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Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen for Bad at Sports

The Doris Salcedo show, recently on view at the MCA, was a hard one to watch. Not because it was a bad show; numerous reviews pointed out it is an extremely well curated, beautifully executed, and timely show of the monumental oeuvre of a major Latin American artist.

Major female Latin American artist.

The latter only added to the shows importance, in case you were wondering. But none of all this is what made the show hard to watch. Salcedo’s visual language is worldly, and spoken by an international elite of sculptors such as Rachel Whiteread, Jannis Kounellis, Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys; a universally understood shorthand, whereby dark wood furniture and cast concrete reads like a history of human suffering. That language we speak, and read, and understand, as an important part of the so-called “post-colonial” discourse. (So called, because who are we kidding?)

What made Salcedo’s show so confronting was the silence in between. A silence that is uncomfortable, not as in awkward, not at all, but as in loaded. Like sitting next to your child’s sick bed, or worse yet, waiting for a child that does not return home; you understand that this is not about you, there is nothing you can do, and you would rather be anywhere else than right here, right now –yet right here is the only place to be, the only place you can be, right now. It is torturous.

Salcedo is no stranger to the idea of torture –her diligently researched body of work deals largely with its after effects—but neither are we: The principle of torture is inflicting pain, while willfully withholding relief. The deaths of innocent, unarmed men, at the hand of armed police officers, is pain inflicted not only on the victims and their families, on society as a whole. The refusal of relief, in the form of justice, as administered by a supreme court who refuses to indict the responsible parties, is torture.

Into this torturous silence, Kirsten Leenaars inserted three performances, each of an hour’s duration. Clad in a uniform black, her motley crew of mourners, performed the ceremonial task of animating the negative spaces in and between Salcedo’s work by supporting, comforting, hugging, healing, touching each other –and their audience by extension—while breaking the silence with chants and short monologues. The whole exhibition space carried the sound of what by association would be a funeral drum, was it not that Dan Bitney’s synchopated beat was teeming with life. In the invitation to the third performance, Leenaars explained:

“The idea of the witness is explored in relationship to recent events in America – the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. The performance questions specifically, what does it mean to be a witness today? And how do you realize that you are not the origin of your own empathy but it is the other who triggers you to imagine yourself in the place of the other. And how can this be a position of hope?”

I will spare you Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” and her insistence that we derive an almost pornographic pleasure from bearing witness, from a safe distance, to other people’s suffering. Although she (obviously) has a point, her thesis begins and ends with the premise that we are capable of empathetically feeling other people’s pain, but does not attempt to illuminate the origin of this capacity.

In a recent issue of New Scientist, however, Barbara Finlay offers some insight into the evolutionary mechanics of pain. In her article “The Unique Pain of Being Human,” she argues that since certain types of pain, such as labor pain, seem to be a specifically human trait, some biological and sociological benefits must be derived from it:

“The basic function in pain is the same for all vertebrates: it alerts an animal to potential damage and reduces activity after trauma. It is often argued that pain must be different in humans because of our ability to anticipate it or imagine its effect on us. But independent of whether cognition and culture can modify pain, I am suggesting a more basic difference in humans compared with animals: that some varieties, such as labor pain, appear only in humans, and others such as post-trauma pain are magnified.

These forms of pain appear in tandem with the ability to recruit help, to elicit an altruistic response in others.”

So pain is social glue. In this double bind we not only the cause of each other’s pain (literally) but also its remedy. Hell is the other, but so is help.

By mourning our dead together, by protesting the injustice suffered, and by ending the silence laid upon us, we not only overcome, we become. Human. Social beings.

Social beings remember each other, even when separated –for a time, or forever. Part of the performers’ script consists of testimonies to the memories the victims. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. Not only their names: what they looked like, what they wore, or how they walked, talked, moved in this world.

Performance art will not bring them back (and neither will sculpture) nor is it a match to the police state –but art can be a powerful reminder that powers operate within our society, other than the powers that be. It can be a wake-up-call to walk away, from oppression and silencing, if not from pain. But first we need to stand up and feel again.

With their closing lines, Kirsten Leenaars performers command us to do just that:

“Stand up. If you’ve ever known love: stand up! Stand up, if you want to love again. Stand up for lives and loves lost.”


Disclaimer: Those of you who know me well, knows that I know Kirsten Leenaars very well, and that I am writing this review, not from the objective position of an art critic, but from that of a very subjective friend.

Ed. note: 

Leenaars will present an iteration of “Notes on Empty Chairs” at Gallery 400 on Tuesday, July 21 at 6:00pm–

The Imaginary Center of Perception A collaborative performance by Kirsten Leenaars

Albeit highly mediated in TV and the Internet, artist Kirsten Leenaars responds to the witnessing of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, to name a few. Leenaars’ performance responds to the anger, the pain, the injustice, a flawed system and the senseless loss of lives. Performers: Marvin Tate, Matthew Robinson, Regin Iglora, Kim Chayeb, Monica Brown, Wa Chontong, Toni Zhao, Opel Smittinet, Valentina Vella, Alison Auwerda, Udita Upadhyaya, Kekeli Kodzo Sumah. Drummer: Dan Bitney.

Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark in 1992 to study painting in the Netherlands. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work. Her first book “Mothernism” was published by Poor Farm Press and Green Lantern Press in 2014.

Link to post on Bad at Sports blog:


“I think the most effective forms of critique are ones that establish a common ground for people to occupy, and then appeal to the best nature of people on that common ground.” –Mohsin Hamid

#thisistomorrow is a relevant title for a set of visuals, texts and actions describing the current state of local and global affairs. It deflates the present through the lens of the many hardships associated with real change. Tomorrow may not be much different than a present that is flocked with turmoil, political mediocrity, corruption and poverty—all intertwined with violence and the misinterpretation of power. #thisistomorrow also candidly implies what we, or the next generation, will inherit. As dismal as this reality is, it also creates a space where artists and thinkers can creatively re-imagine a different future.

An optimistic tomorrow is perhaps a society that has not fully reduced language and communication to the will of technology. Another tomorrow is hopefully a society where policy can be generated from the street corner or cul-de-sac. If the obvious question is how do we arrive at another tomorrow? – then a direct answer is to expand the roles that are prescribed or that we signed up to play. In contemporary art, this implies a shift from singular, handmade forms to collaboration writ large, away from the studio and into the community, and away from the market towards shared models of sustainability.

In her first solo exhibition in Washington, Dutch-born Chicago-based artist Kirsten Leenaars presents a suite of video installations and text-based works that taken as a whole are both a starting point and departure from our current political climate. #thisistomorrow brackets recent events such as Ferguson and Charlie Hebdo, among others, in order to form a sociopolitical space that can exist outside of the media and in the hands of a community.

Especially conceived for DCAC and filmed in DC, her newest video piece mines the tradition and format of the protest song – and protest poem – as an open call that brings together a range of local performers, musicians and poets to cathartically respond with their own artistic inflections and concerns. Re-mixed as a narrative sequence rather than a series of auditions, the video acts as a form of creative reportage uncovering personal experiences, collective histories, and a form of succinct expression that is devoid of hashtags, social media and politicized slogans. What surfaces is a cross-section of a local, creative community’s response to the abuse of power and the radicalization of ideas. The performers in the video include: Shanna Lim, Born I Music, Joseph Ross, Katy Richey, Alan King, Abby Braithwaite, Courtney Dowe, Mansoor Celestin, and Ethelbert Miller.

Two additional works form a conceptual triangle. A series of appropriated text-based works derived from protest signs and placards of grievance, such as “Je suis Charlie,” highlight the possible shift towards an empathetic social consciousness. Yet they also implicate the subjective nature of language. Words, too, have the power to align themselves into unexpected chords of nuance, to pivot and reveal. Leenaars’ second video, Not In Another Place, But This Place… (Happiness), addresses the personal and collective notions of happiness. Acting as a neighborhood artist-in-residence in Edgewater, Chicago, Leenaars worked with local residents from all walks of life to respond to the prompt in the American Declaration of Independence—the pursuit of happiness. The three-channel video is composed of scenes in which community participants embody their version of happiness through various performative actions within specifically designed sets.

As with most of Leenaars’ work, her projects’ participants are given both the power and the role to complete the artwork rather than just being the subject in it. This spirit of art making underscores a progression in art, where the artist’s practice is perhaps more akin to that of a choreographer, producer and community activist. The space shared, as opposed to created, is rendered visible through vestiges of organizing, mediation and activation instead of mere depiction. If activism can be considered a seed, Kirsten Leenaars sets out to germinate communities so that they too can reconsider their roles and hopefully transform from witnesses to agents of change.


Kirsten Leenaars’ practice is a hybrid of social practice, video and performance-based work that engages with specific people and communities. Her work oscillates between fiction and documentation, reinterprets personal stories and reimagines everyday realities through staging, improvisation and play. She examines the very nature of our own constructed realities, the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we identify with, in order to explore the way we relate to one another. In her work she brings to light a shared humanity, often through humor and play. She has shown and developed work for numerous national and international venues including, Museo Universitario del Chopo (Mexico City), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Elaine L. Jacob Gallery (Detroit), Printed Matter (New York), Wexner Center (Columbus), Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam), and Kunst Fabrik (Munchen). She has also shown extensively in artspaces such as Glass Curtain Gallery, Threewalls, 6018 North, and Hyde Park Art Center, all in Chicago. Leenaars is currently an Assistant Professor in the Contemporary Practices department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


José Ruiz is a Peruvian-born artist and curator. He received his MFA in 2004 from the San Francisco Art Institute’s New Genres program and BA from the University of Maryland. During the past 15 years, he has shown his work in U.S. cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC and internationally in countries such as Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, Japan, Slovakia, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, South Korea, and the Netherlands. His projects have been featured in museums such as El Museo del Barrio, Queens Museum of Art, Bronx Museum of the Arts, El Museo de Arte de El Salvador, and the Van Abbe Museum. Ruiz’s practice has been the subject of various publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, ARTnews, Arte al Dia, Artnet, and the Washington Post. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at George Washington University, Maryland Institute College of Art, Moore College of Art & Design and University of Maryland University College. Additionally, he is the founder of Furthermore— a research, production and development lab in Washington, DC—and a co-founder of Present Company—a Brooklyn-based exhibition, performance and social space.

Kirsten Leenaars choreographs visual and sound narratives through directing persons and place to create fictionalized realities. The COMP Magazine recently visited Leenaars’ Humboldt Park studio to discuss making art in a new country, how collaboration is essential to being human and why play should be something not lost in adulthood.

You are a transplant from the Netherlands now living and working in Chicago. Can you provide a little background on yourself and how this move to Chicago has impacted your artistic practice?

I was indeed born and raised in the Netherlands, a small crowded country under sea level. Where human nature prevailed and men made land out of water. That sense of potentiality is ingrained in my soul. I was raised with the following paradoxical doctrine: don’t stand out, acting normal is already quite crazy enough…. In addition I grew up believing in Sinterklaas, not Santa Claus. A Turkish Saint on a white horse living in Spain, making an annual trip to my home country by boat. This is how my art making started, crafting traditional Sinterklaas presents, products of tinkering, aimed at giving a beloved a gift with the appearance of something completely different, accompanied by a poem, serving as a mocking form of portraiture. All this is inextricably interwoven with my interest in the wide scope of manifestations of humanness and discovering potential. Early aspirations of becoming a spy, a detective or an anthropologist are still present in my work, but the pleasure of making trumped these ambitions and I turned out to be an artist instead. I am by nature a make believer and an eternal optimist, somehow these qualities have found a more resonant and creative home in the States. I like being able to look at things through the eyes of a foreigner, I need the conflict, diversity and optimism that living here has provided me. My work is perhaps uniquely American in that respect. I think in Chicago I gave myself permission to work against and with the idea of ‘not standing out’ and play more freely as an artist and offer through my work platforms for others to perform and play.

Not in Another Place but this Place... (Happiness), video still

In looking at your work, I have noticed an intersection between social practices and contemporary aesthetics. There is also a sense of play. Is this a correct analysis? Is there a specific philosophy that ties your investigations and application together?

In the Netherlands there is a strong tradition of both documentary and musical making. These seemingly opposite traditions became my portals to art making and thinking about the nature of portraiture, fostering relationships, and story telling. In addition these traditions made me think about what it means to perform and fictionalize the everyday and people’s real experiences. Various forms of performance, theater, and documentary strategies make up the threads that run through my work. I often look at the work of choreographers Pina Bausch and Bill T Jones, artists Maria Pask and Althea Thauberger, and documentary makers Marjoijn Boonstra, Errol Morris and Studs Terkel. I am interested in how each of them uses personal stories and interactions to tell a common and enlarged story, connecting to the larger reality of which we are all part. In my work I explore the nature of narratives and looks at how we relate to other people and what shapes these relationships. All starting with the acknowledgement that in one way or another we are simply all connected, all human, all in the business of being human with all our flaws, projections, desires, hopes and fears.

Not in Another Place but this Place... (Happiness), installation view

Collaboration has also been a recurring theme in your oeuvre. Can you discuss the value of this and how you make your selections? Are there any particular projects that best illustrate this approach?

“Man is only completely human when we play”

A quote from Schiller at the end of his 15th letter on the aesthetic education of mankind. As a ‘true’ artist, I did not read these letters and probably am taking this sentence completely out of context. But I very much relate to this. There is agency a play, something we so naturally do as kids, but somehow seem to lose that ability when we have deemed our selves adults. In my work I aim to bring to light a shared humanity, often through humor and play. Play as site of vulnerability and risk-taking, empathy and an open space for alternative modes of representation. Trust is key in creating this space.

Thinking about how to foster trust and this open space really came from my interest in documentary film and photography. I grew up with a father who is an avid amateur photographer. World Press Photo books and The Family of Men were stacked on our shelves. Countless family albums were evidence of this passion. His interest informed my art practice which started with photography. I began trying to articulate this space between my participants and me, and began to define this as a collaborative process.

I think at times of the work as an encounter, just as how you might look at a portrait of a stranger. The portrait becomes a place where difference meets— a place for vulnerability and acceptance. For me it means that in my practice I try to create a space of inclusion where those represented can participate in their own representation.

The past 7 years of my practice I have worked collectively with a variety of communities to examine our ways of being and being represented. The work is articulated in dialogue with my participants. Questions arise in response to a given situation (the death of my grandmother in Folding Within You, Without You), a community (exploring notions of happiness in the Edgewater neighborhood in (Not in Another Place, But This Place…(Happiness)) or site, (producing a soap opera about the museum staff and visitors of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in On Our Way to Tomorrow). Every project has its own set of considerations for collaboration, depending on the subject matter I want to address and the community I would like to engage. It is never the same. This collective form of making is capital in the production of the work, but it is not the work itself or just a method. I hope that because of my participants and through this collective process, the final work -already peopled- will continue to ask questions of how we are all connected and point to how we are all engaged in this creative endeavor called being human.

Homeland of Gestures, video still

You recently did a residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts. What was your focus during this residency? Did this project stem from previous efforts? Perhaps, you can elaborate on the experience?

I was at The Wexner in October and will be going there again in about a week to continue the editing process. I am editing a multi channel sci-fi video piece, The Invasion of the Hairy Blobs – The Conspiracy of Improbabilities. The video was filmed at the Hyde Park Art Center during my residency there as part of Hairy Blob exhibition, curated by Adelheid Mers. I worked in every corner of the Hyde Park Art Center to develop this participatory science fiction movie, with staff members as my actors. The roles were created based on their positions at the Center and the conversations I had with them during my stay. The video imagines the Art Center as a tightly-run ship on a mission with an exciting voyage ahead, halted by a group of mysterious furry visitors who seem to take over, making time seem to disappear. It is such a gift to work at the Wexner, to have that focused time to just look at your footage over and over again and to piece your work together second by second. It is also quite wonderful to work with an editor, and have that second pair of eyes and someone who thinks with you. During my first visit it was too early in my process to really work with Paul – the Wexner assigns you an editor to work with as part of the residency – but now on my return visit he will be fully part of the process. Can’t wait.

Hairy Blob, picture of cast

What are you working upon now? Are there any future projects you plan to present in Chicago?

A new video work will be part of Rafael Vera’s solo show: The Moments Between, curated by Jessica Cochran at the A&D Gallery (Columbia College), opening on January 15.

The week after I will be in Mexico City, performing new work with poets Joel Craig and Luis Felipe Fabre as part of the Lit&Luz festival.

And for the Spring I am developing Notes on Empty Chairs, a series of 3 in-gallery performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago – as part of their ‘Live’ programming on Tuesdays – exploring themes of empathy, community, and remembrance in response to the exhibition Doris Salcedo which will open in February 2015 at the MCA. Working with local political organizations, activists and with victims of violence, I will locate some of the issues Salcedo addresses in her work in Chicago.

On March 19th my solo show at DCAC, Washington DC will open where I will show Not in Another Place, But This Place…(Happiness) and additional new work produced in DC.

Ongoing: working on a experimental documentary/romantic comedy revolving around the USPS original motto:

Messenger of Sympathy and Love Servant of Parted Friends Consoler of the Lonely Bond of the Scattered Family Enlarger of the Common Life Carrier of News and Knowledge Instrument of Trade and Industry Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations.

On Our Way to Tomorrow, video still

Kirsten Leenaars has exhibited her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), The Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago), Hatch (Detroit), Ghadjapuri Kino Klub (Rotterdam), DePaul Museum of Art (Chicago), Van Abbe Museum/St Anna ziekenhuis (the Netherlands) and numerous other venues in the United States and Europe. When not organizing elaborate tableaux, Kirsten enjoys washing her dishes.

To view additional work by Kirsten Leenaars, please visit:

Kirsten Leenaars: Aesthetics and Social Practice:

Interview by Chester Alamo-Costello

© 2014 The COMP Magazine. Official Art & Design Magazine of the University of St. Francis.

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