The Block Muse

Artists' Congress Organizers

Over the past four months, artists, activists, and educators have been gathering to discuss and debate what an Artists’ Congress should grapple with in Chicago in 2014. We’ve been asking: What are the stakes for artists invested in social change today? What are the possibilities and impediments of this moment?

The many voices and perspectives that made this program included:


Susy Bielak

In her work as an artist, writer, curator, and educator, Susy Bielak is interested in projects with collaboration, experimentation, and research at their core. Bielak joined the Block Museum in September 2013 as the Curator of Public Practice and Associate Director of Engagement. Prior to that, she served as the Associate Director of Public and Interpretive Programs at the Walker Art Center. Since 2000, Bielak has created and produced local, regional, national, and international arts programs, approaching museums as civic spaces and cities as studios. and 

Michael Rakowitz

Michael Rakowitz is an artist based in Chicago. He is also a Professor in the Department of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University. He does not trust biographies, nor should you.

Daniel Tucker

Daniel Tucker works as an artist, writer, and organizer developing documentaries, publications, and events inspired by his interest in social movements and the people and places from which they emerge. In addition to his work on the Never The Same oral history and archive project with Rebecca Zorach, he is currently at work on editing the book Immersive Life Practices with the SAIC Sullivan Galleries and teaching an affordable adult education seminar on Chicago Political Art at the Newberry Library.


Nicole Garneau

Nicole Garneau is an interdisciplinary artist making site-specific performance and project art that is directly political, critically conscious, and community building. She is currently completing a book about the five-year (2008-2012) UPRISING project. UPRISINGs are “public demonstrations of revolutionary practices.” She also teaches, makes ceremonies, throws parties, and does healing work.

Anthony Romero

Anthony Romero is an organizer, performer, and writer. His works have been performed nationally, most notably at Links Hall and The Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, NADA Art Fair in Miami, and as part of the Itinerant Festival of Contemporary Performance in New York. He has published poetry and criticism through Ugly Ducking Press, Poetry Quarterly, The Huffington Post, and Performa Magazine, among others.


John Murphy

“On the History of the American Artists’ Congress”: this talk will give a brief overview of the context in which the American Artists’ Congress arose. Taking the concept of the “popular front” as a departure, it will also consider what issues could potentially galvanize a renewed sense of common purpose among artists today.

John Murphy is a PhD candidate in Art History at Northwestern University. His dissertation investigates the socialist-utopian dimensions of early 20th century American Arts & Crafts communities. A Mary & Leigh Block Museum Fellow in 2012-13, he curated Black-listed: William Gropper’s Capriccios in the spring of 2013. While conducting research for Blacklisted, he reexamined works in the Block collection that led to the Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940 exhibition (January - June 2014). He is currently a Dissertation Fellow at Winterthur Museum in Delaware and will be a 2014-2015 ACLS/Luce Fellow in American art.

Christina Kiaer

“On the Central Artists’ Union of the USSR”: North-western Art History faculty member Christina Kiaer will present on the Artists’ Union in Russia, highlighting a lesser-known history, positioning the John Reed Clubs and American Artists’ Congress in a global context, and drawing a through-line to the present moment.

Christina Kiaer teaches twentieth-century art history at Northwestern.  Her book Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (MIT Press) was published in 2005. Her recent essays “Lyrical Socialist Realism” in October (Winter 2014) and “Collective Body: The Art of Aleksandr Deineka” in Artforum (November 2012) form part of the book she is completing on Soviet Socialist Realism.  She consulted on the 2009 exhibition Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism at the Tate Modern, London, and the 2011 exhibition Aleksandr Deineka: An Avant-Garde for the Proletariat at the Fundación Juan March in Madrid. Kiaer earned her BA from Harvard and her PhD from UC Berkeley.

Paul Durica 

“Haymarket at 125”: addresses the challenges of presenting labor history in such a way that it feels accessible and relevant to the contemporary moment (while avoiding the danger of nostalgia). In 2011 Durica staged a participatory reenactment of the Haymarket bombings, marking the event’s 125th anniversary. This reenactment coincided with mass protests in Madison, WI against Governor Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees, thus creating a narrative line between past and present.

Paul Durica started “Pocket Guide to Hell,” a series of public history programs, in 2008 in the belief that everyone is an educator. These free talks, walks, and reenactments dealing with Chicago’s past encourage interaction and improvisation among participants and are often the result of collaboration between local artists, writers, and musicians and various cultural institutions, including the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, Newberry Library, MCA Chicago, and Chicago History Museum among others. Most recently, Paul was currently the programmer for “Let’s Get Working: Chicago Celebrates Studs Terkel,” a three-day festival held at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts in May 2014.

Eric Triantafillou 

“SEIU’s ‘Take Back Chicago’ ”: Eric Triantafillou, artist and critic, will focus on his experience as the art director for SEIU’s “Take Back Chicago” campaign during the Occupy protests in the Fall of 2012, in particular his role as a paid overseer of propaganda production (messaging, forms of media, dissemination in public space). He will also discuss “Topple the Pyramid” linking up with Occupy’s “We are the 99%,” and how its underlying notion of class struggle produced a tension within the union, which is of course oriented toward electoral political reform.

Eric Triantafillou studies and writes on the relationship between aesthetics and politics. He has more than twenty years of experience as a graphic artist and printmaker and is the co-founder of the San Francisco Print Collective and the Romanian art activist network Mindbomb. He is currently a graduate student in socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology at the University of Chicago.

Don Washington

“On the Mayoral Tutorial”: community and political organizer Don Washington will present “What Do You Know About the Mayor’s Agenda?,” in the format of his 2011 Mayoral Tutorial, an interactive, investigative, agitational and educational program, re-tooled to present prevailing concerns of the present moment in Chicago politics.

Don Washington has served as a community and political/issue organizer, political and media strategist, campaign director, opposition researcher, and field director. He was once a well-regarded stand-up/improvisational comedian, radio voice talent, and playwright before becoming an activist, advocate, and change agent for social justice. Presently his practice includes research, investigative, training, political strategy, and public policy/organizational development on issues of human rights, civil rights, and labor rights both here and abroad. He is the Front Man for the volunteer public policy blog/website the where you can Get Dangerously Informed. He is still not afraid of ninjas and reminds you that as bad as things are they are as good as they have ever been.

Romi Crawford

“The Place of Artists’ Speech”: addresses the significance of voice, language, and orality in the historic Artists’ Congress meetings. Romi Crawford will consider the key locations and settings for artist speech acts as well as her upcoming “Let Me Clear My Throat” project. 

Romi Crawford is an associate professor of Visual and Critical Studies and Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Her research revolves primarily around ideas of race and ethnicity and their relation to American visual, aesthetic, and popular culture. She has published in Art Journal; Cinema Remixed and Reloaded; Black Women Film and Video Artists (University of Washington, 2008); Black Light/White Noise: Sound and Light in Contemporary Art (Contemporary Art Museum Houston, 2007); Frequency (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2006); Art and Social Justice Education: Culture as Commons (Routledge, 2011); and Service Media (Green Lantern, 2013).

Baraka de Soleil

“Counterpoint”: a symbolic performance diptych considers who is seen and what is revealed within the act of “coming together.”

Baraka de Soleil fluidly moves between social, civic, and live arts practice, from museum to stage to site-specific settings, and has done so for the past two decades; curating, consulting, and crafting consciousness along the way.

Maichael Kramer

Dr. Michael J. Kramer teaches history, American studies, digital humanities, and civic engagement at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 2013). His new work focuses on hybrid, multimedia book digital-exhibition projects, including a study of the relationship between culture and technology within the twentieth-century folk music revival and, beginning in fall of 2014, a large-scale, collaborative digital investigation of the history of dance performance in Chicago. He serves as dramaturge for The Seldoms Contemporary Dance Company and blogs about arts, politics, culture, and history at Culture Rover,