Friday, September 20, 2013

Playground Party and the Terrain Biennial

Last weekend Cultural ReProducers held its first two public events, so here's a quick recap for those who couldn't make it:

Saturday was our informal Playground Party at Chicago’s Winnemac Park, on what turned out to be one of the most sunny and beautiful days of the year. About 20 parents showed up for this cultural worker playdate, with kids ranging in age from seven weeks to 6 years old. It was lovely to relax, play, and talk with many interesting people in one place, including curators, gallerists, radio and podcasters, and artists of all kinds. Matt Baron from the indie children’s band Future Hits even stopped by to talk with potential collaborators and hand out flyers for upcoming shows. We look forward to more events like this in the coming months. Let us know if you'd like to help organize one in your area!

The very next day, we hit the opening block party of the Terrain Biennial, where we were invited to host an hour-long Optimistic Architecture workshop as a part of fellow Cultural ReProducer Alberto Aguilar’s Minivan BOOTH project. The weather was undeniably lousy: cold rain poured down from morning til late afternoon. But that didn’t stop a good crowd of enthusiastic biennial-goers from coming out anyway. Everyone mingled over popcorn and potluck inside the home of artist and organizer Sabina Ott, and chatted around Robert Gero’s porch-specific installation out front. Claire Ashley’s gigantic inflated sculpture made the gray street outside more colorful even if the rain thwarted its planned performances. Given the weather, we weren’t expecting much of a turnout at our BOOTH, but the sight of homemade playdough and drawing materials drew a steady stream of participants -– parents, non-parents, and lots of kids -- all crowded under a tarp and various propped umbrellas to stay dry. The speculative architecture premise was quickly lost in the excitement of making pretend food and animals and then squishing them, but the conversation was great, and we got one excellent proposal for a structure featuring art about the Avengers, designed by the young son of a museum curator.

Want to join us next time? Want to help plan or host an event near you? Get in touch and ask to join our mailing list: culturalreproducers @

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Suburban Peculiarity For a Teen

There always seems to be some amount of angst out there that the passionate pursuit of artistic interests will somehow damage one's kids. In reading up on The Suburban, the legendary independent artspace run by artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam in their suburban back yard, I came across this lovely short essay written by their oldest son, Peter, about growing up surrounded by art and artists. It seemed an appropriate thing to share here:

One of the first things my Advanced Placement European History teacher, who I have grown to thoroughly respect, said to us, came in a class discussion about about the children of historical figures. "I want each of you to go home and thank your parents for not being artists," she said. "The children of artists are the ones who lose their minds, fall into madness or commit suicide, and I wouldn't want any of you to turn out that way."

Her commentary was obviously striking: I am not only the child of two artists, but I am constantly surrounded by art and its supplementary activities (its viewing, selling, and making). The nucleus of this part of my life lies in the tiny yellow building formerly attached to my garage. My parents call it The Suburban.

photo by Zachary Johnson from his  Suburban review and interview
The Suburban is a social peculiarity that I have not yet learned to cope with. Since its conception in my preteens, The Suburban has created a varying array of effects on my life, the majority being positive. I have dissected my entire record collection with a British artist named Simon, I have shared fruity non-alcoholic drinks with my friend Sam at a fully functional tiki-bar-cum-art-installation, and developed to some degree, an understanding of what constitutes contemporary art.

However, life within intimate proximity to an art gallery is not entirely beneficial for a self-conscious teenager and his ten-year old brother. While awkwardness does arise when sharing a house with half-a-dozen large, unshaven Scandinavians, the major difficulty of living with The Suburban is explaining the idea and function of it to the more traditionally "suburban" mothers of my friends.
"Were your parents throwing a party at your house on Saturday?"
Yes, it was an art opening."
At this point I try to convince her that The Suburban is a serious pursuit of my parents, and that is has a "real" significance in the art-world. What this significance is I do not know.
Among my peers, The Suburban has brought me neither recognizable fame, (I can't imagine "My garage is also an art gallery" would serve as a successful pick-up line) nor overwhelming scorn. My general rule is to discuss the gallery and its work only with close friends or those who question what "The Suburban" means on our household's telephone answering machine prompt. My reasoning for this is simple; debates about the artistic merit of a fictional Swedish Citizen Recruitment Center are not something I enjoy taking part in, let alone fully understanding.

Because of The Suburban and my parents' choice of career and life style, I have seen and learned to appreciate art on levels unknown to my peers. From Marfa, Texas, to Budapest, I have traveled the world to see it. I have eaten bratwurst in my yard with those who make it. I have traded my bedroom away for weeks to Englishmen for duty-free tubes of Toblerone chocolate. For this uncommon exposure, it should have been the request of my history teacher to come home and thank my parents for becoming artists.

- Peter Ribic

Interview: Michelle Grabner

There’s hardly an area of cultural production that Michelle Grabner isn’t immersed in: for starters, she's an accomplished artist whose work has garnered international acclaim over the past 25 years. She also happens to be co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. She is the co-founder and director of two remarkable independent art spaces with her husband and fellow artist, Brad Killam: The Suburban, a tiny and vibrant art venue located in the backyard of their home for well over a decade… and Poor Farm, an artist residency and publishing program in rural Wisconsin. Since 1996, she has been a professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her critical writing has been published in Artforum, X-tra, Frieze, and Modern Painters. She has parented through pretty much all of it (her two oldest children are now adults), and generously shared her perspectives with us.

CR: Tell us a little bit about your kids, who I realize are no longer all “kids” per-se…

Michelle: Well my youngest is still a kid. Ceal (8 yrs old) is in the third grade and she is the love of my life. I was older when she was born so my theory is that her easy-going, sweet and eager-to-please disposition was culled from the fact that she realized early on that I wasn’t willing or capable of entertaining any sassy antics in my old age.

My second kid, Oliver (20 yrs old) is in his junior year at Northland College in Ashland WI. He is the kid with the big empathic heart but he also finds himself in loads of trouble as he challenges every injustice that crosses his path. However he is maturing and I trust he will have a great hand in social change when he learns to direct his profound sense of fairness at the true injustices in our world.

Oliver is also a Kantian, so says my oldest son, Peter (25 yrs old). Peter is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is writing his dissertation on the concept of planetarity. Do ask me to explain it, all I know is it is not the same as globalism. As the oldest he has always been dutiful but despite his academic inclinations, he is still an NFL fan.

CR: You’re critical of existing art world structures and as a result have done a lot of creative reconfiguring on your own terms, particularly through the art spaces you run with your husband, Brad Killam. Has the experience of motherhood impacted your ideas about the art world? If so, what decisions were made in response? 

Michelle: Indeed. Raising children since 1987 meant that we had to invent structures where the outside world would come to us. The Suburban is a good example of that. Artists come to our house in Oak Park to make an exhibition every 7-8 weeks. And they have for the past 15 years. The Poor Farm, our other project space is down the dirt road from our cottage in Northeastern WI. We spend much of our summers in WI so we joined art with our rural life. Basically we attached art and artists to a very conventional family model — nothing extraordinary, a Midwestern, middleclass, K-12 relationship to the artworld.

CR: I’m really curious to hear more about CAR (Conceptual Artists Research), the collaborative you formed with your husband and two young sons in the early ‘90’s. Could you describe that process, and the kinds of projects that came out of it?

Michelle: Brad came out of UIC in the early 90s. I graduated with an MFA from Northwestern. Pregnant with Oliver, we decided to move to Milwaukee for a more manageable and affordable life as young artists with a young family. Cast far from our peers and the discourse we became accustomed to in school, we started working together on conceptual projects. To be more specific we examined the family as a social structure, the aesthetics of childhood development, and the pressures of consumption on families and kids. I remember CAR doing a two-person summer show with David Hartt at Zolla-Leiberman right out of school. At that time our boys were starting to consume the Goosebump book series (the popular Goosebump television show wasn’t launched yet). The books had incredible spooky and alluring covers so we purchased hundreds of books and stacked them on a table in the gallery. If Felix Gonzales-Torres could give away candy, then we could give away kid’s pop culture. As parents we just wanted our kids to read, so the question of what they read was confusing to us. In another project we gave Peter, then 9 years old, $100 to shop at Toys R Us. The money came without the restrictions we typically imposed on the kids: no violent toys allowed in the house, share with your brother, etc. It was a kind of parent field test to see how well we did instilling these values in our children. Let’s just say he filled his shopping cart with all sorts of guns and bought nothing for Oliver.

CR: Women artists have long been advised to choose between motherhood and a serious career in the arts, and criticized for raising their kids badly if they managed to do both. Was this ever a concern for you when you first decided to start a family? Have you seen attitudes toward artist-motherhood change much since your first child was born?

Michelle: Defining oneself as a mother or as an artist (or as both) is a cultural abstraction. They are iconic and static narratives. To be perfectly honest, sometimes I think I am solely a teacher, a crafter, or a dotty administrator. But regardless, I want to be able to choose and change who I am AND to be able to play with how others frame me. Because I started a family young, I was idealistic enough not to even question the fact that I couldn’t do both plus more. Along the way when I was told not to bother at being an artist, I would happily flip those men off and work harder. That said, I am still hearing horror stories about pushback on women who choose to have children in the professional artworld. It is my guess however that what once was a power + fairness struggle is now a power + money struggle. Capital makes little room for distractions and big business defines much of the art world.

CR: Any strategies or advice you’d pass on to new parents struggling to balance parenthood, career, and a creative practice?

Michelle: Think long form. Work to balance a whole life, not the day. My eight-year-old daughter will not be eight forever. And I will not be the same kind of artist I am now as when she is twenty-one. In other words, don’t fight the arc of behavioral or creative development because it changes fast.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Boulevard Dreamers at The Franklin

This weekend I took my small family to check out Boulevard Dreamers, a collaborative project organized by Kirsten Leenaars and Cultural ReProducer Lise Haller Baggesen at The Franklin, one of Chicago's many unusual alternative artspaces. TF is a year-round outdoor art venue created by artists Edra Soto and Dan Sullivan in their small backyard. It's located in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, far off the beaten track from the usual gallery scene (you can read more about it HERE).

In Boulevard Dreamers, studio photographs of participating groups hang in the Franklin's pavillion space like celebrity portraits in a popular restaurant, serving as a preview (and now the residue) of the night's events. The backdrop of these portraits, and the pavillion itself, is  dotted with paint-splattered LPs.  Baggesen and Leenaars describe their project as an exploration of "how we are moved by the agency of desire and the magical allure of being in the spotlight," and instead of showcasing high-profile celebrities the work makes celebrities of performers who are known mainly within their own local communities, including seasoned storytellers, teen poets, dancers, and young singer-songwriters.

On opening night, Boulevard Dreamers incorporated a fantastic lineup of short performances from different disciplines and neighborhoods throughout Chicago, including Re-birth, Marvin Tate, Najwa Dance Corps, Dan Sullivan, Anni Holm, Dasha Filippova, Emily Lansana, Charlie Redditt & Jim Dorling. We arrived a little after 6pm, just as things were getting started. The audience included a nice mix of members from Chicago's many art communities as well as people from the neighborhood. There were plenty of kids in attendance - our daughter danced in the grass alongside two other toddlers while older kids made runs between the performances and the refreshment table, which instead of wine and cheese held an impressive banquet of takeout pizza, homemade popcorn, and Edra Soto's famous pineapple upside-down cake

The performances and the location felt intimate and magical in a way that seems unique to
Boulevard Dreamers: Kirstin and Lise
Chicago's brand of domestically-linked alternative spaces, though Leenaars and Bagessen are both relatively recent transplants to the area (Leenaars hails from the Netherlands and Bagessen from Denmark). A custom marquis and holiday lights lit The Franklin's pavillion with a warm glow as Madeleine Aguilar - the amazingly talented daughter of Alberto Aguilar - played banjo and sang her own lovely indie tunes about Joan of Arc, accompanied by violinist Michael Soto. Next up were Emily Lansana and Zahra Baker, who mesmerized the audience with traditional African storytelling set to music, followed by Re-birth, a team of young spoken-word artists who delivered smart poetry about the state of the world and their neighborhood. There was so much more to see and hear... but we had to make our exit early: it was already way past our daughter's bedtime. 

The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd, Chicago (West Side, East Garfield Park)
Opening Saturday August 31st 6-10 pm
Show runs from 08/31 – 09-/21
Open hours: Fridays 4-6 pm, Saturdays 4-6 pm, and by appointment

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lauren Weinstein's Mom Comics

Lauren Weinstein's wonderfully bizarre comics have been winning acclaim and awards for years. I was excited to stumble across her autobiographical mom comics, an ongoing series of loose sketches and single-pagers documenting the messy process of it all. Expanding on the theme is "If This is All You Get...", a four-page comic about motherhood and artmaking created for the compilation The Big Feminist BUT: Comics About Women, Men and the IFs, ANDs & BUTs of Feminism. Check out more of her work at

Lauren Weinstein's award-winning comic books include Inside VineylandGirl Stories and The Goddess of War. Her work has been published in Kramer’s ErgotThe GanzfeldAn Anthology of Graphic Fiction, and The Best American Comics of 2007 and 2010. She currently teaches comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York and is working on a sequel to Girl Stories.