As the end to a most trying year draws near, hopes for a fairer and more equitable future are weighted against the injustices of the present that attempt to erode the very foundations of our democracy. Even in the wake of the U.S. election’s positive outcome, conservative politicians and right-wing extremists, cloaked in the guise of patriotism, continue to exploit symbols of freedom, including the American flag, to bolster a dangerous authoritarian nationalism and commit atrocities against American citizens, immigrants, indigenous peoples, and Earth.
Walking in the Eastern Woodlands of the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, one discovers an open clearing in which lies a large concrete basin surrounded by a skeletal wooden structure all weathered by the forces of nature and time. The central pond-shaped form, cracked and empty save for a few fallen leaves, was once a swimming pool on a 20-acre estate uncovered by Laumeier staff when it acquired the land in the early 1980s. The trellised structure, a labyrinth of elevated walkways and gazebos, is an installation by artist Mary Miss who constructed the work in 1982-85.
As I have mentioned many times here and throughout my critical practice, Rosalyn Deutsche’s book Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics has been an endless source of inspiration for me. Deutsche centers her discourse on public art in political reinventions of public space, looking to radical definitions of democracy and to analogies that equate cities with biological systems. Such analogies are even more prescient given our current pandemic that heightens the realities of the interconnectedness of humans, cities, and ecosystems and the social, economic, and environmental injustices that result when those links are destabilized.
Just ending its 14-week run that coincided with the rise of global anti-government protests, the Chicago Teachers Strike, and devasting fires in Australia, this year’s iteration of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) offered a platform for projects, many collaborative and citizen-led, that explored the social function of architecture and its publics. Titled “. . . and other such stories,” the biennial took an activist approach to architecture and urban transformation using the Chicago Cultural Center and various satellite spaces as sites for alternative investigations of how we might shape and inhabit the world.
With the goal to help the citizens of Milwaukee learn about the importance of water to the life of their city, artist Mary Miss has embarked on WaterMarks: An Atlas of Water for the City of Milwaukee, a multi-year project that fosters community and municipal partnerships to create public awareness around climate change.
Chicago is part of the Mississippi Flyway zone, one of the largest bird migration corridors in North America. It follows the Mississippi River some 2,500 miles from its most northern point in Minnesota southwards to the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Audubon Society, more than 325 bird species use the Mississippi Flyway. Growing up in the Midwest, these migratory patterns always defined the seasons: dark flocks flew south for winter; warbling swarms returned each spring.
What is a public? According to theorist Michael Warner, “a public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse,” a self-defined social space of dialogic interactions and interplays. For Warner, a counterpublic is similarly discursive but assumes a “conflictual relation to the dominant public,” by creating its own audiences and idioms through alternative forms of address. (1) The idea of the “discursive public” forms the basis for Counterpublic, a new art triennial that reclaims the spatial environment of St. Louis as a body of distinct yet overlapping publics, each with their own cultural identity.
Loss takes many forms. Within the last two years, I lost both my parents and a sister. Their passings were followed by much personal grief, of course, as well as an existential rethinking about the meaning of absence and belonging. What binds us to place, to each other, to the larger world? And while loss is inherent to the cycles of life that define who we are as human beings, catastrophic loss – whether by violence, poverty, social oppression, climate change, or environmental disaster – plagues our political present, rupturing the ties that connect us to home and to the earth beneath our feet.
It has been less than a year since violent hatred erupted on August 12, 2017 at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, fueled by the planned removal of a bronze statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. This horrific event has become the locus for the fiery debate about the fate of Confederate monuments, one that reignited some two years earlier when a self-identified white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, triggering a wave of fallen Confederate statues throughout the American South.
In her preface to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban advocate Jane Jacobs directs the reader to “look closely at real cities.” “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us,” she writes. “While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.” (Note 1) I was reminded of Jacobs’s words with each viewing of Make New History, the second installment of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), which just closed its nearly four-month run this January.
As I consider Chicago’s new Riverwalk, I am reminded of Bob Dylan’s oft-covered song “Watching the River Flow,” in which the song’s protagonist, lonely and alienated within an unidentified city, finds solace sitting along the sandy banks of an unidentified river. The song’s themes of inspiration and displacement, fostered by clashes between public and private, urban and nature, seem an appropriate metaphor for the inherent issues embedded within urban renewal projects that repurpose former industrial sites, including riverfronts, into green spaces.
A part of my morning ritual is to check in with Facebook. Each day I am greeted by a picture of a sunrise posted by artist Barbara Koenen, who photographs the sun ascending over Lake Michigan from her apartment window in Chicago. Using her smartphone, she then posts her images on Instagram and Facebook, where followers Like, Comment, and Share. I have followed Koenen’s sunrises daily since she initiated her project two years ago, and have come to find there is surprising variation in each dawn.