The other day I read a magnificent article by writer, reporter and well-reputed “St. Louis commenter” Sarah Kendzior on the dangers of using art as a tool to cover over so-called urban blight. Her recent work has included a lot of incisive commentary on the cultural fallout of economic inequality. About a North Philadelphia art installation which proports to tackle the dilapidated area’s aesthetic by essentially covering it over she writes:
“People” are those who can afford to view poverty through the lens of aesthetics as they pass it by. Urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticised.
She offers a lot to think about in terms of how modernizes often fail to build inclusiveness into the mix as they conceptualize urban spaces and design a city’s future. In this case, art is being used – probably unwittingly, but used nonetheless – to assist the nefarious project of gentrification. It’s being used to cover over the process of pushing out people who have resided there for generations to make room for a new, but strangely familiar brand of hipster appropriators and colonizers.
In other words, it’s a pretty bad rap for art.
Taking up Sarah’s challenge to abandon this kind of superficiality and think about how art can, and should be used to bring people together instead of rip neighborhoods apart, I can’t help but think about the work of the Chicago Loop Alliance and their ACTIVATE series of downtown events. Tonight they will transform a downtown alley into a space for artists from around Chicago. Some of the artists are established, some lesser-known. Some are artists of color and those representing various minority communities around town. Not enough, but some. And that representation is growing as the event series becomes more popular.
The last ACTIVATE party (that’s really all it is, just a party y’all) took an alley section on Monroe between State and Wabash that Chicagoan have passed by perhaps thousands of times in our daily ramblings and made it into a space inviting all Chicagoans to enjoy some interesting (and sometimes a bit oddball) diverse multimedia sculptures, a few drinks, a DJ who could go from playing one track of ambient beats facilitating conversations between people who rarely get the chance to stop and talk to one another to spreading the gospel of Phantogram the next. It was a good show. It was art, and music, and business-people chatting with baristas, Occupy protesters having a cold one with non-profit pros. It wasn’t quite the North side hugging it out with the South side or the Gold Coast discovering the city west of Ashland. Not yet. But it’s getting there.
And now I still pass by that alley a couple times a week as I have for years. But instead of looking past it, it’s that place where they had that party that time and I met some very interesting people. Because why should cultural memory necessarily be connected places built for the purpose like Millennium Park or Wrigley? They can happen anywhere really.
Tonight they’ll be doing it again on State St between Lake and Randolph, 5 pm til 10. 21 and over can RSVP for a complimentary drink ticket, or bottled water for those of us inclined to temperance in our off hours. Why not stop by? Everyone’s invited, yes even hipsters. That’s the point.