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Arresting Development

Contemporary Museum’s New Exhibit Focuses Attention On The East Baltimore Biotech Park’s Collateral Damage

Jefferson Jackson Steele
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: The Contemporary Museum brings the east side downtown for (Re)Living Democracy.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 11/2/2005

(Re)living Democracy At the Contemporary Museum through Jan. 14

David Harvey talks with Marisela Gomez Nov. 5

Nikiea Redmond flitted among the cheese-poking crowd at the Contemporary Museum’s Oct. 20 opening of its new (Re)living Democracy exhibition slinging a Nikon camera. She clicked everything in sight—group shots, shots of friends, still lifes of spent wine glasses. She especially took time to dote on her aunt Nia Redmond, one of the contributors to this acrid, multimedia view of the East Baltimore biotech project—a development venture whose proponents cheerlead as urban renewal reinvented.

It’s not a view that Nikiea, a 20-year-old Towson University biology major, shares—but she was impressed to see her aunt’s newspaper project Kids Scoop, an East Baltimore neighborhood paper, posted on one of the museum’s walls (“Keeping the Faith,” Mobtown Beat, May 7, 2003).

“Seeing how she can do things, put us in different places where we can meet different people—I definitely look up to her,” Nikiea says.

The impetus for this exhibition is the $800 million, 22-acre biotech park in East Baltimore, demolition for which has already started. When built, the life-sciences research park will transform the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution and Kennedy Krieger Center from a compound shuttered in a neighborhood of textbook poverty into a sprawling urban campus with 1,500 new and rehabilitated homes. In what curator Cira Pascual Marquina describes as an “attempt to deal with the housing crisis in Baltimore,” the Contemporary gave four artists—Lasse Lau, Nicholas Wisniewski, Nicholas Petr, and Scott Berzofsky—two months to go into East Baltimore and meet with community leaders to get their views on a development project that has primarily been portrayed positively in the mainstream press.

The idea was to get leaders and grass-roots groups to co-create the exhibits—which range from a documentary made with a cell-phone video camera to a list of all the homes slated to be taken by eminent domain. Activist and Green Party City Council candidate Glenn Ross created a family-tree chart of the organizations involved in the biotech park development showing how these powerful groups share members. Marisela Gomez, director of Save Middle East Action Committee, enlarged an Aug. 18, 2005, Sun op-ed piece blasting the biotech project titled “Frustration stewing in ‘Hopkinsville.’”

A photo-montage mural tucked away in an alcove depicts a dilapidated block; recordings tell the human stories behind the vacant housing over two pairs of headphones. A small TV flashes the names of those killed this year in Baltimore, Rose Street Community Center’s quest to make city homicides declared an epidemic. Pictures of kids playing around an abandoned supermarket are flashed on a wall. And on one wall is a simple letter from East Baltimore Development Inc. sent to all remaining residents in the neighborhoods slated for the first phase of biotech park project, informing them that have to submit a contract of sale on their new home or a lease on a new rental to East Baltimore Development or face eviction in 90 days of the letter’s postmark.

For the next three months, the Contemporary will host lectures, documentaries, and other educational activities about what is currently being done to the people of East Baltimore in the name of progress.

These exhibits will change with the issues, Marquina says. Videos will be updated. Anyone can post on the plywood covering the museum’s front glass windows, a premeditated blighted eyesore—an attempt to force comfortable citizens to confront what is going only 15 blocks east.

“I don’t work 14 hours a day for people to just enjoy a show,” Marquina says. “But I do believe—I hope—there would be a broader effect” as a result of this exhibition.

The artists themselves acknowledge that by injecting art into political theater the message overrides aesthetics. Such activism in the museum world isn’t that new—after all, artist Martha Rosler certainly was couching her 1960s anti-war stance with photo collages of disfigured Vietnamese people juxtaposed with Pat Nixon. And in Baltimore this underreported issue touches many of the city’s powerbrokers, from City Hall to Johns Hopkins.

The question is, Does this multimedia version of bearing witness make an impact? The Contemporary is testing art’s power to evoke change locally. At times, (Re)living Democracy goes off point, as with Rose Street’s video of a post-Katrina trip to Louisiana—although it does attest to the fact that there is more on the minds of East Baltimore residents than just eminent domain.

Spending hours taking in the exhibit was Baltimore photographer Robert Houston, who made a name for himself shooting civil-rights photos in the 1960s. He stood by the doorway during the opening, sometimes looking at a slide show showing old streets where he once roller-skated.

These days, Houston, who still lives in East Baltimore, sees his fellow old-timers returning to their old neighborhoods and driving quickly by with their windows rolled up and doors locked. “How many wonder, If I stayed, could I have made a difference,” he asks rhetorically. “If I fixed up my property, could have I inspired others to do the same?

At least, Houston says, the huge issue of the displacement of East Baltimoreans is no longer festering out of public sight. With (Re)living Democracy, it’s right in Baltimore’s so-called cultural district. “I think it’s important to have it downtown,” he says. “That’s where people flock. Nobody is going to go through East Baltimore with a camcorder.”

Even if they did, while driving through East Baltimore the eye follows blocks of rowhouses broken up by blocks of empty space, freshly bulldozed, capped with fresh earth. To an outsider, it’s hard to believe that such urban stubble holds enough emotional potency to challenge the logic of creating what many believe will be a needed boast to Baltimore’s economy.

And it’s this very slippery slope of perspective that this exhibition puts under one roof. Burning her way through three rolls of film, Nikiea Redmond doesn’t see the biotech park project in the grim terms depicted on the museum’s walls. Although she spent her high-school years helping her aunt establish the Kids Scoop newspaper, this past summer she worked for East Baltimore Development, and she saw how people genuinely tried to help residents relocate to new homes and find jobs.

“Nobody should expect immediate results,” Nikiea says. “Just give it a little time.”

Even so, a little later she admits that she may be a bit naive. “I haven’t been exploited by people,” she says. “My opinions tend to be a little more positive.”

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