In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the organizational and artistic practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and practicing artists, their distinct characters, influences, aspirations, and more.
Here, we speak to curator Daniel Tucker, whose Center-funded exhibition and event series Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements explores historical and contemporary questions of equity, justice, and race relations. Organize Your Own invites contemporary artists to respond to archival materials relating to the cross-racial social movements organized by white southerners who migrated to northern cities in the 1960s and 70s. Following its debut at Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania last fall, the project traveled to the Averill and Bernard Leviton Gallery at Columbia College Chicago. This summer, audiences will have an opportunity to see the project at Augustana Teaching Museum of Art at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL (August 25 – October 28). Additional touring venues will be announced soon.
Why do you think Organize Your Own has resonated with communities in Philadelphia and beyond?
When I started thinking about the project nearly five years ago, I was a bit nervous about how to frame it because I did not want to produce another 1960s nostalgia trip. It is not that I dislike history, but that I wanted to insist that the history be in dialogue with the present. This is sometimes implied, but not achieved. And so it took a while to mull over the history that was inspiring Organize Your Own—both the 1966 Black Power mandate to white activists to organize against racism in their own communities, and some of the inspiring manifestations of that work that were led by poor and working-class white activists who had largely been written out of the official history of the 60s. It wasn’t until I went to a Black Lives Matter rally in 2014 here in Philadelphia that I heard one of the speakers give a similar directive to white activists that I knew how to frame this project as one that actually quotes from history, rather than focuses on it. It then became important to emphasize that this project was about artists and poets in 2016 using that history as a prompt to consider what relevance the directive to organize your own had for the present.
This seemed to be a rich enough terrain to attract large and enthusiastic audiences to our programs in Philly and Chicago, but it was not until the 2016 election happened that we started to get serious inquiries from other organizations and venues that really wanted to host the project. I think that the people running the exhibition venues that will host the new touring version of Organize Your Own are trying to grapple with all the public discussion about backlash against Obama, the Dreamers, and Black Lives Matter, combined with this seemingly mythical category of organized voters called ‘the white working class’ which nobody seems to understand.
Both the Philadelphia and Chicago iterations of Organize Your Own took place in academic institutions. This raises the question of audiences. How were different audiences able to access the content of the project?
University art galleries and campus cultural centers are some of the only places that those of us who have research-intensive, event-based, and dialogical curatorial and art practices are able to develop our projects. This is somewhat opened up in a city like Philadelphia where there is support through entities like The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for ambitious projects of this kind. But still, these spaces are often unique public-facing entities on the campuses they inhabit, and the two venues where Organize Your Own started are premier examples of that kind of accessible space that equally serves the campus and the community at large. With that in mind, it was important that in each city there were off-campus events. In Philadelphia, that included programs at the Slought Foundation and Asian Arts Initiative, and in Chicago it included the Museum of Contemporary Art and a walking tour that ended at a country music bar.
It cannot be overstated how important the participating artists were in making this project resonate with communities. Sometimes that gets lost in group projects that involve a lot of people, but it was absolutely crucial in this case. The artists really took a prompt from me and brought themselves and their particular concerns into that framework. They really answered the question of what does it mean to organize your own, what is your own, and critiqued that premise with their contributions as much as they clarified it. Through that range of perspectives, our audiences saw their own questions being asked in the work of the participating artists and poets, which helped to extend the project well beyond academic audiences into many communities.
How does art serve as an effective advocacy tool?
Social movements always utilize art, and the skills of making compelling images, narratives, and experiences are going to be crucial in the coming years. There is a way that our historical political categories are being muddied right now, but the 2016 election created an opportunity for people who believe that culture has a profound impact on politics to become more than advocates; to become analysts who can explain this convergence to everyone else. In an era of anti-politics, conventional advocacy addressed at the representational political system may not work in the same ways it has historically. Artists and cultural producers are the people who understand intimately how culture impacts politics, and not just in an instrumental way where we make people’s signs and slogans and viral videos—but where we can actually assess how attitudes towards politics might be changed in light of people’s disenchantment with politics.
Social media makes it easy for individuals to organize around a variety of causes, and provides a platform for many voices to be heard. Does the artist’s voice get lost in the social media noise? How can we differentiate the artists’ voices from the crowd? And is that important?
My background is in the world of tactical media, where artists and activists basically tried to intervene in the visual landscape, often times using whatever tools were appropriate and already in usage in that context. So you make billboards and advertisements if you want to communicate in that register; you make television if you want to operate in that register; and today you might even make memes for social media because evidence suggests that there are lots of eyeballs on those things.
That said, I am also interested in different kinds of making, and this is where the educator in me comes in. I don’t think it is necessary to prescribe that artists be outside of pop cultural forms like social media, though I do think that there are compelling reasons to do so. There is a lot of noise, so we have to ask ourselves if we want to work within that stream or against it. There is nothing more depressing to me than seeing every artist and arts organization in the world try to succeed in the social media game. This is mirrored by the overproduction of events which are basically the programmatic extension of the noise.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about memorable art experiences is how they make me pause. There are obviously some important and personal questions for every artist to ask if inspiring pause is what they aspire to. If that is the case, there are also some very interesting, politically relevant questions about how experiences of pause can make space for rethinking our lives and our attitudes that could be challenging to the status quo. Alternately, if you're making pauses or if you are making wild encounters, it could just be co-opted by the “experience economy” which turns everyday life into an object with value in the market. Either way, if I had to be prescriptive: we should make noisy art that inspires both jolts and pauses!