In one scene a pair of female dancers, one black and one white, stand sideways ready to begin choreography. Costumes—black shorts and sleeveless black tops—suggest this piece as hip and abstract. As they begin to dance, so does the position of each of their arms, angular in front and bent at the elbow as if to engage in a sort of cooperative, artistic combat. As the dancers continue, they often twin their iterative movements in both angular and lyrical motions, with encircled arms and bent knees and twisted torsos, positions in tension with how their legs often stay planted in a stationary place.
What distinguishes this choreography are not just these movements but also the location. Staged in front a liquor store in Detroit, MI, this dance is from Liquor Store Theatre. Conceived of by Detroit native Maya Stovall (who performs in much of the choreography) Liquor Store Theatre, is according to her website, “a four-volume, thirty-plus episode meditation on city life in Detroit … a four-years-running series of documented performances and conversations with people in the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots surrounding Detroit liquor stores.” The work includes both video of the choreography (set to atmospheric, rhythmic music) and videos of interviews with residents inside or in front of the liquor store. Some residents talk about changes in Detroit: tearing down abandoned residential buildings and development to existing abandoned commercial structures. When I watched the video, one interviewee, a young black man, talked about how tourists often likely mis-perceive him and his friends as up to no good when they are in fact just hanging out and spending time together.
I learned of Liquor Store Theatre at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of the museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” a group exhibition with work by 24 artists; the exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through August 13, 2017. This past weekend I visited, watched Liquor Store Theatre, and engaged with the exhibition’s other works. (Earlier in May, the museum hosted Critical Spatial Practice St. Louis (CSPSTL). I attended “Performance and the City,” a panel with Maya Stovall, other exhibition artists Abigale Deville and David Hartt, and the curator Kelly Shindler.)
Literature for the exhibit thematizes much of the work as either “photography as a tool to document a rapidly changing nation,” sculpture, or “several moving image works.” In my interaction, I thought of three more takeaways.
First, although other cities are referenced, most works consider one of three cities: New York, Detroit, or St. Louis. It is useful to pause and ask why the focus on these three cities, especially in the last 40 years? Planning and development in New York City—from the 1916 Zoning Resolution, to the late 20th century and early 21st century loft laws that legalized illegal occupation of artists in commericial buildings, to the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Land Use and Waterfront Plan that transformed the neighborhoods’ skyline and displaced many residents with market-rate high rise buildings and scant affordable housing options—not only changed the function of buildings and skyline in the city, but also set rubrics for other local and national conversations and policies on density, zoning, gentrification, displacement, and “renewal,” and the racial impact of these urban planning efforts.
I particularly thought about zoning and race in Glenn Ligon’s Housing in New York (2007), which curator Shindler describes as “expos[ing] gentrification as an assault on African-American neighborhoods.” In the series of five silkscreens, Ligon narrates the story of each place he has lived throughout his life all in New York City. Ligon’s story is one of growing up in housing projects in the Bronx; living in brownstones with no-heat and flooded ceilings in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and later, as he became a more established artist, living in converted lofts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
As of 2010 New York City had a population of more than 8 million that was about 25% black (with Harlem no longer majority black); St. Louis City had a population of 319,000 that was about 49% black; and Detroit had a population of 713,000 that was about 82% black. Detroit and St. Louis are also the cities with the two largest shrinking populations (2015 estimates situate the population of St. Louis at 315,000 and of Detroit at 677,000).
But some art revealed the sociality and life beyond this “decline” and beyond how black urban areas are often demarcated in policy and discourse as in ruin. There was a through line of liquor and inebriation in much of the art, such as Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75.
But other works revealed a rich sociality to where alcohol gets bought and consumed as a way to tell the story of those often ignored by urban planners. In Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, for example, the commercial place to buy liquor becomes a backdrop for residents–mostly black–to tell stories about their home.
Second, some works articulated the role of the rural in the making of the urban. Images from Juan William Chávez‘s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010) situated an imaginary of turning the land in the Pruitt-Igoe forest in St. Louis City into a bee sanctuary.
In Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield–A Confrontation, the artist documents the wheatfield she and others planted at the Battery Park landfill in May 1982; in August 1982 she and others harvested more than 1000 pounds of wheat delivered to 28 cities. As Denes wrote in her artist statement: “Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”
Third, the exhibition particularized attention to art about urban space and planning, rather than art (such as public sculpture) that exists within urban space. There is much overlap between the two categories and the exhibit attuned to how art about urban space often focuses on urban aesthetics and imaginaries. Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012) “create[d]” according to the curator “ghostly etchings, a palimpsest of merchant posters sourced around Los Angeles that refract the area’s crucial informal economies.” Note how his articulation situates the sparse and novice-esque aesthetics of the block letters alongside messages of “Homeless Prevention Program” and “We Buy Houses Cash.”
Ultimately and collectively the works in this exhibit re-orient how we might study, document, and analyze urban space by situating the aesthetics, narratives, and sociality of, and imaginations for, the city.
“Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” runs at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until August 13, 2017.