Sleight of Hand


First, I am guilty of most everything. This is a wonderful exchange and I appreciate the linkages to actual examples of focus. Allow me to think aloud. I am thinking about how we run the risk of diluting our work or the interpretation of that work with language in particular contexts. I am thinking about how this happens in association to trends, partnerships, education and the kind of work being done within the sphere of activity and place I am involved with. I have worked in Chicago my entire life and as an artist who enjoys being focused on building ideas both alone and in groups, I pause. I work with teachers, senior citizens, youth and community members in some of the quieter quadrants of the city.

I have been involved within a socially engaged concentration in Chicago since 1995. The community arts movements in Chicago in the late 1960s and early 1970s consisted of activist-driven projects or initiatives in neighborhood radio, mural making, and school breakfast programs. These are references for me that run deep. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and Hull House are indelible local examples of reimagining the structure of artist practice. The lasting impact of a host of artists, movements, histories and styles that art school stirred up for me remains undiminished.

The type of work I see today from younger artists is a blending of many styles and histories, real and imagined. They are interpretations of very contemporary experiences and technologies, along with the reinterpretation and reasonable mimicry of professors, artists or writers which come from an (art) school education at no real cost. This is where some of these ideas are formed when artists begin to talk about their work and develop a form in which to better understand what the work is.

Steve’s comments from “I’m Not Interested” remind me of the wordsmithing moments that have already surfaced in this exchange and I remember how “peculiar” used to be overused as both a noun and a verb. Hearing that word still registers an alert in me like a bell going off to be disinterested. I have other examples—what people were wearing, too—and I enjoy those markers. It is a great reminder, Steve, and I see how artists’ language regularly moves with a momentum that we can only hope derails or becomes unpopular. Language sometimes tends to seek out ways for folks to begin a conversation forsaking originality for the need to be part of something else. I feel that some of the exchanges here are capturing the “something else.”

I mention this as I appreciate these meditations on wording that I see as part of academic language, which is one of many contexts. The art world has an equivalent language that when used together with the academic seems a rather intense arena for jargon. Exploring only the representations of academic language reminds me of my gradual incompatibility of certain worlds I am both in and outside of.

Duignan podium web

A podium made by Jim Duignan for public use at 6018North. See another on view in “Risk: Empathy, Art and Social Practice,” at Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago, February 10 – April 26, 2014. (Image courtesy Jim Duignan)

Over many years I have been a participant and observer of socially engaged projects sourced from a few reasonable, healthy directives while also living in the communities in which they took place. Alongside the development of artists who chose to do their work in and with the community, participants learned to work together towards an end, support one another, solve mutual problems and celebrate together. Artists expected the residents who were beneficiaries to maintain a quiet and engaged body of work over a lifetime. These are the artists who not only influenced me, but served as guides. I am speaking of artists whose work was uncluttered and clear, whose work also sourced critical histories. Mural artists and printmakers, poets and social workers who joined in on projects and spoke fluently on movements, neighborhood councils, and social settlements provided the early ideas that helped to better organize many of the creative enterprises of the community.

That the examples of inflated language we are spinning here get co-opted and played to their end is important for me. I have tried and heard others try very hard to explain projects where I felt theoretical or historical frameworks, and even a commitment to high-quality work, seemed less considered that introducing the work as Steve said as a plan or an interest—this gets you off course. The focus on that work resonates without resolve.

I never had any issue with how people spoke about their work or that of others in the communities I lived in. No one used “peculiar” in those communities—this speaks to trends and education, the compartmentalization of the city, status, access and a handful of real practices that have very different intentions and expectations. It is the machinery of the city that it is scattered and many of the flaws are recognized from some distance. There are a host of methods people use to bring focus to themselves, often with diversions. I will say that academia is real and the collective protection its membership poses to outsiders risks very little. I work in academia and have tried to imagine it as anything but real and that the risks I attempt are deaf.  Thinking of academia I often illuminate on the tangled lives of magicians and my amazement at a sleight of hand trick that still catches me off guard. I never know what’s coming but I always respond the same way.

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Read more from Growing Dialogue: No Longer Interested

“No Longer Interested” by Steve Lambert – April 1, 2014

“Difference Not Indifference” by Mary Mattingly – April 2, 2014

“In Defense of Interest” by Harrell Fletcher – April 3, 2014

“The Strategies of Artspeak” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 4, 2014

“Sleight of Hand” by Jim Duignan – April 7, 2014

“What Do We Really Want?” by Steve Lambert – April 8, 2014

“Breaking Out of the Studio/Gallery Paradigm” by Harrell Fletcher – April 9, 2014

“Protecting Ambiguity” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 10, 2014

“Collective Power” by Mary Mattingly – April 11, 2014

“Time Traveling” by Jim Duignan – April 14, 2014

“Why Are You Avoiding the Question?” by Steve Lambert – April 15, 2014

“Taking On the World at Large” by Deborah Fisher – April 16, 2014

“What Artists Think Is Possible” by Harrell Fletcher – April 17, 2014

“Exploring the In-Between” by Jim Duignan – April 18, 2014

“Impossible Understanding” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 21, 2014

“Inventive Contradictions” by Mary Mattingly – April 23, 2014

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