With over twenty-five participating artists and art collectives, the second iteration of St. Louis’ “Counterpublic” charts a course from the southern Riverfront to the city’s north side. “Counterpublic” is an ambitious, multi-site exhibition series that takes place in public spaces, community gathering spots, and cultural and historical institutions, every three years from April to July. While the initiative’s inaugural run conceptualized St. Louis as a bellwether for the country as a whole (an idea popularized in Walter Johnson’s 2020 book “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States”), this year’s endeavor considers the unwieldiness of time within the city’s topography.
Led by executive director James McAnally, “Counterpublic” presents the city and its communal relationship to time as one entangled with the past, present and many possible futures. The complexity of these connections is explored and expanded within each exhibition site; artistic and curatorial gestures which further the notion that time can be cyclical: it can loop, repeat and run toward unknown points of flight.
Artist Juan William Chávez’s social practice coalesces in a project both turned toward the future and unflinching in its acknowledgement of shameful pasts. Chávez’s Northside Workshop is located on 1306 St. Louis Avenue in a historic brick multi-family home. The building was one of the many in the north side of the city abandoned through the interlocking structural failures of a widening wealth gap, racist policy making, and a nonexistent social safety net. History here is palpable, tangible, in the location of Chávez’s social practice project and in its central conceit: the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project. Chávez uses the complicated history of Pruitt-Igoe (housing projects which once stood on the city’s north side and whose 1970s demolition is known in history books as the “end and failure of modern architecture”) through the metaphor of the beehive to center the importance of community.
Community for Chávez is something that exists not simply in names or in words, but in concrete, material action. Chávez and master gardener Kiersten Torrez use the large half-acre of land on which the workshop’s building sits to grow sweeping native plant gardens where sculptural interventions double as honeybee hives. Chávez and Torrez use the gardens and hive not only to host neighborhood events and classes on food justice and the environment for area youth, but also to grow food and harvest honey for local green markets.
Though Northside Workshop is only one of the sites in this year’s “Counterpublic,” it’s indicative of public, community-based art made in St. Louis. When I say “St. Louis art” or “St. Louis community” I mean the people, the places, the processes and the work that speaks to the realities of living in this city. Yet, such categories of making are rarely, if ever, straightforward. For a community, a city is something pulsing, complicated, and alive. Cities, especially those marked by histories of intersectional violences, are here only because of their people. St. Louis’ triumphs, the strength of its heart however broken it may be, is due to the strength of its people. Building a foundation for prosperity, for connection, for human connection is hard, almost impossible work. It’s work that Chávez and Torrez themselves have been doing for well over a decade, but it is work that lasts and work that heals in all its forms.
“Counterpublic,” St. Louis, Missouri, counterpublic.org, on view through July 15.