The first thing you notice in “Future People,” Derrick Adams’s solo show at the Stony Island Arts Bank, is a wide, two-tier gray platform that sits in the middle of the gallery; it looks like a stage. On top of it are four black bucket seats (outfitted with seat belts) and a table covered by a polished silver globe, turntables, a mixer, and a MacBook. The setup strongly resembles the bridge of the starship Enterprise—that is, if Captains Kirk or Picard were also DJs. The platform gives you a view of the other components of the exhibit: a collection of ten collages, plus a looping video projection of animated objects that appear to be floating through an expansive, endless galaxy. The video also features scrolling text of quotations from black visionaries such as Desmond Tutu and Mae Jemison.
The images, music, and text that appear throughout “Future People” come from the archival holdings at the Arts Bank, which include the Johnson Publishing Archive, the Lantern Slide Collection at the University of Chicago (art and architectural history from the Paleolithic to the modern era), the Edward J. and Ana J. Williams Collection (racist objects that the Williamses bought to take off the market), and Frankie Knuckles’s record collection.
The collages, titled Orbiting Us #1-#10, hang on either side of the first floor of the Arts Bank. Each piece is framed by handmade silver cardboard frames, which resemble the view you might see when peering through the window of a spaceship. Cutouts are carefully placed on a starry background: grayscale barbershop portraits, paper plates spray-painted silver, the nine planets in the Milky Way (and the sun), African sculptures and talismans, and everyday objects such as an electric saw, a View-Master, a plastic trash can, and a portable blow-dryer. Some items are harder to discern than others, but the overall effect is of black people as satellites floating through the cosmos, transmitting information about the past, present, and future of black culture simultaneously.
It turns out those everyday objects in each collage were largely invented by one man: Charles Harrison, a Chicago resident who was the first black executive at Sears, Roebuck and Company and designed more than 700 consumer goods. At a recent artist talk at the Arts Bank sponsored by Voices in Contemporary Art, a New York-based nonprofit arts organization, Adams emphasized the importance of “disenfranchised people [knowing] that their people invented functional objects that we use every day.”
As a result, Adams isn’t interested in depicting black oppression and struggle. Rather, he uses artifacts that highlight how black people have maintained the power to invent and innovate even under extraordinarily difficult and painful circumstances, ones they continue to face in the present day. “Imagination,” Adams declared, “is radical.”
There’s also a performance aspect to “Future People.” Anyone who visits the gallery is invited to stand on the platform or sit in the captain’s chairs to watch the video projection, which loops hypnotically on the large back wall of the Arts Bank. The platform, historically meant to exalt only a select few, becomes a democratic space where people from all walks of life are elevated; it also encourages people to interact with their surroundings rather than engaging only with what’s hanging on the wall. In his talk and elsewhere, Adams mentioned that the work of conceptual artist Bruce Nauman—who bounces between the mediums of neon, photography, sculpture, video, and performance—has heavily influenced his artistic practice.
In combining various stimuli within one space, Adams has created an immersive and unique experience. The lights are dim, everything is black, white, grayscale, and silver, house music plays softly in the background, and when I was there groups of preteens, teens, and older women with lovely silver hair took turns sitting in one of the four seats, staring at Adams’s vision of space and the future. When I left the Arts Bank, I was slightly startled to open the door and see cars speeding down the street, the evening sky streaked with shades of indigo and yellow. I halfway expected to view an entire galaxy spread out before me instead. “Future People” reminded me how important it is to imagine new worlds, even while I’m still right here on earth, on a humble stretch of Stony Island Avenue, making my way home. v