Visual Arts

Assembling the City

The Floating Museum imagines a new kind of institution

Lois Biggs

Between Pilsen and Bridgeport, between the Eleanor Boathouse’s spiked rooftops and the factories lining Bubbly Creek, sits the Floating Museum’s latest project, a barge that aims to carry collaborative, site-specific art along the Chicago River. The soft rumble of nearby traffic and the shouts of high school rowing coaches fill the humid August air.

The barge is open to the public during the boathouse’s hours, but construction is ongoing—Floating Museum board members and volunteers survey and readjust onboard installations while a handful of visitors meander through the site. Aside from a video screen and a large yellow bust of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, most of these installations are housed in a pyramid of shipping containers. One contains sculpted busts, one is covered in a swirl of spray paint, while another renders a perennial question in black-and-white text: are we there yet?

No answer is given.

One week later, docked at the Riverwalk, the Floating Museum hosts a party.

Artists from Pilsen gallery and art-making space AMFM blast music and twirl around the barge’s now polished shipping containers. DJ Bonita Appleblunt, AMFM’s resident DJ, can do no wrong—every song she cues up draws cheers from a growing crowd. Among the partygoers is Beverly resident Maria Johnson, who grins and taps her toes to the beat. Johnson works around the corner at BatesCarey LLP and stumbled upon the event during her lunch break.

“I love it, it brings everyone together,” she says. “Even the mayor was here. He wasn’t dancing, but he was here.”

The Loop’s lunchtime rush ensures a steady stream of visitors. Some whiz in and out, others stay for a few minutes, while others yet stick around, enraptured. A cluster of businessmen with pressed suits and Chipotle bags peek at the spectacle over their sunglasses. Tourists, suitcases in hand, dance their way past the barge and draw cheers from onlookers. And directly in front of the barge, a tightly packed crowd of Floating Museum board members and friends dances with no inhibitions.

There’s a striking interplay between the sound of music and the sound of the Riverwalk. Rumbling bass lines mix with taxi honks, and breaks between songs are filled with stray commentary from megaphone-wielding tour boat guides. As the set comes to a close a half hour later than planned, Johnson darts off to ask Appleblunt for the afternoon’s playlist.

All the while, a yellow bust of Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable watches over the festivities.

Over the course of its stops in South Chicago, Bridgeport, and the Riverwalk throughout the month of August, the Floating Museum hosted similar community events ranging from collaborative art projects (Sticks + Tape) to song circles with co-director Avery R. Young to place-based, dialogue-centered “Breaking Bread” panels.

After a Breaking Bread panel at the Riverwalk August 24, Floating Museum volunteers passed out leftover boxed sandwiches to passersby. Sitting on the River Theater steps, lanyard in hand, Floating Museum cofounder and former South Side Community Arts Center director Faheem Majeed corrected a common misconception—that the barge itself is the Floating Museum.

“This is not the Floating Museum that we’re looking at,” he said, gesturing to the shipping containers, video screen, and bust. “This is the River Assembly, this is the exhibition the Floating Museum puts on. The Floating Museum is a network of people coming together to do something really fucking hard.”

The Floating Museum’s website describes this network as “a collaborative arts organization that creates temporary, site-responsive museum spaces to activate sites of cultural potential throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.” The idea originated when Majeed and fellow UIC graduate student Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford toured the DuSable Museum of African American History. The two sculptors were struck by how founder Margaret Burroughs placed equal value on pieces by well-known artists and pieces by unknown community members, and considered if this could be replicated on a broader scale.

“We wondered what would happen if we floated, metaphorically or poetically, the museum from one side of town to downtown, to the Museum Campus, where all the resources are, where all the tourism is,” Majeed said. “What would happen to the community that it’s tethered to? What would happen to how the museum functions? What would happen to its history?”

Majeed and Hulsebos-Spofford decided to test their speculations by floating a scale model of the DuSable down the Chicago River, recontextualizing the museum’s art in an examination of place and institutionality. But as they gathered materials and planned the project, the artists faced challenges in navigating, as Majeed put it, “the politics and the stakeholders of the river.” In 2014 they brought more artists on board—Hyde Park Art Center architect Andrew Schachman among them—and, with hopes of better navigating the river’s political landscape, began developing relationships with city officials, law firms, and neighborhood organizations.

Meanwhile, Schachman’s influence and interest in transformative spaces led the Floating Museum team to reimagine their project. Instead of floating the DuSable down the river, they envisioned a conceptual space that could link Chicago neighborhoods and organizations. This speculative space, an art-filled barge accompanied by site-specific community events, is called the River Assembly. The name plays on the notion of assembly, framing the project as a gathering of people as well as an act of construction.

A summer 2016 installation in Calumet Park and an exhibition at the DuSable last winter and spring preceded the River Assembly, which opened in Southeast Chicago on August 2. Majeed described all of these events as “rehearsals.”

“I’m very suspect of final definition,” he said. “We don’t talk about finishing anything, we call everything a rehearsal, everything’s a rehearsal for the next rehearsal. It’s all about rehearsing and learning.”

And while the River Assembly shifted from a concrete space to an abstract one, the DuSable remained an important partner of and philosophical inspiration for the Floating Museum. Rather than carrying the museum itself down the Chicago River, the barge carried a fourteen-foot bust of its namesake. The bright yellow sculpture is tilted to the side as if fallen or broken.

“We’ve got work to do to put his head back on right, so he can walk around with his head on his shoulders, proud and Haitian,” said Young at the Breaking Bread panel.

Chicago artist and graffiti-writer Miguel Aguilar, who had a piece on the barge, praised the museum’s unconventional approach.

“I think it’s important to have that sort of interruptive discourse where people are blurring lines purposefully, interrupting power dynamics and giving more people access to mobilization and autonomy,” he said. “I think it’s a great gesture [for the museum] to be called an institution and also challenge what the meaning of what an institution is.”

The Floating Museum’s relationship with institutionality is subversive, but it also warrants critique. Majeed weaves a common theoretical language throughout his explanation of the project: he considers its mission in terms of assembly, speculation, partnership, flattening, and rehearsal. Within this worldview, the organization is more than a citywide collection of people and groups—it’s the city of Chicago itself. In imagining this approach, perhaps the Floating Museum is ahead of its time.

But is this utopian vision of exchanges and networks just that—utopian?

While the organization aims to showcase Chicago neighborhoods and transcend their boundaries, the destination of the River Assembly’s art and artists was here in the Loop, where the city’s wealth and power are concentrated. And while crews worked on the barge in Southeast Chicago and in Bridgeport, there’s no trace of that construction at the Riverwalk. The slick, polished shipping containers are neatly arranged, and Floating Museum board members give daily guided tours, an option only offered at this site. Majeed stated that this difference is purposeful. Unlike the prior sites, he said, here you don’t see the wizard behind the curtain.

“It has to fit in, to a certain extent, fit in to how things are done [at the Riverwalk] as a way of building trust,” he said. “It’s not about guerilla warfare, it’s not about a takeover, it’s about understanding and respecting where we are.”

The Floating Museum’s abstractions invite response on a similarly theoretical level. Public museums in any form play an important role in the creation of knowledge and power, and like the Floating Museum, tend to be situated in metropolitan centers. Sociologist Tony Bennett examines this relationship in his 1995 book The Birth of the Museum, arguing that art exhibitions historically “[render] the whole world metonymically present, subordinated to the dominating gaze of the white, bourgeois, and (although this is another story) male eye of the metropolitan powers.”

To passersby at the River Assembly, to Rahm Emanuel, to businessmen on lunch breaks, did the Floating Museum’s “institutional critique of how we can think about partnering and value” hit home? Is there a way for artists like Aguilar and organizations like Project Onward to gain visibility outside the gaze of Chicago’s metropolitan powers? Majeed acknowledges the situation’s complexity, explaining that although the project prioritizes communities it also needs to consider stakeholders. And while he recognizes that this won’t always be the case, he hopes that crowds of tourists and Chicago residents will follow the barge’s “breadcrumbs” and go on to learn more about the Floating Museum’s partner organizations.

Although the project’s abstract language and intentions intertwine it closely with the metropolitan gaze, its overall goal of connecting through art is admirable. As an institution that—in Aguilar’s words—challenges the meaning of institutions themselves, it blurs the lines between spectacle and insurrection.

The barge contained multimedia works from well-known Chicago artists including Afrofuturist Hebru Brantley, Experimental Station founder Dan Peterman, and Obama Presidential Center design team member Amanda Williams, who currently has an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. However, many of its cabinets held art sourced from neighborhood organizations—SkyART, a South Chicago community art center, and Project Onward, a nonprofit studio and gallery for artists with exceptional talents and challenges, are two prominent examples. The Floating Museum hired ten SkyART youth participants to spend the summer traveling to cultural sites around the city and curating their own crates on the barge. Project Onward participants also created works for the barge, several of which focused on the history of and environmental threats to Bubbly Creek.

The Floating Museum sees showcasing these organizations and making connections between them as a vital part of their mission.

“Although a lot of our cultural investment is downtown, our neighborhoods are doing amazing things,” said Majeed. “Our goal is to make the city into the museum and the neighborhoods into galleries. Chicago is a very segregated space, so a lot of these organizations don’t connect because they’re very rooted in their galleries.”

In response, the Floating Museum aims to produce a “flattening” in Chicago, a practice of dialogue and resource sharing between the city’s organizations. Majeed cited the relationship between Project Onward and the West Pullman Adult Special Needs Art Class, both of whom had work in the Museum’s DuSable exhibition, as an example. He described a scene of mutual inspiration and “poetic moments of making connections” as artists from both organizations met for the first time, and the Floating Museum’s website states that “the two groups have plans to work together in the future.”

While Majeed discussed the Museum’s interactions with other organizations, he didn’t go into detail about what relationships between Museum-affiliated organizations and artists could look like beyond the context of the River Assembly.

The Floating Museum also hoped to highlight Chicago’s “galleries” by sponsoring community events at community venues every Friday night. One of these partnered events took place August 11 at Pilsen’s Rootwork Gallery, a small exhibition space just off the Dan Ryan Expressway. Founded by Tracie D. Hall, the former deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Rootwork is a spiritual and artistic space focused on, in Hall’s words, “reconciliation, reparation, indigenous artwork and art forms, and street art.”

The evening’s gallery opening celebrated “Shoot yr Shot,” an exhibition focused on Chicago street art and curated by Aguilar, poet and writer Tara Mahadevan, and and Young Chicago Authors director Kevin Coval. While the Floating Museum provided the opening with financial support and publicity, it did not influence the exhibition’s programming or advertise itself at the event. As visitors trickled in and out of the gallery, glasses of homemade kale lemonade in hand, Hall discussed the importance of public art, whether in the form of graffiti or projects like the River Assembly.

“Public art to me is fundamentally important because it breaks down any barriers that the public has in encountering art,” she said. “The art is found in spaces where people can encounter it and interpret it as they wish.” She also noted how Chicago neighborhoods, despite extreme segregation, are connected by rivers and lakes and, by extension, a common fate.

“As [The Floating Museum] moves it accumulates talent and the energy and imagination of each neighborhood,” Hall said. “So for me, maybe that’s where the future of the museum itself is headed. I think that in some ways, maybe the Floating Museum is getting where we need to go first.”

Despite his enthusiasm about the Floating Museum’s future, Majeed isn’t optimistic about it, at least not in a traditional sense. He recognizes that the organization sits not only amidst a network of connections but amidst a network of complications and challenges, and describes the Floating Museum’s tasks as crazy, imaginative, and impossible.

One of these tasks, possibly the central task, is creating a “sustainable model” in which Chicago community members and organizations can enter a network, share resources, and be valued regardless of fame or budget. Through their project’s evolution, and however abstract their language or imperfect their execution, the Floating Museum’s co-directors never forgot Margaret Burroughs’s DuSable, never gave up on trying to bring one institution’s model of equity to an entire city. And they don’t plan on giving up anytime soon. Majeed considered the story of Sisyphus, a Greek king sentenced by Zeus to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity.

“It’s a morbid one of someone pushing the motor uphill, constantly doing the same thing and getting the same results,” he said. “But then you think about that boulder. What if there are twenty people lifting that boulder? Then forty? Then fifty? The boulder’s still going to roll down the hill, maybe it won’t, but along the way you start having exchanges that end up being, in the long run, more important.”

The River Assembly’s time at the Riverwalk ended with a performance of art.i.fact, an “intersection of art and history” written and coordinated by Avery R. Young. Currently, the organization is part of the DuSable’s Palais de Tokyo exhibition, run concurrently with the Chicago Architecture Biennial—this Saturday, October 21, Young will perform the multidisciplinary performance piece parable of a maroon-moon ritual & a southern tree (part 1 &2) at the DuSable’s Roundhouse.

The Palais de Tokyo exhibition and performance present an opportunity to see how Floating Museum principles will play out within the context of a broader institution rather than a self-directed project. And as far as self-directed projects go, the organization plans to focus their efforts in Austin next summer, an endeavor that will receive, in Majeed’s words, “the same amount of commitment and infrastructure” as the River Assembly.

“Next summer we’re talking about going back to land,” Majeed said. “We ain’t going to be in the water next summer, we’re not the people who float down water.”

On land or in water, in neighborhoods or downtown, is the Floating Museum there yet? Maybe not, but it’s ready for the next rehearsal.

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