When founding editor-in-chief Zachary Cahill and the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry launched Portable Gray in the fall of 2018, they were aiming to chronicle what Cahill describes as a “renaissance moment” in Chicago. Pointing to the presence of internationally recognized artists such as Theaster Gates, William Pope.L and Jessica Stockholder, to name a few, Cahill recalls meeting with international curators who were traveling to the United States with the sole aim of visiting Chicago. As the second decade of the twenty-first century drew to a close, it seemed the rest of the world had started to recognize the significance of what was happening on the city’s South Side.
Part of that story was the Gray Center, which was founded in 2011 with the aim of fostering “innovation at the intersection of academic inquiry and artistic practice.” Starting under the leadership of its inaugural director David Levin, the Gray has forged a unique collaborative space in which visiting fellows, artists and University of Chicago faculty members are encouraged to experiment and explore art and ideas without the pressure of publication or exhibition. Instead, the Gray’s fellowship program, partially funded by the Mellon Foundation, results in programs, course offerings, exhibitions, performances and colloquia that showcase and benefit the University of Chicago campus as well as the broader community.
Since its founding, an impressive array of artists from cartoonist Alison Bechdel to the musician George Lewis to the filmmaker Chase Joynt have spent time as Gray Center fellows, with an even more diverse array of artists and scholars affiliated with Gray through its programming and exhibition calendars.
The idea for a journal came up early on. The Gray Center’s then-director Jacqueline Stewart and Associate Provost and Executive Director of the Arts Bill Michel were looking for ways to keep what the Gray Center was doing intact while sharing the work with a broader community.
Cahill, an interdisciplinary artist and writer, had been involved with the Gray Center since 2016. He had experience with journals and publishing as both a writer and editor and describes the journal as an intuitive next step. “The Gray Center has always been an incubatory space,” he notes. “But it’s a place for people to collaborate and that takes a while.” The journal was conceived as a way to share the work of the Gray Center’s fellows and the University of Chicago’s broader artistic and scholarly community with the rest of the city and beyond, while encouraging future collaborations by expanding opportunities for scholars and artists to meet.
Structurally Cahill was interested in experimenting with the genre of both the art and academic journal. Its form was envisioned as an extension, in the words of the editor’s letter in Portable Gray’s first issue, of the Gray Center’s “productive weirdness.”
“As a practicing artist the bias might be more toward art,” Cahill admits of the journal’s form and content. “In some ways it skews more toward an artistic project.” He references the art historian Gwen Allen’s book “Artist’s Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art,” and Aspen magazine in particular, as key influences on his vision for Portable Gray. Aspen was a short-lived but radical multimedia arts magazine which took the form of a customized box filled with everything from posters to super-8 film reel. Aspen also notably published work by academics, including the era-defining “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes.
Most issues of Portable Gray are extensions in one way or another of events and conversations that initially took place on or through the University of Chicago campus, and the mix of content results from the collaboration between Cahill and the rest of the Gray Center team including, but not limited to, Portable Gray’s Senior Editor Mike Schuh, Managing Editor Naomi Blumberg, Contributing Editor Sabrina Craig, Designer David Khan-Giordano, and current Gray Center Director and University of Chicago Professor Seth Brodsky.
The first issue, released in the fall of 2018, featured a section entitled “What is an Artistic Practice of Human Rights?” that emerged from a conference hosted at the University of Chicago by the Pozen Center for Human Rights and Logan Center for the Arts. The five-day conference brought artists from around the world to Chicago to think about the intersection of art and human rights, and the issue featured transcripts of talks delivered at the conference by the artist Tania Bruguera and architect Alessandro Petti. It also indicated the journal’s commitment to experimenting with form, publishing a diverse array of content that included everything from academic-leaning essays to art work. Other features in that first issue included an interview that the Center’s then-director Jacqueline Stewart conducted with the artist Ben Caldwell, who had recently launched a Gray Center-sponsored program that brought together South Side residents and University of Chicago faculty and students to “visualize desired futures for their shared community” through art and film, as well as poetry by author and scholar Eve L. Ewing.
Issues of the journal regularly include original artwork. Portable Gray commissions artists to produce the journal’s cover and publish work in the pages of the journal. For the fourth issue, Portable Gray commissioned images from Edra Soto’s “Open 24 Hours,” an ongoing series of photographs Soto takes of bottles she collects in and around her neighborhood in South Chicago. The third issue was released with three different covers featuring the work of the artist K. Kofi Moyo, a gesture that was part of a larger project led by the art historian Romi Crawford and the artist Theaster Gates to provide a platform for the Chicago-based Moyo’s photographic work. The issue also included an essay by Crawford and a special-edition print of Moyo’s work produced by Gates.
In addition to commissioning and publishing original artwork, the journal regularly documents projects undertaken by Gray Center fellows. In the fourth issue, released in spring of 2020, the artists Antoni Miralda and Stephan Palmié published “All the World’s a Kitchen: A Modest Hors D’oeuvre.” The experimental essay documented the results of an interdisciplinary course the two had taught at the University of Chicago in which they sent students out into the city to explore the “city as kitchen.”
Also included in that issue were an interview with and experimental essay by the Austrian composer Peter Ablinger, who had recently completed a residency at the Gray.
Over the years, the journal has maintained that commitment to supporting the work of its fellows and Chicago-area artists and intellectuals more broadly, while experimenting widely with form. For the sixth issue, released in Spring of 2021, Cahill and team decided to use Portable Gray to release an exhibition catalogue for “Another Idea: an actual conceptual art exhibition.” The exhibition, a response to the imposed virtuality of the pandemic, had appeared online on June 1, 2020, and disappeared two months later. The sixth issue of Portable Gray serves as the exhibition’s only lasting documentation. The journal’s seventh issue, edited by the Center’s then-interim director Ghenwa Hayek, featured print distillations of many of the events and conversations hosted by the Gray’s COVID-era virtual programming series “FarBar.” The most recent issue, the psychoanalysis issue, features artwork by Pierre Huyghe, an extract from University of Illinois Chicago professor Anna Kornbluh’s forthcoming book, and a conversation with Chicago-based video artist Max Guy.
Cahill and team have maintained Portable Gray’s strong connection to the Center’s location on Chicago’s South Side. Its sense of place is communicated by the number of features in each issue authored or created by Chicago-based artists and writers, as well as in more subtle editorial choices such as the naming of the editor’s letter the “Editor’s Plaisance,” a nod to people who know the stretch of parkland the University of Chicago sits on as the Midway Plaisance.
This May the journal will launch its tenth issue, on the subject of “Family” and will include work by Glenn Ligon, Devin T. Mays, an interview with the essayist and novelist Kate Zambreno, and an interview between David Levin, Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, another University of Chicago faculty member and theater director, and the musician Erin McKeown, who are collaborating on a new musical through a fellowship supported by the Gray Center.
Later this year the relationship of the journal will be even more intimately intertwined with Chicago’s cultural community. Beginning in the fall, the journal will introduce a reviews section in a move Cahill describes as invested in supporting younger writers, but also in moving outside of its own venue and visiting other places in the city. “We’re looking to review stuff that might not get reviewed elsewhere,” he says, “a certain kind of performance event, certain things that might fall off the radar for some people.”
It’s impossible to be unaware of the precarious position media institutions, and arts periodicals in particular, find themselves in in 2023, but Portable Gray is in an enviable position, supported by a well-funded university and academic press. “Portable Gray is a very small organization,” Cahill says, “But I believe there do need to be publications and periodicals to track this golden moment in culture that’s happening in Chicago. I really think that, and this will annoy some people, but I’m a true believer, I think Chicago is the Paris of the twenty-first century. We’re living through a moment that one-hundred years from now people will think that what happened in Chicago is amazing.”