“What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals.”
— Robert Caro, Lyndon Baines Johnson biographer
Lyndon Baines Johnson was an imposing man. Six foot three, with a lust for domination and control that was legendary, he rose from the destitute but beautiful Hill Country region of Texas to Senate Majority Leader in 1955, to the vice presidency in 1960, and, finally, upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, to the presidency. Johnson’s career was tainted by controversy, questionable ethics, and backroom deals that epitomized the worst of insider Washington politics and corruption. Nonetheless, when he took office, Johnson also oversaw the passage and implementation of transformative civil rights legislation and social welfare initiatives with his Great Society programs. A man obsessed with accruing individual power, he sought to wield it in service of the collective good.
Johnson’s larger-than-life persona and the swirling tumult of the 1960s serve as the starting point for The Seldoms’ Power Goes.
This multimedia dance work is not merely a biographical study of LBJ, however. It uses Johnson to explore the concept of power and social change in American life from a much wider angle. It may seem unlikely to use dance to consider this issue, but the ways in which power and social change relate to the body, how physical movements parallel social movements, and the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of motion, stance, positioning, space, duration, performance, and interaction on public life—they all reveal dance to be one of the best forms for addressing this topic.
The Seldoms. Photo: William Frederking
LBJ’s political prowess and ability to make change was itself linked to his physical presence. He famously employed the “Johnson Treatment,” leaning into other politicians when seeking to intimidate, control, or cajole them. He also knew how to stay still: according to his celebrated biographer Robert Caro, when LBJ first came to Washington, he often sat silently in the chambers of Congress for long periods of time, taking in legislative protocols and rules.
He was a master of the tactile in all its dimensions, whether in the cloakrooms of insider politics or on the campaign trail. Incidentally, he also loved to dance.
Johnson was not the only one interested in power during his presidency. He was pushed to action by grassroots struggles, by civil rights freedom fighters, and others (the question of who deserves credit for the political breakthroughs of the 1960s remains contested, as demonstrated by the controversies over representations of Johnson in the film Selma). LBJ’s success in getting Congress to adopt his policies also helped to power the rise of the New Right, with its reactionary conservatism often rooted in a visceral loathing of Johnson’s Great Society programs. Far more tragically, LBJ chose to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War, a trauma so damaging to his reputation that he did not run for reelection in 1968 even though he won his 1964 presidency by a landslide.
President Lyndon B. Johnson with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer
As Robert Caro contends, Johnson’s story sheds light on broader questions of power. “I don’t think of my books as being biographies,” Caro explained in a 2012 interview. “My interest is in power. How power works.” It is this larger issue of power and how it works that pulsates through Power Goes.
Choreographer Carrie Hanson’s reading of Caro’s LBJ biography during 2012, an election year that saw Americans frustrated by what felt like the partisanship and stalemate of national politics in the United States, inspired the questions in Power Goes:
How is power wielded for social change—or for the blockage of substantive social transformation? What is power, exactly, and how does it course through our culture, our institutions, our interactions, our things, our very bodies?
At the center of Power Goes is movement. In some sections, Hanson’s dancers work against each other in duets and group pieces of opposition, manipulation, and conflict. In others, they organize into a cooperative assembly, marching in solidarity. Often, as in life, the dance mixes the two: contentiousness and concord mingle, with issues of control, intransigence, and change at stake. In all cases, the body—both individually and collectively, as a social entity—is the essential medium in Power Goes. Probing the relationship of power to persistence, hindrance, impasse, stamina, alteration, surprise, and transformation with dance allows The Seldoms to access levels of information and meaning that language cannot reach.
The Seldoms. Photo: William Frederking
“Put your body on the line!” That is what protesters insisted had to be done to oppose or change the policies of public figures like LBJ during the 1960s. Power Goes asks us to think about how embodiment mattered then, and continues to matter, to the workings of power. Looking back to the past to try to make sense of the present, The Seldoms put themselves on the line. They dance where history, giving us the Johnson Treatment, looms over our own time.
A version of this essay appeared in the MCA Stage program notes for The Seldoms.
In 2012, artist Nina Arsenault and I were contacted by the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) to comment on transgender topics in mainstream media. Following the radio show, we privately shared our frustrations at being asked the same repetitive, often intrusive questions about our bodies, lives, and identities by interviewers—questions that often extended far outside the scope of the topics at hand. As artists actively engaged in the politics and practices of transgender representation, we wondered how we might creatively call attention to the expectations placed on trans bodies in public. Utilizing familiar tropes of documentary film production and presentation, I’m Yours is my satirical and pointed response to our frustrations.
In addition to the architectural models, which we discussed in a previous post, we were also interested in having the piece read like a graphic novel. The graphic novel template provides an ideal reference point in terms of encouraging visitors to tell their own story as they go through the museum and in relaying that story to others after their visit. We tried to capture the qualities of a graphic novel in the printed piece by layering in characters, locations, and activities, while leaving it open enough to allow visitors to imagine their own narratives.
The guide has three characters: Hannah, Jack, and Sofia. These three characters developed from our attempts to identify the different ways that people might experience and interpret the museum. There were specific reference points that informed each.
Hannah, who has a scientific mindset, came from the idea of having a detective-like character. We were inspired by British filmmaker Patrick Keiller’s character Robinson, who undertakes a series of journeys to discover what Keiller calls “the problems of England.” Robinson is never seen, but we learn a lot about him through the voice-over of his traveling companion.
While Hannah is based on a detective-like character, Jack is modeled after French filmmaker Jacques Tati’s famous character, Monsieur Hulot. When Tati created Hulot he produced an “everyman,” generous and well meaning, yet baffled by the advances of the modern world. The combination resulted in a character we were immediately sympathetic towards and whose actions we related to. For Jack’s page we wanted to share his inner monologue to show the way he was thinking about what he saw in the museum. He is not ignorant or simpleminded, in fact he is quite the opposite. He is highly observant and he thinks quite laterally, making interesting connections between what he sees and what he could do.
The third character, Sofia, wants to turn her visit into a work of art. We were inspired by the 1960s avant-garde group, the Situationist International. Some members of this group instituted the concept of the dérive, or drift, in which they tried to break out of common ways of experiencing things by generating new encounters and occurrences. We wanted Sofia to inhabit the attitude of the Situationists in the way she approached the museum and the artworks. Because of this, she uses the artworks as generators for her own creations, such as playlists, collages, or performances.
WTTW: Doris Salcedo has been an acclaimed artist for quite some time. Why now for this first-ever retrospective and why Chicago?
Madeleine Grynsztejn: It seems that her work is even more relevant now than when she started. The work that she creates focuses basically on violent conflict and victims who lose their place. It portends the larger economic and political shifts shaping our world. The works are reflective of the upheavals, not only in Bogota, Colombia where she was born and works, but also in different parts of the world. We don’t have to look very far to see where people are people dehumanized and where social contracts are being broken.
As museum interpreters and educators, we are always looking for new ways to share the artworks, and the stories behind them, with our visitors. One way we do this is through a new website developed through a partnership between the MCA’s Education and Publishing Departments: 4 Stories. The website allows us to present a wide range of interpretative information that speaks to visitors of all ages and invites them to experience contemporary art and culture interactively, whether they want to go deeply into a particular topic or skim the surface of the museum’s offerings in fun ways.
Unfolding the Foldout
For many years, the MCA’s Education department offered printed “activity guides” for families. These sheets, which were usually foldout fliers, focused on a single exhibition and provided ideas for how children might access the artworks more vividly. In other words, they did not consider the MCA as a coherent whole, and were exclusively geared towards young visitors. Recently, however, as notions of what a museum might do to connect audiences to art have expanded—as part of a larger initiative to provide more, and different, types of interpretive offerings to visitors—we began to think about how the digital platform might transform the printed activity guide. The result? 4 Stories, which, as its name suggests, presents a rotating selection of information from each of the museum’s levels: one “story” for each “story” of the building.
We imagine 4 Stories as a new kind of activity guide, a web-based, interactive, multimedia publication for all generations. It harnesses the capacities of the digital domain to support the many ways in which people learn. Some people look, some read, some listen. We sought to create a platform for all these entrance points into contemporary art and culture. The website fits with our move as a whole to increase opportunities for audiences to learn about art informally, through actively doing as well as passively viewing. The website mirrors our broader efforts to create social and participatory programs that provide a wealth of information and interpretation, but are not pedantic, or even traditionally didactic, in nature.
For instance, while 4 Stories has plenty of rich and informative content that relates specifically to works on view at the MCA, it also includes new elements such as a “Try this” section, giving visitors opportunities to engage with contemporary art and culture in unexpected ways outside the museum. This mirrors our efforts, not only digitally but everywhere, to add new dimensions to the experience of visiting the MCA: we have created new kinds of maps and timelines; we have set aside space for reading areas and created brochures, broadsheets, and “takeaways” for our exhibition spaces; and, perhaps most relevantly for the digital domain, we have vastly increased our use of audio and video.
One Museum, Many Stories
Another major shift in our thinking with 4 Stories was to focus on multiple exhibitions instead of just one. We conducted visitor research and found that people often come to the MCA as a destination, not to see a specific exhibition (our recent David Bowie Is blockbuster being an exception). Visitors to the MCA frequently asked why we did not have printed activity guides for all exhibitions on display. But including content from multiple exhibitions presented a problem for the print format since shows continually rotate in and out. How might we best retain the most beloved aspects of the printed activity guides—their ease of use, their wonderful design, their informative content—while addressing these concerns?
The more fluid and modular nature of the digital environment enabled us to address a far wider range of what was on view at the museum at one time and to make archival documents from the past more readily available. But we purposely made 4 Stories look and feel like current popular website designs, so that it echoed, in digital form, the feeling of familiarity, ease-of-use, and the other pleasures of our printed activity guides. The goal is not to create some disorienting breakthrough in digital design, but rather to use the digital to connect visitors to all that the MCA has to offer. An example of how the website achieves this emerged around the recent Chicago Works exhibition of Sarah and Joseph Belknap’s work.
To the Moon with the Belknaps
Artists Sarah and Joseph Belknap create eerie sculptures that reflect their interest in astronomy. Their works move between the science, existential personal experiences, and larger social and political meanings of outer space. They create “moon skins” from silicon rubber and simulated lunar regolith—a synthetic approximation of moon dust, more commonly used by scientific researchers. These sculptures end up looking like deflated models of planets. Thinking about how 4 Stories might allow visitors to engage with the art of the Belkaps, we decided to focus on the materials and processes the couple use for their Moon Skins. We assumed most people would not know what moon skins or exoplanets are, nor would they be knowledgeable about the particulars of the moons of Jupiter from which the Belknaps draw inspiration. So in 4 Stories, we provided information that was at once informative and accessible. Our goal was to give visitors more expertise and to do so in a fun and welcoming way that allowed them to connect not only with the final products produced by the Belknaps, but also with their choices, processes, and thinking as art makers.
4 Stories on desktop browser
With 4 Stories, we provided a journey not just to the stars, but also to . . . the Belknaps’ Chicago studio. Our digital production crew visited the Belknaps where they make the Moon Skins and we included footage from that visit so people could get a first-hand look at the processes they used in creating their artworks. We also included a link to the Belknap’s website for further exploration. And, with the help of colleagues in Family and Youth Programs, we developed activities so that visitors could continue their engagement with the exhibition at home through “Try this” suggestions, such as how one might notice or even create their own moldings of objects. We also included “Fun facts” about planets and a “Discover more” section with information for both the novice and the expert. Our design team enhanced the entire story with creative, colorful graphics that bring the information alive as multimedia material.
This was one example of how 4 Stories offers new ways for MCA audiences of all ages to enhance their experiences of the museum’s rich offerings online as well as in person. We look forward to continuing the digital capacities of 4 Stories to welcome visitors into the universe of contemporary art and culture. View every issue here.
We all get used to certain habits, for better or worse. As we say in Colombia “We are animals of customs,” meaning that we all have our well-established, inherited, or willingly acquired habits. Over time, we eventually get used to the things that we’ve lived with by chance, or acquired by choice, and we can adjust sooner or later to nearly any given situation until it becomes a normal part of our routine.
Growing up in a country that has been afflicted by an armed conflict since before I was born, I became used to knowing and seeing people killed, kidnapped, or forced to leave their homes. The war on drugs has also proven to be ineffective in many ways for us and for our neighboring countries. Even though we as Colombians are fully aware that the violent events that take place in our country are horrifying and unacceptable, for the majority of us, it has become a part of our daily routine. We are the passive observers of a social and political crisis—an unfortunate habit we’ve acquired.
This violence has become a monster with many limbs, one that has managed to prevail for more than 60 years, feeding on illegal and terrorist activities and human lives; blocking our inherent natural and intellectual possibilities for national and economic growth. We have gotten used to that too. It is worth mentioning, though, that the Colombian government and the Colombian guerrillas are currently working on negotiating a peace treaty, and that violence today is not manifested in the same way or with the same intensity as it did 10 years ago. In a very positive sense this is the closest that Colombia has come to reaching certain agreements that could create a broader sense of safety and peace, and that gives us hope.
I was studying art at the Universidad de los Andes when I participated in Doris Salcedo’s intervention at the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, the city that both Salcedo and I grew up in. I was familiar with some of her work and had attended one of her lectures at a local university, the Univeridad Jorge Tadeo Lozano. I recall her explaining that the word experience comes from the latin experiri which means “to cross over danger.” I will always remember that about her.
The Plaza de Bolívar is surrounded by four buildings: The Palace of Justice is on the north side. Straight across, on the south side of the Plaza, is the National Capitol, where the congress of the Colombian Republic meets, and just behind that is the Palace of Nariño, where the president lives. A Catholic cathedral is located on the east side, and on the west side is the Liévano Palace, where the mayor of the city works. Doris Salcedo was walking past the National Capitol when I saw her, easily recognizable due to her distinct, voluminous black hair.
I can’t remember exactly how, or why, or with whom I went with to participate in Acción de Duelo, but I do remember knowing that this installation was an homage to the victims of violence in Colombia, and it felt that way. There was a respectful silence that was so loudly heard throughout the Plaza. The day was becoming night; one of the many beautiful sunsets in Bogotá was displaying its array of oranges, pinks, reds, and yellows. La Plaza de Bolívar is a very large area and it was full of thick, white candles, placed on the ground. I wouldn’t be able to say how many there were, maybe more than a thousand. Strangers were passing along matches and lighters to light the candles with. The flames were affected by the strong winds that blow in between the eastern and western mountains. We had to light the candles several times, sharing fire and silence. It was a very special opportunity—to be together and to feel as if we were doing something meaningful for our country.
The installation Acción de Duelo was a space created for thought and for remembrance. It was an invitation to shift our routine in a different direction outside of our own habits, heads, and comfort zones. It was an invitation to stop feeling powerless and busy and actually do something within our reach to manifest support, defiance, and sadness. All of us who were present there that evening had experienced violence in different ways and we all mourned accordingly.
Today I see photos of this installation, and Doris Salcedo’s work in general, as a silence that speaks louder than many words, perhaps a prelude to meaningful dialogues about art, our present realities, and social change. I see her artworks as actions that carry our story and make it more visible; a reminder of our sometimes regrettable human condition. It is important to listen and to learn from these silent voices, because they let us know that there are different ways, powerful ways, of representing the stories, and speaking up for the people who do not have the means, either by chance or by choice, to do so themselves.
Having seen the first series of educational maps by our friends Lisa Smith and Caroline Linder of ODLCO, which used the idea of the cutaway drawing, we were very excited to get the commission to undertake the next series. When considering our approach, we were keen to acknowledge and build upon the success of ODLCO’s series by retaining the focus on the building as the means for prompting interactions within the museum, but we developed our own graphic treatment.
Our proposal was based around the creation of a physical-scale model of the building that would provide an ongoing stage-set for the representation of activities inside the museum. In the end we created five different models to photograph for the piece.
These were populated by figures similar to those used by model railway enthusiasts, most of which were made by the German company Preiser.
The building models are made at 1:50 scale from white card and foam board. The process was quite time-consuming but enjoyable. The MCA has a very detailed CAD model of the museum that it allowed us to use. Once we had defined the scenes we wanted to create, we could isolate faces of the CAD model and print them to scale onto card. We then mounted these onto foam board, cut them out, and assembled them.
There were some tricky sections, like the curving stairs leading up from the fishpond, but it was a fun challenge!
The models are like old Hollywood film sets—they look good from the front, but behind they are all glue and masking tape. We intentionally left them white so that the viewer’s eye would be drawn to the colored figures and the graphic elements that would be overlaid on top. Finally, we lit the scenes and photographed them to provide images for each page of the guide.
For the inside of the guide, which opens out to show one large image of the front of the museum, we tried to set up as many figures as possible in natural-looking poses. There are couples, groups, families, children, someone in a wheelchair, a mother with a pram sitting on the steps, people walking their dogs, etc. We also created scale sculptures for the plinths on either side of the stairs and the plaza, and invented fictional exhibition posters with the help of Bryce Wilner from the MCA’s Design, Publishing, and New Media Department, who also designed the typographic treatment and graphic identity for the guide. It’s been a lot of fun to work on and we’re looking forward to creating more models and stories for the next installment.