By ERIC HOPE
As locals, it is easy to forget that the mere name of our city carries weight and conjures images of power and authority around the globe. Our outsized role in the worlds of business and politics colors not only the way we (and almost 19 million visitors) view this city, but also overshadows the rich cultural history and artistic practices of our neighborhoods. 5×5, conceived by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, aims to shake up those views with temporary public art installations located in all eight wards of the city. 5×5 features five curators from around the country, each working in tandem with five artists to develop works that speak to the cultural tapestry of DC.
A.M. Weaver’s curatorial premise —“in a bold way present[ing] black males in contexts that aren’t usually considered by the mainstream”—resonates in our urban environment at a time when the euphemism “cultural changes” is a common soundbite on local airwaves and in print.
5×5 debuted during the Cherry Blossom Festival in 2012. This year’s iteration launches in September and features artists based as close as DC and as far away as Australia. The geographic breadth is purposeful—5×5 seeks to broaden community experience through fresh, “foreign” artistic perspectives. These perspectives are subtly shaped by the curators. One of the most fascinating aspects of 5×5 is how each curator develops his/her personal view of DC by creating an overarching theme and then works with a group of artists, often unknown to one another, to articulate that vision throughout the city. Where we see a brick wall, vacant lot or stretch of sidewalk, the curators envision a blank canvas waiting to be acted upon with a particular narrative to express. In order to understand this process, I spoke with curators A.M. Weaver and Shamim M. Momin to discuss their curatorial decisions.
A.M. Weaver, with her close vantage point of Philadelphia, is no stranger to the DC arts world. A noted curator and critical writer, Weaver has worked with upwards of 550 artists since she began her career in 1978. Weaver is particularly drawn to the way in which poetry compliments the language of visual arts; “I love the brevity of language with poetry,” she tells me in our recent phone interview. Her contribution to 5×5, titled Ceremony of Dark Men, will feature monumentally-proportioned, photographic imagery of African-American males placed upon five billboards in various areas of the city. Fragments of poetry will accompany the visuals, and an “augmented reality layer” will cover the billboard, allowing viewers to further interact with the works via their smartphones. Her curatorial premise —“in a bold way present[ing] black males in contexts that aren’t usually considered by the mainstream”—resonates in our urban environment at a time when the euphemism “cultural changes” is a common soundbite on local airwaves and in print. In contrast, Weaver’s perspective views the city through a distinctly personal lens.
Shamim M. Momin’s involvement in 5×5 provides an engaging counterpoint to A.M. Weaver’s. Where Weaver’s installations are influenced by her long-standing knowledge of the city’s cultural heritage, Momin’s curatorial design is equally shaped by what could be dubbed an “outsider” status. To be clear, “outsider” does not equate to neophyte; her curatorial credentials include co-founder and director of Los Angeles Nomadic Division and associate curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In site visits, Momin notes, “one of the things that is so striking [about] the landscape of DC is how monumental it is.” This monumentality, both in architecture and in visual scale, is drastically different than her current home (Los Angeles) and presents a unique paradigm to sift through.
Disparate works ranging from audio and kinetic installations under overpasses to sculptural interventions on building facades and indoor spaces are meditations on a seemingly intimate scale. Yet over time those small changes, when taken en masse, subtly influence our understanding of a monolithic Washington, DC.
Momin’s curatorial premise directly references the capital’s architectural heritage, but also observes the ways in which the landscape shifts over time. What tourists envision as the monolithic seat of government is experienced by residents as a set of diverse, ever-changing neighborhoods (witnessed by cranes dotting the skyline). The title of her series – Alter/Abolish/Address – alludes to this sometimes simultaneous experience of DC as seat of power and DC as urban village while injecting national politics into the mix. Alter and Abolish are pulled from a line in the Declaration of Independence; Address refers to both geography and the sites of each artwork. On one level, the five artists seem more intent on scrutinizing subtle changes of neighborhood scale than sparking political debate. Disparate works ranging from audio and kinetic installations under overpasses to sculptural interventions on building facades and indoor spaces are meditations on a seemingly intimate scale. Yet over time those small changes, when taken en masse, subtly influence our understanding of a monolithic Washington, DC.
It is fascinating to see, when given carte blanche, the directions each curator has traveled to examine cultural aspects of the city. Weaver and Momin have created two bodies of work that, while perhaps visually dissimilar, are guided by complimentary approaches to curation. To begin, when initially choosing their roster of artists, no artist open calls were held. Both curators maintain a professional practice of “cataloging” artists whom they’ve worked with in the past and/or whose work they admire so that when exhibition opportunities arise, they have a sense of who might fit within the parameters of the project. Rather than approaching 5×5 with a predetermined curatorial outcome, each curator has honed their thematic ideas through dialogue with the artists. Of the two, Weaver perhaps had a more defined premise. She tells me she’s had the vague idea of wanting to examine cultural ideas of black men for some time and recent events, such as the Trayvon Martin shooting, brought that idea more in focus to her. On the other hand, Momin knew she wanted to examine how impermanence affects our understanding of our environment, but didn’t have a discrete touch point drawing her focus. Weaver notes it was Stan Squirewell’s “monumental statements” that initially influenced the decision to create billboard-sized pieces, but that decisions around imagery and poetic verse came about during the collaboration process with the artists. In the same vein, Momin, after much internal debate, initiated discussions with artists whose work touch in some way upon notions of how ephemeral change shapes our notions of history. The “look” of each installation was determined by dialogue with each individual artist.
“I want audiences that might not always seek out contemporary art in their everyday life to see something unique” – Shamim M. Momin
“I would like to further influence think tanks in DC that are dealing with issues of the black male” – A.M. Weaver
On the surface, Ceremony of Dark Men feels like a cohesive series, where the individual works are aligned in scale and visually complimentary of one another with their photographic qualities. Poetic fragments appearing in each work cement this notion of similarity. In contrast, Alter/Abolish/Address, with its plethora of artistic mediums — from sound to sculpture to audience participation — and visually contrasting end-results strikes me more as a series of discrete vignettes. Curiously, neither Weaver nor Momin view their collaborations in such black-and-white terms. Momin tells me that while each piece works independently, they are united by the fact that they all touch on ideas of permanence and change. For Weaver, this distinction doesn’t matter to her, stating, “they are vignettes designed so there is a cohesiveness to the way they are presented, but each is its own unique [work].” Like the city itself, neither body of work can ultimately be pigeonholed into one static context.
At present each curator is working with their artists to finalize the look and feel of their works. Installations of this scale present creative challenges not found in museum galleries, including things like construction permits, private landowner approval (in cases where installations are placed upon private property) and security arrangements with the local law enforcement. While the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities manages these tasks, the curators are the chief liaisons between their artists and the commission. At present, Momin is locating art handlers to help each artist during installation while Weaver is working with the Dutch company creating the interactive component of each billboard. And they’re doing these tasks with an end-goal in mind: to create a teachable moment. For Momin, that borders on the personal. “I want audiences that might not always seek out contemporary art in their everyday life to see something unique,” she tells me. Weaver’s stance is unabashedly political: “I would like to further influence think tanks in DC that are dealing with issues of the black male.” Their goals indicate that art, like the city itself, cannot be shoehorned into one context.
5×5 debuts this fall in locations throughout the DC. For more information, visit the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities special 5×5 website here.