Art, life become one in `Headquarters'


Critic's Corner//art


In the 1960s, when some cutting-edge artists were taking their art out of the museum and into the streets, others motivated by a similar impulse were doing the exact opposite: bringing the stuff of lived experience into the museum's hallowed halls.

In both cases, the goal was to break down the arbitrary barriers between art and life. Henceforth, art was to be a democratic enterprise in which anyone could participate, anything could be a work of art and artworks could be appreciated anywhere, not just in museums.

The exhibition Headquarters: Investigating the creation of the ghetto and the prison industrial complex, on view at the Contemporary Museum, has its genesis in that era's expansive new definition of art. If the aim of the creative spirit truly is to live in one's art, then the whole world becomes a potential exhibition space.

Headquarters takes as its theme the institutional interdependence between the prison industry - especially the private construction firms that build prisons and, in some cases, operate them as for-profit ventures - and the impoverished inner-city African-American neighborhoods from which most of the inmate population is drawn.

What's on view at the Contemporary, however, is not an exhibition in the traditional sense of objects arranged for display. Rather, the museum itself has been transformed into the site of what, in the '60s, was called a "happening" - a term coined by artist Allan Kaprow to describe a performance, activity or event that melds both art and life.

The "artwork" of Headquarters is the series of activities - the rallies, meetings, demonstrations and other organizational tactics that take place in surrounding neighborhoods - rather than a display. The museum, in effect, has temporarily become the "headquarters" of a social-justice movement aimed at addressing a pressing issue in the community of which it is a part.

That is why the museum currently looks more like the offices of some struggling community nonprofit than a modernist temple of art. The place is chock-a-block with neighborhood fliers, pamphlets and other activist literature piled on shelves or pinned to walls, with groups of eager young people hunched over laptops earnestly trying to make the world a better place. Aside from some videotaped interviews with prison experts - and some sociologically dubious diagrams painted on the floor that only add to the confusion - there's really not much visually interesting stuff to look at in the museum's gallery spaces.

A decade before the first happenings, critic Harold Rosenberg presciently described the abstract-expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock and others as primarily records of the activity that made them. "What was to go on the canvas was not a picture, but an event," Rosenberg wrote.

From Rosenberg's formulation it was but a short step to Kaprow's notion of the event as the artwork, regardless of whether it was recorded on canvas, in photographs or through any medium other than the viewer's direct participation in the experience.

At the Contemporary, the effort to organize a distressed community around a pressing social problem is both the meaning of the artwork and its physical embodiment.

Of course, one is entitled to ask: What effect will this event likely have on public policy toward prisons and the disproportionate numbers of young African-American men incarcerated by the criminal justice system?

My guess is: probably not much, if only because such deeply ingrained social problems probably won't be resolved during the few months the exhibition lasts.

Still, I find myself heartened by the passionate idealism of the effort. One may take comfort in the realization that we are unlikely to win the struggle against evil in the world, and that therefore all that is really required of us is that we try.

"Headquarters" runs through Aug. 27 at the Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St. Call 410-783-5720.

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