by Maiza Hixson
These are familiar questions I hear while wandering through the alabaster alleyways of Imperfect City at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts. Visitors and patrons alike are equally confounded by what seems to be mistaken for an “anti-Art/anti-Artist” exhibition. But let me respond to these complaints and queries by stating that there ARE in fact bona fide artists (with real art degrees!) exhibiting next to “non-artists” alike. And the non-artists are not just taking up space in galleries that should only be occupied by “Normal Artists.” These supposed non-artists are as important to the exhibition as any painter or sculptor featured in Imperfect City. While their works may not be on display in the form of traditional objets d’art, their ideas have infused the exhibition and created a much more complex framework for understanding what art can be: collectively produced; process rather than product driven; conversational; and not necessarily for sale. Of course, such ideas of art fly in the face of one conventional definition of NORMAL art. Indeed, the group of Artists and supposed Non Artists of Imperfect City could be said to be searching together rather than toiling alone for an Ideal World, through an exhibition rather than over a blank canvas.
First, if you have no time or desire to discuss, critique, or entertain definitions of Art and culture, then please…READ NO FURTHER. On the other hand, if you’re willing to examine the medium of exhibitions as a creative one, then you might be able to imagine how an exhibition like Imperfect City could be considered a totally different animal from your typical “hang-on-the-wall” art show. I would like to argue that the exhibition itself is the collective artwork and that the ideas generated are the basis for its relative value. From this standpoint, we can then evaluate how it might be considered a success or failure.
Let us address the way in which this exhibition originated: an open call for people to submit proposals for an ideal city within the DCCA’s walls. People met, discussed definitions of utopia, and how to proceed to make an exhibition. Several proposals emerged, including: a workspace where people design their own public park, a machine that reminds people of the increasingly lost art of cursive handwriting, a free athletic club where people can work out in the galleries, a micro farm that teaches the importance of growing one’s own food, a graffiti wall on which people can express themselves, bench seating that fosters conversation in the round, a reading room with radical texts, a memorial to the people who have died in violent crime and fatal accidents in Wilmington, DE, and an installation that visualizes the path of storm water through Wilmington.
Looking over the list of proposals, varying perceptions of utopia become clear. There is not one overarching principle guiding these proposals but several different ideals. There is the ethic of public participation in urban planning, the desire to retain seemingly arcane forms of knowledge and to honor the human hand as a source of creativity, the wish to encourage universal access to a healthy life, the principle of maintaining a relationship to nature, the motivation to provide people with a public outlet to reflect the world around them in pictures and words, a desire for access to knowledge, a communal space for mourning the dead, and finally, the basic need to understand where a precious resource comes from and flows through the city.
The subjective ethics presented by this creative list of projects can be seen to function in the context of the exhibition as potential theories of the perfect society. Only one proposal included any mention of a form of currency, yet it was never clearly defined. During the last Imperfect City Town Hall meeting, some of the City slickers discussed what form an Imperfect currency might take and how it could be exchanged. Perhaps because everything in Imperfect City is already free to the visitor, there is no need to invent money. However crassly cliché, another interpretation is that the exhibition is already filthy rich in imagination.
Hence the burden is on the visitor to decide if he or she feels rich in Imperfect City. With no banks or financial burden, people are free to decide if there is value in imagination and by extension the exhibition. The separation of art and artist becomes arbitrary in this context. If the exhibition is based upon a collective imagining of ideals, then everyone, including the visitor, is capable of invention—not simply Artists.
The currency of and within this utopian exhibition is an intangible thing—something spoken and unspoken, written on the walls or physically expressed within the gallery space. One could be considered rich in Imperfect City when one feels as if he or she has participated in it in a satisfying way. This monetary form might be based on what people feel they can contribute or give while engaging with other visitors of Imperfect City. There need not be a dollar amount associated with the currency but anyone entering the city could be prepared to offer it. Or, depending on a person’s mood, they could switch the value of the currency from what they want to give to what they could give up in order to participate. I am reminded of a question from an early Town Hall meeting: ‘Is a city the people or its walls?’ One might also ask, ‘Is Imperfect City a collective work of art or a solo exhibition?’