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SAY UNCLE: Getting out of the chokehold of permanency

“Say uncle” is a phrase cried out to admit defeat, to give in. I imagine a schoolyard bully demanding his desperate victim to scream the words in order to relieve physical pain, a kind of faux or at least mocking mercy. To “say uncle” is to openly declare a forced and public defeat, an obvious and overwhelming one.

Back in mid-March of this year, President Trump released his fiscal year budget for 2018, which proposed a total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This week, the Trump administration released a comprehensive budget affirming these initial cuts. Although this budget is just now beginning to face the next steps, the consequences would be, at the very least, disheartening and, at the worst, fatal for small-to-mid-sized arts and culture organizations. While the scale of such a financial setback for the arts would be drastic and widespread (according to its website, the NEA sponsors arts programming in every Congressional district), the sentiment is not new. Art and cultural entities have faced cuts before despite the ways they foster creative and critical thinking skills and help support engaged citizens.  Will we finally, squeezed to the brim, have to shamefully utter “say uncle” to federal arts funding?

Say Uncle is also an experimental residency and nomadic exhibition platform based out of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. It is an example of the kind of creative problem-solving at which artists and makers particularly thrive, not just amidst scarce-funding, but also in transitory living and working situations. It is a re-articulation of typical residency and exhibition structures for geographically isolated spaces and undetermined futures. Co-founded in 2015 by MFA Candidates Cory Imig, Dulcee Boehm and Cincinnati-based artist Benjamin Cook, Say Uncle is not grounded in a physical gallery space nor permanent residency location, but rather is an idea that utilizes DIY resources to house and fund residents and to exhibit regionally. The structure Say Uncle adopted, even before the Trump-era, acknowledges problems of making and exhibiting contemporary art in small cities and rural places. Such challenges include limited funding, low attendance, and supportive but repetitive audiences and makers. Boehm, Cook, and Imig built Say Uncle to thrive in its very temporality and geographical indeterminacy by “saying uncle” to physical exhibition space and commercial activities.

Devin Balara. “Pavers” 2016. Produced during Say Uncle residency. Champaign-Urbana, IL. 2016. Courtesy of Say Uncle.

Funded by a one-time award of $2,475 from the 2016 Urbana Arts Grants Program through the City of Urbana, Say Uncle hosts invited artists to live and work in Champaign, IL for two weeks and commissions them to create temporary public artworks. The artist lives in Imig’s apartment (she stays with Boehm for the two weeks) and the artist works in a donated, unused studio space at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with other MFA candidates. “Logistically, it’s short enough to make it possible in our lives,” Imig said in an interview. Near the end of the residency, the nomadic exhibition portion commences: Say Uncle exhibits the work locally but also partners with other spaces and galleries in Central Illinois to travel the artist’s work around the region. Imig stressed, “We were really interested in a collaborative effort between the artist and the three of us, who are artists, but [who are] also organizing the project. Instead of it being this set structure, it’s something that could evolve and make sense for whoever is the artist in residence.”

Say Uncle developed out of a desire for connection amongst disparate art communities in Central Illinois, including Champaign-Urbana, Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, and Peoria.  Boehm describes it as “giv[ing] us and other people a reason to go to the other communities where things are already happening. The project is an excuse to do that. So it is not filling a void, but connecting things that are really interesting that are already happening.” Cook adds, “When you live in a big city you can jump on a train and an hour or hour and half ride is not out of the question to do something. But it just doesn’t happen here. There’s something about crossing the plains or the nothingness in-between… There’s a real divide between these cities that have all having these really cool art things that are happening. What Say Uncle is doing is creating a shared experience.”

Say Uncle is also very much an extension of the artistic practices of Boehm, Cook, and Imig. Boehm’s art practice includes performative acts of labor involving the body and the landscape, often making, she says, “political move[s] to be deliberate and say that we are engaging with these places where there’s an assumption that there’s not things going on. There are.” Cook’s research and painting practice engage with the relationships in digital and physical spaces and the crossovers that happen between these communities. And Imig, a founder of Plug Projects in Kansas City, has long been interested in connecting artists across the country and making opportunities for one another in addition to a painting and sculptural practice rooted in site-specificity.

Devin Balara was Say Uncle’s first artist-in-residence in late 2016 and is an artist based in the Midwest. She created a project called Pavers, carved styrofoam shapes reminiscent of patio blocks, garden edgers, and stepping stones. The forms were carried around by Balara in her car, ready to be exhibited in interesting sites such as unused green space, piles of woodchips, and backstairs.  “Sneakiness was a major way of operating,” Balara said over email. “I found that the more confident I was in what I was doing, the more people would assumed I was just supposed to be there.” Balara’s untamed pavers block movement or direct vision toward looked-over or ugly spaces and they call attention to public spaces with no particular visual interest. Such effects are in opposition to architectural landscape objects’ original purposes of directing eyes and bodies toward something finished and pleasant.

Devin Balara. “Pavers” 2016. Produced during Say Uncle residency. Champaign-Urbana, IL. 2016. Courtesy of Say Uncle.

“When I showed [Boehm, Cook, and Imig] my first few experimental images with the forms installed around town, each of them immediately began listing strange parking lots, weird rock arrangements, abandoned lots, etc. that would be great sites with check out. I feel that I collaborated with the town itself as well,” Balara said.  Near the end of the residency, Balara installed the pavers at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, IL, the kind of ubiquitous, dated mall with several vacancies, off-beat temporary and/or seasonal stores, and no major department store left to anchor it.  The pavers were exhibited along with a “garden party,” that is, with an adjacent picnic blanket and snacks for attendees. “A lot of conversations were had about what it takes to domesticate a space or make it seem habitable/okay to chill at. A blanket on the ground is suddenly a prompt for sitting where you may not normally. The pavers were operating in a similar way – acting as proposals for a way a space can function different based solely on unexpected visual cues/arrangements,” Balara said. The pavers traveled to Demo Projects in Springfield, IL, and in urban spaces of Bloomington, IL adjacent to exhibition openings.

Jeffrey Michael Austin, Say Uncle’s second artist-in-residence during the spring of 2017, is a Chicago-based artist and musician. During the residency, Austin pursued two bodies of work: the first, wall pieces that look like foggy mirrors with the illusion of words or gestures just having been written the mirror, as if through the steam; and, the second, faux-reflective floor pieces that resemble puddles or spills, such as wine from a cup.   

Jeffrey Michael Austin. “Puddle (Clouds)” 2017. Resin, styrofoam, plastic, paint and digital print. Installation view as installed in Silvercreek Public Park in Urbana, IL during Say Uncle residency. 2017. Champaign-Urbana, IL. Courtesy of the artist.

“I feel like where these pieces come from is a space of making something that at first glance feels very mundane, ubiquitous, unassuming, something that you walk into a space and if it weren’t in an art studio, if it were ‘out there’ that you probably wouldn’t regard it as an art object at first. But that then there is this kind of subtle magic that takes place, this extraordinary quality that you have to grapple with for a second. That feeling of, ‘wait a second, what exactly is happening here?’ is a feeling that I’m always trying to harness in my work,” Austin explained in an interview in his Say Uncle studio.

Jeffrey Michael Austin. “Puddle (Trees)” 2017. Resin, found objects, paint and digital print. Produced during Say Uncle residency. Champaign-Urbana, IL. 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Austin exhibited the spill pieces across Champaign-Urbana, at an art exhibition opening (where he placed wine spills around the museum floor much to the chagrin of the gallery guards) and on sidewalks. Portable, the works are also fixed, autonomous art objects, something Austin typically strays away from in his practice. Still, he said, “I feel like the only reason I got to these is because that resistance is still in them. They resist being regarded as art objects because they are not asking the same sorts of formal questions …You are remaining a person in the world. You are not becoming an art viewer.”

Over email, Austin reflected upon how the structure of Say Uncle fostered, even required collaboration: “Unlike most of the residencies I’ve participated in, I was the sole artist-in-residence for the two weeks with Say Uncle. This allowed for a degree of intimacy and collaboration with the Say Uncle crew that would be impossible at larger communal residencies. Additionally, the amount of direct support I received — from the studio space, to the housing, to aid in the production of work and opportunities to engage with the UIUC community — makes Say Uncle by far the most generous residency framework I’ve ever experienced.”

Jeffrey Michael Austin. “Puddle (Clouds)”; 2017. Resin, styrofoam, plastic, paint and digital print; Installation view as installed in Champaign Public Library during Say Uncle residency. 2017. Champaign-Urbana, IL. Courtesy of the artist.

Since the completion of the two residencies Cook has re-located from Champaign to Cincinnati, Boehm and Imig will graduate in a year, and the initial grant funds are almost out. But what is the future of Say Uncle? Is Say Uncle admitting defeat? Yes and no.

Say Uncle was not built to last, but to work with the time and resources the founders had in a particular place. In a kind of planned obsolescence, Boehm, Cook, and Imig say they are open to how Say Uncle may take different forms as they move to different cities, re-imagining its structure for the resources and needs they have at that point in their lives. If there is a defeat, I think it is a kind of welcome one. If someone beats you up for something you are not attached to, something you are not trying to defend, why take the blows?  It’s not that the founders were defeated by the problems of permanent spaces, large-scale funding, gallery artists, commercial demands – they side-stepped such issues in the first place. Rather, they readily shout, “Say Uncle” to those set of art world standards, maybe in anticipation of its defeat, maybe in hope of creating more experimental, temporal, experience-based standards. Say Uncle, at its roots, is about connection, about banding together individual artists with the “make it happen” attitude of rural Midwest communities. Imig admits, that, in part, Say Uncle “is an excuse to get to know artists that I would not ever get a chance to meet. Even if there are things happening, I still wanted to do something. You can show up to things but there’s a different thing when you are fully invested and participating in forming it. I wanted to figure out some way to have that experience.” By rearranging the comforts of a set space, reliable funding, and a ten-year plan into a nomadic, planned chaos, and openness, Say Uncle suggests a hopeful framework of collaboration in a time of socio-political instability.

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