On December 12, 2019, the Chicago Architecture Biennial invited us to organize an event around our book The Funambulist by its Readers: Political Geographies from Chicago and Elsewhere (digital version is freely accessible here). We had the luck and honor to hold this event with the five Chicago-based activists (Patricia Nguyen, Jesse Mumm, Maira Khwaja, Benji Hart, and Anjulie Rao) we commissioned specifically for this book to describe the political struggles they have been a part of against the municipality’s policing, neoliberal and racist policies, in particular during the two terms of Rahm Emmanuel (who was one of the initiators of the Chicago Architecture Biennial). This event was a renewed opportunity for us to reflect on our participation to the biennial, shared between a clear adhesion to the statement drafted by its 2019 curators (Yesomi Umolu, Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares) and the normalization of the politics enacted by the municipality of Chicago as well as the biennial’s main sponsor, BP (see statement below).
Special thanks to Marguerite Wynter and Alex Priest.
Opening statement by Léopold Lambert ///
I acknowledge that we’re holding this event on the Indigenous land of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, the Ojibwe and the Potawatomi nations.
Acknowledging the true owners of the land is not a liberal expiation of guilt, nor is it a statement about how, “a long time ago,” this country was established on the theft of land and genocide. It is however an invitation to only think of this place as an active settler colony in the present. This also means that every person who does not belong to one of the numerous Indigenous nations of Turtle Island and South America, or who was not brought forcefully to this continent in the context of the European slave trade, or who was not explicitly welcomed by Indigenous nations themselves (as it has been and continues to be the case with many refugees); every person who came voluntarily or whose ancestors came voluntarily to this continent is a settler who has a material debt towards the legitimate owners of the land. This also means that the extreme majority of architectures and infrastructures of this continent is a means to enforce the structures of the settler colony and that we, as architects — for those of us who are architects — are, among others, responsible for it.
I also acknowledge that, by having accepted to contribute to this biennial by producing the book we will present tonight, we, The Funambulist, are contributing to the normalization of the settler colonial infrastructure and of the ecological disaster, since the main sponsor of this institution is British Petroleum BP. Our trust for this year’s occurrence’s brilliant curators as well as the personal intuition that the political benefits outweigh this normalization is what makes us feel like it was the right decision, but we could not possibly be sure of this. We were even less sure when we saw that the inaugural dinner was hosted by Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker who, among many other things, is notorious for his support of the Friends of the Israeli army which is enforcing with great violence another settler colony on the land of Palestine.
I want to be clear that saying all this is not affecting our gratefulness to the curatorial and organizational team of the biennial for having invited us to what, in terms of contents, might be one of the strongest architectural exhibitions I have ever seen. It is however crucial that we take our responsibilities and be fully aware of the political contradictions we enact when we accept to work with such large institutions.
Bios of our Five Guests ///
Patricia Nguyen is an artist, educator, and scholar. She is Director of Undergraduate Studies and Assistant Professor of Instruction in Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, where she received her PhD in Performance Studies. Her work explores forced migration, political economy, carceral states, torture, and nationbuilding. She has published in Women Studies Quarterly, Harvard Kennedy School’s Asian American Policy Review, and Women and Performance. She has exhibited and performed at the Nha San Collective Vietnam, Mission Cultural Center, Jane Addams Hull House, Prague Quadrennial, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile. Her contribution is called “Building a Monumental Anti-Monument: The Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project.”
Jesse Mumm is a cultural anthropologist teaching in Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University, with a doctorate in anthropology from Northwestern University. He has won grants from the National Science Foundation, and teaching awards for his work in urban ethnography interrogating issues of race and racism. He grew up in Chicago, went to public schools, and taught high school at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. He has been involved in critical pedagogy, solidarity work, immigrant and refugee rights, community development, and social justice for 30 years. His original fieldwork asked: how does gentrification reveal and construct race? His contribution is called “Battle for the Near Northwest Side: Ground Zero in the Chicago Gentrification War.”
Maira Khwaja is an educator and multimedia producer based in Chicago, Illinois. At the Invisible Institute, a non-profit investigative journalism production company on the South Side, she interviews young people about their experiences with police, produces events and work-shops, and guides outreach communications. She co-directs a political education project, called TM Productions, to engage traditionally disenfranchised Chicagoans in civic conversations.Maira is a first generation Pakistani-American, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studied history at the University of Chicago, focusing on the relationships between gangs and churches on the South Side of Chicago. Her contribution is called “Policing Grief in Chicago: Restrained Mobility and Surveillance on Social Media.”
Benji Hart is an author, artist, and educator from Amherst, MA, living in Chicago. The writer behind the blog Radical Faggot, their essays have been anthologized in Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (2017) and Taking Sides: Radical Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (2015), both from AK Press. Their commentary has been published at Teen Vogue, The Advocate, The Chicago Reader, and others. They have held residencies with the Rauschenberg Foundation (2018), the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (2018), and are the recipient of the 3Arts Award in the Teaching Arts (2015). Their contribution is called “#NoCopAcademy Campaign.”
Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist and writer focusing on livable built environments, equitable design, architecture criticism, and radical urbanism. With an
academic background in art history, she enjoys intersections between visual art, architecture, infrastructure, and political narratives. She received her MA in New Arts Journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014 and her bylines can be found in Metropolis, Chicago Reader, American Craft Magazine, Chicago Magazine, Artsy, Curbed Chicago, and LUXE, among others. Her contribution is called “How to Lose in Chicago.”