“The essential elements of witness which do not vary historically include: consistency between words and actions; boldness which urges the witnesses to confront existence as a permanent risk; radicalization leading both the witnesses and the ones receiving that witness to increasing action; courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world in behalf of the increasing liberation of humankind); and faith in the people, since it is to them that witness is made.”
— Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” 1970
In an era of social and economic turmoil, each of us are navigating some level of crisis. From social welfare, healthcare, childcare and education, the long shadow cast by the pandemic has come to reveal how the lives of those most vulnerable have been pushed further into insecurity, forcing us to reassess our relationship with caretaking and notions of power. There have been debates around the role of power in relation to the institution: from the White House in upholding the tenets of American democracy, to the responsibility of museums to their audiences, to the lack of funding in Chicago Public Schools that leaves a large amount of childcare on the backs of working parents. It is a gargantuan task to imagine an intentionally caring paradigm in the face of apathetic social structures. Over the last decade, we’ve also observed museums and educational institutions tout the term “interdisciplinary” regarding new pedagogic approaches and public programs. Institutions, rife with insecurities like competitive tenure positions and lean departmental funding, have grown increasingly territorial, the ramifications of which have been devastating for rethinking large-scale social reform. While the lives we lead in the arts are to some degree interdisciplinary in their essence, seldom do we see this reflected in the design of these institutions. We assume that specializing or focusing on a specific skill is “more” valuable, enforcing a disciplinary hierarchy that places one skill or discipline over another. This moves us away from a greater understanding of a shared common purpose that brought us to the arts in the first place. It is in this context that “Stockyard Institute: 25 Years of Art and Radical Pedagogy”at the DePaul Art Museum provides some perspective on how integrative, interdisciplinary institutional building can accommodate a multitude of perspectives and house conversations and projects that are open to interpretation.
The Stockyard Institute can be read as both a pedagogical collective and a nomadic artist-driven practice. Its activities include experimental arts education, projects rooted in cooperative knowledge-building and cultural production through radio broadcasting, music and performance. For the duration of the exhibition, its practices are presented through a public archive, visual documentation, testimonies and in-situ objects uprooted from communal spaces, in order to compose a relatively holistic view of a lived practice. Presented in the rarefied context of the museum, the exhibition is a curatorial undertaking by Rachel L.S. Harper, who aims to present a “pro-spective.” She considers the exhibition a prelude to Duignan’s vision for the next twenty-five years, where the artist and his collaborators dream of expanding the Stockyard Institute, in collaboration with the museum, to imagine a Chicago model of an arts education department. While the exhibition itself resists aligning with a standard solo or group presentation, its format exemplifies the dispersed authorship of Duignan’s practice, so much of which aims for no singular aesthetic or wholeness. Chicago-based scholar and curator Mary Jane Jacob describes a lived practice as “an ever evolving work of art” and it is through this lens that Duignan’s practice can be situated as not only lived but embodied; a space where the artist’s process and its byproducts live within a continuum of human evolution.
To experience the exhibition is to understand the nature of lived practices. While researchers and academics have placed much emphasis on defining the field of social practice, there are also practices that embed artistic practice within communities. In the anthology “The Art of Direct Action: Social Sculpture and Beyond,” professor of art theory Karen van den Berg describes this as an anti-economic “social turn” where artists are trying to understand how to shape and transform social relations. Duignan’s practice and the Stockyard Institute function inside and outside the institutional sphere, pushing social action in dialogue with the city’s diverse citizenry. Occupying “available spaces”—vacant buildings, garages, empty lots, city parks and playgrounds—to transform them into safe spaces for Chicago’s youth, Duignan addresses ideas through projects that can best be described as conceptual community interventions. Working itinerantly as a public studio, radio station, open-resource center, collapsible performance space and nomadic school for thinking about open, experimental pedagogic structures, his practice is a site for emergence. (An emergent system is one where the whole may be more than the sum of its parts.) Much like ordered systems, which are concerned with relations, and organizing systems, concerned with connections, emergent systems are those in which presence is pushed to the foreground. In order to find common awareness and values within a community, Duignan and his collaborators spur processes through careful collective inquiry into the grey areas of community problems.
Generously supported by former DePaul Art Museum curator and director Julie Rodrigues Widholm, interim director Laura-Caroline De Lara, assistant curator Ionit Behar and David Maruzzella, Duignan, Harper and Maruzzella have compiled a meticulously detailed monograph to support the exhibit, reflecting on the collective nature of the Stockyard Institute and its processes. A whole view of the Stockyard Institute, like most organic systems, is practically impossible. It can only be described from different points of view and, in this way, attempts to do so through the catalog.
To posit the early days of the Stockyard Institute in the mid-nineties, when Duignan began to work with Chicago’s youth in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, would be factual. But it wouldn’t do justice to the long form of the artists’ practice.
Born in Chicago to immigrants of Irish and Russian descent, Duignan was the eldest of five siblings. His formative experience of care extends back to his mother, Bruna, and his great-grandmother, Manya, who spent much of her adult life in the footsteps of Russian communist feminists and progressive female reformists like Jane Addams. He fondly recalls the influence of their ideologies on his urge to center care, describing how growing up with a father who worked as a policeman left him with an aversion to coercive, male-dominated and patriarchal ways of being. Personal experiences with homicide, suicide and a missing brother spurred his early inclinations to navigate the city on his own terms. Spending most of his time in the city’s institutions, he would visit the Hull House where his great-grandmother taught, attend studio art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, spend time at the Garfield Park Conservatory Fern Room and traverse the rural landscapes of Argo, Illinois and Westville, Indiana, with family. But Duignan insists his most meaningful influences came from the city’s streets. Parks, abandoned lots and alleyways informed an early understanding and navigation of risk.
The “Gang-Proof Suit,” 1995-2000, was a turning point for Duignan. On being invited to what is now the San Miguel Middle School, to work with a group of middle school dropouts, Duignan considered how to develop an experimental art school pedagogy. In an abandoned, informal school on 48th and Damen, the group collectively addressed the sixth-graders’ fears of gang-related gun violence, radically reimagining how they could reclaim agency within their community. In a space freed of judgment and fear, removed from the prying eyes of priests, teachers and parents, they took time to build trust, and in turn, placed their questions and concerns on a shared wall, yielding imaginative solutions to systemic problems. This space continues to be home to the Stockyard Institute, a nod to the Union Stockyards that once occupied the land.
Duignan’s youth appears surreptitiously throughout the exhibition. The “Taft High School Eagle,” 2021, made of local found wood, symbolizes the artist’s multiple formative trajectories—as a student of Taft High School, a student from the Chicago Public School system and a former Eagle Scout. A tent made of military canvas lined in gold lamé, “Adaptive Operations + Stockyard Institute,” 2021, aspires to create a space for visitors to safely discuss, question, argue and contemplate their place within the Stockyard Institute’s lifelines. In the tent, a mobile radio station fills the airwaves with programming, serving as a provocation and extending the Stockyard Institute’s long history of broadcasting into the Lincoln Park neighborhood. By activating a frequency lower than that used by federal regulatory bodies, Duignan and his collaborators infiltrate the system with sounds and voices from the ether. He likens the experience of the radio station to his time spent at school listening to “anything but the teacher.” Sneaking a low-watt transmitter into class, he later cut his teeth with friends in the back alleys of Waveland Avenue, where Duignan fondly recalls the impetus for “Planter Boxes” (2006-present). Hiding schoolboy contraband like pen knives, secret messages and smoke tins, he sees the boxes as a communication network that taps into the silenced, oft hidden voices within the city. It is here that we find a tender tribute to Duignan’s longtime collaborator and conceptual partner, Michael Piazza (1955-2006), whose presence encircles a large part of the Stockyard Institute.
Duignan met Piazza as an MFA student during their time at the University of Illinois Chicago. Under the heavy influence of conceptualism, French Situationists, Fluxus and Joseph Beuys, they were moved by Chicago fixtures such as Julia Fish, Carlos Cortez, Martin Puryear and Charles Wilson, collaborating in informal ways both within and outside the arts community. Deeply bonded by their love for this city and their disdain for the limitations of art school pedagogy, they claimed the city’s public spaces as their studio, engaging contested histories, politics and issues affecting the working classes. The “Austin Tourist Bureau” (2002), “DuSable Life House” (2001), and “Constellation” (2021), speak of their intimate entanglement in both work and life, embedding their legacy within Chicago’s mythic and civic history. “It is a show about tactics and techniques,” Duignan says. “We were people and issues hiding in plain sight. We knew what we had to do. At the root of that lay the question, ‘What kind of community do you want to live in?’” He recalls wandering and hanging out with Piazza, allowing the work to channel through them much like receivers of a radio transmission.
Harper speaks to this “flow state” Duignan and Piazza embraced as a uniquely Chicago style of operating: “Through their life and times, they engaged with neighborhoods that were personal to them, navigating personal questions as artists of how to move through life together. It wasn’t a pure conceptual or theoretical experiment for them.” Working in informal, intuitive ways, each project, interaction and event are symbols that characterize their function. Harper emphasizes that the objects themselves in no way delineate the boundaries of the work of the Stockyard Institute. They do, however, feel like totems of the “life forces” that once drove them into being. Engaging with the depth of each project one quickly realizes how a lived practice is opposed to the paradigm of the museum.
The presence of the Stockyard Institute’s collaborators is felt in their images in both the catalog and in a fifteen-minute digital video in the exhibitions archive. Duignan’s longtime collaborators, Davion Mathews, Jeff Kowalkowski and Lavie Raven of the University of Hip-Hop, are felt in the collective consciousness that moves through the space. At the heart of the Stockyard Institute is an intellectual cornerstone that is often missed in educational institutions: love and care. Care that can be described as an ethical relationship based on both feelings of affection and a deep sense of service, requiring and producing sympathetic bonds that tie each collaborator to the other. At the Stockyard Institute, titles and hierarchies are tossed out the window and brick and mortar is razed to allow all to rebuild ideas together. The depth and quality of its relationships are a testament to the Stockyard Institute and its work, as collaborators like Raven and Mathews continue to partner with Duignan in pedagogic experiments across the city.
A room titled “Playgrounds” is at the summit of the exhibition. Advocating for the city’s playgrounds as sites for democracy in action, Duignan and architectural historian Jennifer Gray collaborated in 2014 to circulate their version of a 1905 pamphlet (also on view at the exhibition’s archive). A stark confrontation with an empty “See Saw” (2014), and a wall-mounted, static “Chicago Swing” (2016), serve as reminders of the racialized, political and class-based implications of power that taint children’s experiences of freedom and play, safety and risk. Making care an act that is either provided or not, the psychological impact of the static “flying machine” as Duignan calls it, makes a mark on anyone whose freedom is curtailed. Both pieces, made of salvaged wood, operate as symbols of control, cooperation and division. The latter incorporates wood from a police barricade as a nod to Duignan’s relationship with his father. The fourteen-foot “See Saw” is a simple yet equally charged object in its immovability. Disquieted, I question the reasons why there aren’t better policies to protect at-risk youth as I am deeply troubled by the deep-seated communal divide on the grounds of race, class, gender and sexuality in America. In the academic world, these conversations often arise and I think of the negative ramifications in intellectualizing these issues. It seems futile to ideologize the suffering of people in classrooms. In lieu of this, what value does the Stockyard Institute’s provide us with to exorcize social evils, and what does this have to do with interdisciplinary play?
Placing youth and participant voices front and center, Duignan has created and fostered a practice that crosses neighborhood and disciplinary lines. Without taking the role of pedagogue too seriously, it is through constant play—with ideas, words, positions and discussions that a process of discovery is initiated, creating emergent pathways to understand and address what Buckminister Fuller called “wicked problems.” While institutionally, disciplinary boundaries are effective in naming needs, it is only too often that well-laid strategies and syllabi fall short. By determining the desires of the participants he engages with first, Duignan moves away from a neoliberal, capitalist, need-based economy. Duignan reverses an age-old institutional assumption of what-is and what-is-needed to a future facing what-is-desired and what-can-be. If the Stockyard Institute can be seen as a guiding energy with those who come into contact with it, as a space for ambition, exploration and a will toward unfulfilled human need, perhaps we can address educational reform beyond the limitations of disciplinary boundaries and hierarchies. It is in this that Duignan sets an example of how careful attention, uninterrupted imagination and open heart-felt communication could manifest a world-yet-to-be.
“Stockyard Institute: 25 years of Art and Radical Pedagogy” is on view through February 13, 2022. A supporting catalogue of the same name is available at the DePaul Art Museum, providing scholarship on the work of Jim Duignan and the Stockyard Institute with contributions from Rachel L.S. Harper, Jorge Lucero, David Maruzzella, Allison Peters Quinn, Nato Thompson, Jennifer Gray and Julie Rodgriues Wildholm.