The MCA’s education program isn’t limited to the four walls of the institution. In fact, some of our most innovative work is happening in high school art rooms throughout Chicago. Our Partner School Initiative, a three-year program that includes museum visits, dialogue in the galleries and in the classrooms, as well as art making, places teaching artists in Chicago Public School classrooms for contemporary art-based residencies. This year alone, students altered the visual landscape of school hallways, staged protests to improve school nutrition, and produced a professionally-installed exhibition of their work in a Chicago gallery.
Each collaboration is unique: teaching artists and partner teachers meet over multiple planning sessions to codevelop new curricula, drawing out compelling questions and avenues of inquiry to pursue, and designing projects that engage students in timely issues while allowing them to develop their art-making and critical analysis skills. For the 2013–2014 academic year the MCA partnered with Carl Schurz High School and artist Jason Pallas; John. F. Kennedy High School and artist James Jankowiak; and Prosser Career Academy High School and artist Jason Lazarus. We are thrilled to share their voices with you.
The Summer 2014 edition of our MCA Chicago magazine features cover art by illustrator Jesse Harp. Roll over the illustration to reveal and link to some of Jesse’s inspirations.
What did you see? Leave a comment with your find below, there’s still plenty to discover.
Summer of 2011: A friend requested I set up a comics reading during his stay in town. And so, just after finishing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I organized the first Brain Frame. My familiarity with the format was slim, and most of what I’d seen disappointed me. Unless an artist is particularly charismatic, I feel live readings generally detract from the rich personal experience of reading a book or comic to oneself. Instead, I decided, “I’ll ask my most gregarious friends to read their comics in the weirdest ways possible. At least then we will have fun.” One performer lectured on the theological underpinnings of Jim Carrey’s The Mask (1994) as it related to his comic about David Bowie; another squealed over a distortion-heavy cassette track; I read four short comics using props like a cup-string telephone and a bag of ketchup in my underwear. It was more successful than I ever dreamed. The power went out for an hour in the middle of the show but people stuck around, demanding more when it was over. That night was a sweaty affair in a busted apartment gallery. Now, three years later, I’m closing the book with a grand spectacle at the unbelievably stunning Thalia Hall.
The Brain Frame medium—what I like to call “performative comix”—is new and still evolving. At every event, six unique individuals (or groups) interpret their own comics-based work. Often, comic panels are projected as a digital slideshow, accompanied by whatever else the performer(s) deems appropriate: costumes, sound effects, music, props, animation, etc. Brain Frame has seen shadow puppetry, circuit bending, stand-up comedy, live tattooing, and rigorous exercise routines. I could go on. Brain Frame could go on, too, except I don’t think that’s a good idea.
It’s always difficult to explain the show to those who haven’t been. One of the most remarkable things about Brain Frame is the atmosphere: electric uncertainty, open-minded anticipation, mutual support, and a lack of pretension. Over the years, a growing network of multidisciplinary artists have contributed to the show. They value the opportunities for experimentation Brain Frame affords and the growing rigor involved in its execution.
The vitality of Brain Frame is dependent upon its unpredictability. Never one to give myself a break, each subsequent event has been grander in scope of production and content. I’ve noticed a few things in the past year or so: Readers will revert to methods they have seen before (when this happens I push them harder); and people have begun creating artworks specific to Brain Frame. For example, Scott Roberts created an entire comic narrative out of animated gifs. When it came time for him to publish the comic, he had a hell of a time distilling it into 2D printed pages.
As relationships and conversations migrate towards the digital realms, I feel called to bring people out in person. Something like Brain Frame is essential—and successful—because it’s literally impossible to approximate online. The show has become a hub for strange connections of all kinds. This Saturday, in a kind of phoenix-regenerative ritual spectacle, I hope to propagate the Brain Frame ethos and inspire a new generation of performative comix organizers. I’ve been watching the seeds take root already. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Michelle Puetz: I’ve been thinking a lot about collectivity and collaboration, and the ethos of collectively building and sharing ideas is something that has always struck me in your work, Wu. Can you say a little bit about the process of collaborating on this performance—how it started and how it has evolved?
Wu Tsang: The performance is an ongoing series and also part of a larger film project that I’ve been working on with boychild. It initially evolved out of “playing” around in rehearsals for the film—sometimes we play to get into the character and story—and then we decided to explore it further, to examine and disrupt the roles we inhabit as director and actor.
MP: I saw the installation of the film project, A day in the life of bliss, when I was in Berlin—it’s incredible. What kind of play are you referring to? Do you switch roles (explanatory/active)?
WT: In the beginning I was still working on developing the story and script in Stockholm and I asked boychild to help me to better understand her performance/movement. So we began exploring how her movement could tie into to her character (named Blis) and the story.
boychild: Yeah, play became a useful medium to communicate with each other.
MP: Aah, play has to be one of the most—if not the most—useful way to communicate! boychild, how does the movement in the film and in the performance relate to the story? How did you adapt bodily movements to ideas or plot developments?
bc: First, in these exercises I developed a “vocabulary” of movements that I already use to help Wu understand what each physical articulation means to me. As he developed the character and the script, we worked together to create a series of performances, many like my own boychild performances, and adapted them to the story.
MP: I was struck by the final dance/movement sequence in A day in the life of bliss. How did this evolve?
bc: In the final scene, Blis comes home from the nightclub and has a “victory dance.”Wu describes her as being “in her power.” It’s this state of being where there is full trust in your expression and emotion. It’s this final state of bliss that I seek in my performances.
WT: Yea, the last dance is definitely like the grand finale, after the character has overcome her obstacles of the day. Blis is kind of a classic sci-fi hero. I wanted to use genre to help ground what is otherwise a pretty experimental performance art film. boychild’s movement also inspired the narrative arc, because I had in mind the feeling of the ending, based on her performance, I worked backwards, asking myself, how can I build tension through plot so that this moment really pays off?
MP: Yes, this is so evident in the physicality of the movements and their expansiveness in the space . . . but there was something quite melancholy about it for me as well.
bc: I think there is something very melancholic about victory, coming to the end of something requires self-realization and change.
WT: Something that really inspired me about boychild’s movement, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with her on this project, is the way that her emotions seem so connected to the movement—like there is this direct connection/expression of feeling that is not based in language. As a director, this is something I am always hoping to achieve with the actors/performers I work with.
MP: Are any of these boychild performances available online?
bc: Most of the performances that are live are only documented on phones! Which is why I’m so excited about this project—I think that Wu has an incredible talent to reproduce the energy and emotion that is an evasive aspect of the live performance.
MP: Yes, the performance in A day in the life of bliss was brutal because it felt so wild and as though it was evolving as it was being recorded. How “scripted” or rehearsed is the movement in that film or in the performance, and how much does it shift and change/base itself in improvisation?
WT: With both this performance and the film, I think it’s equally important to have a script and to allow space for improvisation. The script is meant to guide everyone (including the cinematographer for example) to get on the same page about what’s supposed to be happening at any given moment. This structure gives us more freedom to interpret, each in our different roles.
bc: The rehearsal for those scenes only existed as live performances in clubs and as conversations and the “play” exercises that are now a full performance of its own.
MP: I just started reading Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler, and as a result have been thinking a lot about past and future worlds, telepathy, networking, and what it means to be human (or rather, what it will mean in the future), which connects to some of the ideas that I’ve been mulling over after seeing A day in the life of bliss. What have you been reading/watching/listening to for inspiration?
WT: Definitely reading a lot of Octavia Butler, China Mieville, William Gibson, Fred Moten, and I’m also inspired by my cowriter Alexandro Segade’s work.
bc: Yeah, we’ve been eating up Octavia Butler.
WT: I’ve been researching a lot on biometrics, face recognition technology, and HRI (human robot interaction).
bc: I’ve been watching a lot of Justin Bieber and pop performances in preparation for the final set of shooting.
WT: Oh yea!
MP: Recent Bieber?
MP: His messy rawness?
bc: His live performance, pop performance. In addition to Lady Gaga a few years back, Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, and Miley’s live tour.
MP: Excellent, thanks you two!
As tickets for David Bowie Is go on sale, we asked MCA Staff for their favorite David Bowie moment, whether in music, on film, or in pop culture.
Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, Associate Director of Digital Media: “I love that scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth where he’s just surrounded by TVs.” (Anna produces and directs the MCA’s video-based content.)
Abraham Ritchie, Social Media Manager: “Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York was released soon after Kurt Cobain’s death and functioned in many ways like a shared memorial, receiving heavy airtime on radio stations. Though I was young when it was released, I won’t admit how much later it was when I discovered that ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ was, of course, by David Bowie. That discovery sent me into the Bowie universe.”
Kristen Kaniewski, Visitor Services Manager: “In one of the final scenes of the Labyrinth, Sarah is able to break Jareth the Goblin King’s spell through the realization that he has no power over her. David Bowie’s face after she does that is the picture of disappointment.”
Shauna Skalitzky, Web Editor: “I grew up sans Bowie influence. My family road trips involved us singing along to the Beatles, the Who, and Moody Blues (all of my dad’s favorite music). When I think of David Bowie, I think of Zoolander; Bowie cooly ripping off his sunglasses, ‘Let’s Dance’ playing in the background. His ability to show up exactly where he is needed, at exactly the right time, is unparalleled.”
In this excerpted interview on the occasion of his exhibition at the MCA, Jeff Koons: Works 1979–1988 (Jul 1–Aug 28, 1988), Jeff Koons speaks about banality as a tool, consumerism, the cultural mainstream, and the influence of Duchamp.
This seminal 1988 exhibition was the first American survey of Koons’s work, and a few of the artworks featured eventually found their way into the MCA Collection including the ever-popular Rabbit (1986). Twenty years later the MCA revisited his work in the exhibitions Jeff Koons—conceived in close collaboration with the artist—and Everything’s Here: Jeff Koons and His Experience of Chicago, which reflected on Koons’s year spent in Chicago as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and as an assistant to Ed Paschke.
If you find yourself in New York, check out his most recent retrospective, on view at the Whitney through October 19.
Hologram Kizzie, aka Psalm One, exemplifies a complex, sophisticated, and thoughtful approach to wordplay. At the February 2014 First Fridays, Psalm One closed out the Hideout’s Interview Show with “Queen Until.” This weekend she returns to the MCA for Word Weekend.
We’re really excited to work with Fake Shore Drive to bring some of the strongest voices in Chicago hip-hop to the MCA as part of Word Weekend. Chicago is home to so many incredibly innovative rap artists and Psalm One, along with the Boy Illinois and Saint Millie, are definitely counted among them.
The Mies Choir is the latest in a series of ad hoc choirs I’ve facilitated/instigated/conducted in the last year. These groups—assembled in galleries, in the woods, in the city—foreground the notion of practice and the ephemerality of performance and temporary ensembles. Whatever experience each member has is the experience that’s necessary. We arrange, give melody, and rehearse for 30 minutes. Once the song has been performed in its final form, we disband. The whole experience takes less time than an episode of Behind the Music.
Part of what has kept the form resonant and engaging to me is each choir’s unpredictability. Though I may have certain ideas about certain phrases, it’s the will of the creative and spontaneous group and our rapid, recursive practice of the phrases that gives them their melodies and attitudes. Traffic callers, Nico, hymns, dueling auctioneers, and backpack hip-hop have all found temporary homes in these ensembles. In the most recent choir, one verse felt like it should be performed by Bob Dylan and almost immediately everyone started doing their best Dylan impression: it worked beautifully.
The first choir came about during my time at ACRE last summer. The number of participants at ACRE willing to do almost anything was exciting and over the course of a half hour or so, we came together and combined a text that I’d written and a text that I’ve been using in various forms for a while (“Please call Stella . . . “ from the GMU Speech Accent Archive). The latter is a sort of phonemic pangram used to catalog and compare English language accents throughout the world and is what found its way into Do Voices.
When performed, the piece Do Voices uses two choirs. The first is an off-screen choir, which I conduct from the theater (with my shadow as double). The second is a secret choir whose constituents change for each performance. They stand from their seats and perform a rewritten karaoke version of We Are the World shaped around accents and the relationship between speech and place. The singers are encouraged to be loud, to be bold, to channel pure ego, accent, and affect—much like its star-studded older cousin. This delivery gives each performance a unique personality and character.
Since that first choir, I’ve performed two different ACRE Choirs and a few variations on the Do Voices Choir. On Saturday, May 26th, I’m ecstatic to be inaugurating the Mies Choir at the MCA’s Word Weekend. All are welcome to participate. Meet us by the music stands at 3:30 pm in the 4th floor lobby.
Artists Lilli Carré and Alexander Stewart led a wildly successful animation workshop in the summer of 2013, and we invited them to offer another iteration at our Family Day on April 12, 2014. Kids and adults alike drew series of charming, eclectic characters—mermaids, exploding robots, scribble monsters, and gentlemen donning hats, suits, bathing suits, or nothing at all—which Lilli and Alexander then brought to life using a squash and stretch animation technique.
Carré and Stewart’s short film above captures the sense of play and diversity of ideas that enliven these monthly events.
As a teenage David Bowie fan, blown away by a concert on the Serious Moonlight tour, I didn’t know about Bowie’s involvement with avant-garde figures like William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But as the MCA prepares to host David Bowie Is, the first retrospective of his extraordinary career, I’ve come to recognize that he is one of the most pioneering and influential performers of our time.
The MCA is the only US venue for David Bowie Is, which debuted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. When I saw the exhibition there, I found it compelling because it brings together an unprecedented 300-plus objects from the David Bowie Archive, including handwritten lyrics, original costumes, photography, set designs, album artwork, and rare performance material. I suggested we bring the exhibition to the MCA to stretch the MCA’s ideas about art, as well as our audience’s. The museum has also explored parallels between art and music before, in exhibitions like 2007’s Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, and performance has been integral to the MCA’s programming since its very beginning.
It’s difficult and rare for an artist to sustain Bowie’s level of creativity for decades and decades. His peerless understanding of the importance of image cultivation and his appetite for constant reinvention make him a comfortable companion to staples of the MCA Collection and exhibition history such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons. And, similar to many artists working today, he has never limited himself to one area of cultural production. The exhibition demonstrates how Bowie’s work has both influenced and been influenced by wider movements in art, design, theater, and contemporary culture, and focuses on his creative processes, shifting style, and collaborations with diverse designers in the fields of fashion, sound, graphics, theater, and film.
Multimedia installations incorporating advanced sound technology, original animations, continuous audio accompaniment, and video make David Bowie Is an immersive journey through Bowie’s artistic life. I thought it would be exciting to bring this kind of innovative, multisensory experience to the MCA. The exhibition’s overall look and feel recall a rock concert, making it a transporting and much more exciting experience than a typical fashion exhibition, even as more than 60 of Bowie’s costumes go on display, including the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (1972) designed by Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto’s flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973), and the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover (1997). The sculptural and spectacular qualities of the costumes, not to mention the variety of aesthetics they represent, are among the primary attractions of the exhibition.
In an age when a new understanding of the fluidity of gender roles and identities is taking hold, Bowie’s early affronts to the standards of masculinity, including the dress he wore on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World (1970), and the androgynous characters he developed in the early 1970s such as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, can be seen as radical salvos against conservative society. These and many other personae are shown to be more than superficial pranks, amply documented through photography, graphic designs, models of concert sets, and visual excerpts from films and live performances, including The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Saturday Night Live (1979), and music videos for songs such as “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979) and “Let’s Dance” (1983). Alongside these are more personal items never unveiled to the public, including storyboards and handwritten set lists and lyrics, as well as some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores, and diary entries, which reveal the evolution of his ideas. His chameleonic character transformations throughout the years are central to his contribution to contemporary culture and highly relevant to artists today, ranging from Wu Tsang to Janelle Monae and Lady Gaga. David Bowie Is also reveals how often Bowie reached out to peers both within and outside the music world to challenge himself and keep his creativity flowing, documenting partnerships with artists as varied as Burroughs, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Klaus Nomi, Tony Oursler, and Nicolas Roeg.
Other aspects of Bowie’s life and career, such as his productive period in Berlin in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his experimental approaches to songwriting, and his extensive work as a film actor are also explored as compelling stories unto themselves. The culmination of the exhibition is arguably the section devoted to his concert tours, where an engrossing combination of costumes, towering video projections, and a specially designed soundtrack bring home the truly multidisciplinary nature of Bowie’s live performances. After four decades in the public eye, the artist continues to be a relevant force in contemporary culture and music. Chief among his latest efforts was the surprise 2013 album The Next Day, which won many accolades as well as the Brit Award for Best Male Solo Artist.
Music is so important to Chicago that the city provides a great backdrop for David Bowie Is—though we expect the exhibition to reach a national audience. The MCA was built on a multi-disciplinary understanding of creativity from its founding in 1967 and the combination of exhibitions, performances, and programs we present today reflect that wide-angle view of culture. David Bowie Is comfortably fits within that lineage, repatriating a musical innovator back into the territory of cutting-edge visual and performing arts that is his natural home.
*This post first appeared in MCA Chicago (Summer 2014).
What memories do you have of David Bowie? Leave a comment below or join the conversation using #DavidBowieIs.