Interviews | Visual Arts

Breaking Down the Electric Fence

Monika Neuland on socially engaged art

I grew up in Chicago; in my earliest years I grew up around Humboldt Park. It’s really funny, people ask me how did I come to work wherever it was—West Side, South Side. I was one of two Anglo kids in my school, so when people ask me about why I choose to work with diverse populations or whatever bizarre verbiage or politically correct verbiage du jour that there is floating around, I’m never sure how to really put that forward. The reality is I work with people that I grew up with, that are really to me the primary comfortable real everyday people. I guess as a white woman I’ve noticed people put this frame on me of, “Well, you’re this person working here, this is not the same.”

Monika Neuland is a social practice artist who uses weaving and textile art to engage with people and communities—mostly recently, the community of Hamilton Park in Englewood. Neuland’s experience facilitating art in Chicago parks goes back twenty years, but it was only last year that she connected with Hamilton Park during the Re:Center Project, which aims to increase participation in park Cultural Centers in a community-focused process. Since then, she’s worked on a variety of projects and spent time as artist in residence there, working with co-facilitators and local artists Celestine Carmichael, Andrew Kane, and Regina Wilson, clients of Envision Unlimited, a nonprofit that supports individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I listened raptly as she spun tales of her time at Hamilton, the quiet a-ha moments of her work, and climbing over and knocking down cultural “electric fences.”

We were Czech immigrants, we didn’t speak that much English; I learned to speak English right as I was entering school. I started in first grade, and when I went to school I remember feeling like I’m a kid like anybody else going to school, and then starting to realize on those first few days of school that I understood the gist of what was going on. But there were real specific aspects where I knew that green was a color but I wasn’t sure which one. And so I think that, again, through this very weird sort of lens, I have a real visceral relationship with this idea of—I don’t really want to call it “other,” but of thinking or knowing that you’re part of a system, but at the same time realizing there’s something about you that doesn’t quite address what’s around you in the same way that everybody else does.

It’s a real cool little toolbox if you’re comfortable being uncomfortable or you’ve toughed it out enough times to where you’re like “Hey, I kind of know how to do this.” You see how people stand, how people talk, you see what they’re eating, you really become an anthropologist at a really early age, studying the people around you and gathering a little data about what they’re doing. And then at a certain point you start to either develop theories or [do] the “when in Rome.”

You do get these different keys, and people let you in if you don’t put up an electric fence between you and them. What really motivates my work and my history is that I was also very hyperaware growing up that everyone had these electric fences across the city.

Whether I judged them or knew what they were or why they were, as a young person that was not that relevant to me…I just was aware that you would hear people say, “Don’t go there,” or “You’re riding the bus? Don’t go down whatever street it is,” or “Oh, he’s from a bad neighborhood,” or “That’s a neighborhood in transition,” and you go, “Oookay.” We can find all these ways to state things in the most up-to-date acceptable way and really mask a lot of nonsense about the electric fence. This whole idea of the cultural electric fence has always been fascinating to me, and if anyone says to me, “Well, don’t go there,” I’m automatically going there. I wanna know, why shouldn’t I go there?

 

Going back to the community of people who have disabilities, why them? Why have I worked so extensively with them? Why have they worked so extensively with me? It’s very interesting that disability is something that most people in some way, whether they’ll state it or not, are not always comfortable with. There might be a certain race or class of people that says, well, we don’t associate with so and so, or a certain race of people that says we’re weary of those people, they’re our neighbors and they’ve historically fought with us, or their religion is so different from ours, they’re heathens. You know, all this different black and white contrast-y stuff you can come up with. But even taking a person who is within the socio-political economic ethnic group in your neighborhood, and now you present people with disabilities to people within their group…there is a level of discomfort there, and that’s really interesting to me.

The community of people who are neurologically diverse…is represented everywhere. If you go into an African-American neighborhood, or into an Asian neighborhood, or into a rich neighborhood, lo and behold there is this one common thread that there are these groups of people who have disabilities, and they are largely historically experiencing a sequestered lifestyle through social service organizations that are, quote unquote, serving them, but we’ve still kind of put an electric fence around them. They have been gracious enough to give me a passport into every neighborhood, because through working with this community…you see how people are the same and how people differ and yet how some of the rules that govern this particular reality defy all these other cultural rules, specifically this idea of “us” and “them.”

So it really was amazing—this summer I did an artist residency with this organization SWARM that’s very much about collective art making, collective experience, and I applied for the residency with four other cohorts, three of whom had a developmental disability, and we were accepted. It was just a riot to see by the end of the week how excited everybody was that they had had the opportunity to have a meaningful experience with other artists who had developmental disabilities

How better do you provide access to people with developmental disabilities than by really being a welcoming host, really getting deep into it?

 

When I got approached by the Chicago Parks District…they had said, you know, this person might be good to do this residency, and immediately again I said, “Can I co-teach with people I’ve been working with who are artists in the Englewood community who also incidentally have a disability?” It was such a riot because we had one of our first events at the beginning of the residency, and one of the folks that worked at Hamilton came up to me and said, “You know, so, you said there was gonna be some people coming today,” dot dot dot, and I said yeah, and he said, “Well, are they coming?” And I looked around the room and I said, “They’re here.” And that was all that was said. I don’t think that what he was saying was casting aspersion as much as it was that Hamilton Park has such a sense of welcome, and he was really anticipating, “Will they need something from me? I might need to be receptive to them, because no one asked, ‘Are they a wheelchair user or can they see?’” I think when you say a sentence and the word disability’s in there, it’s almost as if disability is in a two point larger font. It’s not as if they’re hearing physical, mental, developmental; they just have a couple pictures that pop up.

It was in one of our meetings where I looked around and I was like yeah, dammit. This is going back to the WPA [Works Progress Administration] model, which I feel like is what the parks should be about. It’s not casting aspersions to the parks in the past, but there was this dip where it really feels like recreational stuff and sports became what the parks were known for, and much like schools started canceling their art and music programs and a lot of their applied craft, whether it’s even a word like “home economics,” these are things that got cut because there’s no money for the whole person anymore. And I saw that with this artist in residence program at Hamilton, it was a total wellspring of going back to this WPA model, which really at heart is about creating this reservoir that collects the wealth, the narrative wealth, the participatory wealth of a community.

And we had lost that container, that container just wasn’t around in the same way, and because of this incredibly democratic platform that the parks have—largely a free platform—it’s one of the very few places within the electric fence system where you can theoretically, and as I’ve seen it with the Re:Center process, with the parks’ artist in residency program, have an absolutely equal sense of services being delivered within these different neighborhoods, different cultures. And everyone pretends it’s [always] the same, but come on, it’s not the same. Our public school system is linked to taxpayer dollars, so what crap are you talking? So to see that there’s an institution there that is now having this renaissance, looking at the humanities as a way to bring that ethical humanist baseline to all communities…wow, cool, I can so get with that.

 

Courtesy of Monika Neuland

Courtesy of Monika Neuland

My work is so predicated on joy and discovery and this very everyday kind of wonder—there are not supernovas, but there are constant senses of a-ha or acknowledgment if it’s done correctly. But I think the exquisite misery, if there is one, in what I do, one of the huge aggravations for me being an artist working in social practice, primarily having selected to work with people who are neurologically diverse—and those people just happen to be usually experiencing poverty—is that people will say usually some garden variety of, “You’re just such a nice person,” or, “You have to be really patient.” I never know how to respond to that because someone’s trying to give you a compliment as they see it, and I guess I see it as this huge assumption about who I am and who other people are.

I think I really enjoy practical solutions and seeing very boots-on-the-ground ways that things can work, and I think that some of my real reason for doing what I do is that I love to travel. And people don’t assume that five miles from where you live or ten miles from where you live is traveling, but specifically I think Chicago is really a phenomenal city in that way…if we go one mile in any direction here, we are in a completely different world.

The agony is [also] that what people or the media says happens here or there is not the reality. A huge takeaway that I had from Hamilton Park—there was this one teenage boy who came in one afternoon when we were having residency, and he was hovering in the doorway, and I was all like, “Get in here!” And he said, “Well, you know, what are you guys doing?” And we were weaving, looking at looms, and first of all, he started to make all of these incredibly astute historic connections. This is a sixteen-year-old kid who’s there for some sporting event, and he says, “Weaving is a real ancient tradition that links a lot of cultures.” And I’m like “OK, young sporty dude that was on the other side of the door.” So he’s talking to me for about five minutes, really brilliant, and then he stops himself and he says, “Oh! I’m so sorry! I haven’t introduced myself.”

So now we’re off the charts, not only are we brilliant, we’re also incredibly elegant. He says, “My name is Stephen. It’s so nice to meet you. I really appreciate that you let me come into this class. I’m here with a sibling, he’s attending a sporting event…” And I’m just sitting here, like…“Can I take this to the six o’ clock news?” [Some people have] this cultural perception of “Oh, I can’t go there,” and this person was articulate, totally mannered to an extent that like most teenagers anywhere are not. And I’ll go tell my experience to someone, and they’ll smile and say, “You are such a nice person.” And you’re like, “I’d like to dump a pile of slop on you.”

I think the world would really profit from us taking these kind of risks—perceived risks—and when I have documented video of the most tender and soulful and shy young boys who are like holding this little vessel that they made or looking at this piece of thread that they’ve spun, to me, they’re everything that is tenderness and receptivity and care, and this is a nine-year-old young male African-American person, and three, four, five years from now they’re going to walk down the street and people are going to be like, “Here comes a potential threat.” So a lot of the work as it’s emerging for me in social practice is that I’m realizing that I’m sitting on a wealth of information.

In my mind I create these installations where you have this scene of a shooting or some huge cultural disconnect and you bring these images or video, this documentation of these nine-year-old people, five-year old people, in all their glory, of this sixteen-year-old boy with the incredible manners and self-awareness and respect, and I just want to be like, “Hey, could you look at this?” I think it’s a circuit, and this is why it’s difficult, because it’s garbage in, garbage out, fear in, fear out, respect and welcome in, respect and welcome right back at you. How do we put that circuit into a context that makes it user-friendly and makes it in a way this remedy that everyone’s looking for?

But even the idea of remedying a situation assumes that there’s this illness, and you see that in the disability community too, it’s like “Well, you can work with people that just aren’t right,” and it’s like, well, I think you have to go in everywhere thinking if this person’s neurology or their financial situation or their race or their incarceration history or their use history or whatever, it’s just an aspect of who they are but it in no way defines them or their capacity.

I think that working in social practice and so often encountering this poverty as an evidence of something is kind of how I see it, people are just like, “This community has poverty,” but it’s just an evidence of something. If you stand out in the sun for twelve hours you will get a sunburn. It’s just this result, and to flip it around, when you see people who have experienced this and we’re looking at them, other people look with this deficit mindset. If you’re not there, you don’t see the extreme amount of resourcefulness that’s being exercised within this situation of poverty to see that the poverty in fact is this membrane that has a lot of wealth consciousness and a lot of the ability to manifest. And that’s why I work in textiles, and repurposed textiles. Quilting, rag-weaving—it’s amazing because there isn’t a community that you go to that can’t come up with a whole bunch of rags.

The arts are the fastest way to transfer resources. A song—didn’t cost me anything, didn’t cost your ears anything. The visual arts often have the materials component, but also we don’t even need materials. It’s amazing when you just show up and you’re like, “Here we are.”

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