RYAN GRIFFIS

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Review of “Entorno: Grass Grows Greener On the Other Side”
April 28 - May 20, 2006 at Polvo, 1458 W. 18th St 1R Chicago, IL 60608

The City of Chicago is currently undergoing efforts to become the “greenest city in America.” Thanks to the current Mayor Daley’s “Green Building Agenda,” new building projects that receive tax breaks from the city will be required to have a “green roof” - one example of the matrix of policies that will push the hue of the city closer to the green end of the spectrum. Such changes to the architecture of the city will provide partial, yet massively scaled, solutions to urban water drainage problems and energy consumption. Given the current national direction of environmental deregulation, such policies should, of course, be applauded. But, they also need to be considered within the ongoing historical context of the city as well. The impact of this greening on the other color lines in Chicago for example, is one place to start.
“Entorno: Grass Grows Greener on the Other Side,” an exhibition organized by the Polvo Art Collective, takes on such spatial and historical politics of color, where so-called green urbanism meets racial redlining. With it’s name as an introduction, “Entorno” -- which means environment in Spanish -- situates itself as critically engaged with the ambivalent relationship between American green values, whether it’s of the suburban lawn variety or more current ecological sensibilities, and its subjugated populations. Organized by Polvo founders, Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa, Miguel Cortez and Jesus Macarena-Avila, the exhibition brings together an array of artifacts by 14 artists and collectives -- from performance to mixed-media installation to documentary -- that attempt to locate us within an invested perspective rather than a universalizing totality.
One major sub-theme within the exhibition is a critique of the formal language used to understand and critique space, aimed at both the bureaucratic language of the planner and our everyday, vernacular experience. Miguel Cortez’s “2006 City of Chicago Displacement Map” (2006), for example, overlays personal utterances upon a rational map of the city that facilitates equally the city of Chicago’s evolving housing program and its critique. While the city uses cartography to disperse historically concentrated public housing residents into actual neighborhoods, critics of the program use the same techniques to reveal that this dispersion is actually maintaining the same kind of racial segregation that it’s supposed to be challenging. Or as one mapped individual states, “You feel like everyone is staring at you, saying, mmm-hmmm, she’s a section 8.” Area Chicago, a recently inaugurated political-cultural publication, contributed a series of city maps created by readers and other local participants. Drawn, printed and collaged upon a minimal template provided by Area, the maps included multi-layered and serious investigations of land use in the city as well as the idiosyncratic interpretations of local high schoolers.
Of course, at a time when masses of people have been gathering across the country to embody a response to border politics, the presence of actual bodies cannot be ignored. Chicago-based performance and spoken-word artist Anida Yoeu Esguerra’s performance, “What’s Green?,” (2006) juxtaposed the artist’s animated body with the loaded imagery of disposable plastic “Thank You” bags and street level views of the city. In Jesus Macarena-Avila’s “Extinction of a Ghetto Artist” (2006), we’re presented with an uncomfortable memorial mound topped with a small cassette player. Hanging several feet above, is the ubiquitous pair of sneakers, suspended from a telephone wire, pointing to the conspicuous, and maybe ideological, absence of a contingent body with uneasy humor.
The Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has written about the “politics of verticality” - the vertical delineation of boundaries governing things like access to airspace, transportation and water. Weizman’s analysis of Israeli spatial militarism seems to have something to offer in this consideration of racialized spatial politics in Chicago. Is the rooftop greenspace being promoted by the Mayor yet another way that the city can continue to ignore the environmental health of its neglected citizens? And is the height of telephone poles an appropriate distance from which to police the city with surveillance cameras - a policy highlighted by an exhibited work by the Mess Hall Collective. “Entorno” also includes civic projects like the Citizen and Voter Training School, PilsenAyuda and Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization. Perhaps what we’re seeing now, with the growth of environmental justice movements, is an integration of horizontal and vertical perspectives, able to see where neighborhood lines are drawn but also where vertically stacked layers are shared.