live in such a way that poet becomes an unquestionable political identity located in my body. And this seems to be my only viable recourse, the only way I can safely interfere with the dominant culture.
In Dream Machine, my first full length manuscript, I used prose poetry to explore violence and violation manifested against bodies real and unreal. I see my writing as wrestling with issues of selfhood, dreamscapes, encounters of trauma and violence. The concept of bothness. The coexistence of dichotomies and the interwoven nature of what is personal and what is historical. Dream Machine is poetry that is transparently and authentically embodied. These are black dreams, fat dreams, queer dreams, feminist dreams, depressed dreams, poor dreams.
I don’t really like to talk about my process because I think it’s boring. I slept, I dreamt, I woke, I wrote. I made many tedious neurotic revisions. I also feel like I didn’t know what I was making until I’d finished making it. The process is akin to when I’m silk painting in the studio at St. Margaret’s House. I work close to the silk while I paint and my perception of the piece as a whole is distorted. It’s not until the silk is held up for me to view from a distance that I can see and appreciate what I’ve done.
This is what reading Dream Machine to an audience does for me. I lose myself in the reading of these poems. I scry these words from the page, I ignite you. I keep writing to propel myself into the future, becoming a combustion engine against the despair and injustice that suppresses all light, all reason. I want to write poetry that does not shy away from reality. I want to create an aesthetic that keeps people alive and their bodies moving forward. My poetry is rooted in discomfort, and the endgame is not only survival, but justice.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, MONEY…MONEY.
Guest blog post by Hilal Omar Al Jamal (Night Auditor)
I’d like to imagine that this piece stands to initiate a dialogue that will prove fruitful to my community, that what I communicate here will contribute to a greater sense of transparency, respect, and fluidity in the relationships between those in my community who create engaging works and those who engage those works and help bring them to the public. So, please humor me. Myles asked me to write this piece, reflecting on my experience performing at the Birsdell on a particularly memorable occasion: Halloween. Another musician, Peter J. Hochstedler—for whom I have a great deal of respect—was also asked to write a piece in this vein. I read it and found it so compelling that it motivated me to conceive of my own piece as entering into dialogue with his.
It occurred to me to write about the reformation—or redemption—of a markedly bourgeois space, a space of Victorian decadence whose beauty has been enhanced both by its decay and, more so, by its appropriation not for the purpose of gentrifying a downtown South Bend community filled with good people hurt by economic and social inequality, but for the sake of cultivating a safe space for artistic and cultural production. My band Night Auditor and I performed at the Birdsell on Halloween to a packed house of creeps, like myself, celebrating, however indirectly, the resuscitation of a space for the good of our community. My experience was overwhelmingly positive. I had trouble sleeping that night; my body was so charged by the energy and imaginings of individuals investing in making South Bend a richer environment conducive to cultural and artistic production; it is worth noting that all of the profits from that party are being invested in the works of dozens of artists in residency at the Birdsell Mansion. Anyway, this isn’t exactly what I want to write about here.
Instead—encouraged by a local event organizer, LGBTQ activist, and friend—I would like to discuss, briefly, the issue of monetary compensation in light of the concepts of community and collaboration. First, as a relatively new addition to this community of artists and art aficionados, I want to thank those who’ve embraced my work. I’d also like to call your attention to those spaces, venues, and individuals who merit appreciation for the important work they do in this town to book artists for concerts, exhibitions, and other community-oriented events and to promote those events so that an increasingly wider audience can have access to this spring of culture. The conversation I want to initiate in this piece is one that I hope will have a positive influence on the dealings between artists and those spaces, venues, and individuals seeking to invest in local artistic production.
Here we go: monetary compensation. I know nobody likes talking about this; I sure as fuck don’t. Like most musicians in this community, I don’t want to have to put a price tag on something I want to share with everyone. But this music and arts shit is expensive. It puts us in debt to creditors. It makes us have to have difficult conversations with our partners in which we painfully explain that in order to make our art, which for whatever reason we are convinced we must make, we need to spend money we don’t quite have yet, but which we might recover by sharing our work with a community that supports us.
I literally invest the strength of my limbs, my sweat and blood, what little time I have on this earth, in my music. I do it willingly, and I love that I feel that I have no other choice. And when the time comes for me to act on recouping my investment—I hope those words leave as shitty a taste in your mouth as they do mine—I feel embarrassed to have to ask questions like: “How much did we make at the door? What are you paying the DJs? We got a big draw tonight, right? Did the touring band ask for a guarantee? Are we doing an even split? Is the headliner getting paid more than us? How much is the venue keeping? What are the room costs? Why are we being paid so little?” It is fucking embarrassing to have to ask these questions to event organizers. Why?
I think that many of us are learning to have these conversations. I certainly am. I want to learn to have them; I want us to learn together. My experiences in this regard so far have taught me that transparency and planning are key. When I am asked to play a show, I want the event organizers to tell me very early in the process of arranging the performance exactly how compensation will work. I know that as artists we don’t want to have to ask, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. And event organizers please work with us to figure this out and understand that our need as artists and musicians to supplement our incomes—I really doubt that anyone in my community is profiting obscenely from music—by charging for performances should not reflect negatively on our musicianship or our ideologies. I did not choose capitalism—in fact allow me to echo the words “Fuck Capitalism”. Unfortunately, I create in a capitalist context, which means that a lot of what I produce and my means of production will cost me money, just as all of my basic necessities cost me money: food, housing, transportation, etc.
You might want to know why I think this conversation is relevant to the task at hand? There was some confusion on Halloween night about payment. The house collected a good deal from the door; there were a lot of people involved in planning and preparation, contributing selflessly to the mansion’s transformation into what it was Halloween night; there were disparities in the distribution of the proceeds. We resolved that confusion by engaging, embarrassingly, in a conversation that we should have already had, a conversation that both parties failed to initiate. We resolved things by negotiating with the aim of minimizing disparities in terms of compensation, aiming to achieve relative equality among musicians and acts based on a number of factors relevant to our particular circumstances. More importantly, we had that difficult conversation and there were no hard feelings at the end of the night. I want to encourage transparency, collaboration, negotiation, initiative, and consideration in the ways we approach arts programming in Michiana. I hope you feel me.
Standing On the Shoulders of So Many Bodies
Guest blog post by Peter J Hochstedler
A Reflection on Dream Machine and Necrobisect, as performed at the Birdsell Mansion on October 18, 2014 by Sade Murphy and Peter J Hochstedler, respectively
There are few things I would rather do on a Saturday evening than perform a set of new songs alongside writer Sade Murphy in the ballroom of an unused mansion for a hundred people. A couple weekends ago, I got to do that. Sade, Dream Machine is fearless and intense and funny and devastating and so are you. Thank you. Thank you Myles, Nalani, and the others of the Birdsell Project for hosting, Steve for your hospitality, Bethy and Matthew for joining me for my set, Meghan and Matt for being the most encouraging, awesome sound techs, and everyone who came. I hope you enjoyed the show as much as I did.
Much is being made of the future of South Bend, Indiana:
Dream Big® is a registered trademark of Viagra®, used with permission
This vision of the economic future is not merely bold: It is admirably masturbatory. Will massive steel erections soon surround the former Chase Tower’s boyish protrusion like bullies in a locker room? Will David Guthrie finally fly his sweet red sperm-ride towards McCormick’s as if there were no bridge? (But there still is a bridge?) I am sure I am missing the point of the illustration.
My point is: who wants to live there? That city is butt-ugly. It is the domain of super-villain megalomaniacs, a place where police are more powerful and more corrupt, a place where money is hyper-stratified. Haven’t we watched a goddamned movie?
I prefer old, dead money for my playground. I prefer my carousels spinning ’round the ruins of capitalism. I prefer money that leaks out of the cracks in the toilet pipes and floods the floor below in shit. That kind of money has no pretense: It was ill-earned by greedy fuckers on the labor of the subsisting class. It is a corpse. (Let’s be birds of prey!) It lives on in its dead image, the hauntings of a drafty house. Let’s not reiterate some sick nostalgia for the “glory days.” Rather, we can try something new in the shell of the old: we can, in the spirit of the Birdsell Project, make new meaning in the vacant spaces of old, monied myths. The bodies have rotted; let’s have a dance party in the gorgeous mausoleum.
There are people who stand to gain monetarily from the emergence of a new creative class in and around downtown South Bend. These people are, by and large, not members of the creative class themselves. They are entrepreneurs, developers, dealers in capital. Their clientele, those with some money to spend, has in the past been either too scared or too bored by downtown. But they see young hip people doing artsy things and they are drawn like grandparents to a flea market, like my 3-year-old nephew to the monkey cage at the zoo. The artists might be poor but they are not the frightening kind of poor people. In fact, when they are done playing rock n roll, they will make you a latte.
I write as one who no longer lives in South Bend and who has only a sentimental stake in the matter of its future. I also write as a member of this so-called “creative class.” We create like children create, out of love for the work itself. Perhaps we make a little money, perhaps we don’t. But while we do it, however radical we may be, we create value that can be monetized by those with capital. This is particularly true for those of us creatives who are white—who, by our very presence in a so-called “bad” (low-income) neighborhood (of color), increase the potential value of real estate.
Perhaps I take personally the inequities of being a tool in the hands of capital. But, for me, there is a far more urgent wrinkle in the contracts of progress: When money moves in, those with neither money nor social capital must move on.
We might imagine that, prior to 2005, nobody was downtown and nothing was happening. But downtown has for decades been a hub of so many people living, surviving, being themselves. Perhaps they were invisible to you; they wanted it when no one else wanted it. Non-profits and government assistance agencies wanted downtown so they could be close to their invisible, unmonied target populations. And of course there have always been creatives in South Bend; there have been other art scenes and other visions of other futures.
Money (capital) and its human displacement will be justified on so many grounds. “Look what a beautiful city we have created!” they might say when the last of the ugly people can no longer afford to live there. Or, even better, “Look how we have taken people who were once ugly (unemployed) and taught them to be beautiful (tax-paying) people, so they can fit into our beautiful city!” And we continue to make one another in our own image, an idol, a “success story,” a testimony carved into the temple of the Great White Cock of Capitalism.
I know that I am not alone in my concern. The movers and shakers of the new South Bend are, by and large, a people of good will and social conscience. And the creative class, holy fuck, is inspiringly, resiliently DIY and collaborative. We do not need capital to do what we want. To the extent that we are privileged by the capitalist system, we must push back against its unleashed violence. We must imagine a future in which humanity is not bought and sold, in which we are not afraid of people who do not fit our respectable vision of a thriving city.
And so I submit, for your perusal and enjoyment, my Personal Manifesto, Autumn 2014 Edition:
Fuck the police.
Fuck the hip.
Fuck “culture” and its centers.
Fuck me and fuck you too.
Let what is brokenhearted and desperate inside draw us toward those whose brokenness, whose marginalization, whose pride and desperation we cannot fathom. Let us tend wounds if we can; let us listen and be changed. Let us learn acceptance from whom we find hardest to accept. But let us not think, O White Savior, like Columbus before us, that we have discovered anything. We are only witnesses.
The Birdsell Project – Call for Entries
We are curating an exhibition in one of the historic mansions in downtown South Bend and are looking for a diverse group of local students, artists and professors who may be interested in participating. Please help us get the word out by sending this request on to any colleagues, artists, and students who may want to apply.
The Birdsell Mansion, built in 1898, is a historic building in downtown South Bend, Indiana. The mansion has been unoccupied for many years, but will soon undergo renovations. It maintains the majority of its original floors, woodwork, plaster and fireplaces. Before construction on the space begins, the mansion will be transformed into an event and gallery space for artists and musicians to showcase their work and talent.
Artists will have just over two months to create and install work for the exhibition. Artists will have the opportunity to install their work in one of the many historic bedrooms or in larger shared spaces.
Throughout the installation, the preservation of this historic space is paramount. However, much of the space will be undergoing renovations after the exhibition is over, so artists will be given as much freedom as possible when installing and transforming the space.
We’re looking for artists who are passionate about using this opportunity to make site specific pieces or to exhibit work that relates to this unique experimental space.
Artists who are interested in participating in this exhibition should submit 5-10 images of their previous work (images should be no larger than 1 MB and should include the dimensions, medium and title for each piece). Artists should also submit a written statement about their work and how it will relate to the project and this historic space.
The exhibition is open to artists of all media.
The project will be coordinated and overseen by local artist Nalani Stolz and community organizer Myles Robertson. Please contact us with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 28th – Submission deadline
October 1st – Artists will be contacted about the exhibition
December 11th – Last day to install work
December 13th – Opening Reception
Exhibition will run from December 13th – February 13th