Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Fireworks

Guest Blogger:
Irena Knezevic
Artist and Faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Photography Department

This is the third and final post by Irena Knezevic this week.

It was an April Sunday and the technical crew was miking up the stage they had erected the day before. The actors rehearsed on a grass patch in front of the stage all day long. Everyone was out despite the threats. Grandmas, slowly carrying bags of produce, dogs chasing their tails, office workers running to pay their telephone bills at the postoffice. The dead trees resurrected once again by growing conic thorns from the black bark, rolling them out into leaves. At 3 pm, during the first scheduled bombing of the day, Vlaki and I recorded the sounds of NATO bombers flying over us towards the river Sava with a small diaphragm microphone and an old tape recorder. Afterwards, we went home where we tried to reverse the amplitudes, and to cancel out the noises. The Yugoslav Dramatic Theatre was presenting Uncle Vanya on the Nikola Pasic square, open air, during the nightly bombing at 11 pm. For free. They promised a play every night until the end of the sirens. Actor Ljuba Tadic asked us if we could do something about the noise. That afternoon, we recorded our canceling frequencies, patched through the powerful speakers on the square, where Castro, Stalin and Tito spoke before. The evening fell slowly as the smog pushed up. The city was shining, waiting for an explosion that would shame Nikola Tesla’s electrical grid. Vlaki manned the play button (he had fear of heights), while I waited on the top of the building, holding on to the steel frames of neon signs, keeping myself from being blown off the roof by the powerful speakers. The stage looked like a box full of matches someone accidentally smeared with cake, and the army of ants was feasting. I could feel the planes approaching, vibrating the legs of buildings, knifing into people’s ears through all protection. I screamed into the walkie-talkie: “GO!” and Vlasta initiated the transmission. The speakers howled the sky. We played the cancellation frequencies 43 times on an average night. The actors stated that we did not quite cancel the noise of planes, except once during a performance of “The Powder Keg” when the Macedonian hostage starts singing an old song to save his girlfriend’s life. Vlasta and I continued every night until June 11. I stood on the top of the buildings watching the city being remade, like a theater set, the anti-missile fire as the fountain, the crumbling city as the backdrop and the swaying buildings as leaves of grass.

The roofs of Nikola Pasic Square were my first studio, it was on them that I knew what Artaud described as the ultimate defense of art. The citizens of medieval Europe, after sentenced to death by the most virulent plague of the millennia, erupting with buboes, pillaged riches that they would not live to spend. In the extinction all that was left was the birth of pure theatre, the last performance, the knowledge that at the end of the world in every human being, under the buildings propped up by the whites of crushed bones and dark purple grays of rotten flesh, before death—all that was left was art.

Irena Knezevic is a Serbian artist currently living in Chicago. Recent projects and performances have occured at the ThreeWalls, Museum of Contemporary, Art Chicago; White Columns, New York; Harvard University, Cambridge and Galerie im Regierungsviertel, Berlin. Knezevic earned her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2007.

Image Caption and Credit:
Tracer fire from air defenses light up the sky over Belgrade early on April 30, 1999 (EPA)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Ruin of Production

Guest Blogger:
Irena Knezevic,
Artist and Faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Photography Department

This is the second of three blog posts by Irena Knezevic. The upcoming post, The Fireworks, will be published this Thursday. 

In 1924, while their spouses and other relevant constructivist giants produced experiments in and around their large studios Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova moved theirs into a small office inside one of the Moscow Textile factories. For two years they designed and helped produce notorious geometric fabric patterns exemplifying the ultimate promise of constructivisim, the direct grafting of the graphic arts onto the garments of and bodies of Soviet people (russ., narod). What is interesting here is not the string of exhibitions this work produced starting from Everyday Soviet Fabrics in 1929 in Moscow and ending with appropriations by Mai-Thu Perret and survey shows on Rodchenko and Popova at Tate London. What is interesting is the synthesis of the two sites of production: artistic and material--the studio and the factory.

The studio even today stays a kind of minor factory institution that substitutes timecards and labour policies with physical, conceptual and physiognomic laws of an artistic practice. When asked if they keep a studio artists usually answer no, or “I work at home” and what is lost in the imaginations of the public is the esoteric institution guided by separate (parallel) gravities of laws reserved for diplomatic protectorates and international institutions like United Nations who have autonomous claim on the territory of another country and are therefore impervious to their laws. these separate laws were always the script underwriting the credibility of art as a discipline. Imagine a building , or a city block, or a mountain, where all the artists whose work influences or influenced you live in a composite factory building. You could walk from studio Watteau to the the studio Kabakov. A giant complex, a topological time/space where all factories collide. A glorious site! A temple of art.

Studio gains special significance in a culture of an insulated, artificial universe that generates the notion that some ominous force or terror threatens us with total annihilation at all time. We can now swan dive into a narrative that sounds like a Hollywood spy movie--the only place where we encounter the last remnants of socialist- realist presentation of production. James Bond infiltrates a drug cartel, a nuclear enrichment factory, and after being captured by the master criminal he is given a tour of the factory, a sight of intense secret labour (I owe the James Bond example to a conversation with comrade Zizek). The thing whose purpose is autonomous and unknown (for us or against us) is being made and the goal of agent’s mission is to blow the factory up since the site of endless testing, probing, experimenting and direct production is the domain of the master criminal and it must be destroyed.

 It is time to discuss the role of the visitor. The curators. They are time/space travelers, suffering from schizophrenia, hopefully but not always on some kind of drug or intoxication agent to help them cope with the leaps. The curator is captured (like James Bond) or willingly comes by the sound of the sirens and to prove that an encounter took place, takes the object back into the public as a proof of his/her sanity and as evidence that the story they are telling is true. A great curator is like Virgil to Dante. A blind Virgil. A futurist Virgil, denied his cartesian mathematical eyes, led by sound and smell, for smell is enough for beasts.

So, when an artist answers, “no I do not have a studio”, or “my studio is right behind the kitchen cupboard” (very Kafkaesque, I can stand behind that) we return to our daily semblance to a world of a disappearing working class. The machines in the factory carry a giant OUT OF ORDER sign and as the dust accumulates, the gears and bearings rust together with the secrets of the 19th century waiting to be used as a set in the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street. The artist without studio is an obscene superego double of the viewing public. A factory machine, all-present, without a territorial base--a multinational corporation or an international terrorist organization. An entity we can almost understand since it accommodates the model of global capitalism. A studio-less artist remains master criminal perpetually on the run after the drones firebomb the factory. Completely integrated into the today’s market model, the territory of the studio space is a dream, not a ruin, but a ghost shipwreck, atmospheric site made up of language producing objects and laws. The body of the artist is the studio, a kind of sovereign in a state of exception, where every gesture made in the public becomes the law that guides the factory. One could argue that every time an artist steps out of his/her studio they become studio-less.

The corporal reality of the artist’s body is an apportion, a physical attestation of a secret purpose. The studio is the ruin--an infernal tower that keeps rising from the ashes–a factory that sinks and resurfaces like the Spiral Jetty or the polis of Pompeii.

It will remain.

Irena Knezevic is a Serbian artist currently living in Chicago. Recent projects and performances have occured at the ThreeWalls, Museum of Contemporary, Art Chicago; White Columns, New York; Harvard University, Cambridge and Galerie im Regierungsviertel, Berlin. Knezevic earned her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2007.

Image Captions and Credits from top to bottom:
Varvara Stepanova in his studio, 1950. Photo Nikolai Lavrentiev
Still from Lewis Gilbert's You Only Live Twice (1967)
Still from Lewis Gilbert's You Only Live Twice (1967)
Still from Lewis Gilbert's You Only Live Twice (1967)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Music is Fire

Guest Blogger:
Irena Knezevic,
Artist and Faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Photography Department

This is the first of three blog posts by Irena Knezevic. The two upcoming posts, The Ruin of Production and The Fireworks, will be published throughout the week.

Behind the Filip Visnjic Elementary School there is a scattering of residential neo-socialist buildings. The development has been halted due to failure of credit systems that funded the construction of the apartments usually assigned to government bureaucracy workers. By 1991, most of the structures kept the promise of brutalist architecture through the lower middle class tenants they housed. The steel beams bled excrement-brown onto the concrete blocks that crept apart from each-other allowing for cracks, later separations, eventually carving solid and complete chunks of concrete that fell on the ground around the buildings like gigantic dandruff. There, they stayed, pieces that Robert Smithson would have picked up, were he a Serbian artist.

Beyond being another case study of modernist aging and decay, this site had more telling qualities. It was thin due to a stoppage in funding, eighteen identical buildings in a single straight row (very small compared to 21 block lines of similar developments in New Belgrade, serb. Novi Beograd) resembling a chessboard with only one row of pawns. On the other side of development was a wasteland as far as sight can recognize, and it ended with an elevation, a hill that carried a Belgrade suburb called Mirjevo on and the river Danube. This wasted space was a physical denial, it was allotted for the rest of the construction, like a placeholder, waiting for the time when the state will fund another 20 rows of buildings. What is important to remember (keep in the imagined map) is that once you left elementary school and ran through the line of buildings, all you saw was nothing. No trees, some anemic grass, and patches of bare rectangles where boys set up goals for football. Grays, light browns and greens bleached in the sun. This was a place for endless fights, running, marble playing, throwing stones, earth as a kitchen, digging, pets, and in the spring on the first sunny day (very much like today) the Cerga of Romani (band of Romani) would set up tents and fires atop of the hill. They brought animals which attracted us, and children from the other side of the Mirjevo. My school friend Isljam Berisa returned with them and I would play with him seasonally when his family occupied the hill.

In 1991 Berisa’s arrived with a large dancing bear and a bear cub. Other Romani, as well as Isljam’s father would travel to the center of Belgrade in horse carriages with performing animals, and earn their living from donations of passerby. Their prize possession was the big dancing bear. Regularly, she would just lie there like a cat and Isljam’s father would pet and feed her. She had no teeth and no claws and as soon as she heard a tune from Islam father’s harmonica, she would get up on her hind feet, lift one paw and then the other, and dance in the rhythm of the music. It was beautiful, funny and sad, a miracle of cruel sophistication. The children were hypnotized. In 1991, on the hill behind the developments, the mother bear died. They buried her under the marble rolly holes and Isljam’s father needed now to train the cub how to dance. The little bear studied for two weeks in one of the smaller tents. In the evening, we saw the tent illuminated by warm light, music starting and stopping. It was the same harmonica melody and at first the cub was roaring, drowning the music. We could see the shadows of Islam’s father siting on a chair playing, and the bear standing up and down, up and down.

Finally, after two weeks we peaked into the tent. Isljam’s father was sitting and playing as usual and the bear was in front of him dancing. Under the bear’s feet was a large round metal stool (like a small trampoline) and under it in a steel bleaching pot was a medium size fire. The handle of the pot was tied to Isljam’s father’s leg and he would kick the pot under the chair when he was playing the music and jerk the pot away when he stopped. The tent reaked of burned hair, flesh and evaporating filthy sweat. The hind paws of the bear fused and left no paw print on the black puddle of bear’s blood boiling to char on the concave surface of the metal stool. The bear was no longer crying or roaring, just trying to jump away from the heat when the music was playing and cool down when the music stopped. Seeing our terror, Isljam’s father told us that this was the last night of training, that the bear feels no pain anymore, and that from now on he will dance to the harmonica knowing through his scars that music is fire.

This was the best studio visit I ever made.

Irena Knezevic is a Serbian artist currently living in Chicago. Recent projects and performances have occured at the ThreeWalls, Museum of Contemporary, Art Chicago; White Columns, New York; Harvard University, Cambridge and Galerie im Regierungsviertel, Berlin. Knezevic earned her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2007.

Image Caption and Credit:
Still from Johan Grimonprez's Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Using Our Re-Imagination

Guest Blogger:
Jessica Hutchinson,
Artistic Director of New Leaf Theatre

Before New Leaf Theatre was in residence at the Lincoln Park Cultural Center, the Chicago Park District building at 2045 North Lincoln Park West that houses everything from community meetings to classes full of tiny ballerinas, there was no New Leaf Theatre.  Literally.  Many of the companies we love in our lively storefront theatre community were formed based on common experience and common goals, then joined the ranks of our city’s itinerant companies, searching for temporary homes for rehearsal and performance.  Some might say we came at our existence backwards – New Leaf started with the space. 

In 2001, a group of artists – our founders – worked together to create a piece for a one-act festival hosted by the Lincoln Park Cultural Center (LPCC), and was quickly invited to set up shop there, becoming the resident theatre company of that historical building.  Becoming a company beyond the one-act festival hadn’t been the original plan, so over chop suey on Irving Park at the beginning of this decade, those first Leafs decided to jump in with both feet and form an ensemble of artists dedicated to creating opportunities for emerging theatre practitioners like themselves.  They chose the name New Leaf – it seemed appropriate – and we were born.  Since that time, our company has seen big changes in our members and our mission, but the constant over the past nine years has been our home.  Our performance space – our studio – continues to make New Leaf Theatre who we are.  

Setting up camp in an historic building means that our theatre doesn’t look like a typical storefront venue. The court house that became our space boasts a chandelier and sconces, rich oak-paneled walls, and a large portrait of our park’s namesake, Uncle Abe Lincoln, hanging prominently on the north wall over the fireplace.  On the south end is a tiny stage, complete with red velvet curtains.  Add to that the lack of an existing lighting grid and our inability to physically alter the space in any way and it’s clear - this is not your typical black box theatre.

When New Leaf first took up residence, we put everything up on the stage.  Creating jewel-box worlds in that tiny space was limiting; it threw distance between our performers and our audiences, and gave our designers a limited palette with which to create.  That changed in 2005; we realized that the whole room could be our canvas and, with As It Is In Heaven, we pulled our performances down onto the floor.  Suddenly we were able to inhabit the room among our audiences, to build the world of the play in and around them.  Around this time, we also re-articulated our mission and dedicated ourselves to the renewal of our audience and artists.  It was by rediscovering our space, and expanding our perceptions of it, that we began to discover who we are and what we value most.   

What we continue to learn is that the key to remaining agile in the same unalterable space over the course of nine years (and beyond) is to become more flexible ourselves.  The key to our core as a company is found in the re-imagining of our home and ourselves with each new production.  This is how we’ve seen visions of angels, survived multiple horrific train crashes, created the vastness of the whole galaxy and the solitude of a secret underground lair, all without nailing anything to the walls.  Around – and because of – that giant chandelier, we’ve opened Pandora’s box and painted its demons across our ceiling, turned our dome into a hot air balloon sailing across the English countryside, and drifted, ghost-like, through the lives of broken families clinging to their pasts.  

The LPCC has made us more disciplined, more deliberate, and better able to operate within limits, not just of space but also of time; it’s another way our home has defined who we are as a company.  Working in a Park District space shared with our community, there are very specific days and times that we’re able to be in the theatre.  When a rehearsal is scheduled to end at 9pm, that means we’ve just headed out the door at 9pm, not that we’re finishing up that last tricky scene at 9:10pm.  We never rehearse or perform on Sundays, and we don’t stay all night to finish the set.  In fact, the set almost always has to be struck to the stage on Saturday night, and reset on Thursday of the following week. 

But we rehearse where we perform, right there in the LPCC, and are able to bake our productions into those rich oak walls.  When we move into our technical rehearsals, after we’ve rebuilt our lighting grid, hung our speakers, and arranged our scenic pieces, everything we’ve learned about the play over the course of rehearsals seeps back to us.  Our space has muscle memory; it knows us and has started to trust us.  It reminds us of how to do what we do best, and challenges us to use our re-imaginations to stretch and bend it and see it in a new light.

Right now, we’re working on Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, opening on April 15th, and it has been no exception to our rules of re-imagining.  For the first time in our history, we’ve worked out a way to leave more traditional set elements in the space – a suspended door frame, and a working sink, to name just two.  We’ve been negotiating how our world and our space speak to the themes of the play – we can’t (and don’t want to) ignore our immediate surroundings, so how do we bring the audience from the sconces to the stove, from the privilege of plenty to the struggles of the starving?  This show, helmed by company member Kyra Lewandowski, has had us rethinking what we mean by renewal, too.  Can another person follow your formula for rebirth?  What are the limits of renewal?  Does hope always spring eternal, even in the midst of a literal and figurative desert?  

In the middle of a park, adjacent to the zoo’s howling coyotes, in a building rich in history and saturated with memory, New Leaf lets our imagination bounce off the walls, flutter across the windows, encircle the chandelier and float up the fireplace flue.  Our home not only created us, it continues to define us.  With each production we wonder if we’ll be able to see the LPCC – our studio, our home – from a fresh angle, and each time it reveals something new, teaches us about itself, and continues to illuminate who we are by what we’re able to create together. 

Jessica Hutchinson joined New Leaf Theatre in February 2007, and has served as the artistic director of the company since that June.  She’s directed five productions with the company, including last fall’s The Man Who Was Thursday.  She is a freelance director, theatre educator, and proud staff member of the League of Chicago Theatres. 

Image Captions and Credits from top to bottom:
Jessica Hutchinson Photo by Austin Oie

Our Space Transformed for Touch - 2009 Photo by Lindsay Theo
Another Transformtion for Vox Pandora - 2007 Photo by Christopher Ash
In rehearsal for The Dining Room - 2007 Photo by Christopher Ash
Curse of the Starving Class opens April 15, 2010 Photo by Marni Keenan

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Space Informs the Art

Guest Bloggers:
Beth Wiedner and Faiz Razi,
producer and composer of Stockyard Institute
Who: Beth Wiedner, producer and Faiz Razi, composer of Stockyard Institute. We're both educators who make art. Stockyard Institute is an art education non-profit collective founded by Jim Duignan in 1995. We joined on a few years ago. Stockyard Institute is an artist project, an experimental effort in pedagogy and a contemporary arts-based teaching organization. We are both involved in all aspects of any given project, from concept development, organization, installation, fund raising, and finding resources, to design, writing, editing, presentations and web work. 

What: Our studio practice. Stockyard Institute has been nomadic since its inception. We don't have a permanent space of our own, which informs how we work. 

When: Every day. 

Where: We work in a dozen different spaces. This is what makes it so enjoyable. The space literally changes the context. It doesn't matter where were going, it's that we're doing work there. Every area becomes a work space, from kitchen, to dining, to living to porch, from basement to garage to public space.  

Often, we go to public spaces for inspiration. You need to make field trips. Ours include the science store, the bookstore, record stores, thrift stores, coffee houses, public parks, museums, DePaul, and outside. Sometimes if we're stuck on an idea, a change of space will allow for a clearer head. 

Why: Well, nobody cares about your stupid art project. Maybe some small niche of people will care, but they probably will never care as much as you. We try not to let that get in the way. Art is not an end result, but a reaction to living life every day. Mostly though, it's because we love it and we like collaborating with talented and inspiring folks.  

How: In one word-collaboratively. How we work depends on project and location. 

Fittingly, one of the first projects we worked on together was also nomadic and collaborative in nature. Musical Chairs are sound/music art installations that function as random band generators, heard by two listeners at a time. The physical makeup of each set are dual correctional bus seats, painted front and back by a host of different spray paint artists. Both seats are equipped with an enclosed iPod that runs through a mixer. The iPods randomly play one-minute instrumental pieces of music simultaneously, creating one song that can be heard through the two sets of headphones. A different combination or “band” is generated at random, every minute. Musical Chairs is a community-recording project, created by an international group of musicians. Every time a one-minute piece of music is added, the number of possible combinations grow exponentially. There are currently, 2,560 permutations. 

This project was particularly rewarding, as we were able to work with musicians with home studios in half a dozen countries, spray artists from our city, and our favorite electrician for all of the tech work. Everyone has their own thing going on, and it's difficult to get everyone in one place at one time. Instead, each artist was able to contribute while still working in their own space. 

As part of Studio Chicago, we are celebrating the nomadic artist's work space. We are co-curating the DePaul University Art Museum for an exhibition titled Nomadic Studio. The museum will be converted into a constantly evolving, multi-functional gallery space of our design. 

Portions of the gallery will be turned into different types of spaces where people make art, including a production office, a home recording studio, a convertible stage, a library and resource center, a living room, and activity room. Nomadic Studio will change monthly and will include fine art, performances, panel discussions, workshops, and other events. This exhibit is a reflection upon and a natural extension of how the space is the art.

Nomadic Studio runs from July 8th-Nov 20th, 2010 at DePaul University Art Museum. 

Beth Wiedner has a background in teaching and design, and currently works part-time as a web developer/designer as well as part-time curator, and producer at the Stockyard Institute. Faiz Razi is a  composer and teacher, also. Both work closely and collaboratively with Stockyard Institute.

Image credits and captions from top to bottom:
Photo of Beth and Faiz by Evangeline Lane
Photo of Zeb's Chairs at Columbia College Library by Faiz Razi
Photo of listeners on Zeb's Chairs at Version 09 by Faiz Razi
Photo of Ian Bennet painting chairs by Beth Wiedner