Art & Museums

During Covid, Public Media Institute Helps Artists Build Resilience, Explore Overlooked Queer, BIPOC Histories

By Colleen Morrissey

When the lockdowns began, artist Abraham Avnisan didn’t think it was possible to continue performing. Avnisan and his collaborators, Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey, had just debuted The Tenders, a series of mixed media dance performances, live at the Art Institute of Chicago in February 2020. “Our work is so much [about] in-person collaboration and in-person performance,” Avnisan said, and The Tenders was originally built around physical space. The project combined dance, the music of Loy Bowlin (“the original rhinestone cowboy”), and 3D-modeling of Fort Dearborn (an early American outpost along the Chicago River) to “invert and queer colonial narratives lodged deep within the American imaginary.”

As Covid-19 dropped an impenetrable curtain over performance spaces across the world, however, the collaborators were unsure of how to proceed. Jeffrey, who along with Morrissey (no relation to the author), teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, recounted with frustration the difficulty that many artists were having conceptualizing how in-person work could translate into a format like Zoom: “They couldn’t get their head around it,” he said. How could “the embodied liveness of the three of us doing this together in real-time” work in this unprecedented, remote environment?

The Tenders performance documentation. Image courtesy the artists.

At the same time, the Public Media Institute (PMI) was scrambling to shift strategies. A Chicago nonprofit headquartered in Bridgeport, PMI’s mission is to foster local, socially engaged art and media, and their many initiatives include Co-Prosperity (an “experimental community center”), a radio station, and numerous periodicals such as Lumpen Magazine. In the spring of 2020, in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, PMI was set to open their latest project: Buddy. A multipurpose retail and event space located in the Chicago Cultural Center, Buddy would bring Chicagoland creators’ work to the heart of downtown. With an original late April 2020 opening date, Buddy director Stella Brown recalls, “We were really kicking into gear, getting art from people, [thinking], ‘Oh my God, we’re going to have a store in a month!’”

As Covid-19 hit the U.S., however, Brown had to tell some 150 artists that the Buddy opening was now on hold. As the duration of distancing and lockdowns remained unclear, Brown says, PMI “very much wanted to start a way to support artists and continue creative output in the cultural production community.” With the pandemic’s constraints, PMI began to produce much of its programming via Twitch and other online platforms. One of their resultant projects, The Quarantine Times, funded artists to create daily online content from March through June 2020. Another, the Community Kitchen and Canteen, continues to provide free meals to Chicagoans in need.

Yet, as Jeffery put it, “At that time, last summer, the world was on fire,” and the entire artistic community was not only trying to survive the pandemic but also figure out ways to continue to work within its constraints. Place-based projects such as The Tenders seemed especially endangered during this period in which people could no longer attend live events in a physical space.

View of Buddy space in the Chicago Cultural Center. Photo by Curt MacIver.

The group turned to Nicholas Wylie, the managing director of PMI, and together the four of them broached the idea of a new, pandemic-inspired artists’ residency whose first season would center on place. Since PMI had this new, grounding physical space, Buddy, situated in the cultural center of downtown Chicago, it could support artists whose work engaged with Chicago’s physical and political landscape even as the pandemic shaped what form that might take.

Thus, in September 2020, the Buddy Research and Performance Residency’s first season Re:place launched “a yearlong excavation of BIPOC and QT+ histories and futures of the region now known as Chicago.” Its first cohort, which includes Santiago X, Felicia Holman, Josh Rios, and Marina Resende Santos in addition to Avnisan, Jeffery, and Morrissey, created work that takes on such pressing place-based issues as decolonization, gentrification, and A.I. mapping. Resende Santos, for example, has developed a procession play, Antinous, that will be performed around numerous points of the Jane Byrne Interchange. The walking performance dramatizes “Chicago’s urban planning and the history of large transportation infrastructure in the city” using objects worn on performers’ bodies and incorporated into the sites. Another resident, Santiago X, “is reinvigorating the ancestral mound building practice of his Koasati people” by building earthwork installations at various points along the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers.

Knowing that Covid-19 would endure in some form for some time and thus perpetuate reliance on livestreaming, the residency incorporates the livestreaming medium into its format and embraces the necessarily multi-platform nature of art in a pandemic. Judd Morrissey offered a picture of what this looked like for the group: “Rather than all of us being in our homes, we could be at sites performing for or with others” via livestreaming, resulting in a “stitched-together performance environment” across multiple, separate locations.

Though the devastation wrought by Covid-19 on artists cannot be understated, initiatives like the Buddy residencyattest to the added existence of opportunities for expanding access and community. When Avnisan, Jeffery, and Morrissey debuted their second live performance of The Tenders from their individual homes on December 2, 2020, the real-time stream reached audiences as far away as Glasgow, Slovenia, Florida, and New York. As Jeffery put it, “The Zoom experience has created a space for accessibility in a way that I don’t think any of us would have planned for or realized. You’re bringing communities together globally.”

“In This Colonial Fever Dream,” a 3D laser scan of the DuSable Bridge, at the site of Fort Dearborn. Image from The Tenders, courtesy of the artists.

The medium even opened unanticipated possibilities for their art form, allowing them, in Avnisan’s words, to create “a new kind of visual vocabulary.” He added, “In the beginning, I had a lot of anxiety about the Zoom format, but now it’s just a testament to the reality of the constraint in a way that I think is really genuine.” Unexpected additions to the performance, such as someone’s cat making an appearance, become folded into the authentic situation of the moment. “In Zoom,” Morrissey added, “we’re all aware of everyone’s environment and the body’s relationship with the environment.”

Now closing in on the end of its first season, the Buddy residency has not been without its hitches. According to Brown, the unpredictability of the pandemic has made it difficult for some of the artists to travel, research, and access needed resources. The season’s finale, originally meant for the autumnal equinox on September 22, will now be dispersed throughout late September and into October at various physical sites throughout the city. Resende Santos, for instance, will enact her processional play at the Jane Byrne Interchange in late September, a performance that will be recorded, screened at the Chicago Cultural Center, and streamed online on PMI’s new livestreaming platform Lumpen.TV. Similarly, Santiago X will activate one of his earthwork installations along the Chicago River on Indigenous People’s Day (October 11) and then also screen and stream the recorded performance online.

Though the hope had been that, by this point, some return to normalcy would allow a unified, fully in-person finale, multi-platform accessibility is at the heart of the Buddy residency’s reason for being. “We knew that it might be challenging in the pandemic to share live performances and work in person,” Brown said, “so we developed this method to bring art to people in their homes if they aren’t able to attend.” After more than a year of development, Brown expressed satisfaction with the imminent fulfillment of a vision born out of crisis. “Everyone that has worked on this residency at Buddy and Public Media Institute,” she said, “including the resident artists, is excited to culminate this year of engaging on overlooked Chicago history.”

As for Avnisan, Jeffery, and Morrissey, they will also close their tenure as Buddy residents by presenting their work and research at the Cultural Center in October. “The Buddy Residency has been an incredibly important source of inspiration, community, and mutual aid during a very challenging year,” the group stated. “The community and structure Buddy provided will be missed, but more than anything we feel grateful to have been a part of it, and to have had the opportunity to evolve The Tenders within its supportive embrace.”

Though the story of Covid’s impact on artists has so often been one of devastation, the interconnected story of the Buddy residency exemplifies the resilience of the Chicagoland community and its willingness to take on the most fraught elements of the city’s past and present, even in times of crisis.

Colleen Morrissey is an O. Henry Prize-winning writer of prose and poetry, who writes about literature, podcasting, film, theater, and other narrative media. Her nonfiction and critical commentary have appeared in The Reader, Bitch, and The Rumpus. She holds a PhD from Ohio State University and has published research on gender and sexuality, the body, women writers, storytelling, and digital media.

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