The Sunday, February 5th programming for 2nd Floor Rear ran from dawn until eleven o’clock at night across nine venues in three neighborhoods along the Pink Line. The experience of the “annual DIY festival of art in experimental contexts, apartment galleries, and ephemeral and migrant projects” was inevitably one of FOMO: of arriving early or late, of missing work altogether while you tried to see something else, or getting lost. Following the festival map was like being on a scavenger hunt from small galleries to artists’ apartments to performances outside the 18th Street station and in the parking lot of Mana Contemporary.
Consistent with the festival’s theme of “Ritual” many artists offered secular, aestheticized versions of spiritual practices. Nancy VanKanegan, whose work is informed by “a lifelong study of yoga,” asked viewers to participate in the construction of her playful Memory Mandala by arranging found objects including bones, flowers, keys, and plastic toys. For Wish Piece, Lauren Sudbrink welcomed visitors to her third-floor apartment to write wishes and worries on squares of red paper, which took flight when burned, reminiscent of Chinese lanterns.1 Sudbrink, who calls her process “cannibalistic,” collected the falling ashes for a future project. Both works flattened rather than transformed the underlying spiritual practices while retaining some of their beauty.
Other artists invented rituals to respond more or less obliquely to our times. In the sixth floor project space at Mana, Mairead Delaney and Tamer Hassan’s performance The Thing That Does Not Need To Come Up For Air created a frightening image of torture. Delaney bound Hassan in a column of chicken wire, forced him into a painful posture, then poured a bucket of bells over him and into the wire vessel. When his strength gave out and the bells crashed to the floor, she released him, swept them up, then began again. They repeated the cycle for four hours. Though somewhat inscrutable—why bells?—these gestures were disturbingly familiar; instinct tells that this sort of violence may be out of view but it is never far away. How to react to its naked presence? There was no boundary between the onlookers and the scene; Delaney clenched her jaw, suppressing all emotion, and stared blankly; Hassan bled from where the wire had cut him. It seemed right to want to intercede. That the audience did not dare to break the spell mirrored the silent acquiescence necessary for the work of torturers to carry on in our midst.
Silence was the central declaration of another work on the sixth floor of Mana, a protest of the president’s executive order on immigration called in silence from dawn till dusk facilitated by Coleen MacPherson and Rachel Ellison. Originally planned as a twelve-hour musical celebration, the artists cancelled the program after the ban endangered travel for Iranian-Canadian musicians Arif Mirbaghi and Raha Javanfar, who were slated to perform. Instead, visitors to the space were asked to “please remain silent” and to contemplate the musicians’ unused instruments. MacPherson and Ellison tended wordlessly to the audience: offering coffee and snacks, encouraging viewers to write to their elected officials, and taping completed postcards to the wall. The simplicity of the setup and its slight estrangement from the everyday—there has been a lot of letter-writing in the last few weeks, rarely silent—provided for a surprising range of emotion: from sadness to outrage to homey pleasure.
2nd Floor Rear distinguishes itself by putting art in its place, so to speak; linking disparate sites that are already linked geographically. Chicago is called “a city of neighborhoods,” which at times sounds like a euphemism for segregation. Pilsen and the adjacent neighborhoods that hosted Sunday’s program became part of the festival’s content: front yard saints, graffiti, litter, architecture, busy playgrounds, street lamps and shadows, all became visible to the eyes of festival goers searching for the pennants that marked participating venues.
One product of ritual in this space is the curbside memorial—candles, laminated paper photographs, flowers in bottles. An installation by the art collective And Then There Was BLAK (Building Lives with Art & Knowledge)2 at The Dojo 3 started from this homespun material—a wall lined with flowers and papered with photos of African American victims of white supremacist violence—and then complicated these almost sacred images with profane exaggerations: a t-shirt printed with Sandra Bland’s autopsy report, a video in which ATTBLAK member Phillip Lambert eats an American flag, stuffed animals hanging. But the most striking piece in the installation was the most simple, a wall of snapshots by photographer Zakkiyyah Najeebah. If the Movement for Black Lives necessarily occupies a space of death, here too was life in full-spirited revolt against any reduction to statistics or stereotypes or slogans; only glimpses barely contained.
Near the end of the night, candles illuminated rose petals in a circle of salt on the pavement outside Mana, remnants of the second part of Adrienne Deeble’s performance Futility I. This form was echoed in a candle and flowers in front of 2042 W. 21st Street where aCinema4 hosted one of the festival’s last events. You could be excused for thinking this was another work of art; in fact it was a memorial to Aaren O’Connor who was killed on that spot a year ago to the day. Rituals, like art, have a way of overspilling their bounds.