A unique alternative art center almost lost to natural and political forces in Chicago has been reborn, and its new composition can provide important lessons to anyone involved in social and cultural innovation.
Well known to those who have come in contact with it, the Blackstone is on the verge of engaging a broader public than it ever has before, and is deserving of some reflection on the lessons learned by its story.
The 6100 South Blackstone Street facility has been nursed back to health, following a devastating fire in 2001; its physical restoration means that the many cultural and entrepreneurial experiments the building housed may return, pending some interior construction. Grappling with the myriad forces unfriendly to this possibility, has led to an innovation that itself adds a new dimension to the space.
In a 2002 article, Nato Thompson, assistant curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, categorized the Blackstone Building as a “Multi- Use Center,” an alternative art center housing projects that pushed the boundaries of the very definition of art. Certainly, art produced out of the building fit this definition, but for the uninitiated, other activity going on there–a furniture store, a bicycle repair shop–strain the limits of credulity. Maybe, that\’s the point.
When reopened, the building will be known as Experimental Station, named for the not-for-profit that will oversee future maintenance and development of the space. The diverse array of projects once housed in Experimental Station will have an institutional ally in its efforts. It also has a mission, if not changed, at least more formalized, a development well worth considering within the context of community- based neighborhood change.
In the discourse surrounding alternative social structures and community empowerment, institutions are typically seen as the enemy, be it a neighborhood- unfriendly university, a creativity-averse politician or an innovation-crushing museum. Indeed, the magic of the Blackstone building and other centers like it is the free flow of ideas, the informal nature of exchange and the potential for all sorts of spontaneous collaboration. How could an institution buttress these kinds of interactions?
An examination of the history of Experimental Station and its inhabitants will begin to shed light on where it has arrived, while a broader consideration of the nature of social change may explain where it is going–and why.
The Blackstone Background
Central to the history of the Blackstone Building is the importance of examining society’s needs through a discourse informed by ecology. Priorities at the outset–notions of diversity, interdependence, geographic awareness and sustainability–continue to inform the Experimental Station’s current trajectory. In the late 1960s, the Resource Center (a holistic recycling effort initiated by Ken Dunn), introduced a praxis of social innovation above and beyond the confines of the Blackstone. “,
The Resource Center operates urban agriculture projects, including City Farm, located between the Cabrini Green public housing development and the Gold Coast, and a composting center at 71st Street and Dorchester Avenue. The Resource Center has, over the years, hired many low-income residents of Chicago and heightened awareness of the need for sustainability, all the while harvesting and selling healthy food to Chicago.
Ken sees the purpose of efforts like his as nothing less than the development of a total alternative to our mainstream societal infrastructure. “Our economy,” Ken once noted in an interview for the 2004 publication Making Their Own Plans, “and our political system is broken.”
The influence of that radical vision on the production within the Blackstone continued after Dan Peterman acquired the building in 1996. Up until April 2001, the building housed a uniquely diverse range of organizations, artists and projects. Peterman produced internationally-acclaimed artwork out of a workspace housed within the building. The Blackstone also served as the publishing site of The Baffler, a journal of cultural criticism edited by Thomas Frank, and as host for Monk Parakeet, an art project and residency program for local and international artists. Side-by-side, entrepreneurial endeavors also flourished: furniture makers Big Fish Furniture, Wong Lee’s Auto Repair and Blackstone Bicycle Works were all housed in the building, as was the Neighborhood Conservation Corps, a not-for-profit organization employing residents of public housing.
If the range of activity at the building embraced the diversity important to social innovation as seen through an ecological lens, it no less demonstrated– and demonstrates–our interdependence. Participants in each of these projects drew something from the localized interaction. Artist Dan S. Wang produced the 2004 pamphlet Downtime at Experimental Station, an interview with Dan Peterman following the fire. The publication describes the net effect of the conglomeration at the building as a kind of clear-eyed idealism, looking squarely at existing conditions and needs, yet remaining uncompromising.
“It’s a more important thing because there’s less escapism–the escapist element is not there at all–to want to or to try to develop a kind of working model in that direction of the ‘countercultural economy’ while really subjecting oneself, subjecting that model to the constraints and obstacles one would find in the city–to believe that it could happen is somehow to reinvigorate the kind of impulses that inform that idealism,” Wang said.’
In a sense, it is quite simply the manifestation of Experimental Station that provides its most powerful cultural critique.
“You could collect a lot of information on sustainable living,” Dan explains in Downtime at Experimental Station, “but if you live sustainably for fifty years, you\’ve done something entirely different and entirely better.”
Form Following Function
In institutionalizing the mission of the Blackstone building, the Experimental Station’s founders have manifested their ideas in a way that challenges both the mainstream and innovators, jutting ahead in the discourse about living sustainably and progressivism. From the potential for institutional innovation to the role of the individual artist in creation, several attributes can be inferred from the characteristics of this project’s past and present narrative.
Perhaps the most subversive element of the story of Experimental Station is the paradoxical combination of the combat with authority that saved the physical facility and the decision to, in part, institutionalize the oversight of the building’s future. Some fans of the building have expressed regret that the fire led to the necessity of adding an element of formality. However, the value of this development is that the building will not be merely a site of cultural critique but, essentially, the critique itself.
Important geographic considerations reinforce this perspective. Experimental Station is located in Woodlawn, a low-income, predominately African- American community. Even as Experimental Station’s history has been in investing in Woodlawn, society at large has done the reverse. Similarly, while the artist typically drifts through community, moving from low rent to low rent, Experimental Station is a clear statement of dedication, building a community and a social network of the most diverse sort.
Pleasantly collaborating for decades, the tenants at Experimental Station challenge the narrative about the causes of segregation and the history of race relations in this country. In its previous incarnation, the Blackstone building’s experiments in sustainability had an “under the radar” quality. In its new incarnation, Experimental Station boldly inserts itself into public space in a way that suggests that sustainability need not be considered “fringy” but can be developed and supported in a self-conscious, straightforward way. What remains to be seen is whether our society has the capacity to embrace this vision
For updated information on the Experimental Station