School of the Art Institute of Chicago students in Latham Zearfoss' Professional Practices course visited Gallery 400 and conducted an interview to learn more about this summer's Garden for a Changing Climate project with artist Jenny Kendler and Gallery 400's staff.
Planters designed by Jenny Kendler at the Earth Day Sustainability Fair with Garden for a Changing Climate.
On April 24th we met with the principal organizers of the Garden for a Changing Climate public art project. We spoke with: Erin Nixon (Assistant Director, Gallery 400), Jenny Kendler (Lead Artist), Marcela Torres (Community Engagement and Public Programming Manager, Gallery 400), and Lorelei Stewart (Director, Gallery 400). Garden for a Changing Climate is a large, granted project focused on climate change and how it has already begun to affect specific communities in Chicago. This ambitious project culminated from a wide variety of dedicated practitioners across many fields.
From left to right: Lorelei Stewart (Director, Gallery 400 at UIC), Jenny Kendler (Lead Artist), Erin Nixon (Assistant Director, Gallery 400), Marcela Torres (Community Engagement and Public Programming Manager).
What is the most important difference, if there is one, between personal art and art for activism?
Jenny: I would say that very few artists are making work that has no socio-political impact whatsoever. [With this project] we’re letting a lot of what would be considered traditional art elements recede into the background while attempting to make more of a social impact….. I’m really interested in making work in a way that has an impact on the world, so it is very valuable to me to be able to use the things that I know how to do to have a social impact. For us, personally, we’re really interested in social justice and environmental issues.
Marcela: At times this project has been confused by other people [they don’t realize it is an art event]. So I think that’s actually an interesting way to think about it. There’s no separation, this is her personal work: creating an event that is for communities and is community-specific.
Erin: There is no sole authorship over this project. It really is about creating things with other people.
Marcela: I think that is why we all work here.
Lorelei: [Political art] becomes such a huge category that we start to wonder “what does it really mean?” Stephanie Syjuco [for example] doesn’t necessarily make political work, it’s related to her own experience. It’s also how she’s personally invested in other people. I don’t think she would make that dichotomy...
Question: We artists also contribute to climate change in a certain way. Our materials are toxic, and often things don’t sell so they just lay around. Any hot tips?
Jenny: In the last two months I have had conversations with two artists about their work, and how it conceptually engages with environmental issues. Both asked about how they can reduce waste; how they can use more recycled materials. I think that’s something that is really easy for artists, its cheap, and it’s fun. There’s a ton of resources in Chicago for that. There’s The WasteShed on California avenue. You can take your sculptures or materials that you hadn’t used and bring them to them, and also get materials from them at a really low price. The rebuilding exchange is one of the reuse organizations in town where you can get reclaimed wood as a material. American Science and Surplus is really cool, [it is] on Milwaukee. They're not exclusively surplus, so you have to kind of be savvy to differentiate what's their new stock from surplus, but I also like eBay.
Erin: I think sustainability is actually an objective term. In some ways we have conversations about the food industry and how sustainable actually means supporting local economies. It means keeping something local in its existence for a long time. Or even in biodiversity, like supporting heritage grains. I see sustainability as supporting/keeping something local, supporting a community where you are.
About your exhibitions, both gallery space and public space are really distinctive places, and when you are trying to bring your art from the gallery space to the public space, do you find any boundaries?
Jenny: A lot of the work that I deal with [involves] funding landscape. Even for some really practical things, when you are making a budget for a public project, what price do you ask for artistically. It is good to have that number clearly in mind when you are doing a project. For public art projects to compare to the projects that can be presented in a gallery, you need to think about safety, stability, and how it fits well to a specific environment. Oftentimes you need to think about insurance. There were a lot of new things to learn.
Marcela: You need to think about who you are working with and what the art project is for. Who is the audience? When you have an idea and you bring it to a specific site you might need to change it a little bit to cooperate better with the site. We have a lot of concerns when we deal with the public and have so many people circulating at the space. We think about how to make people know that this is an art project, that they are not just plants. The process to get the permission to work with the site takes a long time.
Lorelei: Sometimes our public art can be commodified. People ask how much the plants cost, and they don’t really ask this question in the gallery. People wanted to take the plants, and also know where they came from. They see these projects as products not as art installations. If it’s in a gallery, it is considered to be a luxury item, and by putting it outside it changes its meaning.