Counterpublic is both a public platform and a provocation. The choice to form a triennial civic exhibition was one we consciously undertook in order to reimagine how an arts institution could be formed explicitly to advance social and generational change. In many ways, a triennial is an unlikely position from which to pose a new model for an altered art world. A notoriously problematic form of organizing, this exhibitionary engine is one most often deployed in forms of nation and brand-building, an expensive backdrop of Instagram spectacles for a global jet set, and extractive economies dragging both artists and organizers into debt while leaving their host communities unchanged. With Counterpublic 2023, one of the core considerations was whether the flexible form of the cyclical exhibition could instead be a tool to create an entirely new model of organizing. We aimed to be both temporary and infrastructural, nimble and generational, collaborative and accelerant, in deep dialogue with our immediate communities but also with the long histories of exhibition and institution-making oriented towards further impact.
As a curator, editor, and previously founder of St. Louis-based artist space The Luminary, and now as the Executive and Artistic Director of Counterpublic, I came to this exhibition out of a time in which it seemed to me that exhibition-making was not keeping pace with the urgencies that were continually arising around us. While both participating in and learning from the organizing around St. Louis in and after the 2014 Ferguson Uprising, alongside the reconsiderations of monuments and museums alike arising throughout the 2020 pandemic and beyond, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the pace and methods employed within most contemporary art exhibitions, and biennials in particular.
An enormous amount of energy is spent to realize increasingly ambitious exhibitions that use the aesthetics and content of these mass movements but rarely engage in any kind of material change these movements directly demand. At most, individual artists and curators call for these changes but are frustrated, delayed, or denied outright by the structures within which they work. In other words, despite the altered world around us, the art world has attempted to keep its course. This is an exhibition emerging from frustration at the limitations of an anemic art world met with concrete possibilities for more livable worlds experienced in grassroots organizing in St. Louis, as well as a deep care for a place I have committed much of my adult life to seeing flourish, despite witnessing its legacies of harm, fragmentation, and structural inequities firsthand. In envisioning the exhibition, I aimed for something altogether different—a triennial that allied itself with generational, cultural, economic, and civic change; a post-pandemic, post-uprising exhibition demanding that we, as arts workers and artists, do more to repair our broken world.
We initiated this edition with an intensive community-engagement process documented in a community report that gathered responses from nearly a thousand neighbors in our immediate footprint. The report points to a reality we already knew: that art has more often than not been allied with normative power and siloed from emergent community work. Through this process, we learned that, in St. Louis, using the word “future” can be language that at first feels hopeful yet holds on as a bitter reminder of how future has been used as a weapon, an engine of power and capital that has been used to tear down entire neighborhoods and ask their residents to forget and move forward without attending to that hurt. Finally, we learned that the public narratives of St. Louis (and US cities in general) are partial, and our monuments and memorials reinscribe its histories of settlement and displacement, while many communities’ histories are ignored, or actively forgotten. The report made clear that acknowledging these histories in public is essential to start to respond and repair all that has been done.
With Counterpublic 2023, we aim to open a doorway between our inherited pasts and the present crises we see all around to understand what changes when we hold the past with honor, when we tell the truth with care, when we look to the future only after earning the right to do so through repair. This exhibition is not about meditating on the past as a means to trace what has gone wrong. It instead aims to look for means of both acknowledging and unsettling the histories of the city in order to open up concrete means of repair and to re-envision liberatory lifeways with and alongside our neighbors. This is not only a question for St. Louis, but is, I believe, a central project of our time: With so many accumulated harms, how do we move forward?
As Artistic Director, I oriented Counterpublic 2023 as a durational exhibition that invites us to think ancestrally and infrastructurally: to respond both to what has brought us here and what we will leave behind. The curators, artists, and collaborators who came to shape the exhibition were invited to consider this moment as a confluence of times, proposing what agency an artistic platform can have toward reimagining complex pasts, conflictual presents, and reimagined futures for the land and those living on it.
Together, we conceived of an exhibition that operates at every timescale. Counterpublic is an intentional intervention meant to offer an opening to new ways of exhibition-making. Artist commissions reach back as a balm to centuries-old wounds, attempting to hold historic harms with agency in order to allow for other reparative futures. Other aspects of the exhibition attempt to place those futures in motion directly through land back efforts, community housing labs, responsive new monuments, and curricula embedded directly in schools around the region.
Works will unfold as a permanent park, in curator Diya Vij and artist Jordan Weber’s Defensive Landscape, as a mile-long monument opening over the course of two years in artist Damon Davis’s memorial to the demolished Mill Creek Valley neighborhood; in the attempted rematriation to the Osage Nation of the last intact Native mound in St. Louis led by myself, New Red Order and curator Risa Puleo, in the realization of David Adjaye’s first permanent public artwork and a new model for conservation imagined by curator (and editor of this issue) Allison Glenn that places full-time fellow Ousmane Gaye at The Griot Museum of Black History in collaboration with Counterpublic and the St. Louis Art Museum. They also unfold in the subtler healing ceremonies by Black Healers Collective and curator Katherine Simóne Reynolds, in the archival workshops of Jen Everett, and in the tenant organizing of Black Quantum Futurism at The Luminary. These and others of the thirty new commissions that make up Counterpublic 2023 are teasing at another mode of operating more extensively than what a museum may take on, beyond what most social practices can sustain, and deeper than what most typical triennials even attempt. It aspires towards infrastructural change, stitching dozens of community partners, artist commissions, civic collaborations, and even policymaking towards a potential new model in the art world altogether.
This exhibition has a duration: it is open for three months, then closes again for another three years. Within that compression, my hope is that we connect generationally back, and project forward, to begin to mold and shape how we may inhabit this land as catalysts and stewards alike; that we leave something behind—not just in the permanent artworks, in increased attention or resources, or even the rematriation of the mound, as important as each of those are, but in better ways to inhabit this place and time. Counterpublic 2023 is an act of futuring. What future are we calling into being, for St. Louis, for an altered America?
[This text is adapted from James McAnally’s introduction to the Counterpublic 2023 catalog.]