Barkow Leibinger's work on CAB 5
Barkow Leibinger’s work on CAB 5. Photography by Cory Dewald.

10 Questions With… Artist and Poet, Avery R. Young

This year’s edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB 5) centers on the theme “This is a Rehearsal,” curated by the Floating Museum, a local artist collective. Among the group’s principal members is Avery R. Young, who also happens to be Chicago’s inaugural poet laureate. Young played an integral role in choosing the title for the recent exhibition and his contribution to this particular edition is as much rooted in shared narrative as it is personal interpretation and response, implementing the backdrop of the vast Midwestern city as a stage for endless possibilities.

For CAB 5, the city plays host to a series of commissioned installations, recontextualized initiatives, and a robust program of performances that address the concepts of experimentation—practice as defined in theatrical terms—and trial and error, as a means of addressing challenges such as food production, water rights, land reclamation, revised histories, and even material processing. With this reasoning, architecture becomes a tool that allows us to test different solutions for grappling with today’s most pressing issues. Not everything needs to be presented as a finished result and is sometimes proposed as a step in an ongoing process, rough and open to feedback. Through instigations that play on recognized symbolisms and overlooked ubiquitous forms, we’re free to question the standards of what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and bypass the limitation of a fait accompli.

In a format true to his voice, Young spoke to Interior Design about his background and contribution to CAB 5, on view through mid-February in various locales throughout Chicago.

Avery R. Young, Chicago's inaugural poet laureate and principal member of The Floating Museum, the artist collective behind CAB 5
Avery R. Young, Chicago’s inaugural poet laureate and principal member of the Floating Museum, the collective behind CAB 5. Photography by Sulyiman Stokes.

Avery R. Young Talks poetry, CAB 5, and More

Interior Design: How did you begin your interdisciplinary practice?

Avery R. Young: I began my performance poetry career in spoken word venues in Chicago. Most notably at Literary Explosion aka Lit-Ex @ Another Level Bookstore in Wicker Park. Performing poetry led to the opportunity to teach it, which led to the work of being a teaching artist for several organizations such as Urban Gateways, Columbia College Chicago [CCAP Office], Changing Worlds, and Young Chicago Authors. As a teaching artist with CCAP, I was introduced and partnered with artists from all types of disciplines and their respective genres, like Cecil McDonald, Tricia Patrick-Hershey, Sadira Muhammad, and my main man Guillermo Delgado. I am talking about dancers, actors, fiction writers, film makers, book makers, you name it. With literary spaces like Young Chicago Authors and Lit-Ex, my political and social awareness was informed and inspired.

In a space such as CCAP, I found myself learning a new art form, along with the students. But I pretty much stayed in the lane of writing and performance up until 2012 when I was an artist-in-residence at the Arts Incubator with Rebuild and UofC, where I began to explore all the materials I could use to craft a poem. I grew up Missionary Baptist, and I never really knew language, or poetry to be expressed / shared by page alone. The singing, the preaching, and the Holy Ghost are all materials used to tell a story about the divine amongst the wreckage. Church. The Black Baptist tradition of praise and performance is really the true foundation of my interdisciplinary practice. I invite anybody to a storefront on a Sunday afternoon when 2 or 3 are in the midst of touch and agreement. That organ and drum going ham. The hand claps. The foot stumps. The stained glass windows. The poetry. The choir robes. The shirt and tie. The hats and slips.  Being raised on all of that with the purpose of living a human experience to achieve spiritual atonement and reward. That is interdisciplinary at work, for sure.  And it really is the base of my art’s work. I don’t go to church. I bring church with me. My practice is to utilize my gifts and lessons to transform a space into a monument of work-ship and wonder.   

ID: What roles do spoken word, performance, and text-based visual art play in contemporary art?

ARY: What role does any of these forms play in any period of art. If you really want to know what went down in 535 B.C., 1722, or [in my Marvin Gaye n’em voice] 2093 … light years ahead, you will know from the poems. The spoken word, performance and visual text of those times are documentation of what people felt about what the world was putting them through. What they hated about it. What they loved about it. What they wasn’t too sure of. What they dreamed to be inside of it. The magic inside a human that aided them with the articulation of an experience they may not be able to explain and/or resolve, but they used language as the color to craft portraiture for the eyes, ears and heart. They created a sound monument. A living document of their imperfections and imaginations. 

You can look at the painting of the Mona Lisa, and say to yourself… “Ooooo and weeeeee, Leo did the damn thing!” But it’s the text and or a poem about her that keeps her from being just merely subject  It’s the language about who she was, and that moment came to be that lets us know who she was. She is then the art. Not just the fact she sat down in front of a genius, and he went to absolute work. The role of the spoken word, performance and text-based visual art is to say to us, “Yes! You may love the collage by Krista Franklin, but you gotta value her enough to compensate her right and on time. She eats, send flowers, laughs and cries, and all of these things go into whatever artifact came out of her hand. But her, y’all. Her be the art. She and a whole bunch of folk. Me, you all. I am the art.” Nothing else can say that louder than someone actually speaking and writing it down. Out! So it is written, let it be done.

A Long Walk Home, The Black Girlhood Altar at the Chicago Cultural Center
A Long Walk Home, The Black Girlhood Altar, on view at CAB 5. Photography by Tom Harris.

ID: What is your philosophy in shaping the evolution of these disciplines as demarcations of culture? 

ARY: To quote a brilliant poet by the the name of Rudy Rae Moore in his role as the Disco Godfather, “Put your weight on it!” That is my philosophy of fixing, and/or maybe erasing the boundaries of this thing I do with poetry. Language can’t ever be merely a matter of ink and page. The page of a book is a representative of the sky in real time, and real life. The ink, or the poem is limb and love tumbling somersaults underneath it.I am using poetry, performance and visual text as a means to turn up the volume on that time in this life, when this happened and/or could, if we dream this way. I can’t do that on my tip toes or making myself feather. I gotta take this body and voice and spin it a solid foundation. Put my weight on it. I can growl or scrawl the hell outta preposition phrase. I promise.

ID: How does this thinking influence your position as an educator and mentor? 

ARY: The whole point of putting your weight on it is to let somebody know you’re in the building. You’re present. And your presence ain’t a half-assed one. It’s the dume-dada. I haven’t taught and or mentor as much as I have just been present and now share an experience with a student and/or mentee. Many times it was me teaching them the means to gain access to their language, but a lot of times its been a funeral. A baby shower. A wedding. Somebody’s mama birthday party. An album release. Their feature at an open mic. An opening to their art exhibit. Studio session. Brunch. I don’t understand making poems, but not making the time and space to be a stand in the gap for another human being.

A Long Walk Home, The Black Girlhood Altar at the Chicago Cultural Center.
A Long Walk Home, The Black Girlhood Altar, on view at CAB 5. Photography by Tom Harris.

ID: How did you help establish the Floating Museum? What is your role, if loosely defined, within the collective?

ARY: The Floating Museum was already established when I came on board. The foundation of the museum is Jeremiah and Faheem. The role then and the role now was for them to consider performance in a public art practice that is community centered. My work was asking them to consider all the materials needed to present performance and the language of the work, and I asked them to consider the idea of  working with community and IN communities.

ID: What was your particular involvement in selecting the theme of this edition of CAB5?

ARY: My role in the selection of the CAB 5’s theme was to be in support of Andrew’s naming of it. We have all taken turns with the names of the monuments, exhibits and programs. That’s the wealth of multiple director’s as opposed to one. We know each other’s wheelhouse.  All of the contributions were built on the conversations we had about design, and service, and how the Biennial occupies more of the city and instigate conversations about beautiful things all over the city. 

LOAD IN, LOAD OUT installation at CAB 5.
LOAD IN, LOAD OUT installation at CAB 5. Photography by Tom Harris.

ID: What was your contribution in terms of selecting the exhibitors and participants; shaping the scope of commissioned projects?

ARY: We all divided the work up in looking at proposals, interviews, etc. I was a bit more involved with specific programming and contributions to the forthcoming catalog. (CAB 5 featured a number of performances that activated the various exhibition venues in different temporal ways).

ID: How do you view poetry/performance and monument making/ architecture in a conceptual sense as an extension of expressing and reflecting on public life in Chicago?

ARY: For me, as a person who makes work that is spoken and/or read, it’s important to understand to know the voice and the audience. It’s even more important to be inclusive of many voices and many different audiences. Other folk speak with the language of this question, others speak another thing. I am proud to say the CAB 5: This Is a Rehearsal is a polyglot space. The same way this city is. We miss the beauty of the city if we only see it segregated, as opposed to a collection of curated cultural milieu.

LOAD IN, LOAD OUT installation at CAB 5.
LOAD IN, LOAD OUT installation at CAB 5. Photography by Cory Dewald.

ID: How were you instrumental in determining the social and psychogeographic underpinnings of this year’s biennial?

ARY: I don’t know if I was significantly instrumental in that manner. What I do know is that inside of an architecture biennial, a poet, born and raised in this city, was a co-curator to a [an event] that up until me hadn’t had a poet nor Chicago native curate before. And then in the middle of it, I became the city’s inaugural Poet Laureate. I like to say I lent this biennial a chance to finally let a homegrown son help shape what it was going to say and hear.

However instrumental that could be, I know this work is a shared effort, it’s us leaning on each other’s expertise and then learning to consider details or concerns we do not have to confront in our respective fields. In these conversations that the Floating Museum have, we are constantly realizing that we have similar hallucinations.  We feel honored to work with a city that has such a rich and powerful cultural economy. 

ID: How did your expertise as a storyteller and as a deeply-rooted local come into play in this regard?

ARY: Inside these conversations I speak as a person who talks to the people and the people talk back to me. But that’s the case with all of the directors. People talk to Faheem, Jeremiah, and Andrew. Those people are Black, queer, rich, poor, artists, activists and a bunch of modifiers. So I have all this to say, I am uncomfortable with talking about how instrumental I am to anything, especially for an art exhibition that has traditionally had a certain type of constituency. Instead of being instrumental, I focus on being an instrument. I am an instrument that is known as a body. And if an architecture biennial can’t discuss and dream of ways space can be designed to include instruments of all shapes, sizes and voices, we don’t need it. Inside a choir, I learned the gift of staggered-breathing. That’s essentially people working to breathe together. This exhibition considers a bunch of different breathing instruments. I am honored to work with the team that agreed to make a breath spectacle.

Barkow Leibinger's work on CAB 5
Barkow Leibinger’s work on CAB 5. Photography by Cory Dewald.
a white house installation at CAB 5
Haywood House installation-inspired by Jordan Peele’s movie “Nope” by Ruth De Jong at the Chicago Cultural Center. Photography by Cory Dewald.
a monument made of wood structures outdoors as part of CAB 5
A mock up of the monument to Anna and Frederick Douglass’s writings on truth, power, and justice in the Englewood area of Chicago. Photography by Cory Dewald.
The Gray Veil, an installation at CAB 5
The Gray Veil, an installation at CAB 5. Photography by Cory Dewald.

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