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Artists discuss how futurism, urban design can transform St. Louis

Rebecca Wanzo, co-organizer of Dwell in Other Futures: art/ urbanism/ midwest
Rebbeca Wanzo
Rebecca Wanzo, co-organizer of Dwell in Other Futures: art/ urbanism/ midwest

National and local artists will explore the past, present and future of city life in an upcoming exhibition in St. Louis.

Organizers of Dwell in Other Futures: art/ urbanism/ midwest say the event will expose attendees to the ways urban development constructs and reinforces how people engage, or don’t, with public spaces and the people around them.

The two-day festival, organized by Gavin Kroeber, Tim Portlock and Rebecca Wanzo, will include installations, presentations and performances on urbanism and futurism. Kroeber and Wanzo discussed the project with St. Louis Public Radio’s Ashley Lisenby before the premiere.

Ashley Lisenby: Rebecca, I want to ask you about Afrofuturism. What does it mean for people who don’t know?

Rebecca Wanzo: It’s a term that emerged in the early '90s. A lot of people attribute it to Mark Dery, with this essay he wrote, which is about a variety of aesthetic practices that African-Americans have been involved in — in music and art and culture.

So an early version prior to the '90s, so people like George Clinton and Sun Ra, and then people thought about it in relationship to African-American literature as well. As time has gone, one people think about it, in relationship to a whole bunch of varieties of ways that African-Americans think about the future.

So, is there a future for African-Americans? What does a Utopia for black people look like? So, it’s not just about art and aesthetics, but sort of imagining the nexus of technology and African-Americans in futurity.

If you go: .ZACK, 3224 Locust Street, on Friday, April 27, 6:30 p.m. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Blvd, on Saturday, April 28, 1-8:30 p.m.

Lisenby: Why is it important to re-imagine a future where black people are not only present, but actively involved in the advancement of that society?

Wanzo: Well, I love this quote, I think it was Tananarive Due who said of Octavia Butler. She said that one of the things Butler did is imagine that black people have a future because part of what happened in a lot of science fiction is you’d see these representations of the future but there were no black people.

Now you see them, but you often think about of urban planning and futurity that part of what happens is that people imagine an ideal city that black people aren’t in or they imagine an ideal city that say poor people aren’t in. So of course, we want to eliminate poverty, but I think there’s also these pushes in the city that result in an absence of class diversity particularly as cities rise. So we have to think about that and try to imagine a city that is inclusive.

Lisenby: Let’s get to talking a little bit about St. Louis and how St. Louis is adapting as a city to what the future could look like. How do you think the city is addressing some of these issues of segregation and erasure?

Gavin Kroeber: This is a really exciting week for these kind of questions in St. Louis. 

Gavin Kroeber, co-organizer of Dwell in Other Futures: art/ urbanism/ midwest
Credit Gavin Kroeber
Gavin Kroeber, co-organizer of Dwell in Other Futures: art/ urbanism/ midwest

The Chouteau Greenway design competition is coming to a culmination and there are four different proposals for a greenway that would link together Forest Park to the Arch grounds. That greenway, of course, goes right through what was Mill Creek Valley. This traditionally black neighborhood that was razed and displaced in order to bring freeways through the city.

And core question in that competition is how does this landscape infrastructure address that history? How does it connect to populations that have been pushed out of those areas that are now going to be reanimated by this new civic infrastructure? And it’s really interesting watching different visions in competition for how you address this and how you engage with a diversity of communities in the region to create an actual equitable experience of city an all the assets being built into it.

Lisenby: One of the exhibits mentions the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency site. It’s all about north city and this huge federal government agency kind of plopping down right in the center of that.

Kroeber: The NGA is a great example of how images of the way that images of the future are used to shape the city in the now. There are these architectural renderings, there are these narratives about what the NGA is gonna be, what it’s gonna feel like to live next to it, what it’s going to do for the city economically and this is a form of speculation. It’s a form of science fiction and it’s creating a future that feels either necessary or inevitable. Around that image of the future actual changes in the city get implemented.

Samuel R. Delany is one of the artists featured in Dwell in Other Futures: Art/ Urbanism/ Midwest taking on April 27-28.
Credit Dwell in Other Futures: Art/ Urbanism/ Midwest
Samuel R. Delany is one of the artists featured in Dwell in Other Futures: Art/ Urbanism/ Midwest

One of the things we’re interested in with the festival is taking some of the most visionary futurism for St. Louis, which are often cropping up in smaller scenes: art scenes, activist communities, queer club nights. There are all these sort of different groups in the city that in one way or another are making change and living the future they want in the city and a lot of the participating artists come from those spaces.

Lisenby: What do you want people to get out of this?

Kroeber: I’m excited for all of it, but if I had to put three things on the table it would be the conversations with Samuel R. Delany on Friday night; the four new commissions by St. Louis-based artists and a series of manifestos for a future St. Louis that a group of different local voices are giving as the concluding act of the festival on Saturday.

Wanzo: And the other thing I would add, that people might be interested in, is we are bringing in a lot of people who aren’t from St. Louis. A part of what’s exciting to me is putting people who have been thinking about these issues nationally in other locations like Brooklyn, Newark, Detroit in conversation with St. Louis people. Part of what we really want people to see, on a national scene, too, is that there are really extraordinary people here doing great work.

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.