UNLOADED – curated group art show about guns – up in Ithaca. WENY news covered it well. My work – ungun [ glitched handguns, animated ] – is in the clip as well as many pieces from the show.
Guns And Consequences was a spoken word event I organized in conjunction with the exhibition UNLOADED, which is on view at Northern Illinois University’s Art Gallery through October 24. Sponsored by the Center for Black Studies, the event was scheduled for October 8, 2015. It was cancelled by an all-campus bomb threat.
Yesterday I travelled from Milwaukee to Chicago and from Chicago to DeKalb. Josephine Burke, the musuem director who had programmed the show, picked me up at the Elburn Metra station. Elburn’s like a big taxi stand with adjacent parking lot, in the middle of cornfields.
Jo apologized for being late, she’d gotten caught behind a harvester on her drive to the station, its bits and pieces of corn and hay or whatever scattering across the road. I asked how the show UNLOADED had been received. She talked about how some people had seen the show, some of the talks had been very well attended, and how some of the campus who live with PTSD from the 2008 shooting incident could not walk into the show yet.
She mentioned offhand how she designed the installation, how she pulled walls from the gallery so visitors could find the exit if they had a panic attack. Then she realized that “a person could walk in and strafe the whole show.”
There it is, that fear that comes up, again. While designing fliers to support my own appearances – the artist talk for ungun, the flier announcing the performance-basd installation where I listen to visitors tell me their stories about guns – the tension slick with fear. Make sure the send and receive flier is deeply inclusive. I want to hear their experiences. All of their experiences. I am not collecting stories to make an argument. This is art, not argument.
Later I was setting up cameras to document spoken word performances by Nikki Patin , Tara Betts, Reginald Eldridge, Billy Tuggle, Mojdeh Stoakley. A three-camera shoot, for once! With good tripods. Art people know what I mean, the luxury of time to set up documentation, to pick your shots. I was goofing with Reggie, who was going to use this amazing AV setup to do something with images and words together. The trustee’s boardroom includes a remote like a garage door opener that lifts a screen out of the furniture . . . And the security guard came in and asked us to leave, all the buildings are being evacuated.
Nikki arrived at the room as the security guard mentioned “bomb threat”. Really? Really? Later when we’re all huddled under a little cement hutch-thing we joked about how a group that’s majority brown people go to a mostly-white college campus to talk about gun violence and there’s a bomb threat.
Stephen, the gallery manager, snapped photos with his iPhone, risking water damage – the sky had opened up as well with a pounding rain. And as we puzzled it out, as we thought about Jo’s statement that NIU closed some smaller campuses over the summer and it’s probably someone who lost a job – the threat was directed at all the buildings on the NIU campus, it’s not about us – I thought about the white guy who called in bomb threats almost once a week to my high school. This was fall of my Senior Year. Is it bad that I remember his name? Or compassionate? He had so much hatred. He would smile and fake his niceness but the poison was there, controlling 1,000 high school kids from a distance, with his phone.
Eventually the bus bringing Billy Tuggle and one audience member from the Metra mades it. And Mojdeh drove in. She talked about the strangeness of driving to a place every car was fleeing from.
I had to get back into the building to collect my suitcase; Jo needed to lock up the camera equipment. I did the fastest teardown I could. Jo inadvertently alerted security to us being in the building by pulling down a shade in the window.
We were asked to leave again, this time by a gentle Hispanic security guard who said “We chose not to hit the alarms. That would be too much.” Instead they walked through every floor of every building. This is what you do when you have a bomb threat on a college campus that survived a thing.
I thanked him for that, profusely; the evacuation was triggering enough. He said, “I’m just glad I found you in there before the dogs came through. They wouldn’t have liked finding you.” He had a long night ahead. Bomb-sniffing dogs had to visit every building on campus.
The entire show explores the social and political issues surrounding firearms. It has toured other areas and is now coming to a campus that was involved in a tragic shooting in 2008.
“[Guns are] uniquely part of American history compared to other countries,” Fenlon said. “This object is used to kill more Americans than any other consumable goods or consumable objects. The climate in America is so intensely wrapped in extreme attitudes about it and extreme fear or grief.”
Suzanne Slavick, curator of the exhibit and Carnegie Mellon University art professor based in Pittsburgh, said the university was very sensitive to that aspect of the show.
“With shows like these or any artwork that deals with trauma, there is a tension between opening wounds and doing further harm,” Slavick said. “I think this show tries to give a larger picture across the country and even abroad. Hopefully it’ll provide context.”
Adam Poulisse interviewed me yesterday morning; I’m humbled by the resulting article. In it, Mr. Poulisse introduces the show UNLOADED, currently installed at Northern Illinois University.
As what’s left of summer turns to fall, I’m getting ready to be the audience for some amazing spoken word performers. I’m also preparing new work – a performance piece, of all things! Both are built into an existing body of work visiting Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Illinois.
An exhibition of “works by over 20 artists examine and represent the role that guns play in our national mythologies, suicide rates, incidence of individual and mass murder, cases of domestic violence, and the militarization of civilian life”, UNLOADED opens at Northern Illinois University today. Curated by Susanne Slavic, it includes work by Devan Shimoyama; Adrian Piper [ work pictured here : Imagine (Trayvon Martin) 2013 ]; Mel Chin; Stephanie Syjuco; Andrew Ellis Johnson; Vanessa German; and myself.
Imagine (Trayvon Martin) 2013. Adrian Piper.
events for UNLOADED : Guns & Consequences and send & receive
One of the privileges of living in Chicago has been listening to poets who write about American injustices, inequities, and violences head-on in their work. Tara Betts Reginald Eldridge Mojdeh Stoakley Billy Tuggle and Nikki Patin each have their own visionary approaches to the subject of guns. I get chills writing their names in a list like this – this is going to be an amazing evening! I hope you can join me for an evening of poetry on October 8. Nikki Patin will be our host for Guns and Consequences, a poetry/spoken word/prose event that night. I don’t think this much brilliance is normally allowed to be together in one place. Don’t worry – more details will follow as October approaches . . .
Guns and Consequences arose from my conversations with Josephine Burke, the curator at NIU’s Art Museum. She got in touch with me earlier this summer after she had programmed UNLOADED into the Museum’s galleries for the fall. We discussed possible events to extend the content of the show. Ms. Burke mentioned to me that some faculty and staff at NIU had survived the devastation of a classroom shooting on campus in 2008.
There is no place in America, really, where gun violence doesn’t leave its mark. Gun violence marks people.
Who has the authority to lay claim to the stories around objects which can have caused this harm? In the process of making ungun, I listened to many non-artists’ spontaneous stories about guns. Some were traumatic, others, utilitarian.
send and receive, the performance installation I created for UNLOADED, makes space inside the exhibit for the audience’s narratives. In this work, I will listen to audience members as they, one at a time, tell me a single story, an experience with guns. As a living ‘listening post’, I will not share their story with others.
The social mechanics of listening will be designed in a particular way. I will have assistants to help explain the work and help visitors participate. There will be an etiquette to the work, a formed ritual designed to assist a kind of routinized, public participation.
The work is a first attempt of mine to honor the reality that art made with the symbolic presence of these weapons – well, any published media claims the authority to tell the story, takes the story from the reader. When the story opens space to the traumatic, the audience, too, may need the space to be the authority, to say their own truth.
I will perform send and receive on Saturday, October 17.