an interview with compound yellowleah gallant
The grounds of Compound Yellow. Photography by Erik L. Peterson. Courtesy Compound Yellow.
Lately, I have been wondering if certain styles dominate art made in Chicago—whether it is possible to detect a latter-day equivalent to the Hairy Who. But what comes to mind more than a single aesthetic or medium is the city’s network of artist-run spaces: galleries folded into apartments, backyards, street-facing windows, and the occasional handbag.1 In terms of self-reliance, good things seem to happen when both New York and Los Angeles are very far away.
“Self-Reliance Library,” by Chicago-based artist duo Temporary Services, is one of the many projects unfolding out of Compound Yellow that exemplifies this ethos of interdependence. The gallery, home, and workshop space is housed in several buildings of the titular yellow in Oak Park (a neighbourhood best known for its high concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings). Over the past several years, the collectively run space has hosted everything from weaving workshops to monthly classes in collaboration with the Poetry Foundation. I spoke with Lora Lode, an artist, curator, and teacher who is one of the co-founders of the space, about the origins of Compound Yellow, how to reach new publics with art that is weird but not too weird, and what art-inflected education could look like.
Leah Gallant: Can you tell me a bit about the origins of Compound Yellow? Where did the idea come from, and how did you get the project off the ground?
Lora Lode: In 2016, I was at an event at Terrain [Exhibitions] (another art space in Oak Park) and Laura Shaeffer—who now lives adjacent to the exhibition space at Compound Yellow—was also there. Laura and I knew each other from running or co-running experimental spaces; she had formerly been associated with SHoP (Southside Hub of Production), and I was formerly associated with Mess Hall in Rogers Park.
Those spaces were gone. At the event at Terrain, we were talking about what we had done in the past, and she said, “Oh, we bought The Suburban”—Michelle Grabner had a gallery known as The Suburban and had since relocated to Milwaukee; Laura and her family had bought the house, and she wanted to do something interesting with it. We started talking about what we used to do, and the kinds of spaces we were interested in—it just started as a conversation with a couple of other people. We didn’t necessarily want to open a white cube type of gallery. There’s nothing wrong with that but we wanted to do something different because we felt that sort of thing is represented pretty heavily in the world. So we started talking about the layout of the space, and how what was formerly an individual studio is really much more of a place for conversations, lectures, and workshops.
When Temporary Services was in residence a year ago, they utilised the street-facing cinder block house on Compound Yellow’s property as a bookshop, and it worked really well. For the public it was inviting in some ways, because it didn’t seem like an art space. It broadened the audience. People would come in and say, “What is this?” We just started brainstorming. Temporary Services was really instrumental in getting the space to be used in the way we imagined it to be used, because they were able to turn the exhibition space into what is called the “Self-Reliance Library,” and then the bookstore was utilised by them and by people they invited in for workshops, film screenings, conversations. I’m pointing them out because in some ways it was the ideal of what we would love to see there: they’re doing their own programming, there’s robust activity happening throughout the space, and because they come with their own audience events are well attended.
LG: Were there particular models you had in mind for how the space would function, or other models you were thinking of for how art and pedagogy can work together?
LL: We drew on our previous spaces, as well as other models like free universities. I was at one time part of Temporary Services, so that influences me a lot. There’s a place in Boston called the Design Studio For Social Intervention (DS4SI) that is influential to me. They’re always really pushing how you can interact with the public about pressing questions of our time. They experiment a lot with different models, like comedy sketches and things like that. I’ve talked with Kenneth Bailey, who’s been there since the beginning, I believe, and they have something called the Social Emergency Response Center Kit, which comes with forms and banners and they intended to distribute as widely as possible to people who were interested in holding a Social Emergency Response Center. This was after Trump was elected.
Other models—earlier models—include artist projects, like Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Food”: the idea that artists could fund themselves through serving food and have a place where artists would hang out and talk. There was a group of arts administrators from SAIC [the School of the Art Institute of Chicago] that did a really interesting project called Sunday Soup, where they played around with this idea of micro-funding as well. You’d purchase the soup, that money would go into a microgrant, and people would decide right then and there which project would get that $200 or $300. That kind of model does not depend solely on the sort of funding structures that are in place in an institutional setting, which are often hard to get.
Another model is Group Material—Félix González-Torres and Julie Ault, amongst others. We’re interested in questioning cultural production: who owns it, who gets to do it, how is it shown, who feels like they can or cannot go into places where that’s happening. For some people, places like the Art Institute [of Chicago] are kind of intimidating spaces. Even for me, I didn’t grow up that way. My mom didn’t take us to the Art Institute. I remember going in there for the first time and being like, “I don’t belong here.”
LG: I’ve been thinking about that question of audience and publics for smaller, artist-run spaces, because I feel like there’s a risk of only being accessible to an audience of other artists who know each other from the same MFA programme. How do you navigate that issue?
LL: It comes up at almost every single meeting. We would like to have a board that is more representative of the community that we live in. As far as an audience goes, it’s not exactly where we’d like to be. That’s always a problem, even if you’re trying to do something that you think is this utopian idea. It’s like, “Are you really? Or are you just speaking to the audience that already knows those things and is interested in them?” To be as honest as possible, I can’t say we’re totally successful at that. But sometimes, because of this physical location—we’re right across the street from a grocery store—there’s potential, and it has happened that people who are just curious come over.
When artists are in the yard doing something that doesn’t seem too weird, that’s when people come over. There was a time when Compound Yellow was a coffee shop, and it happened with the bookshop too. If it’s an artist out there who’s making some funky thing or doing some performance, it isn’t going to be for everybody. That’s going to draw an art crowd. We should always ask ourselves about reach and audience, and be aware that we’re not patting ourselves on the back. We’ve done some reaching out to invite people to be part of Compound Yellow, but we also want to recognise that sometimes people have busy lives, and we can’t expect people to solve problems for us—we have to figure it out.
LG: In thinking about education, and potentials and limitations for different projects, I was thinking about short-term and one-time educational initiatives, like your work with Lucky Pierre Free University.2 Are there particular strategies of approach or expectations that you think work with those kinds of initiatives and are different from how we usually think about education (as part of an institution that will be there forever and provide the same types of things year to year)?
LL: I’m interested in poking at—and possibly rupturing—institutional education, either in terms of content or structure. I’m interested in where Paulo Freire3 or Ira Shor4 start from—that everyone has something to offer, everyone has some knowledge. Instead of coming at education from a top-down model, the group or whoever is in the room speaks for themselves, to determine what it is they want to learn and also what it is they want to offer. Even though LPFU did have some structure going in, I think the school was playing around with the delivery mode. There was a lot of performative stuff, there was a lot of on-the-spot collaboration, visual thinking, making. The research was more experimental, not research in the way that one who’s doing scientific research or social science research has strict guidelines to follow. I guess that’s one of the things that as an artist you can afford, in ways that can be good and maybe not so good in terms of accountability.
That’s one of the things that you’re asking: how are we accountable if we say or think we’re doing these things? Are we really doing these things? And are we doing them responsibly? In the early days of social practice, there were a lot of people who were very critical of it, some in the institutional art world, like Claire Bishop.5 Daniel Tucker6 was speaking somewhere, and he asked, how are we accountable? Do we publish for a journal? Not really, but then do we hold ourselves accountable, or are we accountable to the public? In the criticism that I’ve heard of social practice, if we don’t hold ourselves accountable to the dominant forms of institutional authorities in the art world—let’s say art criticism or art history—because we’re trying to side-step that, because we’re outside of that, that just seems like cheating.
LG: Are there particular things you’ve learned from running this space or thinking about how to build an alternative educational network? Or advice you would give?
LL: There is a lot of physical work and labour. I think a lot of the learning has to do with people and creating an environment where there’s support and care and respect for one another. Taking the time to do a debriefing after even one event is important. There’s a lot about interpersonal relationships, to make sure you’re clearly communicating what it is you can do and what you don’t have capacity for. Communication is so important—being in a room and giving everyone space to talk about what it is and why they’re there, and you have to keep doing that. I think that Temporary Services is really good about having those types of conversations.
LG: Are there particular things you think the Chicago art community is lacking? Or particular things you hope Compound Yellow is able to provide that weren’t there before?
LL: There are so many people doing important projects that I worry not everyone gets enough visibility for their work. In the past, people have tried hosting big blowout weekends where many people who do work that is experimental or social practice-like are invited into one space. Co-Prosperity Sphere7 had something years ago. If anything’s missing, I think it’s something like that: a sort of hub that’s created, even if it’s only for a weekend, where people get to see each other’s projects. I know Sarah Ross’ amazing project PNAP (Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project) for example, but I don’t know if it’s widely recognised throughout Chicago. They do work at Stateville Maximum Security Prison, where men who are serving long-term sentences can take classes towards a bachelor’s degree through Northeastern Illinois University.
LG: If Compound Yellow received a no-strings-attached grant of $10,000, how would you spend it?
LL: Some of it might go towards making the space more accessible in terms of the structure’s physical accessibility. A lot of it would be for programming and paying people, artists, and participants. We try, as much as we can, to throw together a scrappy $100 for people. We would love to be able to pay artists.
2 Lucky Pierre Free University was a series of educational programmes based in collaborative research on the environment.
3 Paulo Freire was a Brazilian teacher and theorist, best known for his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), which featured a Marxist class analysis of education.
4 Ira Shor is a scholar and proponent of critical pedagogy. In 1987, he co-authored the book A Pedagogy for Liberation with Paulo Freire.
5 Art historian Claire Bishop has written critically about participatory art, most notably in her 2006 Artforum essay “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” and her 2012 book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship.
6 Daniel Tucker is a Philadelphia-based artist, writer, and organiser whose work revolves around the nexus between art and activism.
7 Co-Prosperity Sphere is an art and event space in Bridgeport, Chicago.