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Unite and Conquer

Brief Notes on a Project For a Revolution In Baltimore--Or, Exploring the Contemporary Museum’s Ambitious Current Exhibition

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/12/2006

Headquarters: Investigating the Creation of the Ghetto and the Prison Industrial Complex

Contemporary Museum

Through Aug. 27

Just because René Gabri and Ayreen Anastas don’t look like terrorists doesn’t mean they’re not suspects. Sure, the two thirtysomething New York-based artists are members of the politically minded artists’ collective 16 Beaver, but that hardly makes them troublesome dissidents. In fact, Gabri, a dark-haired and bearded man with a lively intelligence, and Anastas, a handsome, statuesque woman from Palestine who says a great deal with her carefully chosen words, had spent a good part of the last year in Baltimore as artists-in-residence at the Contemporary Museum, working with its curator in shaping Headquarters: Investigating the Creation of the Ghetto and the Prison Industrial Complex. And as part of their own project--for which they are currently on a 40-day tour of the U.S. visiting Japanese internment camps, POW camps, Katrina relief camps, boot camps for juvenile offenders, to compare and contrast them with prisons--they were shooting video footage around Baltimore during their stay.

What you’re shooting, though, is sometimes problematic. "We were shooting the end of the highway--the highway to nowhere, Route 40," Gabri says over tea in a Mount Vernon coffee shop the morning the tour begins. "[Johns Hopkins professor] Neil Hertz had told us about it. And we had read about it. And police stopped Ayreen and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘Shooting the end of this highway--the big mural.’ And they said, ‘You can’t videotape highways.’"

"The first thing they said was, ‘Do you have ID?’" Anastas remembers. "They were in street clothes. Then they said [to me], ‘Where are you from?’ And I said, ‘New York.’ And they said, ‘No no no. You have an accent. Where are you from originally?’ And then I started to understand what was going on."

The plainclothes officers then asked Gabri the same questions: where he was from, what he was doing, and where he was going. "And I said I’m offended by that question," Gabri says. "I’m an American citizen. Why does it matter? And after about an hour of some light questioning and different kinds of approaches they invited some detectives to come, and one of them was from Homeland Security, who proceeded to ask us many questions. And they had told us while we were waiting that the last time they stopped somebody they had been swept up for the same thing and they don’t know what happened to that person--and that’s when we started getting more and more concerned. We asked, ‘What do you mean you don’t know what happened?’ And they said, ‘I don’t know. They just came and took them away.’"

The pair are able, somewhat, to laugh about it now, partly at the absurdity of the possibility it posed--Q: What were you arrested for? A: Videotaping.--but also a bit at their own naiveté of what constitutes a threat today. "We had a checklist of things we wanted to shoot over our last days here," Gabri says. "We had the stadium, the area near the waterfront that is currently being developed--which could easily be seen as shooting the [Bay] Bridge--and we had this highway. So we had a checklist of the worst things to shoot given this paranoid situation."

He chuckles slightly, his dark eyes searching for any common-sense reason why two ordinary people would be questioned for wanting to videotape a part of the city they’re visiting. "I’m sure somebody wants to bomb the end of the highway," he ventures. "I wouldn’t be surprised if the city probably wanted to bomb the highway to nowhere to make room for more development."

When you take in Headquarters you might be surprised at the utter lack of, well, art--at least, the sort of objects that you usually find hanging on walls or installed on the floor or hanging from the ceiling or looped on video monitors. Instead, what you encounter are a number of monitors with short videos documenting grass-roots activism in Baltimore. Against one wall is a large dry-erase map of the city with red and blue markers available for people to write notes. Over the area corresponding to Reservoir Hill somebody’s red print reads, "This area is one where working folks are losing their homes due to gentrification."

On the museum’s floor is Ashley Hunt’s colorful flow-chart map outlining the interconnections between prisons, the state, and ghettos. Two stands sit atop it offering pamphlets of various local, state, and national grass-roots organizations and campaigns, from the Baltimore Free Store to the web site supporting Daniel McGowan, the New York activist facing life imprisonment for charges of earth- and animal-liberation arsons in the Pacific Northwest. One area of the gallery has been converted into a mini-library, where visitors can peruse copies of leftist and social-justice journals and magazines such as Labor Notes, Prison Legal News, and Antipode, as well as thumb through copies of Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities or David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope. A blackboard runs along the entire back wall, where announcements of upcoming activities are written next to observations such as "In the future we all shall live and work on Johns Hopkins plantations." And one area has been turned into an impromptu meeting space, where lecture series, symposiums, and panels have been taking place.

Headquarters is the result of the tireless efforts of curator Cira Pascual Marquina, a petite 30-year-old Spanish woman who has been working as a curator for the past 10 years and living in America since she was 16. Since her arrival at the Contemporary two years ago she has staged other unconventional exhibitions--2005’s Patriot and Crowd of the Person’s "(Re)living Democracy" program, both efforts to merge her political engagement with her curatorial practice--but never has she or, for that matter, the Contemporary devoted its space entirely to get visitors thinking about the city where they live.

Originally titled Headquarters: Artistic interventions in social space, the exhibit began with meetings with artists and local activists and organizations to shape the idea. "I think we were all concerned that this was way too open-ended a title to carry a political program," Pascual Marquina says over tea in Mount Vernon. A slight woman who speaks with a bit of an accent, Pascual Marquina runs through her thoughts with the clarity of a veteran lecturer. "I had been talking a lot with people in Critical Resistance and organizers in East Baltimore, so that’s how we began to think together about these interconnections, the structural relationship between situations of extreme poverty that are created through, mostly, racist legal and economic policies that are aligned with private interest. And so that’s how we started to think about this relationship between the prison-industrial complex and formation of the ghetto."

Headquarters is a less a primer on that very specific issue than a nexus of ideas hoping to get visitors thinking in terms of how and why these things happen in Baltimore. The show does bring up very specific situations, but it’s not a mere laundry list of local problems that offers no solutions. Like many art shows, part of the experience is about looking and seeing--in this case, it’s just not about looking and seeing what’s inside the gallery.

"It’s part of a longer discussion, not just here, but with a big network of people throughout the world who are grappling with the evaporation of public spaces in the city and the privatization of everything, including culture, and trying to find a way to sort of retain the disagreement part of politics," Gabri says. "It’s not like a traditional model of political activism or artistic models of political activism. It’s both--and [it’s] trying to offer an alternative way, seeing other ways.

"And then there’s more of the effectiveness that’s more like affect, which is traditionally something that I think the arts retains a lot of power to do," he continues. "By that I just mean the emotional impact, friendship, just the sort of things that happen when you spend a month working with people who are doing very important activity that is not often being recognized in or by this city because it doesn’t really fit into their master plan. It doesn’t fit into their vision of what to advertise, to ‘Get in on it’ or to ‘Believe.’"

That sentiment is echoed by Maryland Institute College of Art undergraduate David Sloan, who worked with Pascual Marquina curating the show. "I think that attempting to define [Headquarters] as radical or not radical tends to lead us into abstract rhetorical territory," he says. "Headquarters is not so much trying to make some statement as it has more interest in facilitating interactions. Whether it’s radical or reformist--it’s hard to articulate right now. I think it’s going to take a long time to analyze whether this really has a legacy--because we’re talking about organizing people in a city. We’re not talking about months--we’re talking about years. But if this does ask the questions that eventually have the ability to help organize people in the coming years, even if that’s just 10, 20, or 50 people, that is somewhat of a radical feature."

Eventually, Headquarters came to include Pascual Marquina, Anastas and Gabri, the Baltimore Free Store, Baltimore Independent Media Center, CampBaltimore, Critical Resistance, Food Not Bombs, Emily Forman, the Men’s Center, the People’s Housing Coalition, Progressive Action Center, Red Emma’s Collective, Glenn Ross, Barcelona’s Taller de Costura de Código Abierto, the United Workers Association, and others. And, lest you think it the mere windmill tilt of a young person’s romantic radicalism, note that Pascual Marquina has resigned from her position at the Contemporary and moved to Venezuela to teach English because, as she writes in an e-mail, "I’m moving to Caracas because I do not want to continue to participate in a system that turns our labor and tax dollars into deadly policies and weapons."

Not all the activist groups initially understood why they were being asked to participate. "I was very, very skeptical at first," says Tom Kertes, communications organizer for United Workers Association, a coalition of low-wage laborers. Kertes splits his time between Seattle and Baltimore, where he helps UWA fight Peter Angelos and the Maryland Stadium Authority to raise the Camden Yards cleaning crew pay from $7.50 an hour to the city’s living-wage minimum of $9.08. "I had no idea what to expect or even why we were being invited. I went into it the first time and thought, ‘Look, we’ll work with you and you can be artists. You’re artists, and if you want to make stuff, there is stuff we need made.’ And they kept saying, ‘Great, we’ll make it, but that’s not what we want to do.’ And we’re like, ‘OK, then what do you want to do?’ And what they wanted to do was be a part of social justice."

Kertes remembers the first few meetings, where the activists seized the opportunity to talk to each other as the artists and curators sat there and listened. And then they started tailoring the show to fit the activists’ needs. "We would go to these dinners and we’d just spend two hours talking," Kertes says. "And when it was over we’d look at Cira and everybody apologized, thinking we hadn’t talked about the show. And she would say, ‘No, you’re doing what we wanted you to do.’"

The informal effort eventually led to the formation, outside of Headquarters, of a citywide human-rights coalition involving UWA, CampBaltimore, Red Emma’s, the Men’s Center, Save Middle East Action Coalition, Critical Resistance, and Indymedia, an activist network Kertes believes would have been impossible without the show. "Networking is expensive," Kertes says. "Networking is hugely important. That’s all groups do. We go out and talk to people. Who are we going to talk to? Who is our priority? With us, it’s low-wage workers. We have 500 members, and that’s essentially what we’ve built and spent these past five years getting, those relationships with those folks and the relationship with people who are going to directly impact them. And so to have a staff person or a volunteer person call up all the nonprofit and grass-roots organizations in a city and get them together in a room is expensive. The museum did that."

Kertes cites a recent UWA all-night vigil that drew more people than ever, a direct result of being able to call other activists to get the word out. And for a May event that may have involved a protest with arrests, Kertes asked the group for volunteers, because "our workers have to work," he says. "So six MICA students and people from CampBaltimore volunteered. We need that--and that wouldn’t have happened if Headquarters hadn’t existed. I think that was an important function of it, even if it was kind of incidental."

Just as the curators and artists maybe learned a bit about social justice, Kertes admits he learned a bit about art, too. "This whole idea about what is art and what we mean when we use the word art and what are art museums for--I never thought about it," he says. "I’m not an artist. I would meet people and we would be talking about what we did in college, and they would say sculpture majors or painting majors, and that’s pretty funny to me, because I’m like, What is that?

"I have a much more developed view now," Kertes continues. "I never considered an art museum’s role in gentrification. I didn’t have any idea of the complacency of places like the Contemporary Museum historically. I never thought of that, like, What do contemporary museums do typically? They promote celebrities and celebrity art. And what’s the reason for doing that? Well, there’s a lot of money to be made in doing that, so it supports these institutions, and then they sell this commodity of glamour and style.

"Headquarters came out of the Contemporary Museum, but it will be interesting to see, when this curator leaves, if the museum goes back to being essentially a public relations and marketing machine for expensive works of canvas and being a satellite to New York art dealers."

That may be Headquarters most interesting side effect. Toss out the boring question about whether or not what you see in the Contemporary Museum is art. Instead, take moment to consider what Headquarters is asking visitors to think about. It’s observing that Baltimore is undergoing a tremendous amount of social upheaval concomitant to its impressive growth. Who gets to decide a city’s master plan? Who gets to be included in a city’s master plan? Headquarters doesn’t form its own plan, but it does remind that if you don’t care, a plan will be decided for you.

"When you see a homeless shelter being moved to right next to the prison, you see the visual association of impoverishment and a prison-industrial complex," Gabri says of his time in Baltimore. "You see this [Baltimore] Development Corp. become more like this ominous thing that wants to push anything that seems in any way negative out of the picture. In the end, for whom is this city, if not for the people who have been living and struggling here? OK, salaries are getting higher. And, yes, I’m sure if you bring a lot of people from the outside or D.C. to buy homes and speculate and get real estate, sure there will be people to buy them. But in the end, where will the people who lived here and struggled here go?"

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