From the "Unfurling" opening at University of Chicago's Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry (photograph by Daniel Tucker)

From the “Unfurling” opening at University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry (photograph by Daniel Tucker)

CHICAGO — The Chicago-based project Extinct Entities engages with art spaces and collectives that no longer exist. Collaboratively run by Anthony Stepter, Erin Nixon, and Anthony Romero, this project brings together artists and individuals who were once very invested in now-extinct Chicago-based spaces, and artists and cultural workers who spend their waking hours making sure spaces are alive and thrive.

This project, which just received a chunk of money from the Propeller Fund grant,  provokes questions and elicits answers about various forms of artistic event programming, exhibitions, and publications. Most recently, Extinct Entities created an installation and commissioned three new performance works by Alexandria Eregbu, Tomeka Reid, and Baraka de Soleil for the Unfurling opening at the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry, a show organized by Daniel Tucker. I reached out to Stepter, Nixon, and Romero, and chatted with them about their work. 

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Photo credit: Daniel Tucker

Tomeka Reid, visual score for performance at Unfurling. (photograph by Daniel Tucker)

Alicia Eler: First off, congrats on winning the Propeller Fund grant! This is very exciting. How much money did you get, and how do you as a collective plan to use it?

Extinct Entities: We received a $2,000 Propeller Fund grant which helped pay for some of the initial work and research. The three of us have been meeting regularly for over a year to talk about ideas associated with ephemerality, archives, and art spaces. We also received funding from SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago] to host the Extinct Entities Symposium last April, which was both a public event and a form of research for us.

We were invited to participate in the Never the Same exhibition at the Gray Center, but we used most of the stipend to pay the artists that we worked with. Next January we’ll be in residence at Links Hall and we will be doing a longer series of performances, lectures, and screenings with similar prompts for the artists. We’ll also be producing two publications — one produced while developing the event and one produced following it — to exhibit the project’s inquiries, act as co-generated forms of documentation, and to serve as a reflection on the process.

Photo credit: Daniel Tucker

(photograph by Daniel Tucker)

AE: To me, Extinct Entities feels like a combination of the funereal, gatekeeping, and archival functions all rolled into one. Artist-run project spaces, community centers, and experimental cultural centers all have their own essences and bodies, if you will, and as such they, too, can go extinct like animal species. How do you perceive the role of Extinct Entities in the larger Chicago art ecosystem? 

EE: Extinct Entities is an attempt to develop understandings of history by working with artists to create new works that enact, re-enact, translate, and interpret the excavated histories of extinct spaces and collectives. The idea is that we are somewhat unsatisfied by exhibitions that present archival materials that reference these active and dynamic spaces with disembodied objects, so we are trying to see what happens when artists are invited to activate archives through time-based work. This experiment is an attempt for us as curators to address the difficulty of presenting the legacy of ephemeral practices; through commissioning these artist projects, we hope to find a form of expression. Of course we don’t intend to rewrite histories, we’d like to consider these projects from an otherwise unexplored perspective and give respect to those who are still active today.

We expect artists to approach this in several different ways. Some have elected to gather community members who were active in creating those histories; others have taken the material as a point of departure to discuss cultural issues at large. The process is open-ended and available. Our gesture isn’t all that radical — we think of a place like the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum as an innovator in using archives to extend the spirit of a place beyond just looking at dusty objects and old flyers. We think this issue of activating rather than dampening the spirit of archives is a concern for curators and artists everywhere.

Photo credit: Daniel Tucker

(photograph by Daniel Tucker)

AE: Chicago is a city of DIY art communities. Speaking with artists over the years who have run project spaces, I get the sense that running your own project space is a sort of Chicago rite of passage. Would you agree? 

EE: Engaging with DIY spaces is an important part of participating in a community. What might be a little different in Chicago is that these independent art spaces have been a respected voice in the dialogue for a long time. The MCA did a show about alternative spaces in the 1980s that looked back at the previous 20 years of alternative spaces. Those were places that didn’t have to ask for affirmation from institutions — the institutions recognized the DIY spaces as vital and valid. It’s not uncommon to see faculty from art schools or curators from the museums in the city in someone’s apartment gallery and that makes the organizers take things seriously, including the legacies of the spaces whose work came before theirs.

AE: How do you note the difference between an extinct entity and a shuttered artist-run space? For example, I am thinking of Liz Nielsen’s Swimming Pool Project Space, which closed its Chicago branch when she moved to NYC a couple of years ago. But, she may re-open the space in Brooklyn, which is exciting news! 

EE: We wrestle with this language very often. The name of the project implies that the there is a kind of finality that has taken place. This finality extends beyond spaces to include collectives and inquires, as well as strategies. Some projects were meant to end, others found themselves at a closing, and others still found it necessary to simply change form, but they are often generative and inspiring for newer projects. These very complicated trajectories are what we are asking artists to respond to.

Anthony Stepter of Extinct Entities. Photo credit: Erin Nixon.

Anthony Stepter at the Extinct Entities Symposium. (photograph by Erin Nixon)

From the Unfurling opening. Photo credit: Daniel Tucker.

From the Unfurling opening. (photograph by Daniel Tucker)

Extinct Entities is based in Chicago, Illinois. 

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...