This winter I was invited to contribute an essay for the Extinct Entities festival’s short-run book. My essay ran along-side essays from Jason Foumberg, writer for Chicago Magazine and art editor for NewCity Magazine, Thea Liberty Nichols of ArtSlant and Bad at Sports, and Erin Nixon, former co-curator for Noble & Superior Projects and who (along with Anthony Romero and Anthony Stepter) co-curated the Extinct Entities festival itself. The book was designed and screen-printed by Melisa Morgan with help from Nathan Deli, though only in a run of 100; and, for this reason, I’ve decided to make the article digitally accessible and publish the article below.
By way of an introduction, the following article, Alternative Myths, was written in response to a video piece by Christy LeMaster, titled We Are No Longer Brave Enough to Leave, which was screened on the very snowy evening of January 20th. In the article, I hoped to address the issues present in the piece, which knit together the radical political history of utopian movements with the more ambiguous ambitions of artist-run arts organizations, as well as explore the topic of the festival itself: alternative and artist-run spaces.
by Steve Ruiz
Like many artists, Christy LeMaster’s personal work is somewhat overshadowed by the reputation of her institutional involvement. In 2008 LeMaster founded the notoriously independent microcinema The Nightingale. A staple in Chicago’s visual art community, The Nightingale has done so much for experimental, underground, and avant-garde film and video art in the city as to nearly define its display and stage its consumption. The co-operatively run theater, operating on donation, generosity, and gift, is a sterling example of the do-it-ourselves, do-it-better, community-building ethos which founds the utopian myth of the alternative or artist-run space in Chicago.
During the Extinct Entities festival, LeMaster screened a new and evolving work of her own, titled We Are No Longer Brave Enough to Leave, which explores this myth and the politics of utopia in art.
LeMaster filmed We Are No Longer Brave Enough to Leave during the 2012 Summer Forum for Inquiry + Exchange, a week-long residency in New Harmony, Indiana. Founded by Sara Knox Hunter, the Summer Forum evolved into a discussion seminar on the topics of community, utopia, and the individual. The thirty-four residents included artists of many kinds, as well as historians, musicians, theorists, and others. Coffee was brewed, jaws were unhinged, concerts were played; and, at least for a few hours, everyone dressed in 19th century period costume and reenacted scenes from New Harmony’s utopian past.
I want to follow LeMaster’s connections between alternative arts organizations (extinct or not) and utopian experiments like New Harmony, and to examine the mythic force behind these spaces and projects that continue to engage us. But first, a brief summarization of several Wikipedia articles:
The 19th century was a laboratory for modernism. As industrialization swept huge populations into new configurations of labor, innovative forms of social organization were necessary to replace out-sized traditional institutions. The question of how humans should live and work together was left dramatically unanswered and new ideologies began to bubble in answer. At the same time, in the evolving American frontier, each new settlement offered the freedom to implement reform and revolution at the foundational level. Utopian and intentional communities were founded by secular and religious groups alike, whose members abandoned their homes and lives for the sake of grand experiments: social organization on a most radical scale.
New Harmony was home to two such experiments. In 1814, a religious movement under the German prophet Georg Rapp founded the town of Harmony after selling their initial Pennsylvania commune to Mennonites. United under Rapp’s radical religious leadership, the town stabilized but suffered from poor geographical placement. Rapp soon arranged to return his flock to Pennsylvania, settling Economy in 1824 and selling Harmony to a new visionary: Robert Owen.
Robert Owen came to America in 1824 riding on the wealth and fame of his reformed cotton mills in New Lanark, Scotland. Having proved both the social and economic advantages of industrial welfare in New Lanark, he planned his new settlement in New Harmony as a site for application and extension. Like many reformers, Owen believed that a worker’s environment shaped his character; and so, anticipating urban planners like Sabsovich, Le Corbusier, and even Chicago’s own George Pullman, Owen sought to fit his population into a life rigidly organized for their own benefit.
New Harmony was a stage for Owen’s proto-socialist egalitarian imagination, operating from the top down to recreate man through superior circumstances. Citizens lived for free, but did not own property. Work was a community service, and workers were paid in purchasing credit at community stores rather than wages. Education, food, and provisions were evenly distributed. The community that began with a population of 3000 failed after only two years, owing its decline in part to the lack of skilled labor among its mixed members, in part to the poor placement first noticed by Georg Rapp, as well as reported dissatisfaction with the equality of remuneration. The community splintered and reorganized several times before dissolving in 1929. Owen bought the town and its debts entire, passed ownership to his sons, and left for new experimental prospects in London.
How many of our best initiatives have come from frustration?
Especially in a city like Chicago, where neither art market investment nor local institutions are equipped to sustain the ambitions of local artists, it is often the artists themselves who take over key roles in place-making, administration, criticism, and especially exhibition. In effect, these artists build the infrastructure and networks needed for their own creative practices to gain traction and thrive. However exhausting for the artists working behind the scenes, Chicago’s culture of mutual self-interest remains one of the most attractive arguments for the city as a place to make and see art.
And as a city for art, artist-run institutions are part of Chicago’s myth: they provide a utopian narrative rare within the increasingly globalized and corporatized contemporary art world, even if this myth is only partly, rarely true. Far from being heroic flights from the ordinary order, many artist-run spaces operate no differently than their commercial counterparts, and serve primarily as proving grounds for younger artists who anticipate the mainstream art market both in their work and in their exhibition designs. Even where non-profit thrives, the structure is no guarantee of creative programming. Artists-as-curators or artists-as-writers often deliver exhibitions or essays that neither suffer nor benefit from their mixed origins.
And yet the exceptions to this routine— those spaces that rethink art at the level of the gallery, the cinema, the magazine, or the institution—prove the potential of artist-run, self-funded projects to exercise autonomy in radical ways. It is this potential, as much as any instance of its realization, that make up the myth of the Chicago utopian alternative. Cut off from capital, denied access by our local museums, marginalized by media, a small enclave of Midwestern artists create a community for themselves. Lit with these dramatic floods, every artist-run success can feel like a win for something bigger, and many of our best organizations are artist-run with artistic critique embedded in their mission statements.
It is the politics of this myth that LeMaster’s project addresses. While artist-run spaces can provide a comfortable break with the normal order, they exist easily within that order. At worst, such a space might operate without a business license or breach lease agreements or bother neighbors, but at the end of the night the state has nothing to fear from apartment galleries, artist-run non-profits, and independent presses in themselves. Like academic departments, alternative art activities can foster communities of soft rebellion where dissent can be safely channeled into symbolic gestures and aesthetic critiques. When politically engaged and progressively organized, these projects can be a necessary point of gathering for the politically sensitive for whom utopia and revolution are goals no longer taken seriously.
The title of LeMaster’s film, We Are No Longer Brave Enough to Leave, challenges us with this pang of recognition: with rare exception, anything even as radical as dropping out is off the table. When invoking the myth of the alternative, are our second-studio, basement, spare-bedroom utopias connected to larger, more real political action, or are they merely therapeutic retreats? Does it matter if they are? The film is still evolving, with additional chapters due in the years to come, but so are alternative spaces and the politics of art and artists. Their place within our culture, and our lives, is still being determined.