By Lee Ann Norman
Museums have long grappled with the vagaries of visitor engagement. In a diverse—and indeed, divided—city like Chicago, there is no one-size-fits-all exhibition nor a magic formula for creating programs that everyone will want to see. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s new social space, dubbed “The Commons,” offers a compelling vision for what’s possible when resources and resolve are put to opening up the museum.
In the last five years, the MCA has extended its reach into spaces beyond the museum’s physical footprint as a way to rethink engagement, but with its site redesign and expansion, the focus has returned to considering the museum as the hub of creative and communal space. Designed by the Mexican design team Pedro y Juana, the Commons seeks to integrate the museum’s art, dining, public and educational programming into a single area. Classes, workshops, lectures, talks, gatherings and other public events are now centered visibly at the building’s core, so that the casual museumgoer or visitor to the new, adjacent cafe-restaurant Marisol might be enticed to participate in the action. Aptly, Chicago’s Edra Soto has inaugurated the curatorial element of the Commons with a showing of her ongoing project, called “Open 24 Hours,” part-installation, part-workshop, part-mixtape.
For the installation, Soto shelved glass bottles in custom-made cabinets bearing her signature “graft” constructions, which use Latin American rejas patterns in differing configurations. Green, brown and clear, the natural hues of the glass synecdochically recall their sources, picked off the ground by Soto over the course of two years in her neighborhood of East Garfield Park. Once vessels for beer and liquor, the now-pristine bottles sit in groupings on shelves, allowing museum goers to view, handle or, if they want, decorate them during regular workshops with the artist. Housing the bottles in these structures turns lowbrow detritus of the urban poor into highbrow museum art. Playing on the connotations of public access, public boulevards and late-night stops at the corner store, “Open 24 Hours” brings attention to themes of equity and access, joy and despair, civic responsibility, neighborliness, and social perception in a downtown setting more accustomed to concealing these contrasts than highlighting them.
Soto developed the installation after realizing how much litter she collected each day on walks in her neighborhood, picking up from two to fifteen empty liquor bottles each time. Chicago’s predominantly black and Latino West Side communities have historically been neglected, from inconsistent city services like public trash pickup and street cleaning, to a scarcity of grocery stores filled by corner stores, known colloquially as the “Food and Liquor.” Soto’s focus on the care and attention given to public space that can be accessed at any time—such as the green space dividing her boulevard—highlight the neglect poor neighborhoods face.
Soto’s fascination first manifested as photo documentation. She cleaned the bottles and scrubbed them of their identifying labels, then arranged them as still lifes. Through research, she learned that cognac was introduced into American black communities during the World Wars when soldiers were stationed in France, a nation that had long been more welcoming of black people and culture, in stark contrast to the social and political environment at home. Jazz music and black performers were embraced and celebrated, and black soldiers received a warm reception by extension. In turn, they embraced elements of French culture, including a habit for cognac. Since the 1990s, the liquor has seen a resurgence in black communities, emerging again in popular culture through references in hip-hop and rap lyrics.
When the bottles are cleaned, stripped of their branded labels and displayed in the cabinets lining the periphery of the Commons, Soto also strips their social stigma. They are no longer signs of addiction, low-class taste, dereliction or despair. Their connotations are redefined further when workshop participants decorate them. During the workshops, volunteers young and not-so-young create clay seashells from ceramic tabletop molds—a product of Soto’s residency at Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center this summer—to adorn the bottles. Before participating, visitors are asked to sign a contract that outlines the requirements for participation: to be respectful of the materials, to engage with the artist and her assistant, and either return to pick up the bottle they decorated at the end of the exhibition or agree to donate it to another visitor. Volunteers are also encouraged to answer questions about their experience of the exhibition, and responses reveal that feelings about home, community and difference are complicated.
In addition to weekend workshops, Soto has curated programs and events that acknowledge the social histories of black communities in Chicago, as well as make connections to her own Puerto Rican heritage, the island’s African diaspora and the legacy of American colonial presence. Her programs have brought together heavy metal and Puerto Rican bomba music; slam poetry and theater, as well as drinkers and nondrinkers alike, with artists such as Damon Locks, Sadie Woods, Chin-Ting Huang, Susan Snodgrass and Alberto Aguilar. Felicia Holman shared her experiences with alcohol, her fondness for cognac, our discard culture and notions of community, while Mykele Deville and Jeffrey Michael Austin developed poetry and performance that directly incorporate visitor contributions. February’s programs include a discussion and performance by Jefferson Pinder examining violence in Chicago and the idea of the museum as a safe space, and Alexandria Eregbu reinterpreting Louis Armstrong and Ralph Ellison. Culturally, alcohol is used not only as a social lubricant but also as a form of self-medication or escape, and Soto’s programming provides an effective platform for reflection on questions about our relationship to these impulses.
Remaining responsive and nimble is a great challenge for today’s contemporary art museums. If the institution is unable or unwilling to create a space that hosts the cultural richness of the artists in its community, the rest doesn’t matter; engagement is not possible. Bringing colonial legacies, cognac and rejas, and conversations about neglected public spaces into the museum create an opportunity for visitors to examine preconceived notions about people who are treated as less important, and places that they may not believe are open to them. With “Open 24 Hours,” Soto has opened a space where complexity can be held and the two might meet. It’s not a magic bullet, but it is an approach the museum should continue to explore as it works to become a site for the entire community.
Edra Soto’s “Open 24 Hours” is open until February 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue.