This is incredibly difficult to start.
So, let me just state that Amina Ross and Jared Brown are two artists whose practices feel deliberately elusive, guided by their own cultivated curiosities and senses of truth. It can be easy for an artist to be known as such from simply being on the scene, from being seen, by proxy… but it seems difficult to cultivate such a presence, or proximity, as one’s craft. As an artist who frequently spreads himself too thin, whose work is not so much elusive as it is undecided, I admire that Amina describes themselves as “an undisciplined artist.” And appreciate the leading question on Jared’s website, “Is Jared Brown a real ‘Artist’ or just a concerned citizen?” Jared Brown permeates the airwaves and our ears, transmits sounds in the off hours of the day and the night via Central Air Radio, a weekly program on WHPK, through DJ sets and social media. This past summer, Amina Ross told me they’d been attempting to spend as much time outside as possible. Their work celebrates intimacy and darkness, in darkness.
This past winter the two artists, among many, participated in Eclipsing: The Politics of Night, The Politics of Light. A Multi-Media Festival Celebrating Darkness, a three-day long series of performances at Links Hall, which Amina also curated. There, I saw Jared perform in the dark, lit solely by a phone, which was also used to document the performance. Months later, in early spring, Jared participated in the RESIDE residency at Femme 4 Femme (F4F), a domestic cooperative whose members include Ally Almore, Jory Drew, AJ McClenon, Zach Nichol and Amina. The five-month RESIDE program dedicates a space to the “visions and passions” of five emerging artists – all Chicago natives. Other 2018 RESIDE participants included Silvia Gonzalez, Imani Elizabeth Jackson, Angela Davis Fegan, and Luis Mejico. At the beginning of the summer I had the chance to sit down with Amina and Jared to discuss the residency, and the ethos of the domestic venue that cultivates a femme community, centers blackness, and address the context of its location in Little Village. Thanks again!
Max: How would you broadly describe Femme 4 Femme?
Jared: Well, I think that F4F is a collective of people with the goal of charging the space. It’s dedicated to bridging a gap between transplants and Chicago natives while centering the work around femininity and femme people of color. It’s a platform that caters to that.
Amina: The space is energetically charged by the people who work in it. And I also think it’s very much like an experiment. Phrases that I’m really curious about are feminine leadership. I lead a workshop series called Beauty Breaks that considers what that even means and that provides a counter-narrative to dominant conceptions of black beauty and wellness. What centering femme people means, or people who are working within a practice that they self-identify as femme, not creating and strict parameters around that as much as asking and holding the space for folks who self-identify their practices and self as femme, is that the space of F4F can be a container for those experiments.
Max: This centering, or this emphasis on femme identity… is that a bridge between native Chicagoans and transplants?
Amina: It’s not femme identity, maybe, I used the word identify. I feel like the folks who we are hosting either as workshop facilitators or were holding space as residents identify themselves within this practice. I see it as feminine or femme-practice, as a way of working that cultivates space within the context of a home which is clearly almost the opposite of an institutional space. So in that way, for me, a femme practice is my approach. I think F4F’s approach to the idea of bridging gaps is by hosting or upholding space for activity. And again, in terms of talking about femme or masc, it can really quickly fall into the binary. I don’t think that our definition of femme is solely based on the opposite of masculine. We look at traditions, specifically like black feminist traditions, of black motherhood or maybe queer motherhood which doesn’t have to do with the actual birthing of children but the idea of mothering as a practice of reaching out, of nurturing some sort, and of non-punitive discipline. I think about drawing out aspects of femininity as broadly or as metaphorically as possible and then applying that as administrative practice.
Max: Can you say a bit more about the administrative practice itself?
Amina: Yeah. Our way of wanting to host you as an artist comes out of this idea of femme practice as well. Rather than me having a home-based [studio] practice. Rather than me having a firm contact with you that says “I give you this, you give me that.” That feels very transactional and is pretty typical of major institutions. We want to have something that is more reciprocal or fluid. That’s what I mean by administrative practice from my perspective.
Max: For this interview, I’ve been thinking about the difference between an audience and a community, and if there is a dichotomy between the two, even? It seems as though the home or the domestic aspect of this project is emphasized over the idea of a house-gallery. I think one of the things that initially attracted me to Chicago was that I knew it had a history of house spaces. What has been both of your experiences of house-spaces in Chicago?
Jared: Oh wow, I’m from Chicago and so I got indoctrinated into things like that pretty early as a teenager. I think what’s changing for me is seeing how organizers apply policies in [music and performance] spaces. How do you really control what people bring into the space? Or if someone is too loud or obnoxious, how are you paying it forward and keeping with what rules that you say that you have. That’s like one aspect. With F4F it’s nice, because it doesn’t really feel like you’re confronted with policies per se, but instead, you get to those moments where you reach a boundary, it doesn’t feel like it’s a policing. I always feel like there’s a little bit of flexibility.
Max: It’s interesting to me that you thought of performance spaces.
Jared: I think that Chicagoans don’t know their own ethos. It’s funny, I think of home-galleries more in Baltimore because that’s where I experienced them, more than in Chicago.
Amina: I think that home galleries often times can be really based around extending collegiate communities. So as a teenager growing up in the city I may not have as easy an access to home galleries, as I had to say, finding a punk show. You know, even though they’re kind of working in parallel. You’d think that I’d go to both! I grew up in New York, and most of the stuff that I would go to was shows, performance stuff. I was very rarely in a gallery unless it was street level and I could wander in. I didn’t have a house gallery experience in New York. Though I’m sure there were tons. Maybe?
Max: Maybe. I think that one kind of space turned into another. There was a magazine that became a space – Chief Magazine, which turned into Superchief Gallery – it seemed like it kind of stemmed from a certain music scene… a lot of music venues would become gallery spaces depending on who was involved. People had these parallel practices.
Jared: Do you know that space No Nation for example? We recognize it now as a good performance venue, but I remember it as that Milwaukee Ave rave spot and a lot of firsts happening in that space. So going back to it now, and having to assume a particular way of consuming the experience, sit in the audience, sit still, and pay something at the door is strange. When I was in high school people would bumrush the front and try and get on stage. It’s interesting how these places change.
Max: We’re reflecting on our experiences in different cities, and I noticed that in certain art scenes in Chicago there is sometimes a feeling of being overshadowed by other major cities [which can] inform the work that is shown and how the space operates. How does the structure of F4F or the house rules and the mission navigate that or eschew that feeling of being overshadowed?
Amina: Tell me what you’re thinking. I’d love to hear the thought behind your question. I’m curious.
Max: I’m just thinking about the way you, Jared, were comparing music or performance venues to more locally-invested scenes because there is a community that is formed around them. More-so than a gallery would have, in that galleries have to keep up appearances. It seems to me that the structure that is in place for F4F, it’s a house, and It’s you, and people that you love who live there. There is, if not a sincerity, then something else about it, that causes all of the other bullshit to fall to the side. You don’t have to worry about being overshadowed by other cities or scenes, in fact it might be good to find a kind of sister collective somewhere. Or a network of like-minded people.
Amina: Hopping on that and thinking about my experience with house galleries, I was thinking about Queer Thoughts, that was the main thing for me, which started out as a house gallery here, and now is still in a tiny place in Chinatown. It’s still a space that is heavily engaging the art market. I think that that felt like part of the intention from the beginning with them. Ok, I have access to a space in Chicago, I can begin to lay the framework for a business of sorts. Not to cloud their name or anything like that but it’s not the same thing, and for me, that would be too much pressure. I think we’re more interested in experiences and trying new things out. Leveraging resources and labor to create spaces that people are experiencing physically, rather than creating objects that can go somewhere else. There is something immediate about working to have your event, and we will have photos of it but it is not for the photo of it.
Jared: It also brings up this thing, as a Chicagoan, that I kinda get frustrated by when folks get a practice going, get momentum and it seems like it was just to export it and be fab somewhere else. This feels really different in our peer group in Chicago. It’s really having the privilege and access to indulge people as a community. I have Alex’s number, and I can ask him for someone else’s number. I can ask him how I would build a shelf or whatever. This is all hypothetical, but I feel like I actually can do that in Chicago, whereas if you have a show with someone in New York, sometimes it’s also how well your aesthetics go with each other, or who you know. The way that people curate is not really about imagination, it’s about proximity. I feel less of that in Chicago. But then at the same time, I feel like there’s a lot of people that are just maneuvering in this pool until they can export. Which kind of feels bad, but I also I kind of understand it because we’re in the Midwest.
Max: You made a conscious decision to come back to Chicago after being abroad for a number of years. What was it like for you to return? And then, what have you been up to?
Jared: The minute that I got back I was working on a project with Nic Kay, Lil Blk, so I was able to throw myself into something and feel really good. There was this little part of me that needed to satiate doing a performance here so that my grandma or my mom could go to it and not just seem them on the internet. This is my city, so many people have invested in me to get me to where I am right now. It’s also really strange because on the East Coast it’s more obvious how you can finesse and get opportunities, but in Chicago, the approach is quieter. You don’t really know who the gatekeepers are, the same way that you do in New York or Baltimore. At least I feel that way. So just trying to figure out a way to create some sort of framework to network without doing the social clout-chasing thing. There’s an aspect to that in everything I’m sure but in Chicago, it’s less charming. I don’t know how else to say it. I don’t really feel good going out at night and trying to schmooze. I felt there were people who showed me how to do that in New York. It’s just a whole different way of doing things here. But I like that. My peers in New York, it becomes this loop of talking about yourself and inflating your significance. A lot of times it comes off as more cerebral, but you’re really just talking about yourself and you kind of create your world. By the proximity of your peer group, it gets reinforced and you can make yourself feel like someone or if you’re just next to someone who’s someone. I feel like in Chicago, you just get onto the Clark bus and nobody gives a fuck who you are or what you know, or what party you were at, people just want to be home. I kind of like that as a space to make stuff because there’s not a lot of space to be so wrapped up in yourself.
Max: I also really like that about being here. People always ask me why I’m here.
Amina: All the time! It’s kinda disheartening for me.
Max: But it’s also the reason why I’m here, in this strange way. I really love that question. I think it’s a struggle… you reward yourself for being here. I wondered if Amina, as a transplant, and then Jared you, as a Chicagoan, coming together in a project like the Reside program, start to understand aspects of Chicago and the arts here that you really appreciate?
Jared: Absolutely. Even just getting acclimated to Chicago and what it means to be here. I really thought that I was never going to come back. Meeting queer folks, and have them being black and of color, it’s tapping into a network that’s thinking about the same things as I am. But also seeing how the work is kind of similar. I didn’t really have the privilege to see that when I was in other places. It’s really really great. There are a lot of performers here who all have this way of storytelling. Maybe it’s a Chicago thing? It’s a way of us all processing segregation or something? Like a really bracketed off way of sharing narrative and tackling that system.
Max: As an aside, to me, this mission of bridging a divide between Chicagoans and transplants speaks to the larger problem of people of color and gentrification. I wonder if you had that in mind when you were drafting the mission? How does that relate to you taking up room in Little Village specifically?
Amina: I think it’s an ongoing debate. I’ve heard many different arguments and I ask anyone who wants to engage in this argument with me, whether or not they think people of color can gentrify, period. People have wildly different answers. So that’s one thing. But I do think it’s possible because, Kanye, you know? I just think that once you amass a certain amount of capital you can always enact power. I don’t think that I’ve amassed that amount of capital [laughs] and it’s very hard to do so, as a person of color and black person in particular. But I digress a little bit. I think a lot about gentrification and where I am. I went to a teach-in on gentrification by Defend Boyle Heights, a group from LA that takes a really radical approach towards keeping people out of their neighborhood who are gentrifiers. And they just talk really transparently, more transparently than frankly, I have heard at any conversation about gentrification that I have gone to in Chicago or even when I went to Allied Media’s conference in Detroit. And I really haven’t heard people speak as staunchly about the role of art in gentrifying neighborhoods as Defend Boyle Heights did. They were very clear about being careful about who you’re sponsored by as an artist space. Where are you getting your money from? Are people asking for the programming that you’re making in the neighborhood? Did the people in the city ask you for this? I wrote down a number of things, that I took back to F4F folks and stressed that we need to be really serious about this stuff, or we could just be part of the problem. Because we can be! We make things very pretty, with very little, and the next thing you know people are displaced. So yeah, just be careful with the power. I have the skills as an artist and as a programmer that benefit the MCA in my day job. If I take those same skills and apply those tactics that I’m using at the MCA, will I turn my neighborhood into the next downtown? If that goes unchecked, then potentially. And that’s a developers dream. So how do I subvert these skills and aesthetics to really genuinely open up my space to people who live near me, to people who live beyond me? That was the intentional thing about wanting to make sure that everyone who was or is in residence is also a native Chicagoan. Just to be like, OK, that is one thing covered.
Max: Jared, you take into consideration how you look or are presented. A lot of your art is about auxiliary cameras and things recording you. So I was wondering how you took that into account during your residency?
Jared: It’s interesting because I had some insecurities about being a resident at F4F. I’m too plugged into the internet, too much of a cyber-baby for F4F. One thing that I really appreciate about F4F, is that when you go there it’s very intentionally detached from your phone, grounding yourself in the space and being present instead. So much of my practice is archiving. When I’m at F4F I get taken back to the self and I was really worried about how I was going to make it there. Because it seems antithetical [to what I normally do] but you just have to be more clever. Really at that time, it was what I needed. So even though Ally wasn’t able to make it, it worked out because I created an event where there were a bunch of people who normally don’t share themselves and they probably didn’t want to be documented. It was already big enough for them to come and plugin. To have cameras everywhere might have compromised what was sonically shared. Other times when I had visitors I documented with film. This space doesn’t make you feel like you need to be so plugged and I like that. I started drawing while I was there. Just doing things that I didn’t think that I would be doing.
Max: Run me through your experience of the residency.
Jared: Well, I wrote a lot. With photography, I feel really tapped into the idea of when to take an image. It feels like power or something. But I don’t always feel like that when I’m making a mark. I felt like I was questioning, where do I want to lay that mark? And I tried to overcome that. I felt really good about the results of not thinking about it too hard. I also lit a lot of candles. There are so many rugs in the space, so I stretched so much. I read a lot. When I had visitors I would shoot them against this one wall that has a faint gray line. If I ever showed the polaroids I would try to do it along this gray line that appears in the space, having that be a chronicle of my visitors, which is interesting. And just kind of working on sound stuff in-between that. I did have my computer and worked with a mixer. There were speakers there, just playing stuff at a high volume and charging the space.
Max: That’s one of the things that really interests me about the space. I’m often ready to just make work for myself, and use the time to process certain sounds and sensations like you’re saying. How do you feel about not really needing to produce a product at the end of your residency?
Jared: It made me feel really strange, honestly. Because there are just so many things to unlearn, that institutions have taught, a transactional way of experiencing events. At first, I was like, “Ugh, I feel like I should have done a screening or something” and made it more “arty” than the sound performance. I actually think that everything at the residency felt right. There were just things that F4F does differently that is helping me unlearn some things that I learned in art school that have been damaging. For example, the way that a critique can be conducted you know. I always hear Amina talking about how if you’re black or of color in an art school sometimes you feel like you’re going on trial. You’re responsible for running kind of defense. It’s nice to experience critiques in the space that weren’t like that and to get this whole new insight.
Max: At times it felt like I was not given the allowances that my peers were given. It wasn’t assumed that I had the same knowledge.
Amina: It was like you didn’t know what you were doing. You somehow mindlessly wandered in. So, you’re asked to justify your material use, every mark on the motherfucking page. Everything! I’d love to do a piece on how many young black artists are also scholars because of having to study your own work so hard to back it up and present these cases for yourself. “Well actually let me pull out my thesis, this is this and that is that”. There is something that is so arduous and full of labor about that. It’s ridiculous.
Max: And at the same time, I think there can be an ignorance that leads to certain practices being seen as completely novel. I can find parallels between a black artist and [another] artist historically, but those things aren’t being recognized or capitalized on. I appreciate the kind of documentation of the events, which always seem to emphasize the bodies and the people occupying the space. Which to me puts a lot of trust in whatever is going on.
Jared: A lot of the times with internet culture, galleries having Instagrams, you can have a mediocre show in real life, but take really good pictures and have a really popping Instagram account. But the shows suck! You know? I think where F4F is concerned I don’t think that documentation is where my mind lingers or my memories go. The experiences that will happen in the space which surpass the way you can see an image and attempt to rebuild the experience of being there. I don’t really feel that with F4F. I think about the Home Theater Festival, I don’t have pictures of that night but I can recall the ice cream. It just doesn’t feel like the experiences are being cultivated so that you can get this image to be consumed by cyberspace. It doesn’t feel like that whereas some places, it feels like “Hmm, I guess I should have just stayed home and waited for Instagram to refresh” because that seems to be the way that I should actually consume this work. I didn’t need to be here.
Amina: I would love to hear from Ally because they do most of the photos. There is something about the shape of this space and the lighting that just doesn’t really lend itself towards being able to record a performance and have it translate in any way that does the experience justice. It just doesn’t. The triangular shape and we usually do weird lighting, we switch out the bulbs based on how we’re feeling. Jory will be like, “today is a green day” so everything will be green. You know? So that’s not always good for a video that’s going to give you clarity. What I hear you saying and what I was thinking about is being able to you capture something in a way that is representational of the event that can be disseminated. That’s not a document really. For very few things we have clear documents of objects, or performances. Allys’ photos are more general feeling photos. What is this in between two performances? Was this a performance? I feel like they are all beautiful images. In that way, it demands that you have to just come to see it. That’s how I always feel. When I curated the Home Theater Festival, I was like “Oh, I should try to get really solid documentation”, but there is art that goes up the stairs and there is no way that I can really photograph that and then there is art here that is happening in the bathroom and there’s a mini installation near the stove. It would be such a labor just constructing the setup for the photography of that it’s just not worth it to me. And it wouldn’t translate anyway.
Max: So you’re just left with a very vivid sensation but a more internalized experience. That’s great!
Jared: I keep thinking about holding a home space up to an institutional standard is doing it a disservice. However, when you’re in major institutions, you see the way that artists consume exhibitions to prove that they were there. “Look I’m experiencing the art” by taking a selfie with the art in the show. vs. turning your phone off and going through it. I just like that about F4F, every time I’m here, I’m really here.
Max: You’re there and you showed up because you came to be there, not to document yourself. Do you have any questions for each other?
Amina: It’s cool hearing about how it felt more process oriented for you. I’m always curious how the space feels to folks when they are in it.
Jared: Yeah, the space felt really ‘there,’ ready for me to charge it with whatever I wanted to. I was playing music and certain people would come and clearly be responding to it. It was nice to hear the sounds of Little Village, take a walk, think about what I saw, and come back up to the space. I think that’s something else, even though we’re Chicago natives, I’m not from Little Village, so just being here was valuable. I felt like, this is not my route, yeah. Just getting familiar with what I see. My favorite part about the residency was taking walks to Pete’s Fresh Market on Cermak. And seeing these little worlds in these front yards, seeing kids playing, and the remnants of their imagination. All of these toys all over. It was just nice.
Amina: I think that’s one thing specifically about where we are–right at the border of Douglas Park, North Lawndale, and Little Village–which you know from what I’ve heard and from what I’ve seen has lots of tension between the black and Mexican communities. I mean lots of tension. The block that we’re on though is half black and half Mexican. It’s really interesting seeing the dynamics slowly shift. Historically the block that we’re on is a heavy gang bang block. Historically and not so historically. But it’s where a lot of things meet and sometimes in ways that are like explosive, literally and energetically. So for me, the idea is for Femme 4 Femme to hold space for conversation and healing in this particular site, and not to ignore the context. I think a lot of galleries open up on blocks that are hot as hell but we’re gonna keep our little white box and we’re going to pretend like we don’t hear what’s happening outside. But instead, we’re really trying to engage and be in it, and with it, and invite people into it. We say here are our parameters, maybe you don’t want to be here past this time. But make sure that you also invite the neighbors to the things that we are doing. I’m going off a little bit. There is something too about where we that is in-between. I think that is hard to find in Chicago, these areas of in-between. That I think is really interesting because on any day if I wanted I could say that we’re near North Lawndale or I could say Little Village. But some people would say that you’re not in either. So that’s really just even geographically interesting, this specific block.
Max: Every neighborhood is its own cosmos or something. That has been like the biggest trip to me: things just do not transition.
Amina: And don’t mix, don’t transition. I don’t know the best way to put this for an interview context. I think that people thinking about even the concept of me as a transplant and you as a native is very useful when considering how I’m leveraging my power as someone who has an art platform. But if I’m thinking about community building, that concept may not be as useful, because it emphasizes a really strict border between you and me. And I think in Chicago emphasis on borders is mostly problematic. Specifically when talking about people of color being able to cross over borders into different neighborhoods. I remember seeing a thing in Pilsen that was like keep Pilsen Mexican. I was like, “Ooo-hoo!” I get it, but it’s complicated. But it’s of course clearly fighting against gentrification with a lot of people being displaced, families being displaced. But how do we not reinforce these cultural claims over space? That is what I’m interested in as a creative person. To think about that in creative ways that are not lending themselves towards displacement.