By Grace Kook-Anderson
For the past several months, Chiara Giovando has used her curator-in-residence position at Disjecta to bring Portland, national, and international artists together. In her final exhibition, however, Giovando concludes her residency by focusing on her North Portland neighborhood, Kenton, originally a company town founded by Swift Meat Packing company, before it was absorbed by the City of Portland in 1915.
At Disjecta, Giovando has created an overarching theme of sound and the ephemeral qualities in art that push toward materiality. In her first exhibition, Book of Scores, Giovando invited artists to explore the idea of a score or the act of scoring—both as musical form and action—interpreting process as symbol. Contact Expo by DLS Solutions (Downtown Light and Sound Solution) explored how environment becomes sculpture, shifting form and perception. In her most recent exhibition A Mortal Song, two artists at different points in their career were brought together to explore music as an inherently challenging medium and subject. They dealt with the more emotional connections bound in music.
Continuing with the broad theme of sound, Giovando has collaborated with the Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University—Emma Colburn, Roz Crews, Amanda Leigh Evans, Emily Fitzgerald, Harrell Fletcher, Lauren Moran, Anke Schuettler, Renee Sills, and Kimberly Sutherland. Together, they partnered with community members who maintain a musical practice. The Music That Makes Us aims to establish a music hub in the neighborhood at Disjecta—a site some local residents are still not familiar with.
Though Disjecta’s main aim as a contemporary art center is to exhibit critical examples of art today, the organization has maintained a presence in the community through free access, hosting neighborhood and business association meetings, and offering the facility to support the neighborhood. Disjecta’s founder and director Bryan Suereth notes that since Disjecta’s move to the Kenton neighborhood in 2008, its shows have attracted 16,000-18,000 people to the neighborhood, changing the landscape of local businesses.
Giovando’s attention to the Kenton neighborhood comes at a time when the city is focusing intently on issues around gentrification, given the recent large-scale changes to the cityscape and the city’s demographics. So her emphasis on social practice as her final exhibition with Disjecta is particularly considered.
She was eager to work with Harrell Fletcher, she tells me in an interview, because “[Fletcher] privileges the personal while elevating it to the institutional level.” Fletcher’s description of the shared exhibition explains the choice of music as a binding theme. “Our interest was in making a direct connection between the neighborhood and Disjecta, so we just made the simple decision to focus on local musicians,” Fletcher told me. “Music, like food, is common everywhere, but has its own local particularities. It was a good bet that we could find really interesting musicians in the area right around the art center. We used a very broad and inclusive approach in an attempt to indicate how diverse any one place can be.”
An incredible amount of research is apparent in the exhibition, creating a living archive of those who produce music in the neighborhood. Not meant to be a comprehensive index, The Music That Makes Us is more of a suggestion of the richness of any place, if you choose to look—or in this case, listen. In a charming comparison, fellow exhibition organizer Crews states in an emai, “The show feels like a yearbook in some ways, interesting to the people who are presented within it, but also interesting to people excited about the history of a specific place.”
The list of participating musicians is impressively wide-ranging: Zahra Ahmed, De La Salle North Catholic High School Choir, Dorian Neira and Daniel “D.J. Max” Lasuncet, Austin Green, Robin Gordon and the Celebration Tabernacle Ministry of Music, Kenton Brass, Kenton Church Choir, Shirley A. Meador, The Obo Addy Legacy Project, Peninsula School in collaboration with Caldera, Heather Perkins, André Roberson, Lisa Schonberg, Norman Sylvester, and The World Famous Kenton Club.
The exhibition reveals the neighborhood’s spirit through archives, public programs, and a keen sense of exhibition design. Suereth emphasizes Giovando’s strength in this exhibition: “This show is interesting because we haven’t exhibited the neighborhood’s art because it’s not the purview. What’s great about this show is that it bridges that gap between conceptual and aesthetic—and brings it all together in a seamless way.”
Built into the residency program, Suereth said curators are encouraged to visit Portland and become a part of the community. With a blend of Disjecta’s insight into selecting emerging curators and the curators’ own sense of responsibility, the curators have invested their time learning about Portland while elevating and broadening the art conversation outside of the immediate area. The curator-in-residence alums have come from New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Los Angeles, and with the support of the Warhol Foundation and Disjecta’s growing presence, the residence program is likely to attract a greater number of aspiring curators nationally. Giovando is now added to the list of alums that includes: Jenene Nagy (2011-12), Josephine Zarkovich (2012-13), Summer Guthery (2013-14), and Rachel Adams (2014-15).
Giovando’s practice as curator is refreshing and appears to stem from her own multidisciplinary approach as an artist, based in music practices, working in performance, film and installation, where sound and light is her medium. Likely because of this experience, her curatorial work remains supple and open to process. As subtle as this exhibition design appears, a thoughtful and tight thread runs throughout the exhibition.
Because of the conceptual and ephemera-based quality of the exhibition, the exhibition is multi-layered in its approach within and outside of the art center’s space. Individual posters of the 15 participants reveal their brief stories tied to music. Designed by Neil Doshi these posters are not only offered as takeaways for visitors, but are hung all over the neighborhood. They are also blown up and echoed in the art center, hung along bright yellow walls.
A narrow set of tables curves from the Disjecta entrance to the far back wall of the space. The tables hold photographs, album covers, instruments, set notes, and other contributed materials and objects by all the participating neighborhood musicians. There are repeating elements that echo and emphasize the layers of the community, for example, a small feature located on the bottom of the posters reveals “assorted textures from Kenton.” They reveal the patterns of brick or the surface of a cement wall. These design elements are also etched into the tables, creating a quiet familiarity while alluding to the neighborhood landscape.
An upright piano and a drum set occupy the space in anticipation, while the objects and ephemera on the table seem to vibrate with meaningful histories of their own. A well-used cornet from Kenton Brass is accompanied by a short description: “It is rumored that the original owner was the cornetist from The Spike Jones band. He used it as a wager in a poker game, which he lost.” Museum-worthy instruments and costumes from the Obo Addy Legacy Project are included as well as the more humble Little Tikes Toy Piano from Daniel “D.J. Max” Lasuncet: “Daniel has had this toy piano since he was a baby. The first song he learned to play on it was No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley.”
The exhibition also includes The Kenton Audio Walk, accessible on Disjecta’s website. The audio tour begins at the art center, interspersing stories from the participating musicians with the music they make.
The expression of community through music becomes evident when talking to musicians like Al Torres of Kenton Brass: “Whether a military band, an orchestra, a jazz trio or a brass quintet, it all creates a social community with the intent to bring people together at a concert venue. In simple terms, music creates an opportunity to gather. People gather for chess tournaments, swim tournaments, music festivals, and people just gather for a multitude of reasons. The more reasons we give people to gather, the more connections are made, and the more connections are made, the stronger the community becomes. That’s really the bottom line on how to help a neighborhood.”
Some social practice movements in the 1960s had utopian ambitions. Giovando’s exhibition does not, nor is it a direct critique of gentrification. She poses her interest in community as, “creating context to celebrate the local and where we can learn about each other.” The Music That Makes Us reveals what is already in existence and thriving in a community while commemorating it at the same time.
“The Music That Makes Us” continues at Disjecta, 8371 N. Interstate Ave., through April 24, 2016.
Family Music Workshop, Saturday, April 9, 12-2 pm
Kenton Brass Open Practice Sessions, April 9, 2-5 pm & April 14, 7-9 pm
The Kenton Audio Walk, April 16, 12-1 pm
The Music That Makes Us Festival, doors at 4 pm Saturday, April 23, 2016: A day of songs by collaborating musicians from Kenton.