'RFP' at EMP and '100% YES' at Current Space use collaborative art practices to emphasize the individual in a community

City Paper

As I look through “the Chilly Smart Model,” a thin publication that I picked up from Current Space,  this line keeps catching my eye: “When I come here I learn that how important is my life and how I pass through the pass.” It comes from a poem by an anonymous student who is part of a collaboration between the Refugee Youth Project and the Press-Press initiative, and I only partially understand what it means, but it seems crucial to understanding the work in this show, “100% YES (fill in the blank)” at Current Space and another, “RFP” at EMP Collective, both up through Feb. 28 in the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District near Lexington Market. Through an inclusive and interactive practice, both shows ultimately highlight the irreducible importance of the individual person—his or her life, thoughts, needs—within the context of a larger community, especially a community full of abstract talk about growth and ideas and place-making.

“RFP”—which, in development circles, usually stands for Request for Proposals— invites you to talk to the artist, Amanda Burnham, and write or draw suggestions for what you’d like to see in Baltimore on the walls of the gallery at EMP (which recently responded to the city’s RFP for the buildings at 408-414 N. Howard St. as part of a coalition of performance art groups called Le Mondo).

There are street signs drawn on paper for Baltimore, Greenmount, and St. Paul, strung on black drafting tape and hanging down from the gallery’s lofty ceiling. The walls bulge and bustle with large, slightly crumpled sections of paper with rowhomes, carry-outs, and storefronts drawn in black with thick lines of paint. Some of the architecture spills onto the floor, a pile of parts of the city, and Burnham says people have been coming in and asking for more transit, so she’s been adding buses and light-rail tracks. “In my sense,” she says, “an ideal city, an ideal Baltimore, is one where people not only feel invested but that they do have some stake and a voice and say-so in their communities.”

Burnham, who’s been in Baltimore since 2007 and is an associate professor at Towson University, has been spending her weekdays here in the gallery, responding to people’s suggestions and working on additions to the installation. With a sign on the sidewalk and signs plastered to the door saying “Come on in!” and “(it’s an artwork),” Burnham hopes to cultivate an audience that doesn’t always go to art shows. She describes herself as “aggressively friendly” when people come in to check it out, and says this location is great because there’s a good cross section of passersby—people on their way to work, the light rail, Lexington Market. “I had a certain awareness going in that it wasn’t enough to say anyone can come in,” she says, “that you have to maybe do more than that.”

The back half of the space is more colorful than the front, with drawings on green, blue, red, and orange paper. This area originally contained more open space, but since the opening it has been filling up with people’s taped-up suggestions. Piles of small, square, orange and red cards, black markers, and tape sit on a table in the middle. Some of the cards have prompts such as “Baltimore could be . . .” and “I feel the most like I belong here when . . .” which encourage people to share their thoughts and add them to the scenery. Many are silly; one says Baltimore could be “godzilla’s new home/pease/not” with a great drawing of the monster breathing fire on buildings. But just as many are earnest and thoughtful; one card says “Baltimore works when . . . People CO-LAB-OR-ATE”; another says the city should offer more job training, pre-K classes, quality child care, and drug treatment. “There’s a lot that’s going on here metaphorically that’s about [giving people a voice], very blatantly,” she says. “‘You can add to the piece! What is your opinion?’ I mean, all of that is pretty straightforward . . . But in a less blatant way, perhaps, something that was really important to me was creating a space that felt explicitly welcoming.”

Not only is Burnham’s project sort of a playground where everyone gets to actively create a place they want to live in, but it’s also an illustration of what would happen ideally in the city’s decision-making process when it comes to funding development and infrastructure—that people would feel like they can submit their needs, and the city would listen. Collaborative work is “kind of like a metaphor for what can happen in a city, the unplanned interactions,” she says. “You’re doing something, somebody else is doing something, you interact because you share the space. And I liked how those interactions yield new ideas and get people thinking in ways that they might not.”

Burnham finds inspiration in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ interactive works, such as ‘Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.),’ which is comprised of hundreds of individually wrapped pieces of candy piled into a corner of the gallery. “I think the first time I saw one of those works I was in high school or something, and I was terrified to touch it because I was not fundamentally 100 percent sure if I could,” she says, laughing. “And I kept thinking about stuff like that, and how I did not want people to feel like they were not fundamentally 100 percent allowed.”

One-hundred-percent inclusion is a central theme of the collaborative pop-up print project “100% YES” at Current Space a few blocks down the street. For this project, the Press-Press publishing initiative and a group of middle and high school-aged Burmese refugees, through the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project (RYP), are in residence for the month of February. The Press-Press team (MICA students Kimi Hanauer, Leila Khoury, Layla MacRory, Sonja Solvang, and RYP community arts facilitator Clare Shreve) has been working closely with this group of about 15-20 students since the beginning of this academic year, doing various poetry workshops and art projects. The RYP provides after-school programs for young refugees in the Baltimore area, and according to its website, its goals are to help kids learn English and understand American culture, help them with their homework, and to “foster a sense of community among diverse populations and explore themes of identity.” 

The ‘100% Yes Manifesto’ prints hang on one wall of the gallery, proclaiming ideas that the kids say “100% yes” to, such as Korean dramas, mango, “announcing the truth,” and “my mom.” During the length of the Press-Press team’s residency at Current, visitors are invited to contribute their own “100% yes,” which will be printed by members of the team and included in the final publication of the manifesto.

Throughout the month, they’ve been having guest artists and open studio days. Kimi Hanauer, the curator, talks about the projects they’ve done with the kids, examples of which are neatly hung on the walls: Small, framed, typed poems hang among mounted disposable camera photos. She says the photos seem to capture personally significant moments. There are a few pictures of people, presumably family members or friends, along with a few idiosyncratic ones, like the one of a dumpster, or an incredible landscape photo of a field and the lavender sky that gives you the point of view of a mouse.

The framed poems are beautiful and abstract, communicating in a somewhat broken English that makes you feel the honesty and earnestness in searching for the right words. “This project is meant to do what any good art does: give space to people’s voices,” Hanauer says later, in an email. “Art is one way of empowering people in their speech.”

Instead of focusing solely on the production of the artwork or its organization within the space, the groups behind “100% Yes” invested a large part of their time and effort trying to figure out how to communicate clearly and productively, which is essential in collaborative work. “The actual work is living and breathing,” Hanauer says. “The real work is in our engagement with one another, some of which has been happening here at the pop-up shop, but a lot of which happens elsewhere. The project at Current Space is just one part of the bigger work.”

Handwritten text on the walls winds around the frames and prints, perfectly disrupting the more organized elements of the show. Parts of it are in English, while others are in what looks like Chinese and Burmese. The statements are funny, beautiful, heartfelt, and sad all at the same time. The biggest text, scrawled over a portion of the long wall in the gallery, says “MISSING HOMELAND.”

“RFP” and “100% YES” are both projects outside of typical categorization—not really community art, performance, or public art—but recognize how art can make us understand things about each other and the place in which we live. “Art can play this role,” Burnham says, “in keeping people connected in ways that might motivate them to care about each other and support each other in ways that will help.” 


There will be a closing party for “RFP” at EMP Collective on Feb. 28 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and a closing potluck for “100% YES” at Current Space on Feb. 28 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

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