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O Chicago, My Chicago

A large, highly-polished, mirrored bean-shaped sculpture seen from the east, reflecting the skyscrapers to the north along East Randolph Street (The Heritage, Smurfit-Stone Building, Two Prudential Plaza, One Prudential Plaza, and Aon Center.
Chicago Landmark, Cloud Gate: mirrored, bean-shaped sculpture (photo in public domain)

Chicago, like most large cities, is a melting pot of cultures, languages, and rhythms. It is not a city necessarily known for the elite galleries and star-studded cultural events of New York or Los Angeles. The glamour festooned events commonly associated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, are not a part of the Chicago art scene. Innovative creativity and community support for the arts is more the keynote of Chicago’s art presence. It is a place recognized as a testing ground for the creative community. Many musicians, actors, writers, and artists have benefitted from an environment that supports an expansive array of creative ingenuity and community interactions that happen between artists and their local neighborhoods. Having access to such a space for experimentation provides opportunities to delve into the realm of possibilities and envision alternative forms of creating, co-creating, and cross pollination that makes Chicago a very unique place to be as an artist. From the indie-pop up spaces, apartment galleries, neighborhood projects, and artist collectives such as Temporary Services, Links Hall, Compound Yellow, The Franklin, Three Walls, and others, the permaculture of this city fosters creative practices that expand upon participatory, accessible, and collaborative ways of creating. One place in the Logan Square neighborhood specifically has become a beacon of such practice with roots imbedded in community driven actions. It all started in 2005 when the Logan Square Preservation (a neighborhood organization) actively began restoring an abandoned comfort station that was built in the 1920’s. These comfort stations originally were built to shelter pedestrians waiting for the trolley cars that used to line the parkway and connect neighborhoods to the downtown area of the city. Nine other comfort stations were built along an expansive boulevard parkway system developed by West Parks Commission in 1869 connecting various parks along the greater west side of Chicago. However, by 2005, only two of these buildings remained. Logan Square Preservation envisioned restoring the unused and abandoned space to serve the community as it had once done as a public space. The activation of Comfort Station as an interactive public space began in 2010 when a group of artists came together to begin what started off as loosely organized organic series of programs that include music, poetry, film, performance, exhibitions, and other creative events. Jordan Martins, the current director of Comfort Station, recalls that these early years, while chaotic and schizophrenic, were critical in developing an identity of the Comfort Station as a space that embraced all voices and was responsive to the community creative spirit in a way that the public space of a park serves the community. There is room for everyone.
While not intentionally created as a space that emblemized a highly successful model of social engagement, Comfort Station from the beginning is such a model for collaborative, socially engaged practice. There are several key parts to this success that could easily be replicated elsewhere throughout the city as well as in other cities and towns across the country. First, there was the mobilization of community members from Logan Square Preservation to address the conservation of a building that had fallen into disuse. This neighborhood organization was able to negotiate a nominal lease for only $1 with the City of Chicago for the abandoned comfort station. Logan Square Preservation then actively petitioned for funds from the local alderman in addition to other financial resources that were needed for restoring the building to a usable and functional space for free public programming. The artists from the community who activated the space entered without the need to worry about high overhead such as the cost of rent. While the artists later organized into a functional non-profit for fundraising and additional operating expenses, the minimal financial investment needed provided an environment that was not driven by financial outcomes. Artists became active stakeholders in the community space as they volunteered their services to expand the conversation of what a creative practice can be and to develop a rhizomatic network with other art groups and organizations such as the Poetry Foundation, Links Hall, Rebuild Foundation, Spudnik Press, Co Prosperity Sphere, 6018 North, and University of Chicago’s Arts & Public Life initiative that are all active partners in the current project of Comfort Square, funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Aram SifuentesProtest Banner Workshop at Comfort Station 2016

Another inventive cultural pollinating endeavor, Close to There<>Perto de Lá,, is a year-long project launching in August 2019, when Comfort Station will host eleven artists from Salvador, Brazil. Then, in 2020, eight Chicago artists will have the opportunity connect with these artists as they travel to Brazil. Close to There<>Perto de Lá expands upon Projeto Ativa, a project developed in 2014 by Brazilian artists Lanussi Pasquali, and Joaozito Pereira. Projeto Ativa, similar to the Comfort Station, uses sites that have been abandoned or are in disuse for contemporary art spaces. While Projeto Ativa is more nomadic in scope due to the nature of cultural support in Brazil, it offers another model for activating space for creative purposes. Jordan Martins, who spent several years in Salvador, explained that the main goal of this project was to break down the elitism that currently surrounds contemporary art in Brazil, as most of the cultural programming is funded by the government and can shift dramatically with each administration. In 2015, Jordan Martins worked with both Pasquali and Pereira to create Perto de Lá, a project that explored the notion of plurality that comes from grass-roots, community driven activation of abandoned spaces thus creating the groundwork for the current exchange program. The goal of the project is to foster dialogue between two cultural identities that might on the surface appear to not have much in common. However, upon deeper examination, it is interesting to read how Brazilians are coping with their current leadership in government. From an earlier interview in February of 2019, Lanussi Pasquali commented that, “We are evaluating, now, that in spite of the catastrophe that this government will be—because he is not only sexist, homophobic, and racist, he is also dumb. He is ignorant. He has no clue how to govern. But this moment worked to unmask that Brazil is not kind, Brazilians are not cordial, Brazilians are racist, sexist, and homophobic. The falling of this mask also has a positive side, because we wake up from that myth that in Brazil everyone is happy, joyous, and good people; that everybody hugs; that everybody is decent, and we are beautiful….” 1 Other areas of commonality that artists will be contemplating during the exchange include examining and sharing of ideas around the African Diaspora, migration, settlement, and contemporary Latinx/Latin American identities. The US and Brazil both share a sordid history of enslavement and colonialism that is still far reaching into contemporary psyche.
Brazilian artists who will be in residence during Close to There<>Perto de Lá include Lanussi Pasquali, Edbrass Brasil, Patricia Almeida, Candai Calmon, Edgard Oliva, Inae Moreira, Daniel Saboia, Adriana Araujo, Vanessa Coelho, Alex Simoes, and Joao Oliveira. Chicago artists currently participating in the exchange include Alexandria Eregbu, Angel Bat Dawid, Amina Ross, Anna Martine Whitehead, Ayanna Woods, Ben Lamar Gay, Damon Locks, Edra Soto, and Josh Rios. One of the unique components of this international exchange is that it supports the gestation of cultural exchange rather than focusing on a product driven result. Often, grant funded artist residencies or exchanges anticipate a formal outcome from an artist, such as a performance, a publication, or an exhibition. Artists will have the opportunity and space (in collaboration with venues throughout the city identified above) to fully engage with their respective places without being beholden to producing a significant body of work. This will encourage deeply immersive experiences that will facilitate in meaningful dialogue with fellow artists. For example, artist Joao Oliveira is a printmaker and appropriates personal experiences in order to create artworks with a forged autobiographical nature that are created from small rituals of self-fiction. He will have the opportunity to work with Spudnik Press to experiment with a variety of processes that he has been eager to incorporate into his work. Spudnick Press is also excited to host Joao Oliveira since part of their programmatic goals include some form of international exchange, as they value the opportunity to share printmaking practices with artists from around the world. While at Spudnik, Oliveira will be experimenting with melting and smashing plastic animal toys into flattened shapes that will form the substrate for his prints. Titled, I’m going to love you, hold you, squeeze you, until you are in pieces, this series of prints form a body of archeologically categorized images that simultaneously references roadkill as well as the once beholden now discarded objects.
Inae Moreira is another Brazilian artist participating in the exchange. Moreira will be performing TEMPO at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative. This performance considers the black female body as a grounded form that is buried in sand but then transcends into a form of freed release. Moreira, trained in dance and movement, incorporates issues lived by the female, Afro-Brazilian and diasporic body into her performances. In addition to the performance, she will be leading a workshop that will consider the body as an expressive and theatrical form. Jordan Martins has taken great care in connecting the visiting artists to community resources here in Chicago that will support a creative exchange between the artist and the community in the way that Comfort Station has provided programming to meet the needs of the local community of Logan Square. As with all projects that incorporate some form of social engagement, the structure of the programming is organic, and dependent upon a multitude of uncontrollable factors. However, this is the nexus of what makes this exchange extremely provocative. While Martins and the parameters of the grant do not intend to steer the conversation or overdetermine particular outcomes, the opportunity exists for artists and citizens to become active disruptors as they challenge the common issues around identity, power, and cultural histories that tie the two communities of Salvador and Chicago together. Close to There<>Perto de Lá promises to expand upon Lanussi Pasquali’s interpretation of art as a way of reimagining a world that allows people the space to breathe, to be heard, to denounce, expose and create a public space that provides room for all. Follow the outcomes and upcoming events of this project by visiting https://comfortstationlogansquare.org.

Maggie Leininger

volume 34 no 1 September – October 2019 pp 10-12

Maggie Leininger is a Chicago artist, teacher, and writer who explores the intersection of community and practice within alternative systems of art production.

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