Crossed Lines

Photo Credit: Bryan Esler Photo
This essay is from the Project 1 by ArtPrize catalog.

By Kevin Buist
Artistic Director of ArtPrize

“There are parts where even individual trees are crosshatched, where Ul Qoman children and Besz children clamber past each other, each obeying their parents’ whispered strictures to unsee the other.” — China Miéville, The City & the City [1]

China Miéville’s 2009 science fiction novel The City & the City is murder mystery set in the fictional Eastern European cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Unlike Cold War East and West Berlin, Besźel and Ul Qoma are not divided by a wall. Instead, the two cities occupy the same physical space, overlapping and sharing town squares, buildings, and roads. The “border” between the cities is strict. Citizens of each city are trained to “unsee” the other city and all its inhabitants and activities, and can only “enter” the other city through an onerous bureaucratic process. Project 1 artist Olalekan Jeyifous cites Miéville’s The City & the City as an influential text, drawing parallels between the double-occupied space of Besźel and Ul Qoma to his gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, where new and old residents rarely interact. [2]

The City & the City nearly shares a title with another book influential to the development of Project 1: Crossed Lines, Todd Robinson’s A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Robinson’s carefully researched recounting of the hardships of the Grand Rapids Black community in the 20th century recounts familiar themes from the national struggle for civil rights and shows what made the Grand Rapids story unique even among other Northern industrial cities. Robinson identifies a tendency in Grand Rapids toward “managerial racism,” which was born out of an idea championed by pro-business reformers who dominated city politics after World War II. The city’s white leaders reasoned that the welfare of Grand Rapids would be best served generally if the specific needs of business were taken care of first, often at the expense of communities of color. [3] This largely passive approach still led to entrenched disadvantages for the Black community, even without the more explicit discrimination common in the Jim Crow South. Taken together, The City & the City and A City Within a City are overlapping narratives about how discrimination and alienation are built into the social and physical realities of cities. The lines that divide us can be hard to see—sometimes we even work hard to unsee them—but art creates conditions where those lines are seen, challenged, and crossed.

Bryan Esler Photo

Project 1: Crossed Lines is the next evolution of ArtPrize. After ten years of citywide art exhibitions in Grand Rapids—defined by large cash prizes determined by public vote and expert jury, global open calls for artists, invitations for any space in the city to become a gallery, and an eclectic variety of art—we decided to try something new. In the summer of 2018, a few months before the tenth annual ArtPrize, we announced that the competition would shift to a biennial format to allow for a new type of exhibition in the fall of 2019.

The first in a new series of exhibitions set to alternate between ArtPrize competitions, Project 1 is in many ways a deliberate reversal of the qualities that have come to define ArtPrize. While ArtPrize employs a broad open call to artists, welcoming somewhere between 1,200 and 1,700 per year, Project 1 focuses on just five carefully selected artists and collaborative teams.

The venues hosting ArtPrize installations are, similar to its artists, the result of an open call, where any space from museum to laundromat can collaborate with artists to display their work. The installation locations for Project 1, on the other hand, were carefully selected by the ArtPrize team, community members, and the artists themselves. While ArtPrize venues select the artwork in their spaces, the show overall is famously not curated, resulting in a dizzying array of media, creative approaches, and (yes) even a broad range of artistic skill. Project 1 is curated. In my newly created role as Artistic Director, I had the privilege of working closely with a team of curatorial advisors to identify artists and refine the themes of the exhibition.

There is also a shift from the ArtPrize model in how Project 1 artists are paid. ArtPrize is animated by the creative efforts and public interest generated by large cash prizes and the unorthodox way those cash awards are given out. Project 1, in contrast to the competition of ArtPrize, employs a commission model. The resources that would fund prizes are instead given to artists upfront and throughout the production process, in order to enable public art projects to be created at a scale and level of complexity that are rarely possible in the competition format.

The most important evolution from ArtPrize to Project 1, however, is the way this new format allows us to organize the exhibition and its supporting programming around a particular set of thematic ideas. The theme for Project 1 is “Crossed Lines.”

“THE EXHIBITION IS ABOUT SEEING, UNDERSTANDING, AND CHALLENGING THE VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE LINES THAT DIVIDE A CITY, AND THE WAY THESE LINES CONTRIBUTE TO OR DETRACT FROM OUR SENSE OF BELONGING.”

Some of these lines are clear: neighborhoods, wards, roads, and rivers. Other lines are harder to see: the legacy of redlining and other discriminatory housing practices; the way perceptions of safety map onto city space; the limitations imposed by the built environment on persons with disabilities; the shifting implicit borders that come with cycles of urban decay, development, and gentrification; and more. The artists in Project 1: Crossed Lines were selected because their past work already dealt with these issues. Our engagement with them for this exhibition began with conversations that helped refine and even shift what the concept of Crossed Lines ultimately became.

This new rhythm of biennial curated public art exhibitions between ArtPrize competitions, the Project series, is designed to allow for vastly different thematic and practical approaches from one iteration to the next. The theme for Project 1, however, is born out of the interlinked histories of Grand Rapids and ArtPrize. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the installation of Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse. The iconic red stabile was the first such public artwork funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and has since become an icon for the city. [4] The sculpture was part of an urban renewal effort that leveled and rebuilt a large swathe of downtown.

The broad, minimal plaza that Calder’s piece occupies sits at the center of a collection of modernist government and bank buildings, erected on the site of what was once a dense network of streets containing retail, housing, theaters and churches, demolished in the early 1960s. [5] 1969’s La Grande Vitesse is a triumph of public sculpture, but it also sits in a desolate plaza on top of what was once a dense, multi-use urban core. Its elegance and austerity can be read as a testament to the way so many of the gains of city building are entangled with complicated with losses. Looking back from the perspective of 2019, the 1969 erection of La Grande Vitesse is not an isolated moment, but rather a beginning point of five decades of closely linked city building and public art experimentation in Grand Rapids. This half-century is chronicled in this book in Joseph Antenucci Becherer’s essay “Along the Grand: Contemporary Art History and Grand Rapids, Michigan,” on page 101. Many of these initiatives—the groundbreaking Sculpture Off The Pedestal, Robert Morris’ Grand Rapids Project X, Maya Lin’s Ecliptic, and even ArtPrize itself—are examples of art reaching beyond beautification to play a more integrated and consequential role in building the material and cultural fabric of the city, each with its own wide-ranging implications.

Crossed Lines is also born out of a critical reflection on ArtPrize itself. ArtPrize was founded in 2009 with a combination of (what we thought were) three simple principles: Any space in downtown Grand Rapids could host artwork, any artist in the world could participate, and anyone who shows up could vote on the winner. We quickly learned that simple principles can lead to complex outcomes. We defined the ArtPrize district as a three-square-mile rectangle centered on downtown. That box contained parts of the city’s First and Second Wards but completely left out the Third Ward. The Third Ward is home to a large portion of the city’s African American population, and this was hardly the first time it was left out. A recent study noted that while the Third Ward accounts for about a third of the city’s land area and population, from 2012 to 2017 it saw only 1.5% of the overall private investment supported by the city’s economic development programs. [6] ArtPrize is open to all, but by layering the exhibition onto the city, it tended to reflect and even amplify existing boundaries, movement patterns, and inequities.

Photo by Brian Kelly

With Project 1 we took a different approach to site selection, working closely with community members, city government, and the artists to find appropriate locations in all three wards. The public vote component of ArtPrize establishes a particular relationship between the viewer and the artworks on display. The purpose of the art, the vote seems to suggest, is for it to be perceived and assessed. ArtPrize frames the art viewing experience with a pervasive question: “Does this artist deserve a prize?” The vote is a wildly successful tool for audience engagement, but the frame it creates can also be limiting.

In planning Project 1, we took the opportunity to collaborate with artists and ask not only what visitors would see at the exhibition, but also what they could do, how they could occupy space, and how they could consider cities and belonging in new ways. The artists in Project 1 have built more than just objects and images to behold. They’ve built spaces for action, contemplation, and belonging.

Photo by Katie Zychowski

Amanda Browder’s Kaleidoscopic is a collection of monumental textile installations that wrap around and drape over buildings at each of the three locations of Project 1: downtown, Martin Luther King Jr. Park, and Tanglefoot. Browder’s work radically alters the visual landscape of the city. The artist speaks of letting the colorful, vibrant geometry of classic Disney comic books spill into the real world. The buildings she wraps shift from architecture to sculpture. Browder’s process of creating these textiles is as important as their final form. She solicits fabric donations from the community and leads hundreds of hours of volunteer sewing days to assemble the works. The shared stories behind each donated fabric and the camaraderie that forms during the sewing days open up new ways for people to be together. The installations become monuments to these shared moments.

While researching Grand Rapids with the theme of Crossed Lines in mind, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer selected the Blue Bridge as the site for a new interactive installation, Voice Bridge. Lozano-Hemmer has been a leading practitioner of artworks that employ light, sound, and proprietary interactive technology for decades. Voice Bridge features 400+ lights installed on the pedestrian bridge’s handrails, sending pulsing beams at an oblique angle across the footpath of the bridge. The lights are linked with speakers that replay short voice messages recorded by visitors using intercoms at either end of the bridge. Each time a new message is recorded, the existing messages and the lights that modulate with them are bumped one station further down the bridge. When a message completes the journey from one end of the bridge to another, it disappears forever.

Artist and architect Olalekan Jeyifous created a new sculpture for Project 1 titled The Boom and the Bust. The large building form contains three sections, a base resembling a single home, a mid section featuring a steel lattice supporting an array of small homes, and finally the top portion, which resembles a skyscraper. Jeyifous drew inspiration for the work from his research into housing discrimination and displacement in Grand Rapids, exacerbated by uneven economic growth and the long shadow of redlining and other forms of institutional racism.

Paul Amenta and Ted Lott collaborated to produce Critical Infrastructure at Tanglefoot, a historic manufacturing site that houses artist studios. Amenta is an artist with a wide-ranging creative practice which includes co-founding and organizing SiTE:LAB. SiTE:LAB is a nomadic, volunteer-run contemporary
art nonprofit based in Grand Rapids that stages site-specific exhibitions and
performances in a variety of urban environments, including a number of celebrated ArtPrize venues. Lott is principal of Lott3Metz Architecture in Grand Rapids, and actively involved in Grand Rapids city building and neighborhood development. For this installation, they collaborated closely with DisArt, a Grand Rapids nonprofit that promotes Disabled cultural identity through exhibitions, events, and consulting. Critical Infrastructure is part sculpture and part architecture, a structure that serves as both a literal and metaphorical stage for the actions and creative expressions of others. With help from DisArt and SiTE:LAB volunteers, the space will be programmed with music, dance, video, DJs, drag shows, and more throughout Project 1.

Finally, Heather Hart contributed The Oracle of the Soulmates, a pair of sculptures that resemble rooftops emerging from the ground. The twin pieces are installed at Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the southeast side and Rosa Parks Circle downtown. By constructing nearly identical works in these two sites, Hart invites us to consider how and where we’re empowered to claim space. Local performers are invited to use the rooftops as stages. The rooftops are at once playful and foreboding, symbols of home and belonging that are sinking beneath the surface. The rooftops are a threshold, a line between public and private space, and Hart invites visitors to dance on that line and sing from the rooftops.

Photo by Katie Zychowski

All of the artworks in Project 1 are organized around the idea of belonging, and how the lines that make up a city enable or inhibit our sense of belonging. But this doesn’t mean much if it’s just an idea to be deduced from an artwork. Belonging is a state of being, so these artworks are places to be, not just things to look at and think about. It’s our hope that Project 1 does much more than communicate an idea; we hope it can alter and reorganize the city, breach borders, cross paths, blur boundaries, and point toward a future city where we all belong.

[1] China Miéville. The City & the City. London: Picador, 2018. 195.
[2] Olalekan Jeyifous. Interview with Kevin Buist. Project 1 Catalog. 82.
[3] Todd Robinson. A City within a City: the Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013. X.
[4] Joan M. Marter. “Alexander Calder’s Stabiles: Monumental Public Sculpture in America.” American Art Journal 11, no. 3 (1979): 75-76.
[5] Garret Ellison. “Timeline: Key Dates in Downtown Grand Rapids Urban Renewal.” mlive.com, May 22, 2014. https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/2014/05/urban_renewal_timline.html.
[6] Justin P Hicks. “Grand Rapids’ Third Ward Being Left behind in Economic Development.” MLive.com. MLive.com, October 15, 2018. https://expo.mlive.com/news/erry-2018/10/8286c253d67310/grand-rapids-third-ward-being.html.