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Review: You can help see the 'Whole City'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson are the co-directors of Works Progress, a public design studio in Minneapolis. But for the next couple of weeks they are in St. Louis as guests of The Luminary Center for the Arts as a part of The Luminary’s ongoing How to Make a World That Won’t Fall Apart series. The collaborative month-long project, Whole City, puts St. Louis under the microscope as these two Minnesota artists take a fresh, outsider look in, that allows them to ask (as they put it) “naïve” questions.

This coming Saturday, Kloecker and Matteson will use The Luminary gallery space to display the stories they’ve gathered while here and to activate a conversation about life in this (middle) Mississippi River City. In anticipation of the opening event, I sat down with the artists to see what they’d surmised from our city so far.

The first thing Matteson had to say about her whirlwind tours of St. Louis (they visited several venues on Cherokee, in the Delmar Loop area, the Old North and Downtown in mere days) was, “It is so different from Minneapolis.” Kloecker and Matteson look at the swelling St. Louis art scene, and they see lots of “wild spaces,” which they define as areas that beg for expansion and allow for trial and error.

Kloecker and Matteson note that St. Louis has an abundance of century-old, mixed-use buildings that allow for residents to live above where they work. A mixed-use residence, with storefront below and living quarters above - or some similar sort of arrangement - provides flexibility that encourages entrepreneurship and promotes exciting street life. Matteson thinks areas like Cherokee, South Grand and the Old North neighborhood have a leg-up on building vibrant, high-density residential communities due to this architectural boon.

Important steps can fail

There is something paradoxical about the comparisons Kloecker and Matteson make between the two Mississippi cities. They see more investment in public art projects in the Twin Cities than in St. Louis. But they think they see something unique percolating here, an art scene that is less rooted in institutional grants than in aggressive acts of genesis.

“Take Cherokee, for example,” says Matteson. “We don’t have anything like that. Just walking down the street and looking at all the storefront windows, it looks like everyone is trying to realize something new.”

Some of Kloecker and Matteson’s St. Louis volunteer tour guides expressed dismay at the quick demise of many ventures they had seen try, only to dissolve, along Cherokee and in the Grove and Downtown areas.

“Take a step back,” says Kloecker, “and look at these efforts as part of a larger process.” For the individuals involved in these ventures and for the neighborhoods that host them, Kloecker and Matteson insist, temporary efforts are not failures. “Innovators need an opportunity to try. These attempts are important stops along the way toward something recognizable as success.”

'To Cassilly'

Working with Luminary founders James and Brea McAnally, Kloecker and Matteson heard a term that means, “We’ve got something going on here, but we aren’t sure where it’s going. So let’s just see what happens.” That term is “to Cassilly” as in Bob Cassilly, father of The City Museum.

Kloecker and Matteson wonder if it is the room “to Cassilly” that makes St. Louis a uniquely nurturing environment for organic, creative expressions. In part due to a depressed urban economy, open-ended projects are possible in St. Louis. A junkyard of architectural cast-offs can be changed into an internationally acclaimed museum.

The idea that cities can be imagined differently through art has resulted in a thick network of national projects. Kloecker and Matteson became aware of the exciting socially active art scene in St. Louis when they met some of the movement’s practitioners at a Hand-in-Glove Conference in Chicago. Their conversations with St. Louis artists Juan William Chávez, Kiersten Torrez and the McAnallys, among others, resulted in an invigorated sense of what was possible for all the artists involved.

“Many artists today are trying to live lives that are in keeping with their ideals.“ says Kloecker, “We are working to help individuals and organizations that have deep-rooted knowledge - in the environment, architecture, really any field – to move beyond standard ways of seeing and find new ways of making their ideas reality.”

'Strategic turn'

Matteson explains the motivation for their collaboration here in St. Louis: “It would be wrong for us to think that we could enter a city, for a month or for a year, and then try to shape it. We are still trying to figure out what is going on in our own city. But our outsider status gives us a special angle from which to approach St. Louis. Often, people do not talk about the place where they live until something tragic happens. We would like to help facilitate a conversation about what St. Louis has that is special -- right now, perhaps unseen, but present -- and also what people imagine when they take the 100-year view.

When Kloecker describes the artist’s role in envisioning new approaches to urban issues, he uses a term taken from Nato Thompson of New York-based public arts institution, Creative Time. Kloecker refers to St. Louis taking a “strategic turn.” Strategic turn is used to describe art practices that are not a flash-in-the-pan gallery exhibition, but long-term projects that work hand-in-hand with (not upon) the local community.

As they try to understanding what makes St. Louis tick, Kloecker and Matteson compare and contrast their experiences in the Twin Cities. Through their Works Progress collaborative, Kloecker and Matteson have, since 2008, encourage new forms of social engagement, always wary of the detrimental gentrification that can be blamed on the descending artists and their cohort, described by Richard Florida's “Creative Class.”

These concerns come up constantly, as in their own Minneapolis arts district of West Bank where they predict social disruption along with the enrichment from a new light rail line that will run through the center of the community. They are aware of the dangers that come from any efforts to “better” a place and want to place those concerns right out in the open where they can be seen and discussed.

While here they are looking for evidence and reports of what is and isn’t working in St. Louisans’ creative placemaking efforts. The results will be presented on Saturday in a printed publication of their and others’ thoughts on the St. Louis art scene. They will also organize an interactive event during which gallery visitors can offer opinions on the language that has the entered social art practice lexicon. The process is the art in the Whole City exhibition. And, if successful (that is, if you come), it is only a catalyst for further action as the conversation continues.