Radical Feeling: Katie Bachler talks about how art and activism intersect at the BMA Outpost

Katie Bachler talks about "sneak attack" activism, reclaiming spaces, and dreaming up a new world through art

Katie Bachler takes a walk every morning. She walks from her house to a nearby lake, where she'll walk around some more; sometimes she drives someplace farther and walks around there. "Walking is such a part of my life," she says, "it's, like, everything." She often stops and talks with people, asking them questions about their lives or their neighborhoods; it's how she gets to know a place and, by extension, the people who live there. And it's kind of how the BMA Outpost—a mobile museum that Bachler sets up in a public site in a different neighborhood every month to engage with residents and passersby—got its start.

She initially wanted to call it The Museum of Mattering. "I got in a conversation with this man in McElderry Park about what we value in the city," she says, adding that the man thought people didn't appreciate the houses or the stained glass windows or the marble staircases in the neighborhood. So then the idea of "a museum about mattering" came up, she says, because "if you put something in a museum context, that will matter."

Before coming to Baltimore, Bachler lived in New York, Alaska, Los Angeles, and Joshua Tree, California, for different lengths of time. (She is originally from Vermont.) Her art has always been socially engaged in some way, and since she was a teenager she's been drawing maps with people—two key components of the Outpost. For Bachler, socially engaged art means trying to shift how we look at art and objects, to refocus and see how our relationships and conversations with each other can be the art, the thing that makes us think and act differently. "If you put something weird that you've never seen before in a neighborhood, people will stop and be like 'what is this?'" she says. "And that rupture is really important to get people into a new way of being in a place."

In the fall of 2013, Bachler gave a talk about her work and about how it relates to the idea of home at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Her talk made an impression on Gamynne Guillotte and Anne Manning from the Baltimore Museum of Art, who were planning the "Imagining Home" exhibition which opened here last fall. Their conversation afterward led Guillotte and Manning to invite her to Baltimore to be an artist fellow with the BMA.

After visiting Baltimore, walking around, and "feeling the energy," Bachler got ready to work. She read "The Baltimore Book" and spent some time studying old maps and documents in the Maryland Room at the Enoch Pratt Library. But most of her knowledge of the city comes from walking around and talking to people and asking them questions about how they feel about this place. "I was like, well, if we want to learn about home in Baltimore," she says, "we need to go out and talk to people and learn from people, and I need a platform to do that."

Of course, working within an institution gives Bachler some power—there's a mutual benefit between the BMA and the organizations that she partners with to host the Outpost. She has to ask herself how she can use this institutional power to bring art into places that might not normally have it, to expand the way an art institution can interact with people and communities around it, and to bring art into a place that doesn't normally have it. "What does it look like to have an art museum in Lexington Market?" she asks. "What is that? I don't know what it is; we can learn."

So now, every month, for a few days a week, you can find Bachler and the BMA Outpost in a new place. This month, she's at the Centerpiece Family Arts Center in Dundalk. Last month, she was at Cross Street Market in Federal Hill, and before that she was at the YO! Baltimore career center on the west side. She's been at neighborhood centers, career centers, homeless advocacy centers. When she's at the site, people come by and, with her kind encouragement, share a feeling or a memory by making a little piece of art at the Outpost—a small-ish, two-sided workstation that can fold up, like two long desks with a little easel between them. At each site she hangs up a map sketch of the neighborhood they're in, which is a continuous work in progress, with contributions from visitors like their churches and homes, or memories like "walking to library barefoot" and "a special duck" in Govans, and "family-oriented Kevin" and "sound of drumline" in Better Waverly. (Later, she takes those maps and recreates them in watercolor based on her conversations with passersby, then prints color copies of them to pass out at the site. You can see some of these prints in the BMA's Community Commons area.) Taped up all over the site, wherever she can find a good spot for them, are dozens of watercolor and marker drawings from people who felt like sharing a feeling.

The maps and drawings are funny, poignant, complex, joyful—as much of a range as you'd expect in a city of such multiplicity. Some people don't want to make art, but they want to talk. Demographics change depending on the neighborhoods: At the St. Francis Neighborhood Center more kids participated than adults, while the opposite was true at Lexington Market. Some people want to make a lot of art, and they come back often throughout the month. Some people don't want to engage at all. "You can't force anyone to do anything," she says. "You have to be open to people's differences and people's wants and needs in the moment."

She tells a story about a man named Greg she met when the Outpost was at Health Care for the Homeless last year. "He had an analysis of what was wrong with the system," she says, "and through making art, we talked about how it's not his fault he's homeless." He made several drawings about how the government was "bullying him" and how it wasn't taking care of people. "But it was kind of through our conversations and through art-making," Bachler says, "that he was able to articulate his analysis of the structural problems with the government and stop blaming himself."

In these moments, a shift occurs where the experience is the art, where both parties are learning and exchanging something, where "feeling or memory is expressed and becomes visible," she says. It's also a way to tap into emotion—something that many people feel pressured to stifle, making ourselves numb or complacent to what's going on around us instead of actually experiencing it. So these art experiences, she says, are "making visible something that doesn't exist in language. It's this other space for feeling and being vulnerable and expression, and then for someone to see a piece and say 'I made this, I'm reflecting this back to me'—it's like getting to see yourself in a different way."

She also describes this work as a kind of "sneak attack" radicalism and activism, because it gets people to reframe how they normally look at this city. It's a way to reflect and to reclaim ownership of a place by having memories there and sharing them. "It's really important that places feel like our own," Bachler says. "So much of life is scripted [about] where to go and how to be in a space."

The art that people make at the Outpost, and the maps Bachler makes with people who want to contribute, also create a crucial counternarrative to the way outsiders often view Baltimore. Yes, this city is complicated and structurally flawed; lately, we're seeing money pour into developments in the already-prosperous central Baltimore, while properties on the east and west sides simply get demolished as people try to live without opportunity and resources, to say nothing of things like redlining and racist housing policies from which many of this city's problems and trauma stem. But so much of the art at the Outpost that people make—people whose voices don't always have a platform—shows possibility and creative ideas for positive change.

The Outpost is not "goal-oriented," Bachler says, it's "rhizomatic," it "unfolds." It's malleable based on what the people want and need it to be, and the art and the ideas that come out of it help us to imagine another way of being. "It's trying to see all these bits of knowledge and truth as just as valid as, I don't know, what someone in power says is true," she says. "No one voice is more important than any other voice."

At Cross Street Market, a few days before the whole city was quieted for a weekend by a blizzard, people were making drawings with watercolor and markers. A middle-aged white man with reddish hair and a scraggly face told us he grew up in South Baltimore—he clarifies that, specifically, he means what they now call Federal Hill. "Ah, so it changed," Bachler says, and I'm hoping he'll say more about that, but he makes one last small mark on what might be a self-portrait, and then he bolts.

It's OK though, because on the opposite side, two middle-school-aged boys have stopped by on their way home. "I was having a bad day this morning, then it changed," one boy says. He paints a split portrait—the left half of the face is smiling, the other half is crying—with appropriate flowers and sun or tears and storm clouds. "When I'm painting, I can express how I feel," he says. The other boy starts talking about a couple of big issues that are on his mind: our polluted bay and our gun violence. Bachler asks how he thinks we can fix these problems. "Gotta stop littering, gotta help clean up," he offers, adding that we should get rid of guns while we're at it.

Before anything can change, we need ideals and imagined alternate realities. Bachler thinks artists are great at this. "There's more utopians here than I've met anywhere else," Bachler says. "And I think there's enough little tiny pockets of hope that could all come together and make a different world."

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