The problem of the construction of history has been of particular interest to an ever-growing cadre of artists engaged in creative research (i.e., working against disciplinary boundaries to counter dominant modes of how knowledge gets made). Not quite engaged in institutional critique, social practice, or art history proper, creative researchers often contend with history’s emerging and vanishing character, sharing symmetry with these more known artistic forms in their targeting of dominant culture and power. Not content with history as a stable entity, creative researchers turn to a host of historical subjects, records of omissions, archives, lectures, ephemeral materials, and personal narratives to not just re-present lost or subjugated information for renewed scrutiny (such as art historian Hal Foster’s “archival impulse” theory around artists of the 1990s) but to de- and re-center the production of knowledge altogether. Creative research is a utopian impulse, and no one way of approaching it is valid. (This would be against the point.) But it is nonetheless coming from a poetic ambition: the historian acknowledging their position as a temporary steward, approaching history as a granular and deeply relational thing that is mindful of the privilege of who gets to tell it vs. who gets to forget it.
Artist Maggie Wong commits to a creative research methodology in her latest exhibition, “Unity,” at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. Using the general framing of a historical exhibition, Wong focuses on the League of Revolutionary Struggle, a radical communist group composed of an initial merger between Chicano and Asian American revolutionary organizations that eventually absorbed other groups (notably Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League). While an exhibition around strands of activity among communities of color that arose in the eruption of the often underground and haphazard organizations in the “Red Decade” of 1965 to ’75 is already a scenic detour in general histories, Wong narrows in on her personal place within the LRS. As a child to parents active in the organization, Wong spent her foundational years in the LRS childcare system, which was designed to assist parents wanting to maintain active participation within the organization. Reflecting on what it means to be a child growing up in this atmosphere, Wong ties the exhibition together, focusing on different means of historical record, notably ethnography and mass-produced political documents (newspapers and magazines). The broader analogy seems to be around understanding the full-time pursuit of revolutionary politics at a distance—the reflections of a child-cum-adult in this atmosphere and the revisiting of historical moments that were small enough to be impactful but might get lost in the weight of the macro.
A major focal point is the Unity newspaper itself. Published bi-monthly from 1978 to 1990, Unity was dedicated to news and cultural coverage of social justice issues and movements. In the exhibition, Wong has created offset prints of various pages of Unity that largely replace the standard newspaper design topography with text of various colors and sizes. In lieu of standard headline reporting are selected passages from Wong’s ethnographic research on those in the LRS childcare system. The memories collected here range from hazy to banal, descriptive to memorial, in short, a wide-ranging portrait of the many lives that experienced care through a collective-based ancillary support system adjacent to, but part and parcel of, revolutionary demands. Wong’s decision to keep elements of the paper intact—frontispiece headlines and some images remain—is a tactical one, reframing the urgency of the day’s headlines relative to an adult’s often mundane memories from childhood. What Wong seems to want to highlight is the oft-ignored intimacies of history, particularly around revolutionary struggle, suggesting that a lot of things have to happen for something to happen, a vast relational swath of activity that allows for politics to emerge.
Another work that reframes archival material is present in the corner of CAMOC’s small fourth-floor exhibition space. A blue bed sheet, a polka dot scarf, a mail sack, and a clearly worn, red T-shirt featuring a red-starred fist flanked with the words “Getting Together” are draped over two highchair legs—connected by a 1984 presidential campaign pin for Jesse Jackson—to create an ad hoc children’s fort. Underneath this assemblage are two letterpress furniture blocks whose presence in lieu of children’s toys suggests that there may be some ambivalence from Wong about a child’s place within this climate of political struggle. Markedly more playful than the Unity prints, this assemblage, nonetheless, raises questions about an object’s potential to reenact the past. We can understand the historic use of an LRS T-shirt or presidential campaign button, but Wong reconceives their use value, not as ready-made or historically stable but emphatically occupied objects, which is to say, important precisely for their range of affective possibilities.
Notions of “struggle” around historical politics are so often flattened into monolithic narratives that, for reasons inadvertent or purposeful, can obfuscate the granularities that contributed to their thrust. “Unity,” through a careful reimagining of historical method, looks toward rectifying this situation through carefully and creatively reconstructing the “seen” of history. Wong’s recentering of the illocutionary force of what constitutes a historical record and worthwhile reporting to the humdrum or fleeting could parallel the more nefarious elements of the marketplace. (Our current epistemological crises evolved from individualized internet reporting.) But it resists this trap in its didactic refusals. Wong doesn’t aim to educate but rather elucidate possibilities: What might it mean to crack open history as it was experienced by the many, rather than the few?
Through 3/12: Wed and Fri 9:30 AM-2 PM, Sat-Sun 10 AM-4 PM, Chinese American Museum of Chicago, 238 W. 23rd, 312-949-1000, ccamuseum.org, suggested admission: adults $8, students/seniors $5, free for members
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