Activist art in Pittsburgh Biennial segment at CMU covers complex subjects

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Some people remain uncomfortable with activist art -- whether in the visual, theater, dance or music realms -- for a variety of reasons.

They may have formed perceptions in school of what subjects the arts should address and how they should look, and not had time or interest to keep up with contemporary art's continually changing nature. They may feel such activity is an inappropriate role for artists. They may be looking to transcend the moment, not involve in it.

Even to aficionados, activist art can be off-putting if it is overtly didactic, overwhelms with a massive volume of material, or has no visual appeal, by which I mean scruffy by neglect, not by intent.

The 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial segment housed at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University rises above such concerns even though it is the most uniformly and pointedly activist of the five biennial venues. It does this through well thought-out installations that synthesize complex subjects in digestible presentations that are aided by their visuals, as opposed to simply being packaged within an artwork. Take home material for each project is available for those who want more at a later time.

Astria Suparak, Miller director and exhibition curator, has pulled together five collaborative efforts that represent a range of artistic practices and current issues.

The exhibition, which opened Sept. 16, has become even more timely seen within the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its advocacy for cultural examination and social change. For example, one of the banners that greet visitors in the entry gallery reads: "We cannot depend on a market-informed cultural consciousness to enlighten us -- we have to do it ourselves."

That quote is from the 2009 book "Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills" by Raleigh Briggs. It is part of the "Self-Reliance Library" by the art collaborative Temporary Services, made up of artists Marc Fischer, Salem Collo-Julin and Brett Bloom. Visitors are invited to sit and peruse current and out-of-print books that, in the artists' opinion, represent creative alternative thinking that could contribute to solving societal problems.

Their second project, "Personal Plastic," transforms recycled plastic bags into banners that sport quotes lifted from books in the library.

Although the reading material is alternative, visionary and DIY, the conversation is broadly applicable. Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky, for example, said in a recent public talk that part of the reason museums are currently being challenged in the political arena is that they have allowed others to tell their stories, not having defined themselves first to the public.

A banner from "Do It Yourself: A handbook for changing our world," of 2007, reads: "If we don't tell our own stories then we risk leaving others to create conflicting versions which will be the only ones that resonate."

The collective subRosa runs with that theme by drawing attention to the accomplishments of women past and present in "Feminist Matter(s): Propositions & Undoings." Artists Hyla Willis and Faith Wilding created inviting intimate spaces -- "tea-tables" -- for one or two visitors to talk/think about historic figures known and obscure. The table of Virginia Woolf, for example, references the author's experience in blitz London that gave rise to her proposition that power and ideas can arise from tables other than officers' and conference, and draws on the colors and patterns of the early modernist Omega Workshop, which her sister worked for. The table of early mathematician Hypatia holds beer, urine and saline solution in hydrometers, an instrument she is credited with inventing.

Beyond acknowledging achievement, subRosa asks visitors to consider the effect women might have were they more involved with science today and, by extrapolation, other national endeavors.

The statement "A billionaire stole your job not migrant labor" is almost obscured by an aggressive foreground barbed wire pattern in one of a grouping of works by Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, which describes itself as a decentralized network of 26 artists in the U.S., Canada and Mexico committed to making print and design work that reflects a radical social, environmental, and political stance. Seventeen members participated in this project, which addresses Mexican-U.S. border issues.

Formally varied billboard style panels with graphic punch range in subject from the plight of individuals (a woman stands limply on shore as a boat filled with family and neighbors pulls away) to concern for the environment (a panel bordered by Monarch butterflies, which winter in Mexico, reads: "There is no place of refuge").

In the installation "Global Cities, Model Worlds" artists Lize Mogel, Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis lay out pros and cons of bringing "mega events" such as Olympics and World Fairs to cities, and preemptively ask the question "What would happen should either come to Pittsburgh?" Low tables report developmental, housing and financial consequences; display aerial photographs of expos and Olympics in major global cities; and hold a three-dimensional graph of bidders and losers over the years.

Finally, Transformazium artists Ruthie Stringer, Dana Bishop-Root, Leslie Stem and Caledonia Curry share an ongoing, hands-on project that goes beyond intellectual proposals for paradigm shifts to one that is physical. They purchased a property in North Braddock with a condemned building on it that they chose to "deconstruct" rather than to demolish, the difference being that they are recycling materials when possible rather than expediently bulldozing all and removing it to a dump. Their Biennial installation comprises a video about the project, tools, and piles of brick cleaned and awaiting cleaning. The artists argue that such an approach -- also called "green demolition" or "unbuilding" -- is environmentally friendly, community building, sustainable and job-providing. It's labor intensive, but that may be one commodity in greater supply in the near future.

The works in this exhibition are implicitly critical but weighted toward solutions. Who more appropriate as a poster (banner) child for the show than Buckminster Fuller: "We are called on to be the architect of the future, not its victims."

The exhibition continues through Dec. 11. Admission is free. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The Miller Gallery is handicap-accessible. For information, call 412-268-3618 or visit

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.


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