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“…those species which best know how to combine, and to avoid competition, have the best chances of survival and of a further progressive development. They prosper, while the unsociable species decay.” —Peter Kropotkin, “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” 1902
TUCSON, Arizona — Annie Swiderski came to the desert hoping to approach the messiness of anxiety and healing through an improvisational range of artistic media. The American Institute of Thoughts and Feelings (AITF), which Swiderski founded in 2018, helps house and contemplate whatever psychic trouble swims to the surface. Its current iteration is situated in a home in central Tucson, in close proximity to the University of Arizona. AITF is comprised of a basement gallery exhibition space (Underground Bureau of Investigations), a sculpture garden (Semi-Permanent Sculpture Garden of the Side Yard), and an affordable residency program that enjoys Tucson’s low cost of living.
Since arriving to Tucson having little to no familiarity with its artistic ecologies, Swiderski has given the small southern Arizona city a space to process its own emotional vectors alongside their own. After having their own realization that their social anxiety impacted the way they experienced art, Swiderski imagined AITF as a garden and publication project — anything other than the chilly white box that comes tethered to the experience of contemporary art. Even with a background of institutional training (Swiderski is a graduate from the Pacific Northwest College of Art), they felt alienated from the work they wanted to support when it took place inside a museum or gallery.
In June 2019 on the Tate Museum blog, critic Jill Bennet wrote that social media, along with the perpetual fear propagated by the War on Terror, have pushed many people to new levels of anxiety. One question Bennett poses, and that Swiderski and AITF attempt to answer, is: how might art offer salve for those who struggle with human interface in institutional spaces that struggle to cultivate authentic communion?
As an incubator space that relies on the relational register, AITF knows that the institution is always dictating the way audiences engage with contemporary art. In light of this, AITF functions most like an experimental mutual aid project, alongside the freedom (and trappings) of an artist’s home gallery. AITF wouldn’t exist without the generous labor of the artists and other collaborators for each project, such as Roxbury, New York-based curator Nate Hitchcock who introduced Tucson audiences to the work of Chicago-based video artist, Max Guy, in AITF’s most recent exhibition, held this winter.
Tucson, a halfway point between Los Angeles and Marfa on Interstate-10, is a place where many artists have planted seeds of connection. In spring 2019, at the spacious home that doubles as AITF, artists Timo Fahler and Lara Schoorl brought their work an earth between us — one of seven robust exhibitions and public programs that AITF has put on in its short tenure. (I also participated in one of these, in collaboration with Tucson poet Farid Matuk). Anyone familiar with Fahler’s work would recognize his use of steel, plaster, and dyed hydrosol, which composed a figure in meditative repose. Framing the figure in the basement gallery’s windowed niche were found objects imbued with the artist’s familial history. Schoorl, a poet and tiny press publisher, created Bearing correspondence, a stunning text-based wood tabular sculpture which was stationed in the Semi-Permanent Sculpture Garden of the Side Yard. Schoorl’s piece served as an object for people to gather around, a communal space much like one you might find in a home.
But what is a home that functions like an institution, or an institution that feels like a home?
“Institution is a way to think about power,” Swiderski told Hyperallergic in a recent interview that took place in the Semi-Permanent Sculpture Garden of the Side Yard. “As a recent transplant I am suddenly imposing that word onto the gesture of living. […] There’s a critique that goes into a lot of the thinking of our identity but the practical side looks more like coordinating events and programs that are soft and gentle and within the environment of a home.”
Tucson is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in North America, having been settled for at least 10,000 years by the Hohokam, one of the four major cultures of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, according to archaeologists of the region. It is one of the epicenters of the crisis at the US–Mexico border, and exists amidst a brutal desert where summer temperatures are frequently in the hundreds. Mutual aid and communal practice inform the city as a whole, and animate AITF’s presence and programming.
“AITF is modeled after organizing and publication projects that create something formal with few resources, as well as many projects that fold into artist homes,” Swiderski says. “There are endless examples of both of those things. The Southwest has a long history of in-home institution-making, probably the most notable in Tucson would be Degrazia’s Gallery in the Sun.”
Currently, AITF is working on establishing an affordable residency program that is open to all disciplines — another way of invigorating the artistic ecosystem while disrupting the Airbnb-ization of a small college town monetizing its vernacular adobe architectures.
AITF serves as vessel, incubator, container, and host for Swiderski, as well as its visitors. The process of organic connection mirrors how Swiderski handles their own thoughts and feelings, learning and unlearning, accepting messiness and faults, and not focusing on product or tangible outcomes but instead allowing for creativity. Amidst the work of asking themself and others about capacity and needs, improving communication, reflecting, building coping skills, and letting lines be blurry, this also requires moving forward in real time. Each micro-project within the larger one — the one of AITF — reflects and produces the vision as a whole. The container might be a crumbling basement with jutting quoins and niches, yet the house regenerates itself to be home, finding the solace in being at odds with itself.
The American Institute of Thoughts and Feelings is located at 116 N Santa Rita Ave, Tucson, AZ.