ReMake Estate transformed an abandoned building in Gary Indiana, into an edible garden and mural project, 2010. ReMake Estate was a collaborative project with Keg de Souza as part of an Australia Council for the Arts Residency.
ReMake Estate was supported by Mess Hall, Chicago, Sam A Love and the Central District Organising Project. A film based on the project Emeraldtown, Gary Indiana was launched at Artspace in October 2010.
An excerpt from “You are here and somewhere else” by Melanie Oliver in Artspace’s magazine Column, 2010.
To understand the project You Are Here undertook in Gary, it is useful to know a little background information. Situated twenty-five miles from downtown Chicago, Gary was founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation as a convenient location for their new steel processing plant. The initial prosperity of the city was due to the booming steel industry that it was built around, but by the 1960s, with offshore competitors challenging US domination of the steel market, the city had entered a state of decline. Unemployment in the city grew, and so too did levels of crime. In the subsequent years many affluent and middle-class residents abandoned Gary, relocating to the surrounding cities and towns. In addition to this, the job losses from the downsizing of the plant meant people left Gary for regions that could offer employment, leaving the town with many empty and disused properties. Another important demographic feature of Gary is its predominantly African American population. At eighty-four per cent in the 2000 census, it has the highest percentage of African American residents among small United States cities. The city boasts some momentous milestones: Gary elected one of the nation’s first African American mayors, Richard G. Hatcher, in 1968, and hosted the ground-breaking 1972 National Black Political Convention. Michael Jackson, the infamous king of pop, also grew up in Gary and there is significant celebration of this fact with supporters proposing to erect a museum in his honour, as well as hosting many popular festivities commemorating Jackson each year. However the recent struggling economy has significantly affected Gary and has led to some considerable challenges for the community to tackle.
ReMake Estate was a project made in collaboration with local initiatives that were already seeking avenues of self-empowerment and community control in Gary, such as the Central District Organizing Project and the Higher Art Creative Learning Centre. Arriving with a preconceived idea in mind; to build a community garden and utilise one of the many abandoned houses, You Are Here quickly adapted to suggestions from the community to make it a more freely accessible edible garden and to focus their project upon the exterior of one of the houses, in an effort to enhance what was a desolate site and provide a community endeavour. As both Begg and de Souza have a history of engaging in activism as well as critical art theory, each were particularly conscious of the role that power imbalances can play within this kind of situation and were mindful to incorporate the voices of residents, even though You Are Here would claim the final authorship of the project. Perhaps the now-tedious discussions on Relational Aesthetics and subsequent responses, such as Australian art historian Steven Wright’s warning around relational practices that offer superficial experiences and unwanted services, have encouraged a necessity for self-reflexive and responsible community collaboration, participation and collective action. However, rather than distancing themselves from community-engaged practices, You Are Here continue to embrace the radical potential of working in the world, regardless of the warnings and hesitations of certain critics. Indeed, they unapologetically engage in political commentary. In the words of curator Maria Lind:
This should come as no surprise; when politics in principle are completely steered by economics and the economyfollows a capitalist logic, then culture tends to become an arena for ideological debate. Culture in general, and art in particular, then functions as an avenue where the political is allowed to be enacted, if sometimes covertly… Today we have reached a point where culture and art are not only used as instruments in the political, but they also produce a potent force, something that is palpable…
Jean-Luc Nancy has described community as that which is formed in the wake of society, as what remains as a form of resistance to the immanent power, and this is somewhat overt in the case of Gary, with the surviving community filling in the gaps that the once powerful steel industry left behind. You Are Here were interested in those industries that have developed in its absence, such as barber shops, beauty salons, sex work, airbrush art as well as the proliferation of gangs, drugs and bootleg Michael Jackson merchandise—manifestations of community resilience in the face of eroded economic confidence. Residents of Gary openly express their distrust of societal structures, and with such a legacy of corporate behaviour in the city, it is easy to see why.
The intention of You Are Here to make a difference in the community, and to highlight the concerns of Gary through this project, is clear. In doing so, they encountered the challenge of how to make a collaborative project that was responsive and useful, but the difficulty of how to present this in a meaningful as well as aesthetic way within a gallery context remained. Lind has suggested that political agency and the potential to effect change can exist in the simple act of making art and often elaborates on the benefits of artist-initiated action – as You Are Here attempted with the community of Gary – but how can this be translated as an artistic experience engaged in the political? Separating the two projects, ReMake Estate and Emeraldtown not only acknowledged and avoided the lack of criteria for assessing socially engaged works, but also allowed the Artspace project to function independently from the community-based activities despite being necessarily informed by them.