Jim Duignan at a work bench
Jim Duignan at work Credit: Courtesy the artist

“What kind of a community do you want to live in?” That question, which can be found on the Stockyard Institute’s home page, is at the core of the organization’s identity. Founded by Jim Duignan in 1995, the Stockyard Institute is part civics project, part art practice, and wholly an experiment in liberatory social practice that aims to do nothing less than help participants reenvision and remake their worlds into something more equitable.

Duignan is a galvanizing force. He works as an artist and visual art education professor at DePaul University’s College of Education and is also a world-class connector, adept at meeting like-minded folks and building relationships and networks into a never-ending web of collaborations. The Stockyard Institute has been his primary concern for most of his working life, and its 25-year history was honored with a retrospective exhibition that opened in September at the DePaul Art Museum (DPAM). 

The Stockyard Institute retrospective isn’t your typical blend of past artworks, documentation, and historical ephemera. It includes some of that, but Duignan prefers the term “prospective.” Duignan hopes that the museum show will provide an opportunity for him to connect not only with artist and teacher collaborators from the Institute’s past, but also forge new potential partnerships. “It’s going to be a kind of station to look ahead at the next 25 years,” he says. In addition to the work on view, the exhibition includes a working low-power radio station that broadcasts biweekly programs, a day of workshops for musicians, and a series of public conversations and performances, among other events. “It’s going to be a working retrospective in a way,” Duignan says.

This sort of community-engaged, multiauthored programming is typical of the Stockyard Institute. When asked about the exhibition, he immediately launched into a list of participating artists and collaborators. “You can really tell, for Jim, the relationships are the practice,” says Rachel L.S. Harper, one of Duignan’s longtime collaborators, and a curator of the exhibition. “He goes right into talking about what all these programs will be like, what people will be coming in and out, how the space will serve as an activation site for human beings being together and learning together.”

“Stockyard Institute: 25 Years of Art and Radical Pedagogy,” on view Wed-Sun through 2/13/22 at DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton, 773-325-7506, depaul.edu

The first iteration of the Stockyard Institute coalesced in the mid-90s in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, which inspired the Institute’s name. Brother Ed Siderewicz and Brother Gordon Hannon, cofounders of the then-brand-new San Miguel School, approached Duignan to put together an experimental arts curriculum for neighborhood youth who had left the traditional school system. Duignan began meeting with a small group of middle school-age kids; for months all they did was talk. 

“I told them: I’m not your teacher, I’m not a social worker, I’m not a priest, I’m here to build some practices,” Duignan says. “They just kind of hung out until one of the kids had said one of his biggest fears was being shot in the back accidentally on his way to school. And it became a kind of moment where we pivoted and thought, ‘Well what if this group was a kind of design collective? What would this thing look like if we decided to build it?’ And it became really quiet in the space. I think that revealed a certain need that the kids had to present their voice in an authentic way that was very intimate, and it made me quiet too. And I thought, ‘Well, let’s move on this.’”

Duignan’s teaching philosophy is anti-hierarchical. He doesn’t begin with an idea or end result in mind but instead lets the project and the process come from the community he’s working with. The makeshift class spent months working on the idea, which resulted in the creation of Gang-Proof Suit. The project, part real-life armor against gun violence and part sculpture, resulted in a five-foot-tall suit made of chicken wire, papier-mâché, and found objects. Over the five years that the class worked on the project, designers, creative people from the neighborhood, and other collaborators were invited in to advise on logistics and other details. “I invited maybe 100 artists in that community over the course of the mid-90s to just sort of think about this project that I saw as a sort of artistic and pedagogical framework for how I wanted to work,” Duignan says. “And, as Rachel pointed out without me really realizing, this was a method. And that was kind of the beginning of that.”

Davion Mathews met Duignan around 1999, when he was in the fifth grade. Mathews was attending an extracurricular tutoring session at a school in Austin, when a room of clear bubble Macs caught his attention. Never having used a Mac before, Mathews sat down and quickly made a short movie. He and Duignan were both intrigued with one another, and made fast friends. 

“We would just converse about different things and he would ask me different questions about projects,” Mathews says. “That’s how we will come up with a lot of projects that we worked on.”

One such project, developed for the art collective Haha’s public art piece Taxi, involved imagining a piece of digital advertising that would display on top of a cab. The ad was connected to a GPS program so that the ad text would change when it entered a new neighborhood. Mathews came up with the text, “Don’t mess with my fro,” in response to a classmate who was always pulling his hair. Mathews credits the Stockyard Institute with not only teaching him things he never would have learned in school, but for shaping the path his life took. He’s now a graphic designer who still frequently collaborates with Duignan.

“I always replay my life in different scenarios,” Mathews says. “What happens if I never met Jim, if I never went into that room, what or where would my life be? I think it shaped it in a positive way, just having different opportunities and being able to learn certain things, just getting out of the community for one, seeing that there’s a different side to life versus what you see every day.”

Duignan is well aware of the long history of white artists, often older white men such as himself, entering into under-resourced neighborhoods and starting programs or projects with little or no input from the residents. He strives to operate in complete opposition to that type of colonial thinking. Duignan takes  a democratic approach to knowledge-making, inspired in part by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s philosophy that students must play a role in the construction of their own education. Duignan also believes in sharing authorship of the Stockyard Institute’s work with all its participants. The museum publication that accompanies the DPAM exhibition includes a section on past projects, listing sometimes dozens of contributors for each work. 

“What’s been important to the architecture of how Stockyard Institute has evolved, is that none of those relationships end,” Harper says. “It’s a cumulative network where every project has a slightly different quality because it contains the ones who were in the former ones. It’s like a big, rhizomatic family almost, of people who are interested in looking at how to create civic change and pursue justice.”

I dodge bullets and make little books about my
existence
, a 2001 print by the Stockyard Institute.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, Duignan also has a personal connection to each of the areas he works. His paternal grandfather worked in the stockyards from which Back of the Yards takes its name. Other family members lived in Englewood and Lawndale; his maternal grandmother taught at Hull-House, of which the social-minded communalism greatly influenced Duignan. As a kid, the whole city seemed ripe for exploration. It’s worth noting that the Chicago of Duignan’s childhood—he was born in 1958—looked very different from the Chicago of the 90s or the Chicago of today. “The city was always being built as it was being torn down,” he says in the DPAM publication. When he was growing up around Waveland Avenue, the area was rife with neighborhood gangs. Duignan sees some of his own experiences as a Chicago youth reflected in the lives of the young people he works with now.

“We were more feminist and sensitive to those kinds of conditions because we lived them, playing with gang life and dealing with violence and substance abuse and all that stuff,” Duignan says of the Institute’s approach. 

“I see in this practice someone coming from a very personal position of trying to work out the problems of his own personal experience in these neighborhoods,” Harper says. “It doesn’t mean that there doesn’t have to be a constant, foreground awareness of what privilege is and what it does, especially in association with big institutions like DePaul or other sort of ways. But the way I see it is like looking at all those institutions of privilege or institutions of plenty, and how do we sort of subvert the status quo narrative by connecting institutions so that resources flow differently.”

Chicago is key to both Duignan’s practice and that of the Stockyard Institute. He uses the city as a medium, tapping into the histories and nuances of each neighborhood. The Austin Tourist Bureau, developed with a then-ten-year-old Davion Mathews, consisted of a used Chevrolet van that the pair used to offer guided tours of the neighborhood. Urbs in Horto, a collaboration between Stockyard Institute and the late artist Michael Piazza, was a yearlong activation of Austin’s Columbus Park, and consisted of radio broadcasts, impromptu music performances, information kiosks, sculptures, and more. 

The Institute’s radio projects allow community members to record their stories and broadcast them directly to the neighborhood, a low-watt transmitter ensuring the range remains hyperlocal. The Institute initially thought of using radio not only because it’s low-cost and accessible, but also because its facelessness offers a kind of anonymity. Duignan recalls in the mid-90s when police used high school yearbooks to identify local kids. “No one wanted to be photographed. No one wanted to be filmed,” he says. Radio became a perfect tool for kids to speak freely and safely, sharing sometimes intimate stories that they didn’t have other opportunities to talk about. Now with COVID-mandated social distancing, radio has again become an important, and safe, tool for connecting and sharing stories.

Similarly, the Institute’s ongoing planter boxes project was inspired by the homemade wooden boxes that lined the alleyways of Duignan’s youth. He and his friends would often hide treasured found objects, contraband, or notes for one another in the planters’ dirt on their way to school. Duignan has repurposed planter boxes for several projects. The planters evoke a specific Chicago feeling for Duignan, portraying Chicagoans’ industriousness and the tactility of building something with your own hands. A 2011 iteration was labeled Gun, and served as a receptacle for discarded firearms. For 2012, he created one titled Salve for the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials project, which was planted with aloe and other succulents known for their healing properties. A new iteration is now underway, in collaboration with the University of Hip-Hop founder Lavie Raven and other artists, to paint 24 boxes for installation around Back of the Yards.

Looking back on the Institute’s first 25 years, Duignan recalls something the artist Julia Fish said to him when he was an art student at UIC in the early 90s. She said: “Your art, your life, and your work are a seamless, uninterrupted action.” It is true that Duignan’s life and work, both as an individual artist and with the Stockyard Institute, are so intertwined, it is hard to pull out just one strand or one project and make sense of it.

“The way I see it is this practice is only durational,” Harper says. “I have a suspicion based on that, to your question about how do you sustain it, I think actually the question for Jim would be how you possibly stop it, because I don’t think he can. I think it has a force that’s just his internal life force.”

Harper believes that Duignan is never out of the studio. His is a lived practice, where every encounter and every action feeds into the work of connecting people, building relationships, teaching and learning, and expressing oneself through art. In his work as a professor, he often plugs his students into Stockyard Institute projects. In turn, students and former students often invite him to take part in their own works. Duignan describes his practice as “what it looks like to use your whole life” in one’s art. “It’s about this very open, loving kind of relationship with the space and thinking that, all of the things that have happened to me, that’s the material that I use.”

“One of my big hopes for this exhibition, by examining a practice like this, is that we might all be able to see how all of our lives are seamless uninterrupted actions, that all of us are living as a work of art, whether we’re seeing it that way or not,” Harper says. “We can examine our own lives and the interconnected motivations of everything we do. That’s a sort of self-educational practice that helps us to more effectively make the kind of positive changes in the world that we really wanna see.”

FALL ARTS PREVIEW