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Emergent Institutions: The Floating Museum’s “A Lion for Every House” Makes New Connections


Installation view of the exhibition “Floating Museum: A Lion for Every House” at the Art Institute of Chicago, June 16–October 17, 2022

Museums and cultural institutions have been making deeply concerted efforts to engage communities: crafting exhibitions, public programs and community outreach to engage demographics likely to have been excluded from decision-making processes and board rooms that dictate the infrastructure of the institution. As large, complex, hierarchical organizations, museums are also expected to provide learning opportunities, forcing the question of who does or doesn’t have access to materials, archives and visible gestures that authenticate the relevance of museums to their publics. The inextricable link between accessibility and social class turns out to be the fatal flaw in engaging “minorities” through participatory action. As curatorial efforts remain confined to the interests of the institution, an echo chamber of gestures has maintained the status quo of value systems concomitant to ticket sales.

In refusal of the deteriorating political, intellectual and social conscience oft associated with the civilizing mission of “high art,” the many-sided Floating Museum opened “A Lion for Every House” at the Art Institute of Chicago, inspiring a discussion on the porousness of the institution and the archive as active agent in collective memory. By considering the institution as a collaborative partner, Floating Museum tests territorial borders in a process-centered exhibition presented in the Photography and Media galleries. Ten large-scale photographic portraits mounted on lightboxes sit facing one another in a community circle, indicating trust and mutuality, highlighting the lateral nature of the collective’s process. Extending rearward from the lightbox is a series of opulent, mnemonic, bulbous gestures, carved of domestic light fixtures that emanate warm and cool washes through half-covered translucent moving boxes and plastic sheets. An entanglement of domestic and the alien touch down on welded aluminum and steel legs with wheel-like feet. The viewer is drawn into the comfort of ten living rooms from the vibrational center of the circle, where each host is photographed sitting beside a photograph, gifted from the museum’s collection. “We were interested in the museum, its history, and the mindset of generosity that once existed within the institution. Beyond discourse, there are people thinking together, talking together, leaving frameworks open to look-at together, that connect us in more meaningful, tangible and lasting ways,” says Andrew Schachman, one of Floating Museum’s four directors, “I mean, how much does the materialization of discourse matter if we don’t touch the ground?”

Floating Museum with Kirsten Leenaars, ‘To lion with no worry or wall.’, 2022/Photo courtesy Floating Museum

The Floating Museum has invited local artists and institutions to collaborate since its inception in 2014, making it impossible to decipher roles in each project. All four co-directors bring seasoned knowledge from their respective fields: Faheem Majeed, once the executive director of the South Side Community Art Center, is an artist, curator, educator and community facilitator who brings his unique curatorial and administrative skills. Avery young, a prominent poet, writer and activist, who was recently conferred the 2022 MacArthur and Field Foundation New Leader award for engaging and advocating for the lives of those suffering structural inequity and oppression, brings linguistic exploration and the logic of rehearsal. Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, a sculptor and professor at the Indiana University Northwest School of the Arts, has been rethinking public art, integrating critical theory and community-forward problem-solving through sculpture. Schachman, a designer, architect and professor of urban design at the University of Chicago, considers the cross-section of art, architecture and public institutions while maintaining an interest in “self-estranging techniques of looking at structures so we can see them.” “We practice tactical anthropology,” says Schachman, as I ask what drives the collective to mine institutional structures in every project. Tackling material and immaterial elements of “the work” through carefully positioned conversations, research, open public workshops and collective creative gesture, Floating Museum initiates what he describes as a process of détournement—revealing the social, cultural and economic complexity of roles that compose a museum.

Installation view of the exhibition “Floating Museum: A Lion for Every House” at the Art Institute of Chicago, June 16–October 17, 2022

Through public, cooperative, transient architectural interventions like “River Assembly,” 2017, and “Cultural Transit Assembly,” 2018-19, Floating Museum works across the city, attempting to articulate the complexity of identity through writing, performance, sculpture and other art forms to bring about an understanding of how communities can inform frameworks for future public policy. Cooperative design meets artistic collaboration, what we encounter is an open-ended approach to a wide range of issues to expand and change the way we think about larger social fabric.

At the Art Institute, curators Liz Siegel, Grace Deveney and Matthew Witkovsky invited Floating Museum to identify pieces from the photography department’s archive of over 22,000 works, initiating a reciprocal curatorial process. “We still learn about new work every time we visit,” says Majeed. The impetus for the detournément was found in a Women’s Board program, when artworks were once available on loan through the 1950s to seventies. “The relationship between the Institute and its audiences once came from the spirit of generosity, and the spirit of funding young artists, like Ed Paschke’s career,” Schachman says. Through a series of guided virtual interviews with community hosts (screened in a rear room that I consider the heart of the exhibition), curators narrowed down works from the collection based on the life stories and concerns of individuals.

Installation view of the exhibition “Floating Museum: A Lion for Every House” at the Art Institute of Chicago, June 16–October 17, 2022

Siegel describes her experience in the process: “Take Joann Podkull Murphy, for example. She’s from the Southeast Side and spoke to us about being a teacher, about history, and about archiving a white, working-class, ethnic community. Her community was also one of the hardest hit by the Vietnam War of almost anywhere in the country because of the number of boys who lost their lives in service.” With this insight, three options were presented to the historian-sociologist from the Southeast Chicago Historical Society: a photograph from the Vietnam War, a Judith Joy Ross image or a Milton Rogovin triptych. Murphy chose the triptych portrait of a steelworker seen at the steel plant, as an Elvis impersonator and as a family man with his partner. Practicing curatorial acumen to make a gift for the individual, structural changes are evidenced through material exchange.

Interacting and reflecting on the dispositions of ten local community stakeholders, both museums paired artworks and guest photographers with artists, educators, arts administrators, patrons, activists and board trustees. Ten Chicago photographers were invited to capture portraits of individual hosts in their homes with their newly gifted pieces. “We were thinking about photographers whose practices could connect and riff with the hosts, but also of careers that were already on a trajectory,” says Majeed. “They would probably end up at the museum either way.” Shepherding unions between Vidura Jang Bahadur, Monica Boutwell, Tonika Lewis Johnson, Kirsten Leenaars, Sulyiman Stokes, Leonard Suryajaya, Nicole Harrison, Jonathan Castillo, Darryl DeAngelo Terrell, Guanyu Xu and the hosts, each artist was given a stipend to create work in their own distinctive style, moving away from the exploitative art world attitude of “doing what you love, so do it for free.” This consciousness of aesthetics and structural transformation, unique to the Floating Museum, allows us to consider material transaction as a signifier of change in a world moving from competition to solidarity, from egoistic pursuit to cooperative system-building.

Each portrait stands on legs with wires and bulbs exposed, rendering visible their functional and constructivist approaches to mining the vulnerabilities of a museum. The lightboxes sit on chassis-like frames composed of parts bolted together, allowing sculptures to be moved and reorganized. “We were thinking of adaptable frameworks,” Hulsebos-Spofford says. Individual atmospheric portraits stand testimony to the depth of newfound relationships between photographers and hosts. In “A lion to sing another into warmth and dream,” Suryajaya distinctly envelops Stephanie Harris’ environs in piquant, kaleidoscopic patterns creating a photomontage from which Harris emerges, bedecked in orange peels. In “To lion in December,” State Representative Curtis J. Tarver II is captured by DeAngelo Terrell. Seen looking out a window, his side profile contrasts the head-on gaze of a portrait by Zanele Muholi.

An integral part of the exhibition is that there are both material and immaterial works on display. While there is the infrastructure of the museum, there is the invisible infrastructure Floating Museum brings through conversation, communication and connectivity that produce artworks. The lightbox sculptures on the central exhibition floor are a collection of individual hopes and aspirations that run deep, rooting the work to the land. Layers of non-physical elements are richly impastoed through poetry in the form of wall labels written by young, on-screen audio-video conversations and a selection of B-roll photographs installed in a separate gallery, indicating market-based bullheadedness the collective and its collaborators began to encounter.

Floating Museum with Leonard Suryajaya, “A lion to sing another into warmth and dream,” 2022/Photo courtesy Floating Museum

As roles relegated to the expertise of directors, curators and artists began to mix, there were complex decisions in selecting photographs to be reproduced before being given to their hosts. There were museum protocols to follow, not dissimilar to protocols Floating Museum have encountered while working with the city or the CTA. The question of limited editions, reproduction permits and the absence of film negatives (the paramount of authenticity in photographic work) created wheels within wheels as curators negotiated with artists and estates for works to be included in the Floating Museum’s vision. “The idea of an edition is a market-imposed structure. Typically ‘There will be no more of this work’ is not something given in writing. It’s an understood, implicit contract,” says Siegel. Associate curator Deveney was also surprised by market-based reactions, “Running into resistance around our ability to reproduce and recirculate things, I couldn’t see why someone wouldn’t want their work to circulate in this context.” As signifiers of what is possible (or impossible) in a culture that is fearful of abstract world-building, the accompanying selection of photographs are tangible results of a process of care carried out by both museums.

Using the exhibition as a space of negotiation, to shift the ways in which we define the public realm, “A Lion for Every House” is not only a place for identifying shared common ground between institutions and communities, but also a spatial exploration of people’s needs and aspirations, expressed in forms that point to alternative social meanings. In a city largely divided by neighborhoods, wards and constituents, the analogy of a shared dining table serves best in conversation with the collective. “We’re lucky to consider the museum as a diner at our table, learning and collaborating with us as we rehearse,” Schachman says. “I want to share food with the amazing people I come into contact with in this city,” says Majeed, “so we go to the best cooks for this meal. A community member is as much an expert on living in a community just as an artist is with a brush, or an architect is with a plan.” The Floating Museum’s exhibition—premised on community engagement, openness, platform building and playfulness—is a metamorphic territory, incrementally shifting attitudinal relations and behaviors in everyone touched by the collective process.

“Floating Museum: A Lion for Every House” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through October 17.

Shane Calvin performing at Boulevard Dreamers, June 25, 2022. Photo credit: Ji Yang

Water Music on the Beach Boulevard Dreamers

Saturday, June 25 from 4-7 PM Lane Beach, 5915 N Sheridan Rd

Join us this Saturday for Water Music on the Beach – our an annual series of live performances on Lake Michigan. This summer, artists Lise Haller Baggesen and Kirsten Leenaars have created Water Music on the Beach: Boulevard Dreamers to connect Edgewater, Rogers Park, and Uptown and celebrate their shared talents and connections to the Lake. The event starts at 6018 N Kenmore Ave at 3 PM with a Boulevard Dreamers Portrait preview. At 3:45 PM together, we will walk to the beach. Beach performances starting at 4 PM. Star-Studded Performances 4:00 pm – Shane Calvin 4:10 pm – The Green Brothers 4:25 pm – Fred Sasaki with Pearl and Rose 4:35 pm – Zach Moore and Sam Scranton 4:50 pm – Jess Smoot 5:00 pm – Rich Blackson, Kofi the Kyd, Trellyo 5:15 pm – Matt Stevenson 5:25 pm – Alex and Ricky Munguia-Mueller 5:40 pm – Emily Hooper, Paula Hooper, Zarah Glenda Baker 5:55 pm – Harlan Rosen 6:05 pm – Corey Douglas Smith 6:15 pm – Akeem Soyan and Marko Stats 6:30 pm – Hannah Santistevan 6:40 pm – Michael Zerang, Janet Bean, Tyler Damon 6:55 pm – Rebirth Poetry Ensemble 7:10 pm – Lifeguard 7:25 pm – Singalong with Anni Holm, Matt Stevenson, and Tricia Van Eck This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency through an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Clockwise: Harlan Rosen, Marko Stats, Alex and Ricky Munguia-Mueller, Emily Hooper, Paula Hooper, Zarah Glenda Baker, Akeem Soyan, Kofi the Kyd, Trellyo, Jess Smoot, Shane Calvin, Fred, Rose, Pearl Sassaki, Lifeguard.

Boulevard Dreamers is a traveling musical variety show and installation that seeks out and highlights the talent within the communities it visits. This collaborative project, created and developed by artists Lise Haller Baggesen and Kirsten Leenaars, consists of three elements: studio portraits of all performers, a stage set/installation, and live performances. Leenaars and Baggesen perform the roles of organizers, talent scouts, community builders, set designers, portrait photographers, stage managers, and event MC's. Earlier presentations of Boulevard Dreamers at The Poetry Foundation, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Franklin, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

On Lane Beach in Edgewater, the installation of a stage frames the view of Lake Michigan. With tinsel, glamour, glitter, and the allure of the spotlight, Boulevard Dreamers embraces the gathering of performers, the staging of the set, and the theatrical spectacle of the performance itself, all as a labor of love that connects strangers through sharing in the production of a spectacle. Boulevard Dreamers blurs make-believe and reality; professional and amateur; and artists and audience. All performers are treated equally as stars with a studio photo shoot, and are paid equally for their 15 minutes of fame to challenge persistent social constructions and barriers. The acts unfold over three hours on the openly accessible Lane Beach, welcoming passersby, and bringing together a wide ensemble of neighbors on the lakeshore. We’ll see you on the beach!

You’ll find a little bit of everything in Water Music on the Beach: Boulevard Dreamers, where every performer gets equal pay and stage time.

By Isabella DeLeo, June 23, 2022

The beachfront variety show Water Music on the Beach: Boulevard Dreamers features an eclectic mix of performers who all take photographs in front of the same backdrop. Clockwise from top left: Composer Corey Douglas Smith; hip-hop artist Shane Calvin of Circles and Ciphers; the band Lifeguard; songwriter Marko Stats; performers Kofi the Kyd, Jess Smoot, Akeem Soyan and Trellyo; and Senn High School students Alex and Ricky Munguia-Mueller. Kirsten Leenaars and Lise Baggesen / Courtesy of 6018 North

On a blisteringly hot June morning inside the Edgewater arts nonprofit 6018North, the Chicago artist and dancer Hannah Santistevan grabbed a pink and red paint-splattered turntable record and began to gracefully move.

Posing for the camera, Santistevan hoisted the record high above her head and positioned it in such a way that it almost blended in with the backdrop: a circle of 14 other vibrantly paint-covered albums. The records evoke a sense of color and play, but also serve as an ever-expanding archive of a decade-long art project that comes to a head later this month with a beachfront concert and variety performance.

Rich Blackson, Kofi the Kyd, Trellyo, Marko Stats, Boulevard Dreamers, 2022. Photo credit: Ji Yang.

The project is called Boulevard Dreamers, and it started in 2013 with artists and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago professors Kirsten Leenaars and Lise Haller Baggesen. But this year – perhaps the project’s final installation – it has grown in scope, with the artists teaming up with community-minded art curator Tricia Van Eck for a one-night party-meets-concert on June 25 that aims to knock down “the barriers of cultural segregation in Chicago,” in Baggesen’s words.

The performance menu spans post-punk and rap music, spoken word poetry, magic, theater, a live zine reading and contemporary dance. The goal: to find different performance communities that wouldn’t normally intersect, said Baggesen, and – in a move that is antithetical to the usual headliner treatment – showcase them equally.

Leenaars and Baggesen have structured the event, and the pay rate for their talent, so that all performers have an equal performance time, whether they’re a seasoned artist or novice. “Everybody is paid a flat rate,” Baggesen said. “We’re trying to make the stage a big equalizer, where everybody gets this proverbial 15 minutes of fame. And to bring out people from these different bubbles.”

Boulevard Dreamers at The Franklin, Chicago, 2013.

On the day of Santistevan’s photoshoot, Leenaars was behind the camera and Baggesen controlled the lighting. They mostly let Santistevan do her thing as she improvisationally danced, often shifting her balance between feet and stretching her arms out wide, emphasizing the record in her arms.

Leenaars and Baggesen have been organizing photoshoot portraits of all Boulevard Dreamers artist since 2013. Every performer since then has been snapped in front of the same backdrop: the circle of colorful records, simple yet dynamic, allowing the talent to make it their own.

The photoshoot is a simple, basic setup, but everybody performs as themselves,” said Baggeson, adding, “People always turn it up.”

The photos serve as promotional material for the event. But, in Leenaars and Baggesen’s minds, the images offer greater meaning: an installation, performance and archival project all at once. Attendees at the 2022 event will get to see the portraits, which will be projected from a room in the first-floor of the 6018North building starting at 3 p.m. before taking a walk over to Lane Beach for the full show.

Sitting on the porch of 6018North, enjoying a slight breeze, Leenaars flipped through her portfolio website, showing portraits of previous performers such as ChickenFat Klezmer Orchestra, Summer Tribble, Reborn, and Jessica Campbell, with each image illustrating a distinct sense of personality and interpretation.

Leenaars and Baggesen have previously hosted Boulevard Dreamers at various locations throughout Chicago, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, where they constructed a stage out of a cardboard box, and The Poetry Foundation, where they made a tongue-and-cheek modular stage and then destroyed it.

This year they decided to again team up with Van Eck, who had reached out to them about creating a special project that would combine Boulevard Dreamers with Water Music on the Beach, a concert she curates on the shores of Lake Michigan. For Van Eck, who built a gallery in an Edgewater Victorian and is interested in the relationship between art and community, the beach functions as a community builder.

“You’ll see there’s like people sunbathing that had no interest or idea in hearing music, but then they come over. We expose people as you walk by, you see art,” Van Eck said.

Leenaars and Baggesen emphasize community in their Boulevard Dreamers project, so that made the collaboration a natural fit. Leenaars has been working with the Rogers Park-based nonprofit Circles & Ciphers, a restorative justice organization with a focus on hip-hop – and Uptown, all “neighborhoods that share the same beach,” Van Eck says. Shane Calvin from the group will perform June 25.

The audience can expect rows of seating in the sand and six records flanking the stage “like big lollipops,” Baggesen said. “What we’re trying to do with a stage design this time is really to frame the lake as the natural backdrop and unifier for the whole city of Chicago.”

The co-directors give the performers a lot of creative freedom for their performances. ​​”We’re also hoping for that element of surprise, where we don’t even really know what’s gonna happen, but just for it to be great,” Baggesen said. The around 30 featured artists include Fred Sasaki & family, Michael Zerang with Janet Bean and Tyler Damon, Kofi the Kid, LOUD BODIES Dance, Santistevan and others.

In the early days of Boulevard Dreamers, when it was a smaller-scale project, Leenaars and Baggesen paid the performers with their portraits. But as of 2022, they pay $100 to each participant, assisted with a grant from the Illinois Arts Council.

Even though it’s on a bigger scale, this year may be the last installation of Boulevard Dreamers, said Leenaars and Baggesen, given the logistical and administrative challenges of putting on the event. “We’re hoping that we can bring that magic,” Baggesen said of the pair’s potential project swansong.

After that, in the true style of experimentation, it’s anyone’s guess.

If you go: Water Music on the Beach: Boulevard Dreamers will join together Leenaars and Baggesen’s project Boulevard Dreamers with the founder of 6018North Tricia Van Eck’s project Water Music on the Beach, on Saturday, June 25. The projections begin at 3 p.m. at 6018North (6018 N. Kenmore Ave.) before attendees are invited to walk to Lane Beach (5915 N. Sheridan Rd.) for the performance, less than one quarter mile away. The event is free. For more great free summer cultural finds, check out our summer guide.

Isabella DeLeo is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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