Friday, October 21, 2016

Events: Multimedia Time Machine, Family + Friends

Multimedia Time Machine
Saturday, October 22, 2016
10 AM - 12 PM
Gallery 400
400 S Peoria Street, Chicago

For a lot of us, 'family' events are a whole lot more interesting when they're not designed just for children. That's why Cultural ReProducers is partnering with Gallery 400 to present Multimedia Time Machine, a truly intergenerational workshop and live video performance next Saturday, October 22nd. Bring your kids, your parents, your college students, and yourself for a collaborative live animation with artists and musicians Ben LaMar, Selina Trepp, and Christa Donner. We'll transform Gallery 400 into a multimedia time machine using electronic and acoustic sound, overhead projectors, shadow forms, and transparent materials to create layers of past and the future. The resulting projection and soundtrack will be documented as a realtime video collaboration.

Families and Friends Matinee Series
Sunday, Oct. 23rd, Nov. 20th, and Dec. 17th 
12 PM - 2 PM


2200 North California Ave, Chicago

If you'd rather enjoy live music than make it yourself, check out Township's live concert series for all ages, continuing its second season thanks to musician, artist, and father Thomas Comerford, who started organizing the series for Township in the Spring. Families and Friends Matinee Series kicks off for Fall on Sunday, October 23rd, with the trancey, visual electronica of Spectralina and openers Son Monarcas, who combine Mexican roots with South American cumbia and tango. Bonus: you can order some excellent food from the Township kitchen if kids get hungry between sets. I'm pretty sure the cover is still $10 per family. Here's their full Fall lineup:

10/23, #7: Spectralina + Son Monarcas, noon
11/20, #8: Glass Mountain + Girls of the Golden West, noon
12/17, #9: Tselanie Townsend + Wes Hollywood, noon

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Interview: Jess Dobkin

Jess Dobkin, The Magic Hour (photo: David Hawe)
Canadian artist Jess Dobkin has earned acclaim for her boundary-pushing performance work, drawing from queer identity, personal narrative, and the female body. The first time I had the chance see her perform in person was this past Spring, as part of the exhibition New Maternalisms Redux at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and the weekend-long colloquium that followed. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was also the first time her daughter, Yael, was a part of the audience too. It’s been eleven years since Jess became a single mother, and while she has performed around the world she now focuses much of her considerable creative energy within the vibrant arts scene of Toronto, where she lives with her daughter and partner. We caught up recently for a candid conversation about the challenges and choices in raising a child while taking on provocative content in her work, and the practicalities of parenthood in an increasingly professionalized art world.

Interview by Christa Donner

Cultural ReProducers: I'll start off by asking you to briefly describe your daughter in your own words.

Jess Dobkin: My daughter’s name is Yael and she’s eleven. It’s already an interesting question for me in terms of describing her and how she might define herself, the ways I set up boundaries of when and how I talk about her, and the hesitance I have about having her image up on the interwebs and such. I find I’m protective of her identity in a way that’s almost kind of a … joke in these times, as if any of our identities can be sheltered from an online presence. But in terms of how I would describe her, she’s… just very “Yael” (laughter).  She has her own Yael ways about her. I’d say that she is a pretty sensitive, intuitive person, and she’s a Gemini. But it is funny to me how I overthink this. I can also answer your question by simply saying, "She loves reading, math, ballet, and all things Hogwarts."

Cultural ReProducers: Your performance work often deals with pretty challenging, and sexually explicit content. How do you talk about what you do with your daughter? And related to that sense of protectiveness you just talked about, how does that conversation change as she gets older and more connected to the internet?

Jess: Yeah, it’s funny because it is changing. I knew there would come the day when she would learn how to use Google Image search. Like a lot of things with parenting, conversations happen so gradually, and organically… it’s not like you suddenly sit down and have ‘The Conversation’ about sex or drugs or like, “where did I come from?” It’s an unfolding process of integration depending on their age and what they’re ready to absorb -- and that has definitely been true around discussing my work. When I was growing up, the boundaries in my childhood were so… murky, that if anything If anything, I feel like I’ve kind of swung the other way to set clear boundaries and protection around sensitive issues and images.

The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar (David Hawe)
I’m so aware that everything is now an archive - even this interview is an archive in the making. It might be something that Yael doesn’t read now, but all information is just being compiled into the burden of our archives, where there really are no closets anymore, and your audience isn’t just looking at news of the now. There’s this sense of performing all the time, and that information is always accessible. Sometimes I’m future-thinking. I'm in the present moment but considering,“is this something she will access later?”

But as she’s getting older and with the mix and mingle of my art life and my home life she is learning more about the content of my work. So much of my work comes out of my own lived experience, so she’s also learning about who I am and my history and communities. I’m really enjoying being able to share that with her. And because I’m her mom, anything I do is embarrassing to her. We’ll be in the car and I’ll be singing a Joni Mitchell song and it’s so embarrassing. I can just be walking down the street with her and I’m so embarrassing, so I’m like, “oh my gosh… it turns out I might be a really embarrassing mom.” (laughter)

"There's all the energy and focus on the making of the artwork, but there’s also the work of figuring out grocery shopping and laundry and childcare and getting her to her piano lessons! That invisible production that’s always going on... the production of parenting."

CR: So on that note, I was thinking about your Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar, which came directly out of your experience of motherhood. Could you say a little bit about that piece for those who aren’t so familiar with the project?

When I first imagined the piece it was when I was pregnant with Yael. The concept was that it was going to be a breast milk tasting bar, and it would be my own breast milk and the milk of other new parents who were lactating. But when Yael was born I did not have success with breastfeeding, which is its own story - a story that is kind of woven into the performance. I had to find donors who would donate their milk for the performance, and these donor relationships became integral to the project. As part of the piece I interview the donors while I’m collecting their milk, asking them about their experience of breastfeeding, about their diet, about if they’ve tasted their milk, and if so, what they think it tastes like. And then as part of the performance I impart that information to the audience as they are sampling the milk.

CR: It’s an amazing piece to experience. I was lucky to be in the same audience with your daughter when you performed it at New Maternalisms Redux. I know you’re both pretty removed from breastfeeding at this point, but I’m so curious how it was for both of you to have her to participate … and if there were any interesting conversations that came up.

It was such a pleasure to have her there, because she hadn’t really had the opportunity to see much of my work before. Part of what feels challenging for me about having Yael present at a performance isn’t always about the content of the work but in my energy as a parent and as an artist. Bringing her to Edmonton was an experiment for me, because I find it really challenging to balance those two identities,  and to focus. So even at a gathering that was all about art and motherhood where we were digging into those particular issues, on the sidelines I was trying to just manage these different energies, these two different parts of myself.

In terms of what conversations she and I had, some of that happened as I was preparing for the performance, and speaking to her questions about our shared experience of her as a baby. It's exciting to have kids participate in that performance because of their perspective and their language, and how they are closer to the experience of being a baby. I’m always curious about how they relate to it, how they consider and frame the same things that we’re considering.

The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar (David Hawe)

CR: Who have been your role models for artist parenting or parent artisting?

Some of that I find among my peers. I feel lucky in Toronto to know so many queer parents -- and not necessarily just artists. When Yael was a baby, a few of us started this queer single mamas group that met quite regularly for a few years. The women in that group really inspired and encouraged me. Single parenting presented a particular set of issues and questions and challenges, so I found a lot of inspiration and support from knowing other fantastic, creative amazing women doing that. I also know some artists here in Toronto who have grown kids, and it’s been really important just knowing that they are still practicing artists who’ve managed to find themselves on the other side of that, having more time and autonomy and energy for their practices. As Yael grows I am finding those things getting easier… I mean, do you find that too? That balance of … I do feel like my art practice is another kid, where it’s this thing that I want to put time into and nurture and be with. There are times when there’s a synergy there, and other times it feels competing. It’s such a paradox of how parenting has really inspired my art practice, and then also in some ways it has made it very challenging, just in terms of my time and energy and resources. … eugh!

The Artist-Run Newsstand, Newsies the Musical (Nathan Hoo)
CR: It’s so incredibly complicated! Well, and to expand on that you have this intense performance practice that means you have to create, rehearse, and travel a lot… I’m sure there are things I’m leaving something off that list. You’ve somehow done all this mostly as a single mother. How have you made that work? 
The Artist-Run Newsstand, Safe Space Exhibition by Cecilia Berkovic and
Karen Frostitution (photo: Toni Hafkenscheid)

Jess: It has been challenging, and I still feel the frustration that ‘the village’ isn’t there. In some
ways yes, people have networks of support, but I am also aware that it’s not really like … we’re not living on the kibbutz or within a communal structure or something. I think for me as a parent there have been times that it’s been very frustrating. I try to frame it as it being my choice: I choose not to do certain things because I am choosing to parent. And while that means that I’m not in a position to apply for some opportunities or attend events or have a more expansive social life, I remind myself that I am very content in the things that I am doing. It has certainly limited my traveling and… yeah. But being a parent has also connected me to these incredible creative spaces and so many fantastic folks, and it’s been really, really wonderful.

This past year with the Artist-Run Newsstand project, part of that was to do something that was really local. Like, okay – at this point in my life I’m not really in a position to be traveling around a lot, and I'm questioning my artist carbon footprint. I have to ask when and why I choose to travel with my work. Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not a priority. So it felt good to act locally and to do this project in my neighborhood, something that Yael was often a part of, a place where she could stop by and hang out – was really a working solution for me this past year.

When Yael was younger and I would travel to perform... There’s the production of the performance, but then there’s always the other "production" of parenting. I still feel that now. I’m doing a long-term artist residency at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, where I’ll be performing for two weeks in January. I’m already trying to sort out many months ahead what that will mean for Yael and her care during the run of the show when I’ll be performing each night. So there's all the energy and focus on the making of the artwork, but there’s also the work of figuring out grocery shopping and laundry and childcare and getting her to her piano lessons! That invisible production that’s always going on – the production of parenting.

CR: If you were to imagine your ideal creative community, or maybe community in general – what do you feel like needs to change to make the art world a more inclusive context for artists who are raising kids?

Oh my goodness, I think childcare for starters, not just for artists, but the world needs inspired and affordable childcare. People have asked me about bringing Yael to the piece I’m working on now and I’m like “Oh, no. This piece is NOT for children.” I don’t believe that kids belong everywhere -- there need to be adult-only spaces. But so many things need to change. The horrible misogyny in the world. When I became a mom I felt the inheritance of this whole other form of woman-hatred. Already as a woman artist feeling like my work is not taken seriously, but being a mom? Ugh. I think attitudes absolutely need to change. The understanding of the labor of parenthood needs to change, the valuing of what that is, what that requires.

CR: So you just finished the Artist-Run Newsstand project, and you mentioned this residency with the Theatre Centre. What are you working on now? 

The Magic Hour (photo: David Hawe)
Jess: The newsstand was envisioned as a one-year project. It ended in May, and there was a question
of whether it would continue, which then brought up these interesting questions of “When is something over? When do you move on?” I see this with festivals and even artist-run centres -- sometimes there’s this real need to question the expectation that something continue -- knowing when it’s time to take what’s learned and transform that energy into the next thing.

I’m working on a couple other things right now, one of which is this performance called The Magic Hour that’ll premiere in January at The Theatre Centre. By the time it’s presented I will have been developing it for almost three years. It’s been such a pleasure to have that span of time to develop a work, mostly due to support from The Theatre Centre. The piece is not about parenting, it’s not about Yael, but the experience of having her certainly has informed the work. Even though it’s not a piece she’s going to see anytime soon, she is seeing props and elements of it because it’s all here in our home… like the tiger head she was trying on this morning before school.

I’ve also been co-curating a project called MONOMYTHS with Shannon Cochran, who’s a performance artist and the director of FADO, an artist-run centre here in Toronto. It’s a year-long curated project of fourteen stages, a feminist revisioning of The Hero’s Journey. Not everyone presenting these stages necessarily identifies as a performance artist – one person did a lecture, and one offered an arts and activism workshop, so they’re all taking on these different forms, partly to raise questions about what constitutes a performance, and this interest in where performance art butts up against a larger narrative structure, to see what that brings. For me the project has also been about performance art as something that’s recently been more integrated into the mainstream capitalist art market system, and along with that, seeing this kind of lone hero, art star mentality. In my mind performance art is so much more about collectivity and community, and a practice of resistance and rebellion -- and a sort of interdependence, too. We’re looking at the exquisite corpse structure for MONOMYTHS, where each presentation impacts the others, and there is this connectedness among them. It’s not like a festival where one person presents their work and then this other person presents -- though even in those structures, whatever one person offers, it ripples and impacts our experience of the other things we’re seeing. I’m interested in all of that right now.

CR: That also seems like a metaphor for family, the way you just described it. It’s not like these characters operate as completely separate entities.

Jess: Yeah, that’s so interesting, these questions of how we might all be connected. One of the things I found to be so affirming and sustaining about the event in Edmonton was to have the opportunity to meet up with other people and find these points of connection. Yael had the time of her life there because of meeting Chloe [daughter of participating artist Courtney Kessel]. It was so cool for her to meet another kid of a performance artist. Not many of her friends in Toronto have moms who are, you know, lesbian performance artists (laughter). One thing that was so great about the queer single mamas group was that it was also a space for the kids to hang out. It was so valuable for Yael to be with other kids of queer single moms, to have that shared recognition. And Edmonton was an important experience for Yael to be around other mom artists. It gave her a frame of reference.

Yael behind the counter at the Artist-Run Newsstand closing party. Exhibition by Zanette Singh (photo: Tania Anderson)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Who Cares for Whom? Parenthood in the Creative Community

Alberto Aguilar, Rest Area (Museo Picasso Barcelona), 2011

The Atlantic magazine has just bafflingly proclaimed the arts “A Field Where Working Moms Aren’t Punished” just a few months after New York Magazine published Kim Brooks’ essay with the provocative tagline “Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” (a subtitle that was recently amended.) While many of us would be hard pressed to describe the arts as a supportive field from which to combine family and career, we also resist the long-held belief that the two are incompatible. Parenthood can be profound and generative. It can also, let’s be honest, be incredibly complicated to pursue a creative career while raising a family. It is also difficult to maintain an artistic practice while coping with a serious health concern, caring for an aging parent, dealing with political oppression, or any of the other situations that intersect our lives as human beings who make art.  Yet some of the most powerful art ever made has come from those living in the thick of challenging experiences.

Courtney Kessel, In Balance With, 2010
Unlike other professions, artmaking often happens in the (unpaid) time between other responsibilities, which means it’s the first thing to be pushed aside when any semblance of free time disappears. But here’s where being creative comes in. Eventually, when we’re ready, we invent new systems of production, we adapt creative practices to work in short bursts instead of long hours, we call on friends and family for help. We think and read and plan for a time when we’ll have more time.

So the making, it will happen. But what to do when we find ourselves excluded from artist residencies or dropped by galleries at the mention of small children? Or more subtly, when we find vast numbers of cultural events inaccessible once we’ve created another person, or come to take care of one? Why should this isolate us so profoundly from our artistic communities?

One response to structural and social problems is to work collectively. This has led to a growing number of projects including Enemies of Good Art (UK), the Mothership Project (IR), Broodwork (USA), (m)other voices (NL), Home Affairs (USA) Invisible Spaces of Parenthood (UK), and Cultural ReProducers (USA), a creative platform I have run since 2012. These groups create an important solidarity and a critical mass.  But reaching out can be daunting when you’re juggling personal and professional responsibilities on a whole new level.


Creating systems of support can also happen one artist at a time. There’s plenty we can do as individuals that adds up to better conditions for all artists. On the surface there might seem to be few models for art world success for anyone raising a child. The autonomous (male) genius working late into the night is a pervasive ideal, even as diverse collaborative and social practices flourish.  Women have often kept their personal lives undercover to be taken seriously as artists, so while many have also been mothers, you’d never know without some digging. In an increasingly professionalized art scene it might still seem inappropriate to bring up family if it’s not the focus of your work. But owning our roles as artists raising children can shift assumptions and create space for parenthood as one of many possible options. Many of these ideas focus specifically on mothers or parents in general, but it should go without saying here that similar tactics can be applied to include the voices of other groups as well.

Sonja Thomsen, Trace of Possibility (installation view), 2013
* Mention parenthood during an artist talk. A few brief words on the challenges of reconfiguring studio time or seeing things from a new perspective can have a profound impact, making parenthood seem possible, realistic, and visible. While it is typically less damaging to the reputations of male-identified artists, it’s still rare to hear a father discuss his role as caregiver. Parental roles are changing, and these conversations matter.

* Acknowledge the impact of raising a child when applying for residencies and funding where it’s relevant. When they’re writing proposals, the performative duo Spectralina (Selina Trepp & Dan Bitney) put it this way:

We are committed to being creative and engaged with the world while making sure that this includes our daughter. Having her in our life influences our outlook and thus also our creative output. Our art is inspired by our reality, as most art is. We see her inclusion in our creative life as a cultural and political position. It is important that what is represented in the culture industry isn’t limited to the experience of single people; or to people who can afford and want a nanny; or to men who have wives who take care of their kids in the background. Art should be at the forefront of social change, and in that capacity it should offer models which allow for artist families to be visible and supported.

* Depending on timing and temperament, bring the kids to art events usually populated exclusively by adults. This can be far more stressful than staying home or digging into the budget for a sitter, but under the right circumstances it can benefit everyone involved. If you have a friend with kids (or a friend who likes kids), see if you can take turns to share the experience with family but still connect with other adults.

Sonia Delaunay, Couverture de Berceau, 1911
courtesy of the artist and Musée d'Art Moderne
* Know your foremothers, and reference them. Sonia Delaunay’s formative work of pure abstraction was a baby quilt made for her newborn son in 1911. Lea Lublin moved a crib into the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris to perform ‘mon Fils’ in 1968, caring for her seven-month-old son in public for the run of the exhibition. Housebound with a newborn, Candida Alvarez painted on linen napkins, a practice that still informs her vibrant work. Stories like these have been buried by years of taboo and gendered hierarchy. In her recent book Motherism, Lise Haller Baggesen calls for a repositioning of motherhood as a place of experience and indeed expertise, a valid point from which to speak:

What I am asking for here, I guess, is for mothers to occupy spaces and conversations within art and academia, to claim a voice, many voices, to speak within and against the canon, to reflect on the complexities of mothering and motherhood within that context.

* Reschedule. Timing is a practical barrier that can be hard to understand without the experience of early parenthood. The events through which an artist builds connections to their creative community – opening receptions, lectures, performances – almost always take place in the evening, in the midst of some precarious dinner-bedtime ritual. Last year I noticed several shows at prominent galleries in my city had openings scheduled for 2pm on a Saturday instead of the usual Friday night thing. Had the stars aligned? If so it was just because the exhibiting artists asked for a time that worked better for them. For at least one, it was so that his partner and two young children could join him for the event.

* Reconfigure. Beyond scheduling, there are other ways to make art spaces accessible to participants of all ages. The Ottawa Art Gallery recently announced it will pilot free childcare at art openings this year. Plug Projects in Kansas City, MO, sets aside a quiet, informal space in back with markers and coloring books so that parents can nurse or chat while their overstimulated kids take a break from the crowded intensity of the opening. This is also the room where the cold drinks are kept, so everyone passes through at least once. It’s a simple fix that can lower everyone’s blood pressure and allow people with different needs to participate.

* Ask what you’ll be paid. The question of how to financially sustain our creative lives is an issue
that affects all artists. When an artist is invited to do a visiting artist lecture or develop a new project, they're not doing it for ‘free’ if they have to pay a childcare provider or negotiate with a family member. Setting guidelines for compensation not only helps to support one's own work, it helps set a precedent for treating other artists fairly. Be specific and ask if there’s money to help cover childcare or production costs. By asking, you’ve made that part of the equation visible. 

Many of us also work with artist-run spaces that have no budget to speak of, run by creative people who are happy to support artists in other ways. While artist fees are sometimes just not possible, some spaces can offer professional photo or video documentation, while others might have part of an apartment to house your family out of town, or give access to specialized equipment.  Being clear about what we need and how we can support each other allows us to build stronger creative community.

For sliding scale fee calculators and other great resources for artists and art spaces visit CARFAC (Canada), W.A.G.E. (USA) , and Paying Artists (UK).  

 Christa Donner, grant proposal sketch for the Cultural ReProducers Event Series, 2013

Christa Donner is a multimedia artist who investigates the human/animal body and its metaphors. She is the founder of Cultural ReProducers. This essay is published in partnership with Temporary Art Review, an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Making It: the Artist-Parent Index

This summer we're pleased to partner with Temporary Art Review to share the work of cultural workers raising kids with a broader audience. Temporary Art Review is an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities. They're profiling projects that support the work of artist-parents, and we suggested the Artist-Parent Index, an evolving database of artists making work about their experience as parents: 

Address: Virginia, USA
Contact: Sarah Irvin
Email: info (at)

How is the project operated?
 The Artist Parent Index is an artist-run project.

How long has it been in existence? 
The website launched in January, 2016.

What was your motivation?
 I created the Index to advance the discourse on parenthood in the visual arts through a topically searchable database. I wanted to provide a way for people to easily find artists creating work about their experiences as parents.

Number of organizers/responsible persons of the project:
 I run the project independently now, but I had a work study student, Michelle Jose, through George Mason University for the first 6 months.

How are programs funded? 
I am personally funding the project, but Michelle’s temporary position was funded through the Work Study program at Mason.

Who is responsible for the programming?
 Currently, just me (Sarah Irvin).

Number and average duration of exhibitions/events per year: The site is a continually growing database of artists, exhibitions and organizations. Right now, there are over 100 entries and I am constantly adding more.

Do you accept proposals/submissions?
 Yes, the index is open to include any artist creating auto-ethnographic work about parenthood. You can submit to info (at) or through our submissions page.

What is your artistic/curatorial approach?
 My approach is thematic, focusing on visual artists
creating work on parenthood. My goal is to create an exhaustive resource of artists and exhibitions focusing on parenthood as well as the organizations supporting these artists. I think of it as an inclusive global map of artistic activity on this theme. Each entry has associated search terms including medium, topic and location. So, if you search using a topic such as “breastfeeding,” a list of artists making work about breastfeeding is generated. The entries themselves mainly serve to get you to the artists’ websites based on your search terms. There is also an interactive map that allows you to search based on location.

What’s working? What’s not working?
 I’ve gotten a great response to the site so far. I’m pleasantly surprised by how many submissions have come in, and some curators have mentioned that they used the site for research. I’ve also received emails from artists interested in making work about parenthood, so connecting with them has been exciting. My main problem is that I have so much

information to add and I am working on this project alone right now. It is exciting though, that there is so much work being made about parenthood. Its a good problem to have.

What kind of role do you hope to play in your local art scene or community? 
My hope is that this is a research tool for artists, curators, and educators. There is a growing global community of artists creating work about parenthood, and I want the site to provide these artists with exposure and exhibition opportunities. 

What idea are you most excited about for the future? 
I like the idea of having so many entries that visitors can’t see the site’s searchable map anymore because it is completely covered in pins.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Ludic Landscapes and Political Parks: Revisiting Aldo Van Eyck in Mexico City

Aldo Van Eyck's first playground, Bertelmanplein, constructed in 1947
In partnership with Temporary Art Review we're pleased to share this essay on the legacy of Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck and the social and political importance of making public space for play. Temporary Art Review is an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities. 

The Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck once claimed that if cities are not “meant for children they are not meant for citizens either,” and that “If they are not meant for citizens- ourselves- they are not cities.” For Van Eyck, citizenship was intimately linked to play and how city-dwellers interacted with, and constantly formed, the city around them. This is a radical thought — a citizenship based on social engagement and an ongoing search for joy in life (in the city) rather than a citizenship based on national origin or place of birth. To be a citizen is to imagine, explore, and play. In the lean post-WW2 years, Van Eyck took his theories of play and urban life and made them real, designing over 700 playgrounds across the Netherlands. Less than a hundred of these spaces remain but the impetus behind them and the questions they try to answer are more relevant than ever.

The Netherlands in this era was a country, it may be fair to say, obsessed with play. Figures such as Dutch historian Johans Huizinga and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys and avant-garde movements like CoBrA helped found the field. Huizinga, in his seminal 1938 book Homo Ludens, tried defining play by arguing that:

    1.    Play is free, is in fact freedom.
    2.    Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
    3.    Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
    4.    Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
    5.    Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

Van Boetzelaerstraat, 1961
Where, then, do playgrounds fit into this definition? Does play create playgrounds or do playgrounds create play? Van Eyck grappled with these issues and the rigidity of contemporary playground design. He aimed to create a new form of playground that did not force a single vision of play but rather
served as a theater for the city, offering basic structures to free, not chain, children’s imagination. If the dominant logic of modernist urban planning was to remap and recreate the city — bulldozing and destroying organically created neighborhoods — Van Eyck then intended to work within existing structures and place his playgrounds in often-untraditional places.

A classic Van Eyck playground was, at first glance, strikingly utilitarian. He often centered his playgrounds on a simple sand pit and instead of having large colorful jungle gyms he would place a few concrete blocks, serving as stepping or jumping stones, and simple curved climbing frames. These were often asymmetrical compositions and existed within the city. They were not raised, sunken or walled plazas; Van Eyck tried to use pre-existing spaces like an empty lot or a small intersection to integrate his designs into the surrounding community rather than trying to override it. Even his first playground, Bertelmanplein, embodied these principles. While it at first looks like a simple urban plaza, none of the elements are perfectly centered, rather existing in their own tenuous relationships. These playgrounds were sites of creative potential; there were no cartoonish statues or musical steps, just simple structures that children could transform using the power of play and imagination.

Van Eyck argued that his playgrounds produced space, predicting Lefbevre’s The Production of Space decades before it was written. Van Eyck theorized argued that “whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.” While Lefbevre switched the definitions of space and place, the similarity of their thoughts is clear. Van Eyck’s playgrounds sought, to follow his definition, to create places rather than simple spaces and prioritized social value over physical structures. He was also heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Buber, who famously explored the relationship between “I and thou” (Ich-du). Buber focused on these small, almost unobservable dialogues and mutual exchanged between strangers. Van Eyck integrated Buber’s concept of “ich-du” in his playgrounds, trying to create places of encounter that used play to bridge “I” and “thou.” His playgrounds can be read as engines of radical encounters, creating new places, occasions, and citizenships through the simple act of playing.

Final Model for Riverside Park Playground, 1965
This spring two exhibitions opened in Mexico City that grapple with these issues and deeply resonate with Van Eyck’s designs. The first, The Playgrounds of Noguchi at Museo Tamayo, brings together for the first time a series of designs for unconstructed playgrounds by Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi’s playgrounds are strange landscapes, filled with colorful and geometric concrete forms. Instead of using just swings and slides, Noguchi constructs large concrete forms, ranging from orange trapezoids and chartreuse triangles to serpentine walls. These large versions of his sculptures are liberated and activated through play and, to a certain degree, democratize his practice. Only a few playgrounds were built — such as his Playscapes in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park — and the majority only exist on paper or as small maquettes. His most famous designs are perhaps his series of unfinished proposals for a new playground in New York’s Riverside Park with Louis Kahn, displayed through a series of concrete models. The proposals vary, but they all show a deep interest in elongated sinuous forms that recall prehistoric tumuli. His landscapes ebb and flow, creating dense spaces that cry out to be discovered in a similar, if less utilitarian, way to the playgrounds of Van Eyck. Further, both often include simple details — like plain concrete forms — instead of elaborate jungle gyms. Yet, they are also always divorced from their surroundings, either by walls or artificial hills; these playgrounds exist in spite of, not because of, the city and are in many ways the opposite of Van Eyck’s small, more discrete interventions. Finally, the exhibition includes a small reconstruction of a set of his swings and concrete blocks.

Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP
The second, Parque Experimental El Eco, by architectural firm APRDELESP at Museo Experimental El Eco, creates “a space within another space” that transforms the institutional setting of the museum into a democratic “park” where anyone can hold an event. While not a traditional playground in the sense of Noguchi’s or Van Eyck’s designs — there are no jungle gyms, sandboxes, or traditional playground accoutrements — the space carries on Van Eyck’s project. Parque Experimental El Eco is completely open to the public and anyone can, through a website, schedule their own event. The space consists of a grass-filled courtyard, complete with barbecue grills, tables and an inflatable pool, inserting a quotidian backyard scene into the museum. It fulfills, in many ways, Van Eyck’s goals; a few objects in a plain setting unleash the imagination and its public nature creates the possibility of chance encounters and new unforeseen dialogues between “I” and  “Thou.” Although the project is not directed towards children like a traditional playground, its sparseness and desire to create new forms of citizenship, albeit through an art museum rather than the city at large, certainly echoes Van Eyck’s goals.

Even if these playgrounds, playscapes and parks use play to create new sets of social relationships and, potentially, to democratize the city and its cultural institutions, they are not all equally
Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP
democratic. Mexico City, like most others, does not have equal access to parkland or playgrounds across its 16 delegations. Azcapotzalco and Iztapalapa have less than half the green space per resident than Miguel Hidalgo, where Museo Tamayo is located. Even Noguchi’s parks — like his designs for Riverside Park — were marquee playgrounds in wealthier areas. If we imagine that Van Eyck’s thesis is correct, and that play and child-focused urban design is central to citizenship, then this is a damning conclusion as inequalities in play become inequalities in citizenship. Informal playgrounds and play exist, of course, everywhere. But true playgrounds exist as social and political theaters even if this facet is all too often lost in questions of aesthetics, and the radical potential of playgrounds should not be ignored.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *    

Henry Osman is an independent curator and writer based between New York and Mexico City. He debut book, Privacidad Total/Total Privacy, was published in February with Gato Negro Ediciones. He is an editor at Drippy Mag and he has recently curated shows at Preteen Gallery (Mexico City) and Free Paarking (St Louis).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Making It: The Hown's Den

This summer we're pleased to partner with Temporary Art Review to share the work of cultural workers raising kids with a broader audience. Temporary Art Review is an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities. They're profiling projects that support the work of artist-parents, and we suggested the Hown's Den, a nomadic and domestic exhibition space where artists are invited to transform the living spaces of its three inhabitants:

Amy Kligman, "Interruptions"

The Hown's Den
Current Address: 63 Meade St. Buckhannon, WV 26201
Contact: Crystal Ann Brown
Open Hours: by appointment or at a scheduled event

How is the project operated?
 The Hown’s Den is not officially a non-profit but we would like to be some day.

How long has it been in existence? 
Almost 3 years, our fist official show was January 23, 2014.

What was your motivation?
 I wanted to experiment with an art environment that was family friendly and non-exclusive and to play around with a non-traditional art venue. At the time my family had just relocated from Athens, Ohio to Kansas City, Kansas. My partner and I were fresh out of graduate school and I was at home most of the time with our then 1-year-old while my partner worked. Faced with this new community and my role as a stay-at-home caregiver I craved inclusion into our new art scene and thought what better way to get involved in the community than to invite artists and people into our home for an art experiment. Now we have been happily experimenting in Kansas, Missouri, and West Virginia ever since.

Caitlin Horsman, "_Place_Plateau"
Number of organizers/responsible persons of the project: 1-3. I usually promote and organize on my own with the occasional help from my partner, but I am always working with the artist(s) installing their work depending on their individual needs.

How are programs funded? 
In the past we have had fundraisers like silent auctions to help fund the travel of artists coming to install work, but we are still working out other avenues of funding for the project as a whole. Currently, we are unable to pay artists for their involvement, but I hope to change that in the future.

Who is responsible for the programming? 
Myself (Crystal Ann Brown) and the artists(s) involved.

Number and average duration of exhibitions/events per year.
In the past there has been one exhibition every few months, however in our current location we are limited in what we can have installed in the space, so we have started a miniature installation project titled *not to scale that will exhibit multiple shows/installations seasonally.

What kind of events are usually organized?
 We mainly host art exhibitions, but we have hosted a backyard film festival and artist talks. We are currently looking at experimenting with lectures and presentations that compliment the miniature series *not to scale, and we are always open to proposals for other events from artists.

How is your programming determined?
 We move pretty organically, I try to gauge what my family can handle considering we live with the work and then coordinate programing from there.

Do you accept proposals/submissions?
 We do not have an official application process but I will look at proposals sent to the email addresses listed above.

Casey Whittier, "Translations and the Memory of Things"
What is your artistic/curatorial approach?
 I try to work with artists that are willing to experiment with a nontraditional art venue, while keeping in mind that the artwork will live with us and be regularly exposed to young children. I look for work that engages domestic architecture and invites imagination.

What’s working? What’s not working? 
I have found that having events on Saturdays between 11-3 works the best for families including my family. This is important because we aim to be more family friendly. I did not always do that and even now it’s hard to hold openings during that time because other art events like art walks are held in the evenings usually on a Thursday or Friday evening, which we try to piggyback on to increase audience turnout.

Having the artist(s) here for the opening has always worked well, the atmosphere allows for a more casual and honest dialogue between the artist and audience.

Creating an environment where the artwork is more integrated into the domestic setting allows for a more intimate reaction or response to the work, which is always a good thing.

In the past, artist presentations, lectures, and film screenings have not worked as well in comparison to art exhibitions, which I attribute to my focus being torn between the needs of my child and that of the presenter or film. That being said, I am interested in trying to have an in-house babysitter for nights when we will have presentations and screenings.

Cory Imig, "Linear Spaces"
What kind of role do you hope to play in your local art scene or community? 
We move around a lot because of our career paths and due to that it seems that we are moving from one community to the next. Within each community I try to engage the neighborhood that we live in. I invite neighbors to events and try to encourage people to look at art in an environment that might be outside of their comfort zone. We are use to looking at work in institutions, but being invited into the intimate space of a stranger’s home can be uncomfortable for some. It is important for us to offer an alternative space to engage in and respond to art. I also hope to perpetuate family inclusivity in the arts by engaging the domestic space as a place to look at and discuss art.

What idea are you most excited about for the future?
 I’m really looking forward to the miniature installation series *not to scale. This series was created out of not knowing how to continue on with The Hown’s Den once we moved to our current location in Buckhannon, West Virginia. We are renting and are very limited in what we can and can’t do to the interior of the home so as a solution I am building miniature mockups of rooms in our home, that I then mail out to the artist. Once the artist receives the miniature they are free to do whatever they want with the room. There are limitless possibilities for installation. Once the work is complete the artist will send the miniature back and we will hang it from the ceiling in the room it was intended to be a miniature of. We will host an opening at The Hown’s Den for our local community, but will also have a digital opening for more intimate photos of the miniatures. I am currently pairing up 2-3 artists to exhibit their miniatures at the same time, because I love the idea of bringing artists together and seeing the dialogue between art works unfold.

Dawlene-Jane Oni-Eseleh, "Inside Voices"

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home: an interview with Lena Šimić

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home protesting with UK Uncut in London, March 2011, photo: unknown protestor who was asked to take a snapshot

For artist / mother / academic / activist Lena Simic, art-activism and parenting are inextricably linked.  She and her family (partner Gary and children Sid, Neal, Gabriel and James) make up the artist initiative The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, which is based in their four-bedroom house in Anfield, UK.  Envisioned as a place where artists and activists can meet, study, protest, and perform, the Institute has hosted a number of events, residencies, and conversations since 2008. Their activities as an initiative are numerous and vary from participating in demonstrations to organizing reading groups to most recently presenting at the Playing It Up  Symposium at the Tate Modern in London.  In 2015 the Institute joined with 12 other families to form the Family Activist Network in order to discuss family life and climate change.  The Institute joined with other members of the Network in North Wales this May for a performance including a reflection on The Paris Agreement on Climate change.  We are so grateful Lena was able to take sometime out of her very full schedule to share some of her thoughts on motherhood, art and activism.    

Lena and James at Time to Act Climate Protest
London, 2015. Photo: Gary Anderson

 Cultural ReProducers: As an artist, mother, and academic, in which areas do you face the most challenges, personally or professionally? Are there any strategies or advice you’d pass on to new parents struggling to maintain a creative practice while raising a family?

Lena Simic: I try to think of myself as artist / mother / academic / activist. My arts practice, activism, pedagogical and research work are all interconnected. The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home was set up in order to facilitate and name my and my partner Gary’s art-activist practice as well as our parenting practice. We are concerned to bring up our children critically and lovingly. This spills into our pedagogical work at university. As far as I can, I try to work across all of my roles/identities. However, I do find myself ‘having a break’ from one activity whilst doing another. I am currently on the train, having just been to examine a PhD practice element of a doctoral thesis which has to do with birth story telling and deep listening. I am away from the children, I miss them. I am still wrapped up in guilt for being away from them, but I am also grateful for this ‘time alone’ when I can be more focused and uninterrupted. I went for a run by the sea down the Aberystwyth promenade this morning and that felt like a real treat. My academic self allowed for this run. My personal life, if I choose to call it that as the Institute is about blurring the boundaries of the private and public and allowing them to infiltrate one another, is harder. Professional, institutional, academic life has its rules and regulations. No matter how committed you are to the role, you are on someone else’s time. You are a worker, and you are a member of a union, which gives you a sense of protection and security. Personal life is tougher. You are much less prepared for the challenges, which partnership and parental life throw upon you. The same can be said for friendships and artistic collaborations, with all their unpredictable demands. There are no rules, no guidelines, no contracts. Children are very demanding and in my case, having four of them, I also have to deal with the dynamics between them. They are each specifically positioned in our family, and therefore have very different needs and requirements of me, and their father, and each other. Family life is chaotic and erratic. Having our Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home helps us frame it, contain it and sustain it. The Institute is a foreign element, a shock/surprise/visitor/guest, who intervenes into our nuclear heteronormative unit and helps us be nicer and better and more accommodating. We act for it, with it.

As for advice to new parents who are artists, I would advise them not to be scared of having (more) children whilst young. There’s never a good time to have a baby. If you have them young, you will have more energy and fewer inhibitions. I loved having children in my 20s and just getting on with it. I grew up together with my children, and my career was always in line with my being a mother. There was no before the kids/after the kids divide in terms of my career as an artist. Having children has been transformative and the most creative thing I have ever done. Children and creativity are interconnected. You will have to learn to manage your time differently, but that’s a part of the experience. Embrace the challenge, enjoy it, work with it and all its ambivalence. And remember that you don’t have to do it all now.

Friday Records: A Document of Maternity Leave, 11122014
Photo: Lena Šimić
CR: How has the newest member of your family changed the structure or activities of your creative work?

Lena: James was born when I was 39. He is my last baby and he is my fourth boy. We tried for a girl, and instead we got another gorgeous, determined and strong-minded boy. Being the youngest (he’s now 2) he’s loud and willful; he needs to be heard amongst us all, he’s fighting for his position in the family. He’s just learnt to play us off each other – my dada, my mama. He understands his cute baby-boy power, probably not intellectually, but emotionally. James is our limit. He’s stretched us to the limit of what we are capable of as a family. We are beyond the comfortable now. Having two teenagers, a toddler and an 8 year old is hard work. Having four kids is on par with having one, I feel. Two and three was easier. That’s my experience. James brings us so much joy, intensity, love and chaos. It’s as demanding as it was at the beginning of parenthood – really intense.

James threw me back into my ‘maternal arts practice’. This was another chance at ‘doing-it-right this time’. With James I engaged in a blog project called Friday Records: A Document of Maternity Leave (2014). The project was year long, invisible and enjoyable in its loneliness. Even when I was recording my maternity leave online I never advertised it much. I wanted to experience it – semi-privately, semi-publicly. Now, once it’s finished, it’s a document. This was the development of a work I did with Sid, my third child, and which took the form of a journal, photographs and the text Contemplation Time: A Document of Maternity Leave (2007/2008).

I’ve noticed that, in the style of Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1973-1977), many contemporary artists engage in a kind of durational maternal arts practice, for example Elena Marchevska, Helen Sargeant, Lenka Clayton, Lizzie Philps, Natalie Loveless, Paula McCloskey to name but a few. This arts practice contains a certain kind of ‘laboursome aesthetics’. We are all working so hard as mothers and artists, proving our creative work, intense, repetitive and everyday.

Medea/Mothers’ Clothes performance at Studio 12, Bratislava, 2016. photo: Jakub Čajko
Labour and repetition have always been present in my ‘maternal art’. When I first had Neal and Gabriel in the early 2000s, my arrival to ‘maternal arts practice’ was through the live art event Medea/Mothers’ Clothes (2004), in which I engage in the act of washing mothers’ clothes on stage in a baby bath. I juxtaposed Medea, the archetypal anti-mother with images of contemporary Liverpool mothers whom I photographed and who each gave me a piece of their clothing for the performance. I recently revived this performance in Bratislava, Slovakia – a jump from 2004, when it was made and my first two boys were 3 and 1, to 2016 when they are 15 and 13.

With James, I feel I am in a completely different stage now artistically. I am more interested in contextualizing, theorizing, writing, networking and organizing research events. Hitting my 40s has propelled me into a much more academic and facilitating – or should I say mothering or maternal – role.

The Institute boys, 2007 Photo: Gary Anderson
CR: Your practice exists in physical space that is expanded and disseminated online. As your sons get older has your approach to the virtual world of the internet changed?

Lena: I haven’t really thought about this much. When the Institute first started in 2007 and when we got out first website in 2008, the kids were 7, 5 and a few months. They weren’t using the internet at all. Now, all that has changed.  The Institute website is an important part of our identity, but the Institute has also thrived on being a real physical space where people meet, talk, perform, discuss, drink and have a domestic row. The children are happy with the online content of the Institute website and their representations on it, and at times I sense that they are kind of proud of the Institute, its difference and eccentric character. That changes all the time though.

As parents we try to emphasise ‘the now’ as opposed to an abstract ‘the future’, which can make you feel paranoid and overwhelmed. As technology advances we will find ourselves in different realities and in different human relations, but the Institute is interested in combating the immediate conditions and providing a living, breathing alternative. As things stand we haven’t really worried too much about face recognition software developments or any other spying/tracking devices, even when there’s a massive inquiry underway at the moment into unethical undercover policing techniques used by the British police force to infiltrate activist groups.  We are all less and less free and further restricted, but we live in the present and try not to obsess with the dystopian future. It’s so seductive to obsess about a bad future.

CR: Who have been your models for artist-parenting / parent-artisting?

Lena: When we started I genuinely didn’t know many artist-parents as we were in our mid-twenties when we had babies. We were trying to make our careers as artists and trying to manage new responsibilities as parents. We didn’t really have any friends who were parents as well. We seemed to be the first ones with babies in our group of friends.

When we felt settled in Liverpool and started attending toddler groups, we found a new group of friends who were also parents and activists (not necessarily self-identified as artists). We used to talk about alternative, anti-capitalist and cooperative structures of living. We dreamt of setting up some kind of utopian autonomous spaces which would include home schooling/education, leisure, shared labour and lots of organic gardening. These conversations in toddler groups were really formative and important.

Once we had set up the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, our children were 6 and 4, and I was pregnant with a new baby. The Institute’s first year of residencies was primarily concerned with unpicking relations between art and capitalism and issues of financial transparency. Our children were around, but we weren’t necessarily focused on ourselves as parents/artists. We identified ourselves as anti-capitalists, activist, anarchist and feminist.

The Institute boys, 2015 Photo: Lena Šimić

In 2009 we were invited by Townley and Bradby to join ‘artists as parents as artists’ weekend at Wysing Arts Centre near Cambridge and whilst this was a memorable experience, we also realized that we weren’t necessarily interested in fitting in with a group of artists just on the basis of being parents. We identified with the art activist scene in the UK much more strongly and later on engaged in research around historical alternative pedagogical practices with children such as The Liverpool Anarchist Communist Sunday School and a number of similar schools from the beginning of the 20th century in London. In 2011 the Institute organized ‘family residencies’ in order to hold conversations about art-activism and the upbringing of children. We hosted Helena Walsh, Kevin Biderman and their daughter Ella from London, a place of their own collective from Sheffield, Townley and Bradby from Norwich and Reverend Billy, Savitri D and their daughter Lena from New York who were touring the UK.

In 2015 we set up the Family Activist Network in order to discuss family life and climate change. We initially invited 20 families across Europe into the project – they all got a letter and a post card asking for slow-mail correspondence on the issue of climate change with a view that we all meet together in Paris for COP21, as a part of the social movement for ecological justice. 12 families responded and 24 of us, parents and children, went to Paris in December 2015 for demonstrations and actions around COP21 and climate change. Unfortunately some of the families dropped out of the Paris trip due to terrorist attacks in Paris last November, but for all of us who went it was a wonderfully memorable experience. All dressed in red, with toddlers and prams, with primary school aged children, with teenagers, joining in the Redlines march at The Arc de Triomphe, playing with Inflatable Cobblestones, eating croissants, feeling empowered by belonging to the social movement for ecological justice, travelling across Paris by metro, eating together in a brasserie, walking around Père Lachaise Cemetery. 30 of us from the Family Activist Network will now meet again for a weekend in North Wales in order to create a chaos-filled performance about climate change and family life, reflecting on our slow mail correspondence, Paris trip, The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, future generations and the dying planet.

Family Activist Network at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris 2015, Photo: Townley and Bradby

CR: Every year the children decide if they want to continue being a part of the Institute. Would the dynamic of your family change if someone opted out… or if the Institute ceased to exist?

Lena: One of our favourite lines, when presenting the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, is to say that the Institute is always in the state of collapse. Whilst this is true, the Institute has also become too precious to all of us (except of course James). The Institute is our critical space, and a kind of political consciousness, but it’s also lots of fun. As I have already mentioned, the Family Activist Network are meeting soon to try to figure out a strategy on how to create a performance about family life and climate change. Our children are looking forward to meeting other artists/activists’ children again. This is effectively a working holiday.  Protests and demonstrations are fun family days out. Visitors to the Institute bring newness and excitement into our household. The Institute room is a space for weird kind of activities but also a spare room where one can lie down and, whilst looking over all the changing banners, leaflets, correspondence and post cards blu-tacked on the wall, reflect on one’s life and activities. Neal (15) recently said the Institute was his favourite room in the house.

Gary and I have had a few conversations about finishing the Institute – making it extinct, ‘selling it’, passing it on. We might invite a residency one day where we commission someone else to run it for a year. We were invited to Tate Modern to deliver a talk on ‘Beings and Things’ as a part of the Symposium  Playing Up: Live Art for Adults and Kids. Whilst it’s great to see that big cultural institutions like the Tate are becoming more open and interested in children as artists, this might also be a sign for us that the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home has become too easy to commodify. Therefore, we must remember to engage in ways that help us to stay real, radical and challenging because the world we all inhabit is itself radically unjust.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *    
Interview by Christina LaMaster: an artist and independent curator currently making her home in central Illinois. She is particularly interested in the concept of Maternal Gaze and the representations of motherhood within visual culture.