In an unprecedented moment of global transformation (health crisis accompanied by a much belated global reckoning with anti-blackness) art programming infrastructures are forced to radically transform their models of production, delivery, and audience engagement. Many are turning to Zoom webinars or Instagram or Facebook Live as digital platforms for real-time connection between artists and publics. These models vary in their aesthetics and affordances, but for those with technology and strong enough WIFI such platforms and programming models bring the artist and their work into people’s homes. It generalizes a form of mediated intimacy that has already been prevalent, and does so through a more deterritorialized framework for art distribution and reception. And while the figure of the globe trotting artist with a studio in New York, Mexico City, and Beijing is now replaced by the place connected artist with a studio (if they are lucky) in their Pittsburgh kitchen or garage, images of their works continue to circulate globally.
This has raised serious questions about the future of arts institutions—what is, even, a museum, when the physical site is a potential place for contagion? Public forum dialogue, it seems, is becoming the dominant framework for delivering and sharing art experiences. Such a model of cultural programming is potentially more democratic and inclusive than a museum/gallery framework. It also, to my mind, feels a little bit like I imagine it did when televisions came into homes for the first time—an intimate but shared experience that blurs public and private and connects viewers with producers in new ways. These media forms and experiences are not new, but their forms of distribution and reception are being inflected and developing into particular genres that are more apprehensible in the time of COVID in which many more people are consuming culture from their homes rather than in situ.
Though there is a lot exciting here, it does not necessarily mitigate against the real economic precarity that artists faced pre-Covid in a gig economy and withering welfare state—a situation that is now even worse. The question of a new Works Progress Administration program for artists in our contemporary moment is crucial, but one I won’t address in this post. Instead I’m interested in the following:
Talk about the work is not the same as encountering the work in situ. The tactile, material, olfactory, and spatially proximate experience of seeing and engaging artwork is something that is difficult to replicate on digital platforms. In addition, encountering art in shared spaces is an additional quality of the experience that is difficult to recreate. There is an element of propinquity that is core here: the happy accident of hearing or seeing someone engage with the work, a shared hush or tension in the room, or even that jarring disruption that one might feel when witnessing an emotionally fraught work and hearing someone yelling something banal that breaks the mood.
TD Products has designed an innovative curation model during COVID to try to create opportunities for liveness and shared witnessing in a context where those experiences are being narrowed. The Bloomfield Garden Club is a program for three iterations of art residencies during Fall 2020 in a donated backyard space in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Bloomfield. Bloomfield is a historically working-class Italian neighborhood in Pittsburgh that, in the last ten to fifteen years, has become increasingly gentrified. Houses in Bloomfield are typically in row formation—squeezed close together backyards are stacked alongside, nearly on top of each other. Many colors and genres of vinyl or aluminum siding predominate. It is an architecture that produces intimacy (whether you like it or not!).
In the backyard garden, Dillman curates a scene where artists in multiple media perform together (art, music, dance, performance, comedy or literary artists), and then have a dialogue with the audience and each other. A small number of visitors can safely be in the space (wearing masks at all times), and so it creates the atmosphere of a family barbeque or, an older example, a salon model of arts culture where performances routinely take place in homes.
I had the fortune to see the last performance of the August group, consisting of Naomi Chambers (a visual artist); Rex Trimm and Betty Douglas (musicians); and John Musser/Veronica Bleaus and Scott Andrew (performance artists). Entering the garden through a side gate, I heard laughter and chatter which, in my quarantine brain, felt both familiar and odd. I was welcomed by Tina and led to a seat at a large picnic table. In front of the table was the garden, with vegetable and flowering plants, and a little Buddha statue. Honeybees and butterflies danced around the greenery, while sparrows posed on the top of the back fence. Tina opened the event with a grounding mindfulness exercise, emphasizing the importance of presence. This was helpful since I, personally, felt a bit of sensory overload (people, art, nature, birds, new things to look at) after being in the routine of my home and neighborhood for the past six months.
Ms. Betty and Rex opened with a musical performance, with a mix of Jazz and gospel numbers, a funeral oration, and a discussion of her paintings and woodcuts also on display. The theme of “garden” was a thread though which we thought about life (and death). Naomi shared her work, opening with a poem and then discussing the construction of the assemblage work, a child’s vanity that she had transformed with found objects that she turned into assemblages that adorned or accompanied the vanity, including a painting of herself in the mirror. Reflecting on themes of motherhood, race, survival, sparkle and the wearing down that can be entailed in the above, she also offered us some background on her painting and assemblage practice (more on Naomi’s work in a future post). Finally, John and Scott offered a drive by drag performance in the alley behind the yard, replete with water effects and an expertly selected playlist with the theme of “rain,” which, they argued, was a reflection on contagion.
The juxtaposition of the artists’ works and thematics in shared time and space was powerful and their performances were full of beauty, humor, and raw honesty: brilliance. It helped me think about how the work of creation can happen in even the most difficult circumstances, but also raised important questions about the collective infrastructure that is necessary to nurture such growth. Connecting audiences and artists and letting us see each other in realtime, the BGC might be understood as a kind of seed starting exercise. In a context where the ecosystem of arts production is subject to any number of threats, in a backyard in Bloomfield it is being carefully attended to.