Engaged, for good: making artful history at UIC
Engaged, for good: making artful history at UIC

A legacy of responsibility

As the Print Shop Manager at UIC, Daniel Mellis has a job with a long heritage of disseminating information, for both activism and posterity. Not one to shirk responsibility, he is currently preserving a relevant piece of UIC history: five posters printed by students for the protests on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. At the time, the students pasted some of the posters up beneath a skylight in the Art & Architecture building (now Architecture and Design Studios), where they remain today. The letterpress shop in which they were printed is now part of the School of Design, enabling Mellis to reprint them using the very same fonts of metal and wood type, sometimes down to the individual letter. With slogans such as “All power to the people” and “Free Huey, support the Panthers,” the posters refer to another place and time, but in re-creating them Mellis takes us beyond nostalgia to something vital and ongoing — the University’s commitment to social and political engagement.

Currently on view at the Cultural Center, the Chicago Architecture Biennial carries the title Make New History, thus positing history’s perennial role in art making. The biennial asks questions about the precedents of architecture and acknowledges a resurgence of interest in the history of the art form, but is squarely committed to showing groundbreaking new work with “transformative global impact of creativity and innovation.” This call to change the world through works of art that are used in the world also resonates in the College’s mission statement, which begins with the assertion that it has “the unique pleasure and responsibility of mentoring the next generation of cultural producers” and embraces a collective responsibility to “reimagine how the world looks, sounds, feels, and moves; how information is organized and displayed; how we engage both the real and virtual spaces of our collective interaction.”

Climate change — and inquiry

Through the competition “The Work of the Humanities in a Changing Climate,” the Humanities Without Walls Consortium, based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has granted support to two relevant UIC projects: Political Ecology as Practice: A Regional Approach to the Anthropocene and Garden for a Changing Climate. Ömür Harmanşah, Associate Professor of Art History, is the Lead Co-organizer of the 2015–17 UIC working group Political Ecologies: Nature, Place, Heritage, which includes Molly Doane, Associate Professor of Anthropology; Ralph Cintron, Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies and English; Beate Geissler, Associate Professor of Art; and David H. Wise, Professor of Biological Sciences, Associate Director of the Institute for Environmental Science and Policy, and Co-Chair of the Chicago Wilderness Science Team. Faculty and graduate students from the fields of art history, art, anthropology, English, rhetoric, environmental sciences, Latin American studies, urban studies, and geography are also on the team, collaborating with counterparts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison).

Political Ecology as Practice reflects timeless best practices within humanist inquiry: exchanging ideas across disciplines, and rigorous fieldwork. The project is investigating the reciprocal relationship and the disjunction between the metropolitan theories of the Anthropocene — the current geological age, defined by the dominance of human activity on the earth’s environment — and local ecological conflicts in various micro-regions around the world. How are these conflicts related to the current vibrant theories of the academic/metropolitan center? And how might these theories be affecting various communities in their relationships to their land, its resources, biodiversity, and cultural heritage? Therefore, the project has two interrelated pursuits: first, to bring together scholars to examine not only global theories of the Anthropocene and its new ontologies of time and materiality, but also their links to regional practices and discourses, and second, to investigate place-based politics – pressing issues of the environment explored through local and far-flung fieldwork, from the study of industrial row crop farming in northern Illinois and the water system in Cochabama, Bolivia to hydropower dams and large-scale industrial tree plantations in Cambodia, and a coal-fired power plant in West Central Turkey. Developed from existing projects of graduate students and faculty at UIC and UW-Madison, these initiatives will be carried out by small teams through field observations and interviews, visual documentation, and creative interventions such as public engagement events or art installations. The eight field initiatives will be represented in a culminating exhibition at UIC’s Gallery 400 in spring 2019, along with a publication.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, the UIC campus and various neighborhoods will host Garden for a Changing Climate, led by Lorelei Stewart, Director of Gallery 400 and lecturer in the School of Art & Art History, and Hannah B. Higgins, Professor of Art History and Founding Director of CADA’s Interdisciplinary Education and the Arts Program (IDEAS). Created by the National Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) first artist-in-residence, Jenny Kendler, Garden for a Changing Climate is a community driven participatory public art project that uses a traveling garden of local plants to give Chicagoans a dynamic and tangible experience of the central effects of climate change. As our climate warms, seasons and ecozones will shift. While the rate will vary widely for different species, the principle remains the same — that in order to survive the locked-in warming predicted in our future, organisms, including plants, must move toward the poles. The push-able and pull-able, wheeled Garden planters, filled with diverse midwestern plants and constructed with reclaimed materials, demonstrate these changes in accelerated fashion.

Beginning in April 2018, Chicagoans, through the moving garden and activities, walks, and conversations, will envision the otherwise largely invisible, slow, and dispersed threat of climate change, and understand how a shifting climate will change our urban environment and affect us directly. Planned in the neighborhoods of the Southeast Side, Little Village, Fuller Park, Albany Park, and the UIC campus, Garden for a Changing Climate events are being developed with community-based organizations such as the American Indian Center, Albany Park.

In addition to this programming, local residents are featured alongside scientists and naturalists in the development of a video series that will map out, in clear and engaging ways, the effects of the ecozone shift and climate change in the city of Chicago — from human health impact to new plant and animal environments, from extreme weather conditions to housing instability. The educational ambitions of the project also extend to UIC’s student population. IDEAS students, who participate in practice-based group projects, will be involved in design, app development, sonification and visualization, and writing for the Garden during the 2017–18 academic year.

Garden for a Changing Climate project collaborators include Demecina Beehn, Community Engagement and Public Programs Manager at Gallery 400, and Noora Al-Balushi, MA candidate in Museum and Exhibition Studies, who are coordinating the Garden community partnerships and programs; Robyn Mericle, PhD student in Art History, who is working on a database of US artistic landscape and climate interventions that have preceded the Garden; Nelly Kluz, Art alumnus who is creating a documentary video to accompany the Garden; Erin Nixon, Assistant Director at Gallery 400, who is producing the video documentary and coordinating other aspects of the public artwork program; and Noah Weeth Feinstein, Assistant Professor, School of Education, UW-Madison, a science education scholar who is developing an evaluation framework that examines the effectiveness of artwork and community engagement in climate change education along with UW-Madison graduate students.

Public housing — and consciousness

Lisa Yun Lee, Director of the School of Art & Art History, has recently been named the Executive Director of the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM). The history of public and publically subsidized housing in America is vastly complex, and largely misunderstood. Built in a historic public housing site in Chicago, NPHM preserves a key chapter of our nation's history by documenting and disseminating perspectives of residents and others at the heart of the public housing story. To use the museum-world vernacular, NPHM is a “site of conscience,” and like others with that moniker — including museums dedicated to histories such as the Holocaust, historic sites like battle fields or places of political resistance, and memorials to events or individuals — it seeks to frame a painful historical narrative in ways that will deepen memory and understanding as well as spark new dialogue and activism. Audiences for sites of conscience range from the uninitiated (visitors born too recently or from a place too far away to even be familiar with the painful subject at hand), to the unknowingly prejudiced, to those who arrive hoping to retain a bias that the site seeks to subvert. But the problem can operate in reverse: drawing visitors who arrive expecting only a tragic story, and not the uplifting stories of place, family, and community that NPHM has to tell.

The National Public Housing Museum creates a living cultural experience on social justice and human rights out of the stories and insights of individuals who have lived in public housing. The museum also seeks to document the range of effects of public housing on the people who have experienced it over decades of fluctuating American housing policy. Finally, NPHM employs a rich history to drive a vital reimagining of the future of our community, our society, and our personal and public spaces. NPHM is not only committed to the preservation of stories, but also to helping to articulate and preserve society’s highest ideals, and to inspiring youth, families, and the broader community to see opportunities where others saw only poverty. The museum’s building is currently being renovated and will be open to the public in 2018.

Social justice — and memory

In 2015 Therese Quinn, Associate Professor of Art History, and Director of the Museum and Exhibition Studies (MUSE) graduate program, taught a core course titled “Public Engagement in Museums.” The class took students through the hands-on experience of developing public programming, but as Quinn explains, “the big ideas for the class were, how do you identify a public, and how do you engage it?” Quinn recalls, “I wanted to give the students a topic that would be a place to start, but still leave room for them to innovate and have their own perspectives present.” At the time there was a strong atmosphere of campus organizing at UIC, as the faculty was negotiating their contract, with a real possibility of a strike; the graduate employees’ union was also organizing; and the UIC Latino Cultural Center was engaged in the “Fight for 15” initiative to increase the hourly wage for fast food workers to $15. With all these struggles in process, Quinn knew that the palpable intensity of social consciousness across campus could provide her students with a range of historical and current events to shape a collaborative class project for the UIC community. First, the students organized themselves into teams according to abilities and interests, from a propensity for straight-up historical research, to graphic design skills and social media communication planning. In the first stage of research, they discovered particularly compelling artifacts: a photograph of the original ribbon cutting for the opening of the UIC East campus in 1965, as well as those student protest posters still hanging up by that skylight. The photograph was particularly revealing of its context, showing a preponderance of middle-aged white men in suits. As anniversary planners were readying to reenact the image to commemorate the 50-year mark, the students couldn’t help thinking of the stories that weren’t evident within the photo’s borders: a public university founded for a diverse student body, one that began under the controversial decision to take over a Chicago neighborhood and displace long-time residents. The students began to ponder the erasure of stories that had occurred in favor of that photograph. As for the posters, they told an important story of student protest, and so the theme for their project was born: campus organizing at UIC.

Akin to those steeped in developing a site of conscience for a public audience, the students began to conceive of the campus itself as an engaging place of historic activity. They conducted careful research and interviewed former students and faculty who had dispersed across the country, including founders of a group that changed campus facilities for disabled students 20 years ago. They decided to create a campus tour with an annotated map of these historic spots on campus, mapping sites of the origins of organizing: childcare centers on campus, which were the result of faculty members bringing their babies to the president’s office and occupying it, to secure funding for childcare; the Gender & Sexuality Center; the UIC African-American Cultural Center; the Nature Center. Excited about these focused eff orts to change norms and improve lives, the students promoted their project through social media, including a trailer advertising the tour; collected stories of former student activists; published a paper and presented it at a conference; and worked with visiting artists Kemi Ilesanmi and Kameelah Janan Rasheed from the Laundromat Project in New York, and with Paul Durica, well known for his series of free and interactive Chicago-based public history programs, “Pocket Guide to Hell.” Their work culminated in the “ALTour UIC,” which they described as “an interactive walking tour that considers lesser known, alternative histories of student organizing and protest at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).” The tour reflected their newfound understanding of how visitors experience such activities, from never making people walk too far between opportunities to stop and rest, to teaching participants original protest chants and re-enacting them on-site. For Quinn, the class has lingered as a cherished teaching experience: “UIC students are so great,” she recalls. “For this class, they all worked together to create a rich public event focused on the long history and importance of organizing for justice. The results of this work are everywhere around us, and remembering that can bolster us as we continue those efforts today.”

From posters decrying the status quo, to scholarship, installations, and public programming tackling its egregious effects, faculty and students will continue to use the combined power of memory and the imagination to do what the 1960s poster demands: be the solution, not the problem. Through projects currently underway, others being devised, and myriad collaborations yet to be conceived, the College is extending its legacy of social engagement well into the future. The 2017 version of the poster might read: Pressing problems call for pressing engagements.

Note: Daniel Mellis is seeking to learn more about the posters printed by students at UIC in the 1960s. If you have additional information, or a resource to share, please email cadaconnect@uic.edu.

Image: Photograph of posters uncovered in the UIC Art and Architecture building