Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye to my studio

Guest Blogger:
Abigail Satinsky
one of the founders of InCUBATE

I was asked to blog for Studio Chicago at a transitional moment. The space that I have been collaboratively running for the last year, first housing only InCUBATE and then known as the Orientation Center, is closing December 31, 2009. When I started InCUBATE with my collaborators, we weren’t looking for studio space since we were art administrators and organizers. We were looking for a clubhouse of sorts. A space where we could work out ideas in conversation with each other, with our artists-in-residence, and with people who were just curious about what we were doing. Having what I guess could be called a “studio laboratory,” since it wasn’t entirely a gallery, or an office, or a living space, but somewhere in-between and shared with a rotating crew of people, gave us a resource to offer the community we knew and a community we wanted to get to know.

InCUBATE is a research group dedicated to a better understanding of how the art world works for those doing non-commercial creative work and imagining alternative funding models that could support them and ourselves. It was, and continues to be, a pretty abstract goal with lofty aims but it also manifests in real time and space as we organize exhibitions, publications, lectures, and meals to figure out how to collectively achieve it. One of our most successful projects, Sunday Soup, is a good example of this process. Sunday Soup is a monthly meal that generates money for a creative project fund. Anyone can apply for the fund and we accept proposals up until the day of the meal. Patrons of Sunday Soup pay money for food and a presentation by a local artist or organizer (who most of the time also cooks the soup) and get one vote on which proposal gets the proceeds from the meal. It took us doing the project for a year before anyone really started showing up (except for a couple loyal friends and collaborators). But as we started to find our footing and inviting a stellar cast of people to cook and present (artist Kelly Kaczynski’s borscht combined with critic Lori Waxman’s talk on “Streetwalking in Surrealist Paris” remains a personal favorite), we found a steady audience. And the people who came to eat with us started their own Sunday Soups in far-flung places like New York City FEAST, Baltimore STEW, Portland Stock, Newcastle Saturday Soup, Buffalo Sugar City Sunday Soup, and one starting in Iowa City called FATS (Funding Artists through Soup). Their spaces (which most of the time are larger than our small storefront) have managed to bring new communities together to meet each other in real time and given away much more money for local artists than we could do from here. We are really proud to be a part of that growing network.

But it occurred to me that having that physical space where we went to scheme with friends for hours, meet people coming through town who wanted to hear what was up with under-the-radar culture in Chicago, play darts, brew beer, talk with the fine folks of AREA Chicago and Chicago Underground Library who rented space there as well, and host lectures and activities, we created a rather idiosyncratic community of fellow travelers. It was those encounters, ones that were unexpected, sweet, awkward, short-lived, or became lasting friendships built over time and shared proximity, which is going to make me really miss 2129 N. Rockwell.

So without getting overly sentimental, and since it is a New Year for new beginnings, I wanted to share my top ten happenings at the Orientation Center, in no particular order. This is for artists that used our space as a studio, as headquarters, or just to get together.

1. Talk by Gerald Raunig visiting from Vienna via New York
(author: Art and Revolution:Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century) with Dan S. Wang, as part of the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor Drift, June 2008

 (It was so hot in there, the lecture was moved onto the sidewalk)
Photo by Claire Pentecost

2. Hideous Beast’s Juice This!, July 2008

Photo by Charlie Roderick

3. The speakeasy and music show by Cains & Abels in the back alley of our space, August 2009

4. Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Unlympics, February 2009


5. The first Public Culture Lecture, Co-organized with Randall Szott, May 2009: “The Lyceum and Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century United States,” by Angela Ray, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University

Photo by Bryce Dwyer

6. Carnal Torpor’s Dualing Workshop in October 2009 (while they were in town for participating in the Heartland Exhibition at the Smart Museum), October 2009

Photo by Bryce Dwyer

7. Michael Coolidge’s Free Bowl Excursions on the City of Chicago, May 2009

Photo by Eric Bartholomew

8. Los Cago Open House Bridge of Artistic Goodwill, March 2008

A meeting of artistic minds with the intention of bridging the geographic gap between Los Angeles and Chicago.

Los Cago Open House Bridge of Artistic Goodwill from InCUBATE on Vimeo.

9. Maggie Haas’s Mine, September 2007

10. Ending with the beginning.

Here are some pictures of our early floor plan and starting the space with our friend, Ben Schaafsma, who passed away in October 2008.

Abigail Satinsky is one of the founding members of InCUBATE.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Exploring space as it presents itself

Guest Blogger:
David Moré

I’m interested in sound, and often what I make, makes sound.

This can be problematic in that sound travels, sound quite actually penetrates walls. Often times, other people live on the opposite side of the walls in which I am working and I would really rather not get on anyone’s nerves. With this in mind, working with audio has been at times trickyAs a person that makes sound, working in a home studio can be a bit of a problem. Maybe I worry too much, but I partially attribute the fact that I’ve never learned how to play a properly bowed, plucked, or hit instrument, to the fact that I have no interest in subjecting anyone to my stumbling, furtive attempts to do so. Often I work with small sounds and electronics, things whose volume can be controlled, or listened to on headphones.

A month or so ago, my friend Alex and I were fortunate enough to have an exhibition up at Gallery 400. Though I suppose, in terms of being fortunate, I can only speak for myself, because my friend Alex is a fish. Fish need to be taken care of, the aquarium water needs to be changed, they need to be fed, etc. In order to fulfill my obligation to Alex, the gallery was nice enough to allow me twenty-four hour access to the gallery where Alex remained for the duration of the exhibition. 

I should explain a little bit about Alex. She is an elephant nose fish from a river in Central or Western Africa. Her species cannot breed in captivity, so she was, quite actually, born somewhere in Africa. Her home territory is murky water, and somewhere in the elephant nose species' evolution they developed an extra sense: electro-location. Alex emits a constant pulse of electricity which builds a field around her. Disturbances in this field she can interpret as obstacle, mate, or food. This naturally occurring pulse can be easily amplified, made audible, simply by placing speaker wire in the aquarium water, and plugging that wire into an amplifier. 

So I started a band with my pet fish. Which is brilliant, right? I’m not a musician, just a dude interested in making sound, and Alex is not a musician, just a fish producing a constant signal as a navigational tool, which can be conveniently made audible. What better band mates?

Alex and I would practice, usually after hours, at the gallery (and I assure you, I need the practice). A favorite instrument to play in the gallery alongside Alex became a viola borrowed from my friend Kelly.  If you happened to stop by the gallery, Alex could be heard finding her way around a thirty-gallon aquarium, and I would be heard trying to find my way around a viola. Without having to worry about the neighbors, I would listen to how the sound of these actions came together, and changed as I walked around the space in accordance with the architecture and volume. It was helpful, having the opportunity to practice where and when I’m pretty sure no one else could hear us. I was able to make as much noise as I liked. The gallery provided me with the studio space I wanted, and do not normally have.  It just happened to be a very public, open studio during the day.

Alex has since moved back to my apartment, seems well, and we continue to practice often. I am always interested in meeting new collaborators. Interested in improvising with a fish? Get in touch: gnathonemuspetersii@gmail.com. We will just have to play quietly.

David Moré was born outside Chicago, left for some twelve odd years, and moved back to the area round about three years ago. He will likely leave again, someday, it’s nothing personal, it’s just that this world is immense, and endlessly fascinating. For now he is very, very grateful for just how nice this city has been to him.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Community as Studio

Guest Blogger:
Jim Duignan
Artist and Associate Professor of Visual Art in the School of Education at DePaul University

A studio space has been a tremendous lure for me for a long time. I roamed Chicago neighborhoods in the late 1970s and early 1980s imagining all types of spaces to live and work. I wanted desperately to get on with something, to find that space where I could work out my ideas quietly. I graduated from high school in 1976 and set my sights on the area between Belmont and Cicero and Addison and Pulaski over the next ten years as an ideal site to live / work. I had gone to school down the street and spent my formative years on Waveland between Kedvale and Pulaski. My first studio was off Belmont at Barry, backed up to the mammoth Hall printing company to the west and in ear shot of Joe Danno’s Bucket of Suds.

My youth was immersed in the studio practices of printmaking, drawing, painting and some writing of poetry.  I had these old newspaper photographs depicting influences like Brecht, Rodchenko, Erwitt, Beuys and Friedkin where they worked that became a blueprint. My early years were fixed on a space functioning as a hideout of sorts, separating me from the very life that secured a powerfully dangerous grip on me.  Chicago was speckled with structures and architectural reminders to indelible memories of labor, family lore, regional history, taverns and sites of dynamic musical experiences. I was born and raised in Chicago and attended Archdiocese and Chicago Public Schools and realized later in life that the physical connection I had to those school structures would return often as I sought out large, multi-purposed spaces for projects and programs for the Stockyard Institute.

My early studios were my entire apartments until I met Celeste, my friend and partner for the last twenty five years.  I recall the second floor at 1111 W. Chicago at Milwaukee and Ogden over the 1111 Grill. The smell of the Gonella Bread factory, hints of chocolate and the frying bacon coming up through the floors created a kind of focus. One that would constantly reference the city itself.  Summers were magical with floor to ceiling windows and the warm breezes carrying those smells and the steady sounds of traffic with an accompaniment from the subway underneath the building creating light intermittent vibrations. The place like so many were wrecks, with only shower plumbing, animals, outdoor furniture, psychotic tenants and the $25 a week rent laying claim to grand experimentations on every surface on the apartment. I worked on oversized drawings and dark paintings attempting to sketch out tales of desperation and redemption. My work modeled a family history as a subject and a content that was grounded deeper in memory than cause. I found a clearer connection to film and photography and making notes made enormous sense in those days. 

The idea of a studio changed for me after I did my MFA in Chicago (UIC) and considered how the stories I wanted to share would translate in a gallery. I wanted to work and show that work where I gathered. To see how communities could fit into a larger idea of work that was changing towards a broader exchange of ideas and intention. Thinking about ways of responding and learning, and the kind of city I wanted to live in would develop early in the Back of the Yards and through long intentional conversations with Michael Piazza. Moving beyond the galleries and the studio worked to open up opportunities in the early 1990s for exploring the street corner, public park, car wash or abandoned school. There was a desire to find a platform that many could work within as a collective of teachers, youth, artists, musicians, writers, parents, actors, producers working to build temporary public projects, radio based efforts and sustainable programs that would intersect some component of the community institutions.

Pedagogy of a more radicalized nature entered in as my DePaul University art and education students clearly brought an understanding to public service and community work through many forms of dynamic and creative enterprises. We looked upon education as a mission and we drafted curriculum. We shared writings of Studs Turkel and Saul Alinsky who mapped city history through social consciousness as educators like Paulo Friere and Myles Horton offered manuals to a liberatory track in which to refocus on a culture of schooling that clearly sought to challenge systems that functioned to exclude the voiceless. The Back of the Yards community and later the Austin neighborhood served as valuable incubators to bring community members into a collective and social approach to art making and writing. Area teachers began to aid in the design of projects in the Back of the Yards and would encourage their students to join in as youth had always been a focus to our conversations and brand of work. I was asked to assist a small school in the community at 48th and Damen with an art curriculum for students they had yet to identify from neighborhood drop out lists in 1995. There was an experiment taking place in reasonable, site specific schooling which initiated sound ideas about inclusion. This invitation settled us into the neighborhood. An opportunity to convert an abandoned elementary school into a socially based arts center and working with local gang members shaped a core philosophy of the Stockyard Institute early on as an artist project and burgeoning experimental teaching collective. 

The Stockyard Institute began in the Back of the Yards with youth under the Stockyard Truck Stop sign on south Halsted in 1995. Our design for how we would develop and realize projects would synchronize with a design for a broader community curriculum we were organizing through the school and with a community space called Neutral Ground run by Gene and Sandy Downes. We had large temporary spaces to work. This approach was instrumental in setting up the conditions for conversation with the youth and community members to determine projects based on a collective set of questions. It would become a Brechtian armature to repurpose a studio practice that transformed a larger community space into a neighborhood - specific studio for social investigation and imagination. We designed a gang proof suit based on those initial conversations with the youth who were consumed with gang activity in their neighborhood. The suit became our model for future productions and with local residents and the quiet consul of Michael Piazza and thirteen youth who where part of the Homeless Education Program through the Chicago Public Schools we organized that first year. I asked over 100 local artists to propose works for the new school at 48th and Damen as I moved into the abandoned school next door with Neutral Ground, the University of Hip Hop, Temporary Services and local writers. The sonic efforts of Jeff Kowalkowski were extraordinary and important to the site and musical education of local youth. 

Those large, temporary structures were critical to get youth off the street and work isolated away from all types of pressures. Space was critical early and remains the case today as we are situated in and through a host of spaces as Michelle Grabner referred to as the ‘quieter quadrants’ of the city. It has also been most important to develop and maintain long term relationships with actors, builders, designers, teachers, filmmakers, writers, residents and artists to explore work together and find a collective, innovative spirit of working in each others studios, spaces and communities towards mutually beneficial processes. After fifteen years those youth are adults and early education students teach and administrate programs, international efforts and local schools. This has established a wonderfully circulatory and participatory energy that has developed a constellation of activity around contemporary art, radical pedagogy, public media and progressive community education all over the city. 

Jim Duignan is an artist and Associate Professor of Visual Art in the School of Education at DePaul University. He founded the Stockyard Institute in 1995 in the Back of the Yards which dovetails a public artist project with an experimental teaching collective. 

Images: Jim Duignan in his studio; Cafeteria Sessions with Lavie Raven; Zawadi Radio Project

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Many Studios - A Journey of Sorts + Self

Guest Blogger:
Kevin Henry
industrial designer, activist, curator, and writer

The studio, or active work space in general, has defined my creative life for the past three decades in strange but curious ways. I returned home to Chicago to attend graduate school in the early 80s. At that time there were two cheap places in the city where artists lived - Wicker Park and Pilsen. Mayor Jane Byrne had just shut down two bars in Wicker Park due to shootings. So, I choose Pilsen. While I had studied painting, printmaking, and sculpture, I decided to focus on sculpture and chose carefully the materials I used. So that I could own all required tools. Preparing for life after school meant having your own space. In fact I never maintained a studio inside a school after my undergraduate degree. As a first year graduate student living in a residential apartment in Pilsen, I set up a small woodshop in the living room and promptly stopped making noise after 5:00 pm at which time I would draw or paint. While the space was filled with dust, I got things done. I was very happy.

From there I moved to Lake Street into what was then known as the “Noise Factory." I managed to get free work space in a dank basement and living quarters in a windowless room of my own partitioning two floors above. This in exchange for letting bands in and out of the building and for being present in an emergency. The cacophony of clashing bands on various floors became white noise, blending with the sound of the CTA on Lake Street elevated which passed a few feet from my bedpost. I could wake up to the hammering sound of speed metal and retire to the sweet sounds (and smells) of reggae.  It felt like living in Charles Ives’ brain but it was free of charge and mine (more or less). Free, of course, does come at a price: in my particular case it was sinusitis - too much saw dust and not enough oxygen to breathe. This after only two years.  

Surrounded by performance art taking place in the Noise Factory, I began experimenting in this medium eventually switching my MFA focus from sculpture to time-based media. I guess you could say I was responding to my new idea of what a studio could be - anywhere and unconstrained by location. It was enticing. Besides I had been interested in time-based art forms and had started taking filmmaking classes. This was one of the only ways to gain access to decent equipment.  Many beginning filmmakers at that time bought old 8mm cameras from pawnshops around the city to have their own equipment but the limitations of silent film were too much. I think one of my main reasons for not pursuing serious film work was the inability to own my tools. Just as importantly I realized that film was a social medium requiring crews and a lot of planning. This was nothing like sitting around a studio and thinking up ideas and executing them spontaneously. Getting beyond the comforting aspects of a studio space was a real challenge. 

In my second semester of graduate school, I decided to study at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.  If nothing else it would be a big change of scenery and fresh air. This was long before the Celtic tiger awoke: Dublin dealt at that time with a serious heroin epidemic, high unemployment rates, and an atmosphere of general ennui but artists were incredibly resourceful and made work anywhere. Without a studio, I mostly stayed away from wood, and focused on performances and installations. I began to think of the studio more as an idea than a necessity. Work could be done in many places and in many ways.

I returned home to Chicago to finish my MFA and then apprenticed with a furniture maker to have enough professional skills to support myself while doing performance work and writing. I discovered dust masks around this time (what an epiphany) as well as the art of solving problems that weren’t my own. My previous work had largely consisted of staring at my past to make sense of it; now I was for the first time stepping outside of myself. I was also beginning to realize that my skills were internal (inside me) as opposed to external (defined by my space and my tools). Nevertheless I still felt the need for a physical work space (if nothing else than to park all my tools) although things were truly beginning to loosen up. 

My next studio was a storefront space with a beautiful view of the Kennedy expressway and the Morton salt factory. The price was right in large part because the interior looked like Dresden after the war. An artist friend who had lived in it before me had decided to strip off the walls to expose the bricks.  He did this in a flurry of activity getting halfway through before realizing how much work this was going to be. He gave up and decided to leave. I secured cheap rent in exchange for renovating the place. This was my first taste of fixing up other people’s places. While I had a cheap place, I was also growing tired of being an itinerant woodworker; my studio and all of its tools had become a noose around my neck even as it defined me - or so I thought.  

The next stop several years later was my own storefront in Humboldt Park, complete with rival drug dealers squatting on the front porch. I also quickly learned that the flip side of secure housing was non-stop responsibility.  After five years of one rehab project after another in a quest to secure my future and my own space, I began to realize that the studio had its liabilities as well. Here I was finally living in my own studio with no time to actually work. This reality combined with the shift away from fine art studio practice and towards design practice made me radically rethink the whole studio idea. I decided that if I was to ever work in a studio that it would be a commercial design studio and that I would move into it as a part of the process and leave it at the end of the day and go home. It would not be me and I would not be it.

I returned to graduate school for a second time the year I finished paying off my loans for the first MFA. I studied industrial design which has been a good fit for the most part. While I don’t regret the long and sinuous path I have taken, I find it both satisfying and a bit strange (I won’t say frustrating) that so much of my work can now be accomplished inside a mobile studio, my MacBook Pro, which I transport on my back in a messenger bag while riding a folding bike. Sure, I have a roof over my head and a nice office where I park all of my books and a desk to work on. However, more often than not, I am glued to this machine (as I have been for the past three hours retelling this tale) and either building something in the computer, editing film shot on my flip camera, creating podcasts with garageband and other software and generally getting everything I need done on the spot regardless of where I am. And if I need to make something it’s often done virtually. I can print objects much as anyone can print documents. While I greatly miss the haptic qualities of using my hands - and I certainly miss the smell of wood and the engagement with materials - I am finally able to merge all of my interests in a studio that assists me rather than defines me. 

Kevin Henry is an industrial designer, activist, curator, and writer. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago and has lectured on a variety of topics from sustainability to bike culture and the dynamics of photo sharing. He is active with "Design for the Majority"  through the Industrial Design Society of America which advocates for greater design participation for the other 5 billion people on the planet.  He is finishing up a book on design visualization for the UK publisher Laurence King.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Creative Space: Richard Hunt's Studio

Guest Blogger:
Joyce Owens
Artist, Arts activist, Painting instructor, and Curator of the galleries at Chicago State University

I, for a long time, have envied sculptors...they change space by shoving their stuff into it, affecting everything around it, sometimes for miles around!

Recently, I spent a morning with Richard Hunt, the internationally recognized sculptor with more public works than any other living artist. It’s a given that he just blows me away. His charming and unassuming personality and his handsome good looks are enough, but add to that his enormous creative abilities and long-tested productivity and you have a contemporary artist who is pretty much unmatched!

If envy, like Dante’s Inferno, has circles, visiting Hunt’s studio takes me deep into a covetous crater. His studio is jammed with tiny maquettes, informally arranged like a collection of rare crystal, intermixed with huge electric tools and small gadgets used to form and transform the metals, Hunt’s preferred medium. Some items I see are old hand tools that chew into and cut metal, and lots of cords attached to the tools trail the floor. There are modern laser cutters and various metal fasteners and clamps that I don’t have names for, plus curly metal shavings (that I wanted so badly to graph onto some of my own art!) left behind when the huge sheets of steel and aluminum are cut. The hunks of scrap metal and new metal create piles of inventory taller than my 5’10” frame and probably taller than my 3-story house. Various wires and wood pieces, books, magazines, newspapers, catalogs and clothes flow like a river and its tributaries throughout this space.

Hunt seems attracted to simple artifacts, the opposite of his own more texturally complex and curvy works, by American and African artists and spotted here and there in the studio and in his adjacent office. I see bolts to screw on the bases he is fabricating to stand his work on and metal rods, nails and whatnot. The cornucopia of sculpture-making delights extends from the floor to the ceiling with tiny aisles for walking and niches for working. I don't know how many works-in-progress are in this colossal former Chicago Transit Authority terminal. Many larger scale works shine beautifully in the muted light. They look complete and ready to go to a gallery, home, museum or corporation. I’d certainly welcome them into my home. Walking through Richard Hunt’s studio is like walking through a diamond shop with all the jewels out for anyone to touch!

I arrived at his Lill Street studio at 7:15 am this day to chat and have breakfast with Richard at his neighborhood hangout the Salt and Pepper Diner. It’s within eyesight of his studio, a place where he doesn’t really need a menu and where he doesn’t really need to state his order. The waitress already knows, but checks to make sure he hasn’t changed his mind. When we returned to the studio, passing by his sculpture in Jonquil Park that was being retrofitted for wheelchair accessibility, I realized that Richard’s space exemplifies the aspirations of many artists: We really want to get every idea we think we have into a concrete, ready-to-be-shown, form. Many of us have terrific ideas all the time, but many of those gems remain in our heads only. Some of us grasp our creative concepts and run with them to produce something, but maybe not scores of somethings. Has Hunt been able to actually remember the idea he had in the shower, or on a walk in the park or at dinner in a fancy restaurant, long enough to turn it into art? It seems to me he must. When I argued for the theme Artists at Work for Chicago Artists Month 2002 it was because I believe in what Richard Hunt lives, and I believe many other artists do, too: work. You work to make as much art as you can, for as many days as you can, for as many years as you can. Your natural creativity and the creativity you inevitably develop when you practice will show. Right now, I think the hardest job is mine, attempting to write about Richard Hunt’s glittering, magical space, holding treasures that easily compete with a gold mine, so that you can envision it.

Beauty aside, this is one studio that screams prolific. Richard Hunt states plainly, for anyone who looks, that he is the artist at work.

Artist Joyce Owens has a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from Yale University, a BFA from Howard University. She is an arts activist, and teaches painting and drawing and is the curator of the galleries at Chicago State University.