I've just posted photos of and some thoughts on an installation (here) completed this spring with the help of Mollie Earls. We designed two giant kites (assembled from a series of huge $50 and $100 bills) to ride the breeze in an alley in downtown Raleigh. This was first and foremost an engagement with a space, but also a work of commentary, openly critical of a significant art event happening simultaneously in the city. We didn't really promote it or tell anyone about it — just left it blowing in the alley on a Friday morning, half a block from where a fancy black-tie gala would be thrown by the new Contemporary Art Museum (in fact, we had to split immediately after we finished installing for my youngest brother's wedding happening out of town the same weekend).
I'm not sure whether anyone saw the piece (other than the person who tore it down sometime over the intervening days). We slyly positioned it in an area that might catch some party-going foot traffic, and we wanted it to live anonymously — a bit of quiet resistance to the semi-hegemonic stylings of an exclusive, prohibitively-priced "street festival" a hundred feet away. But I'm sure our decision to let things unfold organically was partially a matter of not wanting the piece to be perceived as sour grapes. (I have a number of friends who've been involved in CAM from its earliest stages, and I do appreciate their work. The museum is bringing good things to downtown Raleigh.)
It can be tough to balance a desire to foster local arts energies with the need (and responsibility) we have as artists to speak our truths. Many of the institutional avenues for exhibiting and fostering contemporary work in this (let's face it) conservative city (and region) have to play it somewhat safe. I ran up against this last summer when I installed Radios Appear in the city-operated Block 2 space on Fayetteville Street. The piece highlighted the antics of our newly-elected Wake County School Board (who were waging open assault on a highly successful, decades-old diversity policy with racially-coded critiques of busing). I knew I'd never get away with making an openly critical statement in that space, but thought I'd decode the work's complex imagery a bit through my recorded audio message (accessible to the audience via a number posted at the install site). My message followed the script here. Even this hint of a political statement was too much — the gallery called me when they heard it and told me I had to tone it down. (Again, I appreciate the work of Block Gallery and even as I'm writing this, I feel a twinge of guilt.)
More recently, the area witnessed stuffy intransigence in Chapel Hill effectively shutting down an awesome modernist space at 523 E. Franklin. Former home to a public library, then the Chapel Hill Museum, this year the space has housed Local Histories and Dream Acts — two important and successful exhibitions of contemporary work (the latter funded by a Town grant, ironically). After an at times nasty public debate, the Chapel Hill Town Council just weeks ago voted to defund all future activity at 523, despite an outstanding offer from UNC Art Professor elin o'Hara slavick to manage and curate the space for the next year at almost no cost to the Town.
Practicing art here has its ups and downs, and the more I think about it, this is one of the big downs. As artists, as designers, how safe do we have to play it here? Are we coddling our institutions, coddling the public? I'd like to see more art and more design testing more limits in more places in North Carolina. Please.