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Neighborhood Cross Culture

Two Chicago cultural producers discuss their views of urban life

By MISCHA GAUS

At opposite ends of the city exist two novel experiments that stretch how we think about public space in an urban environment. Jim Duignan's Stockyard Institute has brought together approximately 1,500 young people from the Back of the Yards and Austin communities who have fallen away from traditional public schools. The institute gives them space to connect art and media projects to their often harrowing lives -- an example being the creation of a "gang-proof suit." Dan S. Wang is co-founder of Mess Hall, which is an amorphous storefront space in Rogers Park where community members are encouraged to launch exhibits and visitors are as likely to encounter showings of hardcore punk music videos as discussions about community gardening.

Both individuals represent an emerging corps of Chicago cultural producers who use techniques of popular education and participatory democracy to find new definitions of urban life. Here Duignan and Wang discuss the convergence of education, activism and art with Chicago Life's Mischa Gaus.

The work you both do seems to attack the stratification in this city, the race and class segregation upon which Chicago has been built. How do you feel you approach that legacy?

Duignan: We explore content based on the questions of the kids or the community members. One of the kids said he was afraid of being shot in the back accidentally, coming to school. The kids started designing a gang-proof suit. The lack of this particular kind of work is a public health issue. These kids who live in Back of the Yards or the Austin community have very few means to interpret their experiences.

Wang: I think we need to get beyond just thinking of it as a problem to be solved because no one knows how to solve it. I'm not a lifelong Chicagoan. One of the things that's kept me here is seeing the intensity of the tension, right in your face. You see how different communities learn to live with this really traumatic historical experience.

How do public spaces that have influence beyond very local situations exist in a sea of monuments, to which public resources flow?

Duignan: I have some favor for temporary spaces. Spaces like Millennium Park are unresolvable. What does it have to do with the kids' life experience? We need a place to get off the streets because of the realities of what the kids are trying to get away from. We will continue to come together and create these spaces to talk in our neighborhoods and schools. We set up projects in the park, in the alley, on the roof.

Wang: A transmission of knowledge -- that's a humane version of immortality, to pass on your lessons to people younger than you. A monument is a representation of permanence that does nothing to actually preserve what's best about a culture or society. This is the part about education that's really important. If the education is successful, people will find ways to produce [physical spaces].

These spaces are precarious. Mess Hall exists because of a generous landlord. Is there a sense that this is temporary?

Wang: We all decided that yes, we would move somewhere if this deal would be terminated. So there was that awareness of never to get too comfortable in a place and always to think in terms of people [who] might be on the move. People on the move is a global thing; it's happening more and more. Not as a matter of necessity but as a profound statement of solidarity. It's [important] for artists to join the ranks of people who have to remain really flexible in a basic, fundamental life level.

How does Mess Hall draw people who aren't interested in galleries or institutional spaces?

Wang: Mess Hall is very interesting because it's extremely open. The way conventional art galleries operate, whether commercial or noncommercial, is to take something that's art and present it to people. There's an implicit message being sent that this is what art is, you don't know what art is, and we're giving it to you. But at Mess Hall it's a little bit backwards -- whatever you want to see, bring it in here, and we'll help you create an audience for it.

In a city dominated by a patronage machine and top-down bureaucratic politics, how do you imagine effective political action? ?

Duignan: When the fog of political air is so thick, you have to learn how to breathe differently. I'm looking at people who are making things happen and have for the last 20 years in the city, who own property and who have kids now. We're a little older. We've learned to navigate this terrain and get around it. There's no manual.

Wang: As eroded as the public sphere is, there are still some places where you can assume a louder voice. Local school councils -- nobody's running for them. People who operate in the realm of cultural production feel that's for somebody else; it's somehow too impure. I think it's important to engage on those levels because that's our money being spent. Those are public resources being allocated. o

Published: June 01, 2006
Issue: Summer 2006