Artists interrupted: Canceled re-enactment reopens slavery’s wounds

Manhattan-based artist Ed Woodham has produced Art in Odd Places for more than 15 years all over the country. The University of Virginia, where he had 28 artists interpret the theme of “Matter,” is the first place one of the performances was canceled. Eze Amos

By Lisa Provence
4/25/18 at 7:23 AM

When the student-run UVA Studio Arts Board asked New York artist Ed Woodham to bring his Art in Odd Places to the university, he wanted local artists to take part in the public visual and performance art, and the centerpiece of the two-day April event featured local theater artists Leslie Scott-Jones and Brandon Lee.

Two days before the performance, their project was canceled because of objections of black students and the Office of African-American Affairs. The artists say they were censored, and the dean of the OAAA says re-enactment of the enslaved laborers who built the university would be humiliating. Both sides say the other is “misinformed.”

Woodham, who started staging Art in Odd Places after 9/11 in New York, was selected to be UVA’s artist-in-residence in April 2017. “Then the events of August happened,” he says.

Scott-Jones, who is artistic director at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and who has helped revive the historic black theater troupe, the Charlottesville Players Guild, proposed “Historical Matters” to Woodham last fall.

Leslie Scott-Jones had planned a celebration of the slaves who built the University of Virginia, but the Art in Odd Places performance was canceled after objections from black students and the Office of African-American Affairs.

“My idea was to have a historical re-enactment on the Lawn using research from UVA’s Commission on Slavery,” she says. That was for April 5. The next day, she wanted Queen Charlotte, who was black and for whom Charlottesville was named, to be in a parade with fife and drums from the university to the Downtown Mall, where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would present her with the keys to the city.

Scott-Jones contacted Lee, who had been a re-enactor as a child at Colonial Williamsburg and who was a 2006 UVA grad. “As an artist, I wanted to do something in line with historical interpretation” that would include the experience of slave laborers and the first minority students at UVA, he says.

“Other than my senior research, that’s the most time I’ve spent on anything,” he says.

Scott-Jones recruited five professional re-enactors, who agreed to participate in “Historical Matters” at reduced rates, she says. She obtained permit paperwork for the parade and sent it to UVA to submit as the entity that was sponsoring the event, she says.

Then she heard that an emergency meeting of the Black Presidents Council—the student presidents of all the black organizations on Grounds—was being held the night of April 2 and was told, “None of the students knew about it, they didn’t want slave re-enactments and didn’t approve it,” she says.

She and Lee were not invited to the meeting, but showed up anyway. “The meeting got a little heated,” says Lee.

Lee, who is community advisor to his Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, says he was surprised to hear the students say they had not been advised about the project. “It’s totally inaccurate,” he says. “I pulled up an email I’d sent [to one of them]. Nobody responded.”

The students voted 14-0 against the project, with three abstentions.

Maurice Apprey, dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, says he first heard about the performance four days before it was scheduled. “A student came to me and said, ‘Someone came to our door and asked if we wanted to be slaves,’” he says. “Can you imagine how upset you’d be as a parent?”

An email to Pat Lampkin, UVA vice president and chief student affairs officer, signed by Apprey and three other deans in his office, says, “The pretext of the entire project was clearly offensive.”

The deans wrote, “We shudder at the thought of having to explain to concerned parents, students and alumni that our black and non-black students are being asked to play roles of humiliation; namely, the enslaved and slave-owning.” They also shuddered at the idea of prospective students and their parents coming upon such an event while considering attendance at UVA.

UVA denies canceling the event. “Given serious concerns raised by minority student groups regarding the nature of the performances, Ms. Scott-Jones agreed not to proceed with the events planned for April 5 in order that additional dialogue and discussion might occur with those groups,” says spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn. “When the university subsequently learned that the necessary parade permits had not been obtained from the city for the events planned for April 6, this concern was raised with Ms. Scott-Jones who subsequently decided to cancel the events planned for that date.”

“The first part of that is a lie,” says Scott-Jones. She says Dirron Allen, assistant dean of students and director of student activities, told her, “We can’t allow you to do anything planned for Thursday.”

She says, “We canceled Friday because at that point, our artistic vision was ruined.”

Allen did not respond to Scott-Jones’ characterization of the cancellation, but de Bruyn says, “The Arts Board proposes artistic events for the university to consider hosting, and these proposed events are subject to the university’s review and approval.”

Woodham says he had received approval from the Arts Board. “I’ve worked for universities, civic organizations and cities. Nothing’s ever been censored before. We followed the Arts Board procedure. This was very last minute.” And, he says, the decision was “based on misinformation.”

Apprey calls the project “haphazard” and “misinformed”—but says, “I don’t have the right to censor anyone.”

And he compares it to asking Jewish students at Hillel House if they’d like to go to an Auschwitz re-enactment.

“The OAAA objected strongly and I would have been very upset if it had happened in spite of our objections,” he says. “Can you imagine after tiki torches on our Grounds, an enactment of a slave auction on our Grounds?”

He also suggests, “Before seeking refuge in an expression of ‘free’ speech, could we ask: Is what we are about to say or do a good idea?”

“The decision to cancel was troubling,” says Larry Goedde, chair of the department of art, who says he would be meeting with Dean of Students Allen Groves to learn what led to the decision and to clarify what the policy would be going forward.

“How is it wounding to celebrate the people who built the university?” asks Scott-Jones, who says there was no slave auction planned and that the objectors, had they talked to the artists, could have gotten an accurate picture of what they planned to do.

“You’ve got these black students so ashamed of their history, they want to ignore it,” she says.

“I am sad that after everything this town went through in August, they still don’t understand the real problem,” says Scott-Jones. “The reason Nazis could come here is because we haven’t paid attention to the other part of our history.”

Scott-Jones traces her ancestry to 1793 in Scottsville. “This is my history,” she says. “For the deans of the Office of African-American Affairs to assume this was anything but meticulously put together is ludicrous and offensive.”

Art in Odd Places explores matter and historical interpretation

Pedro Lasch’s “Fire and Ice,” performed on April 1 at the Main Street Arena, recontextualized fire from tiki-torch invasion to positive force. It’s part of Art in Odd Places: MATTER, which continues April 5 on UVA Grounds and April 6 on the Downtown Mall. Photo by Eze Amos

By Raennah Lorne
4/04/18 at 6:21 AM

This week, New York-based artist Ed Woodham brings his Art in Odd Places festival to Charlottesville in a two-day, intensely collaborative event with the theme of “matter.” Sponsored by the UVA Studio Arts Board, the mission of AiOP, Woodham writes in the program guide, “is to engage and activate the everyday places in our lives. In creative, unexpected and sometimes unusual ways we claim our shared rights to public spaces, while also making sure to question, subvert and occasionally shake up the socio-political status quo that regulates it.”

Woodham, who takes AiOP to various cities across the country, says, “It’s important for me being an outsider to be very mindful.” During numerous visits to Charlottesville, he has met with and listened to residents, UVA students, community leaders and artists. In past AiOP festivals Woodham has mostly brought in outside artists, but with AiOP MATTER, “the focus here is that there’s so much good work going on in Charlottesville that has been going on for years.” Consequently, the festival features 16 local artists, three regional artists and nine national and international artists. Woodham says the events of August 11 and 12 last year framed a narrow view of Charlottesville that he wanted to reframe by showcasing local artists “doing really innovative, change-making work.”

Local artists Leslie Scott-Jones and Brandon Lee have designed re-enactments for the festival in a work titled “Historical Matters,” which tells “the story of how the other half lived…our ancestors, the names of those Hoo are largely responsible for the building and upkeep of the university,” Scott-Jones and Lee write. Re-enactments on UVA Grounds will portray the lives of enslaved persons who built the university, as well as the first black students. On the second day of the festival, their work will celebrate Queen Charlotte, Charlottesville’s namesake, a descendant of Margarita de Castro e Souza, a black member of the Portuguese royal family. In a procession led by the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps, Queen Charlotte will travel in a carriage from the Rotunda to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, before meeting the city’s mayor on the Downtown Mall. The procession will include the Monacan Indian Nation and historical interpreters representing enslaved persons and soldiers from various American war efforts.

Local performance artist Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell will contribute a work titled “Please Move Along, Nothing to See Here.” Four performers atop a pedestal will recreate Charlottesville’s statues of Robert E. Lee and George Rogers Clark in an animatronic-style human tableaux with songs and dialogue.

“This short performance will take place every half-hour at both [festival] locations and promises to be entertaining and absurd, and ultimately raw and personal,” says Tidwell. “I am interested in the juxtaposition of women of color portraying colonizing war ‘heroes.’ I think this is going to be an effective device to allow the audience to have a more visceral understanding of what is hidden or invisible in our community—from the geologic features to the erasure of documentation related to enslaved people at UVA and Native Americans here, to the misrepresentation of history solidified in the statues.”

National artist Pedro Lasch, a professor at Duke University, applied both a conceptual and literal interpretation of the theme of matter. His April 1 performance at the Main Street Arena was the last public event held there before the building’s scheduled demolition. “Fire and Ice” recontextualized fire from tiki-torch invasion to positive force.

“Early on,” he says, “I knew I wanted to do something related to the tension and tragic incident of last fall but I did not want to be heavy-handed about it.” Before he came to Charlottesville, he considered a project involving fire and ice and knew he wanted to honor the life of Heather Heyer. When he arrived, he ambled down the pedestrian mall at night, and the arched windows of the Main Street Arena revealed figure skaters spinning on the ice and the idea sparked.

The final act for the installation included hundreds of votive candles placed in the center of the rink with an invitation to the public to skate around them. “It’s celebratory for both Heather Heyer and the building,” says Lasch.

Ed Woodham reclaims public space with Art in Odd Places

UVA visiting artist Ed Woodham will discuss art in public space on October 24 at UVA and on October 25 at Second Street Gallery as a launch for his AiOP: MATTER festival set for April. Woodham produces Art in Odd Places in collaboration with other artists to offer uniquely set works such as Crystal Gregory’s “Invasive Crochet.” Courtesy Ed Woodham

Source: C-Ville
By Raennah Lorne

Each year, UVA’s student-run Arts Board Committee invites an artist to the University of Virginia. This year, in collaboration with the visual studio arts program, the students have invited New York-based artist Ed Woodham, founder and director of Art in Odd Places, a collaborative arts festival. Woodham will give two talks this month on the significance of art in public space, and in the spring he’ll collaborate with students, artists and the community to create an Art in Odd Places festival in Charlottesville.

Woodham says he created AiOP 13 years ago as “a challenge to the paradigm of homeland security after 9/11” when public space became much more regulated. Creating art in public spaces, he says, is a way of reclaiming those spaces and recognizing their importance “within the workings of our democracy. It’s where we gather and brush shoulders and come up with new ideas despite socioeconomic status, gender, race, persuasion,” he says. “It’s where we can be together, be change-makers.”

Now, he says, it’s also become about moving art from galleries, museums and theaters to make it more accessible to everyone, regardless of education or interest. There, in those public spaces, he hopes to interrupt the daily lives of passersby, to prod them out of their routine and inspire them to notice something new.

AiOP’s past installations have included crocheted snowflakes by Crystal Gregory inserted between barbed wire on a city street fence, and a performance piece called “White Trash” by Edith Raw, in which she dressed in transparent trash bags full of plastic bottles and other human-made trash. Woodham often contributes performance art to AiOP with whimsical and sometimes elaborate costumes that warrant a double take such as a Sasquatch-like suit or an all-white moving statue costume with a towering headdress.

In a 2014 TEDx Talk Woodham gave in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, he said, “In public space art can be shared and explored with a more fully democratic audience. And there it opens up the potential and the possibilities of creativity and communication.”

Three years later, he still feels that way. “It’s certainly a time to rethink the status quo,” he says. “…it might be a piece of art that will make you see. It activates the space and activates you because things are different.”

The UVA Arts Board Committee had already selected Woodham when Charlottesville’s public spaces became the epicenter of debate about history, racism, violence and free speech this summer. Woodham says that after August 12, Charlottesville’s festival, AiOP: MATTER, “became a whole new project.” It’s an opportunity, he says, “for the community of Charlottesville to weigh in on what they think this project should be. We’re listening to the community, both artists and non- artists—changemakers—on what they think this project should be.”

His talks this month, as well as the design and execution of the festival in the spring, offer the opportunity to re-examine our public spaces and experience them through a new creative lens.

Spring Procession to debut at First Friday Art Crawl

By Jeff Eason 

BOONE – Art lovers in the High Country can always rely on the Downtown Boone First Friday Art Crawls to stimulate their senses. The upcoming Art Crawl will be made extra special with the inclusion of a giant parade down Howard Street.

The first High Country Spring Procession will take place at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 5. The parade will start at the HOW Space on Howard St., across from The Local and end at the Old Boone Cemetery next to the Plemmons Student Union on the App State campus.

The parade will include students and faculty from 12 ASU classes and members of more than six community organizations.

ASU artist in residence Ed Woodham has been working with students and community members this semester to help organize the parade. The group has been exploring local history, culture and environmental features to give the procession a distinctly “High Country” flavor.

“Ed has been working with the Smith Gallery for the past six months to design a community art parade,” said Jennie Carlisle, director of the Smith Gallery at ASU.

“During Ed’s visit we made 1,000 medallions for people to wear and take home as a memento from the parade. They are like a homegrown version of the beads and doubloons given away during parades like (the ones at) Mardi Gras. The clay used was locally sourced, and one of Bailey Arend’s ceramic’s classes at the university designed the molds,” she said.

Following the parade, the public is invited to participate in a potluck dinner, to be held at the new HOW Space. In case of rain, the event will be held carnival style at HOW Space and will include hat-making and live performances.

Participants in the High Country Spring Procession will include the Steely Pan Steel Drum Band, Entropy Dance Ensemble, the Boone Mennonite Choir and many more. Art students at ASU have created a number of colorful costumes and displays including a moving mountain for the parade. And the Art Haus residential community has created “cabbage lanterns” in honor of Boone’s history of sauerkraut production.

Members of the Junaluska Seniors group are making signs and placards decorated with photographs of their ancestors, many of whom are buried in the old Boone Cemetery.

“Each group decided together what to make and carry based on their own interests and sense of connection to the town and its culture,” Carlisle said. “It’s meant to celebrate spring, to promote a sense of shared history and to bring folks from the university and the community together.”

The Impossibility of Art

As featured on: Sixty Inches From Center

written by Maya Mackrandilal

04_Donald-Trump-Exorcism

“Power is fortified not just by what it destroys, but also by what it creates. Not just by what it takes, but also by what it gives. And powerlessness reaffirmed not just by the helplessness of those who have lost, but also by the gratitude of those who have (or think they have) gained.”

-Arundhatti Roy, The Greater Common Good

 

This essay comes to me from a place of rupture. It began over the summer, scanning through my newsfeed, learning that a friend from graduate school (Samantha Hill) had been “fired” two weeks into a three-month Social Practice residency in Georgia. I interviewed Samantha and the other resident, Ed Woodham, shortly after via email and phone, thousands of miles away in my new home in Los Angeles. Their experience brought up a lot of questions for me, in particular about how we, as artists, resist the seemingly unstoppable forces of capitalist white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy. The essay stalled. I kept finding more books and essays and articles to read. It felt like the answer was a PhD thesis, not an essay I write for the internet in my spare time. Then every fear I had been living with for over a year happened. The fear of the backlash to progressive change that congealed into the form of a vindictive, self-obsessed, misogynist, racist, xenophobic demagogue who whiteboyed his way into the most powerful position on the planet. What do my questions about the role of public art and arts institutions, our responsibility as artists and makers, the machinations of tertiary small-city nepotism matter in the face of He Who Must Not Be Named? Maybe it means nothing. Maybe it means everything. Maybe it is the pure potential in the sickening uncertainty of rupture.

From my interview with Samantha and Ed, you can get the broad strokes. Invited to be part of a residency in which they create a project that engages with a community through “Social Practice” they find troubling signs of the legacy of racial and class oppression in Macon bearing fruit within the program they are supposed to be a part of. Selected based on their prior experience working with communities, it becomes clear that who the community they are engaging with and why is to be determined by the institution, not the realities on the ground. In The Undercommons, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney say of the subversive intellectual in the university: “Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings.” And they conclude that the only possible relationship with the university is a criminal one. If we extend their thinking from “University” to “Institution” we can see the roots of the problem and the horizons of our resistance.

Let’s back up for a second. When Samantha and Ed sent out their press release about being kicked out of the residency, Art F City covered it with a cursory article that concluded: “Despite each party having seemingly good intentions, as it stands now it’s impossible to understand the full story.” – We know it is possible though. Given resources, a reporter could have visited Macon, interviewed the people Samantha and Ed spoke with, and confirmed their story. The problem is there is no infrastructure within the art writing community to do this. We talk about the power art holds, and if we look at art history, we certainly see that it is inextricably tied to how we think about power, authority, and personhood. We say art is powerful, yet the vast majority of artists remain invisible, marginal. They are not paid a living wage for their labor, if they are paid at all. Serious art writers live in cities, mostly not paid well either, and focus their attention on the big players, primarily in New York. Is this starting to sound familiar? Something about bubbles? (My colleague Pedro Vélez has been writing and tweeting about this problem for years.)

I took a few hours to do some internet sleuthing, and it didn’t take me long to discover that the board of the Macon Arts Alliance (the MAA, which runs the Mill Hill Arts Village and Residency) included quite a few people involved in development and construction. Are we suspicious, then, of an “arts village” that inserts itself into an economically distressed black neighborhood, backed by an organization whose staff is entirely white, using the buzzwords of salivating developers (“urban blight” “renewal” etc.)? Are these not independent facts that bolster Samantha and Ed’s story?

Okay, we’re going to back up again. Like many parts of the South (and quite honestly, most of this country), Macon is a deeply racially segregated community. After Brown v. Board of Education, rather than send their children to public schools with black students, white families sent their children to private schools and defunded public schooling, creating generational systemic inequality. This dynamic was brought to national attention a few years ago when it was reported that many communities in Georgia still had segregated proms (since the “white” proms are private events funded by parents, black students could legally be kept out). This segregation bleeds out into the community as a whole, creating a “white” society and a “black” society, with very little overlap. As any person of color who has lived in or interacted with such intensely divided communities knows, often a certain amount of maneuvering is required to even become visible within the dominant white-supremacist society. So, it isn’t particularly hard to believe Samantha and Ed when they tell us that there are African American artists in and around Macon who feel that the MAA centers white artists and excludes black ones. It would almost be a super human feat for a private arts institution to resist the values of the culture it inhabits.

So, Samantha and Ed arrive in Macon, are not placed in the artist studios in Mill Hill (a small section of East Macon) as promised, but rather in an apartment downtown. They discover that the “neighborhood” they are supposed to engage with consists mostly of abandoned houses, with only a handful of households remaining. As they began interviewing members of the African American community (beyond the people and organizations directly associated with the Arts Village project), accusations of displacement emerged. At a community meeting organized to address questions in the wake of Samantha and Ed’s removal, a current resident of Mill Hill attested that her landlord had sold her home to the Urban Development Authority (UDA), without giving her an opportunity to purchase it, a scenario that the MAA and UDA had insisted was not occurring. In fact, many members of the African American community view the Arts Village as a displacement project meant to eventually gentrify East Macon as a whole (a largely African American community conveniently located adjacent to the rapidly developing—with the aid of the UDA—downtown district). It is certainly interesting that the board of the UDA includes the owner of a construction company, a realtor, and Gene Dunwody Jr. who is a partner in the Dunwody-Beeland firm. The Beeland in that firm is Robert Beeland, husband of Jan Beeland, who is Executive Director of the Macon Arts Alliance. Are your eyes squinting yet? What about the fact that Carey Pickard, who sits on the UDA board, is partners with Chris Howard, who sits on the board of the MAA? So, the Macon Arts Alliance (whose board consists of a surprising number of people connected with development for a non-profit whose primary goal is “promoting art”) gets a grant from the NEA and the Knight Foundation to partner with a development authority to create an arts village. Dunwody-Beeland kindly “donates” the labor of designing the new buildings, which are meant to house artists and “the community” – of course what community is left to house when they are bought out of their homes? How can people who were renting what amounted to sub-standard housing going to afford renovated homes many times the value of the house they were living in?

05_Fuck-Capitalism

“Fuck Capitalism” #NewGlobalMatriarchy social media image, 2016. (Photo of Stephanie Graham and Maya Mackrandilal, courtesy of the writer.)

In order to keep going, we’re going to have to pause and talk about “development” and “gentrification.” We need to think about what these words mean, not simply in our vernacular, but how they have been constructed over time within the white-supremacist legal system of the United States and the larger narrative of colonialism and neo-colonialism worldwide. Housing is a fraught issue in the United States, in particular in relationship to African American communities. For a really good primer, I suggest The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coats. He traces the ways racist federal policy and small moneylenders effectively gutted the post-War black middle class. We can also look to the geographer Neil Smith. In his book The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City Smith highlights the use of “frontier” language in modern discourses of gentrification (the shift from the “urban jungle” to the “urban pioneer”) and traces the history of frontier colonialism beyond the pioneer mythology. In particular that the 19th century frontier was “extended westward less by individual pioneers, homesteaders, rugged individualists, than by banks, railways, the state, and other collective sources of capital…” He concludes that the same forces are at play in the metaphor of the “urban frontier” where lenders, banks, real estate developers and retail corporations are the driving forces: “the construction of the new urban frontier of the fin de siècle is a political geographical strategy of economic reconquest…” While Smith says that the frontier mythology is distinctly American, he does note its use in Europe and ties it to issues of gentrification globally. We cannot ignore that the uniquely American concept of Manifest Destiny, completely intertwined in the frontier, has its roots in European thought and white supremacy, and thus to the larger global history of colonialism. As Smith notes, this urbanism is revanchist, with distinctly American white supremacist undertones as it “embodies a revengeful and reactionary viciousness against various populations accused of ‘stealing’ the city from the white upper classes.”

So, across the country, post World War II, black middle class communities were gutted of wealth through racist federal policy. While we shouldn’t discount rural African Americans, we cannot ignore that a large portion of those effected by this policy were black people in urban areas. We cannot forget that this happens smack in the middle of the Great Migration, where southern African Americans migrated to urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and West to escape the overt white supremacy of Jim Crow laws and social structures. The racial make-up of urban areas changes, just as systems are put in place to rob those populations of their wealth. Whites flee to the segregated suburbs and wait for property values, social services, and political organizing structures to collapse. All of a sudden real estate can be bought for pennies on the dollar and rented to artists and assorted bohemians. From there, the “urban pioneer” or “urban cowboy” enters the scene to “take back” the territory. As Smith notes, “contemporary urban frontier imagery treats the present inner-city population as a natural element of their physical surroundings.” And in the American/colonial imagination, nature is to be managed and exploited. It has no history, no selfhood. The natives are there to be placated and controlled, not to be equal partners in the future.

Is it really impossible, then, to understand what is happening in Macon? It is the same thing that is happening everywhere. The “taking back” of the city has come to full fruition in the “taking back” of the country this November. Marginalized people are either awarded honorary white person status, policed, or expelled. The Father will not tolerate discontent. This might be the moment when you ask, how could the NEA and the Knight Foundation fund this project? Neil Smith wrote The New Urban Frontier in 1996. All you really need to do is read the introduction, which shouldn’t take twenty years. But maybe, the ideology of revanchist urbanism isn’t that far removed from the ideology of the art world, and public art in particular.

Also written in the mid-nineties, Erika Doss’s examination of public art titled Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs explores the intersection of public art, democracy, and capitalism in the late eighties and early nineties. She starts by critiquing the flattening of “the public” that public art (often funded by the NEA) tends to produce, looking at Jürgen Habermas’s 1960s theory of the public sphere, which feminist scholar Nancy Fraser called “a masculinist ideological notion that functioned to legitimate an emergent form of class rule.” Doss writes: “In deference to a model of a single, passive, and ideal public sphere, Habermas failed to recognize its inherent conflicts and the hosts of counter-publics—women, workers, racial groups, and so on—who were excluded from this ideal realm and who created their own public spheres and public cultures.” In the same way that revanchist urbanism imagines the city as a blank canvas for “development” public art often imagines the public as an empty vessel to be filled with the aesthetic education and the ordering forces of art. Later, Doss writes: “because modern art meshed with the postwar elite’s insistence that the public sphere needed to be ordered, and thus controlled, it was embraced by them as the most desirable aesthetic for the public sphere.” (For a really interesting analysis of modern art and power, check out Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power by Anna C. Chave). In addition to public art funded by federal and local governments, Doss goes on to trace how public art is often used by corporations as a shield (or a salve) to smooth over their usurpation of public space—one example is Promenade Classique in Alexandria, Virginia, a privately funded sculpture garden that was built in conjunction with a number of office buildings on what was once public land. Possibly the most blatant enunciation of this rhetoric can be seen when Doss quotes Mobil’s vice president of public affairs: “We remove the arts and humanities from the category of things done because they’re nice…and we demonstrate instead that patronage is just another aspect of the marketplace, another move you make there to sell your products and enlarge your share.”

In a more contemporary example, we can take a look at this article in the Washington Post that popped up on my Newsfeed a few months ago. Here, the counter-cultural aesthetic of “street art” has been taken up by developers to smooth the process of gentrification. Artists happily participate in this project of colonialism that “celebrates” the very cultures and people it is expelling. For decades, public art has been doing the labor of enforcing neoliberal “order” in the urban frontier, both through publically funded projects and private projects supported by corporations and developers. It appears that in Macon, the once radical discourse of “Social Practice” has been absorbed into the same machine.

It’s time to return to Fed Moten and Stephano Harney. In Chapter 1 of The Undercommons, they open with a synopsis of Michael Parenti’s anti-imperial analysis of Hollywood movies. He points to films where the settler is portrayed as surrounded by natives, “inverting the role of aggressor, so that colonialism is made to look like self-defense.” Moten and Harney take up this example, but suggest that the settler really is surrounded, by an undercommons that exists outside of the ordering of politics and institutions. If, like the University, our arts institutions are simply another facet of the State, which works to exclude the everyday resistances of the undercommons, to turn the professional and the critical academic alike into agents of State power and authority, then how can we re-read, understand, and perhaps “know” what happened to Samantha and Ed? Moten and Harney tell us that the subversive academic will always be labeled “unprofessional” her behavior almost criminal in that she rejects the “negligence” of professionalization and the critical academic, that she embodies passion and care. And isn’t this what happened in Macon? Samantha and Ed were accused of not fulfilling the “professional” obligations of their residency by not complying with the project of colonialism that they encountered. Instead of reading the situation—as Art F City and others who wrote about it did—as a conflict between two entities with equally “good” intensions, we must treat the very reality of their expulsion as a kind of evidence. To ban, to make an outcast, to remove, these are actions taken by the neoliberal State when it cannot manage one’s labor, when one is excessive, when one’s very presence is a problem.

Where does that leave us, as artists laboring in the shadow of a new era of fascism? When the real estate developer has become the president? I’m not sure I’m ready to supply an answer. But I know the machine continues, as do the resistances. So maybe, like Samantha and Ed, we must all have the courage to care, to resist the negligence imposed by institutions, to bring our passion and our unprofessionalism, to bring our full selves to every moment. To have the courage to be expelled, to be the outcast, the criminal. The subversive artist says yes. The subversive artist says no. The subversive artist says yes and no. Because she knows the stakes. She holds the future in her heart, the queer divine black future, with all its impossibilities. Our present condition is one of peril. The foxes are in the henhouse, have infiltrated every position of power. Their jaws are around our necks. They are starting to squeeze. As we feel their teeth pierce our flesh, we fall back on our most basic instincts. In the animal world, this is fight or flight. I recently learned that in humans, there is a third option in that primal moment: banding together. Solidarity is a basic instinct. It is at the core of our humanity. It is the root of art. It is the possible impossibility.

Read the interview with Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham. 

Featured Image: “Donald Trump Exorcism with the Goddess Saraswati” performance that was part of the #NewGlobalMatriarchy livestream for Acre TV, 2016 (Photo courtesy of Maya Mackrandilal and Stephanie Graham)

Trouble At Mill Hill: An Interview with Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham

As featured on : SixtyInchesFromCenter.org
written by Maya Mackrandilal

02_Samantha-and-Ed

This interview informed the essay, The Impossibility of Art, which further contextualizes and digs deeper into the concerns brought up by artists Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham during their work at Mill Hill. Read the essay here.

Maya Mackrandilal: In your practice, collaborating with communities has been central to your methodology. Before we delve into what happened at Mill Hill, can you tell us a little bit about a successful “social practice” project that you executed with the support of an institution? In particular, what structures (in your experience) are important to have in place in order to ensure that communities are not exploited or harmed by this type of work?

Samantha Hill: The most successful social practice project that I executed with the support of an institution was projects for the RISK exhibition at Columbia College curated by Amy Mooney and Neysa Page-Lieberman in collaboration with Allison Peters-Quinn from the Hyde Park Art Center. The purpose of this exhibition was to highlight artists that collaborate with individuals and communities to develop projects to activate neighborhoods in Chicago. During this time, I was working closely with the Bronzeville community organizations. So, I thought participating in RISK would be a great opportunity to collaborate with organizations, like the Bronzeville Historical Society, whose mission is to cultivate cultural & educational enrichment projects in their neighborhood.

The RISK curators understood and respected the ideas of the artists and community collaborators involved in the exhibition. We received all types of support from them, including planning meetings, funding, studio spaces and access to equipment to construct the projects.

An important aspect of my work is to have active collaborations with community organizations when creating art. They are the gatekeepers of their neighborhood and work diligently to develop programming which empowers the community. My role as an artist is to listen and learn from these organizations so I can present creative ideas during our brainstorming sessions. The community organization is constantly consulted during the planning process to make sure that our art project represents their story in an authentic way.

Ed Woodham: I recently completed a year long commission which transformed into a residency as part of Jamaica FLUX 2016 co-curated by Heng-Gil Han and Kalia Brooks at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning (JCAL) in Queens, New York. It began with a tour of the facility of the 100-year-old building which led to the discovery of the basement which was full of many years of collected debris floor to ceiling. “This is prime real estate for artists’ studios”, I told the executive director, Cathy Hung.

Hung together with curators Han and Brooks facilitated a path for my project to develop organically as I slowly but gently embedded myself into the JCAL institution. They introduced me to staff, the board president, and members of the JCAL and Jamaica Queens community who provided resources and encouragement but also questions, scrutiny, and numerous discussions.

At the beginning of the residency, I created a survey (eventually narrowed to ten questions) that was distributed to the Jamaica Arts and Learning Center staff, board, mailing list, and general public about how the center could best serve the needs of the community. The JCAL staff were vital participants in creating the questions on the survey as well as essential in the distribution throughout the community. The cleaning of the JCAL basement – was a long arduous process of group discussions, organization, collaboration, patience, sorting, cleaning, and removal of debris to bring to order and to make space for artists’ studios. Two 30 yard dumpsters were filled with detritus from the basement. Four artists are currently working in the newly created studios in the basement – with a social justice arts residency in the research + planning stages.

My relationship with both the basement and JCAL was less institutional critique but more maintenance of an institutional space underused and under-imagined. During the process of the residency there were discussions and mutual critiques of our respective priorities and focus – often difficult and frustrating for everyone. The residency project was successful because of the inclusion of diverse community voices and the deep commitment and investment of all parties.

Regarding structure to have in place to ensure that a community is not exploited: sound ethics and a solid history of authenticity in producing socially engaged projects in communities by the sponsoring organization.

MM: Are there any resources (particular theorists, critics, or artists) that helped you establish your own personal definition of an ethical social practice?

SH: Although I have read texts from theorists and critics such as Tom Finkelpearl, my biggest influence for developing my own definition of an ethical social practice originates from my Father. My Father was a teacher and developed sports programing in his childhood neighborhood of North Philadelphia. North Philly was a blighted area during the 80’s and he worked with a variety of community groups to develop programming in the area. This work was more than a job for him, but a way to share his gifts with youth to inspire their personal empowerment. I learned how to listen to a community’s ideas and needs by watching my father collaborate with educators as well as residents in the neighborhood. I have incorporated his lessons into my practice when developing community engagement projects.

Flyer posted in Fort Hill by Danny D. Glover. (Image courtesy of the artists.)

Flyer posted in Fort Hill by Danny D. Glover. (Image courtesy of the artists.)

EW: I have family, friends, artists, and non-artists* who I hold in high esteem for their integrity –who’ve taught me through either their body of work and/or their life actions. My art practice is an ongoing exploration of working with public space, communities, artists, and institutions – and often there are mistakes. I don’t hold myself up to be a model of social practice ethics. Through my work in communities, I am continually investigating the elements of holistic ethics. I credit not being complicit to social injustices to my family upbringing and my collected life experiences as a queer growing up in the segregated South in the 1960s +70s. Models for me are most often personal rather than theoretical: Linda Mary Montano is a friend and mentor. She embodies ‘Art = Life’ through her work with personal and spiritual transformation.

MM: How did you find out about the Mill Hill Artist Residency? Why did you apply? What were your goals for the residency?

SH: A friend emailed me the listing for the residency because the call asked for artist working on neighborhood projects based on a community’s history. She thought it sounded perfect for me. I reviewed articles about Mill Hill and the Macon Roving Listeners, a community group that listen to the stories of their neighbors as a way to develop connections within their community. As a story collector, I was excited by the possibility of collaborating with a story collector community group to develop an installation project about the history of their neighborhood.

EW: I found out about the residency from Terry Hardy, an Atlanta friend and artist. I applied because I’m from Georgia originally and have been away for 20+ years. I was excited to hear of a social practice residency 45 minutes from my hometown of McDonough, Georgia. It was a rare opportunity for me to bring my experience of working with communities back home again. I was excited to live in a cottage in East Macon, have a studio, explore the geography of this new place, work alongside fellow artist Samantha Hill to see her process, research East Macon + Macon history, and get to know East Macon residents and Macon artists. My hope was to empower the spirit of both the residents and the arts community by conceptualizing and creating art together.

MM: Before arriving in Macon, did you encounter any “red flags” within the Macon Arts Alliance that would hint at their problematic relationship with the community? Are there any questions you wish you had asked ahead of time?

SH: I asked Jonathan Harwell-Dye a variety of questions about how community groups were engaging the neighborhood. Harwell-Dye told me about the Macon Roving Listeners story collection project and how they were making connections within the community through community dinners. Dye also mentioned they were in a process of developing a community land trust to keep the residents in the neighborhood. He had positive answers to my questions, so I thought the MAA had a good working relationship with the community.

I wished I would’ve asked to connect with other African American community organizations besides people on the Mill Hill Steerage Committee before the residency so I could hear a different point of view from people not working with the MAA.

EW: I called Jonathan Harwell-Dye with a list of questions before I applied to the call for artists. He answered every question beyond my expectations with answers that got me very excited with the anticipation of really wanting to be selected for this open call. He told me about 1) how the entire community had been engaged from the onset for two years, 2) that members of the community were on the steering committee, 3) about the Roving Listeners collecting stories, assets, and gifts (talents) from door to door interviews of residents, 4) about the Land Trust to ensure that no one would be displaced 5) about the cottages that the resident artists would be housed in within the community during the residency. Everything seemed to be in a genuine place for an ethical socially engaged community residency to create art with the designated residents and local artists.

     I wish I had asked:

  1. Have there been any objections from the East Macon/Ft Hill community about Mill Hill Arts Village?
  2.  How many African American exhibits have there been at Macon Arts Alliance gallery?
  3. Have other predominately African American communities in Macon been revitalized and what is their current racial make-up?

MM: Did you two have any communication before arriving in Macon? Were your projects aligned in any way?

SH: Yes, I was in communication with Ed before arriving in Macon. We spoke about our past works and ideas we would like to explore in our individual projects. I was interested in learning more about Ed process in developing projects in public space. The goal of this residency was for Ed and I to make separate projects, but we were both excited to learn new skills from each other to support our individual practices.

EW: On April 1, Samantha and I began conversations to re-write the contract that was originally emailed to us. Our original contract exclusively protected the MAA. It had no provisions that protected us – the resident artists – from artistic license to our mutual contractual rights and well being. We thought this was odd especially for a ‘social practice’ residency but we decided to be patient since it was the MAA’s first attempt. And they complied with almost all of our re-writes.

Our respective practices are very different. I was interested in learning about Samantha’s practice and interview methodology. Since I am Caucasian (and the community is African American) I planned to listen to a wide spectrum of the residents for a long period of time before conceptualizing an idea with the community + local artists.

MM: How long were you in Macon before you started questioning the purpose of the residency and the mission of the Macon Arts Alliance? What were some initial signs that “art-washing” was taking place?

SH: The first moment I began questioning the purpose of the residency when I met an East Macon artist who gave me a tour of Mill Hill and the surrounding neighborhood. He shared with me the community’s concerns of being displaced from their homes. Also, he told me that many people connected to the African American arts and grassroots communities are excluded from projects and exhibitions supported by the MAA. These concerns of exclusion were repeated to me by other marginalized artists in Macon.

EW: I fortuitously met an artist who had grown up in East Macon on the third day of the residency who drove me through the neighborhood and revealed his feelings of discomfort (and other community members) of the Mill Hill project being thrust onto the neighborhood and his feelings (and other African American artists) of being marginalized by the Macon Arts Alliance.

Signs of ‘art washing’ or disingenuousness came from the MAA being noticeably irritated as we asked for contacts in the African American community, as we decided to not exclusively work with the Macon Roving Listeners (who were obviously following a script), and as we strayed (as any good social practice artists would do) from their framed report of the neighborhood.

MM: Is there a specific story from a community member that you are able to share that can help illustrate “art-washing?

EW: After we were terminated, Samantha and I returned to Macon for a community-wide meeting addressing issues we had surfaced. The artist (mentioned above) who had been our community contact since our third day in Macon stood up to introduce a renter on Schell Avenue in the immediate designated Mill Hill area (one of only 3 occupied homes of the 12). This renter stated that she attempted to purchase the house from her landlord but was unsuccessful only to learn that it had been sold to someone else. When inquired about who her new landlord was, she was told that the current landlord (UDA) had requested that their name or identity not be revealed to her. This is in direct opposition to the MAA’s report that they are ONLY purchasing abandoned homes. This was quickly brushed under the rug by the community meeting mediator (a lawyer provided from MAA’s legal firm)

MM: What steps did you take to address your concerns with the Macon Arts Alliance? What was their response?

SH: During our first meeting with Jonathan Harwell-Dye, both Ed and I shared with him that we were concerned about listening to mixed opinions about the Mill Hill project. We shared with him that there is a national dialog pertaining to utilizing art projects as a smokescreen for gentrification projects. Dye never gave us a response to our concerns.

Therefore, I requested for Harwell-Dye to connect me to the members of the African American community so I could learn more about the history of East Macon from their perspective.

EW: We shared with Harwell-Dye how important ethics are in our respective practices and we were keeping a keen eye on displacement and disenfranchisement. The MAA was not open to any critical discussions of the Mill Hill project. Samantha and I only had two meetings with the MAA before being terminated.

Composite image by Maya Mackrandilal.

Composite image by Maya Mackrandilal.

This composite image offers some context to the area in question. On the left, I have appropriated a map produced by the Urban Development Authority of their “Macon Action Plan”– which plainly shows the area slated for development spilling over the river into East Macon. The red square superimposed on this map shows the rough area of the map on the right, an image taken by Ed Woodham at a local archive. It shows the neighborhoods before a series of developments over the past few decades that have added a sports Coliseum and Convention Center located near the Mill Hill site. The map on the right includes an example of one of the lofts that have been renovated in the downtown area (the number of lofts have doubled since 2012 according to a recent Macon Telegraph article). Sierra Development appears to be involved in quite a few projects in Macon, as well as across the country. The map also includes the location of the Cox Capitol Theatre, a building that was restored by Dunwody/Beeland (Jan Beeland’s husband’s architecture firm), along with images of an incomplete artist cottage and an abandoned cottage on the Mill Hill site (photographs taken by Ed Woodham).

Post-script: After this interview was conducted, Samantha and Ed connected me with two local activists who have been engaging with the communities around the Mill Hill project (Fort Hill and Fort Hawkins) to demand that their voices be heard regarding the relationship between the project and the neighborhood. They are community organizer Danny D. Glover and artist Charvis Z. Harrell, and you can hear their perspective through this Facebook video and this open letter to the Macon Arts Alliance.

Featured Image: Portrait of Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham, courtesy of the artists.