Email correspondence between Allison Glenn and Ben Fuqua
Allison Glenn is a curator and writer that is interested in furthering access and equity through the cultivation of inclusive art histories. She is currently the Manager of Publications and Curatorial Associate with Prospect New Orleans Triennial, and has held positions at Monique Meloche Gallery, the University of Chicago, Theaster Gates Studio, and the Hammer Museum. Her writing has been featured in exhibition publications for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Prospect New Orleans Triennial, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, and she has contributed to ART21 Magazine, Pelican Bomb, and Newcity, amongst others. Glenn received dual Masters degrees in Modern Art History, Theory and Criticism and Arts Administration and Policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Bachelor of Fine Art Photography with a co-Major in Urban Studies from Wayne State University in Detroit.
In Summer 2016 in Chicago, Glenn curated the outdoor, multi-site exhibition, In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
BEN FUQUA: The title of this project, messages, is taken from the subtitle of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, about a woman who believes herself to be the last person on Earth. Can you talk about the significance of the title and how this book influenced the project?
ALLISON GLENN: The subtitle of Wittgenstein’s Mistress is also the first line of the book, in which the female protagonist, Kate, begins to endlessly recollect moments in her life and in literature, architecture, and the humanities, in an effort to determine whether or not she is the last person left on earth. Throughout the text ideas are jumbled, thoughts become run-on sentences, and incomplete thoughts become facts. The crux of this cyclical narrative is that any attempt Kate makes to connect to an idea, a memory, or another human, becomes seemingly impossible. It may be that Kate cannot place herself in the world at all because the language she is using does not allow her access to it.
It’s this impossibility that inspired the project. This desire to rely on her knowledge of time, space, and history, and her inability to grasp the reality of the aforementioned nouns creates a novel with no resolve. While it lacks crescendo, the text ultimately continues to build.
When I began to think more about platforms that are commonly used for viewing and the spaces created for discourse, a parallel emerged between her insufficient accumulation of information and that which is located within institutional or sanctioned spaces. I was inspired by Markson’s witty use of style and form to highlight these inadequacies, and wanted to attempt to reposition very different dialogues within spaces that diverged from those more commonly known.
BF: How did you choose the locations for the artworks? Many of them are located in neighborhoods that don’t get much attention from Chicago’s mainstream art world. Most of them are also close to train stops. What role did public transportation play in deciding locations?
AG: Public transportation was a crucial component to the selection of the sites. The billboards themselves are smaller in scale and height because pedestrians are the target demographic. It was this different viewing audience—one that might be walking, riding a bike, or taking public transportation—that spoke to me. In creating a cartography of the city that responded to its physical and social divides, I wanted to guide the viewer through a terrain that highlighted them.
BF: Did you match artists with a particular site? Or did the artists choose the site for their work?
AG: Specific sites spoke to each artist’s work. Alas, the nature of this project required a certain level of flexibility, as the availability of the billboards fluctuates as ad space is purchased. So the goal is to strike at the right time and hope for the best. There were a few locations I chose that no longer existed as the project developed, and the artists it impacted were so gracious and accepting of this. Ayanah Moor and her wife, Jamila Raegan, collaborated on a billboard that was originally located at 18th and Damen, and concurrently planned UNTITLED (OFFERINGS) (2016)—a collaborative performance which also included Krista Franklin and Anthony Williams—on a plaza at 18th and Paulina. Three weeks before the opening, we found out that their billboard was going to have to move because the location was being removed from the company’s inventory. We chose to place the work on the side of a building at 2620 W Cermak, which is just under a mile north of Cook County Correctional facility. As Moor, Raegan, Franklin, and Williams’ collaboration was about healing the black body from death and trauma, the final billboard site ended up being a much more poignant location for their project.
BF: I’m very interested in this project’s use of billboards as a site for public art, since they’re ever-present in our lives but can also blend into the landscape. What was behind your decision to use billboards as a major component of this project?
AG: Billboards are a form of communication, and I see them as a media platform that is therefore available for subversion. I look to projects like Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being Village Voice advertisements of the 1970s and the ACT-UP billboards during the 1980s AIDS crisis for inspiration.
While director of Monique Meloche Gallery, I began a public art project called Off the Wall, a bus bench project that featured the work of Hank Willis Thomas (2014) and Joel Ross (2015). Developing this project was an opportunity for me to workshop the ideas that I had for the larger billboard project. I was excited about that project, but wanted to dig deeper conceptually alongside the physical expansion of the area the project covered. Thus, In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street, came to be.
BF: This project seems like a big shift from your previous role as director at Monique Meloche Gallery. How do you approach curating outside of a commercial gallery? Specifically, how does your curatorial approach change when working in public spaces as opposed to the white cube?
AG: The real shift was into the gallery world! Prior to working with Monique, I had primarily worked within non-profit structures. In truth, there are more parallels between for-profit and non-profit than one may think. In terms of the approach, my personal curatorial practice does not privilege one site over another and includes questions of audience, access, impact, and platforms.
BF: What do you see as the role of public art in Chicago? And how does your project fit in with other public art projects in the city?
AG: Chicago is such a vast city, and the public art projects that are realized through the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Chicago Park District, and EXPO Chicago are really dynamic opportunities for audiences to engage with semi-permanent to permanent works by world-renowned artists. Messages in the Street is ambitious in terms of scale, and includes well known mid-career artists, such as Derrick Adams, Martine Syms, The Black Athena Collective (Heba Y Amin and Dawit L Petros), alongside emerging artists like Lisa Alvarado and Assaf Evron. Its distinct temporality differs from that of larger scale public art projects, and creates a cartography that asks viewers to traverse rich expanses of land they might not normally. This request for participation that requires an active usage of the city and its transportation infrastructure sets the project apart.