Mussels do not inspire much contemplation, although they do have an aptitude for quiet stillness.
Kerry Bickford, Curator at Contemporary Philadelphia, the innovative artistic organization, emphasizes that the molds “can move a little” if necessary. But not a lot.
They sit and wait for what the world brings, which over the centuries in Philadelphia has meant erasure by poisonous tides and / or a very limited future as a pimple.
For Bickford, who has just been appointed curator of the ecological futures of Philadelphia Contemporary, the past, present and future of the mussel – filtered by the imagination of Brooklyn artist Jean Shin – present a large-scale opportunity. to explore “how we humans understand our place in the environment and our relationships with other species that inhabit the Delaware River, for example, with the composition of urban soil, how we think about our relationship with these other forms of life, and our place in the environment and ecology. “
A curator of “green futures” thinks of art in these terms and Philadelphia Contemporary, founded by Harry Philbrick, former museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, five years ago, provides the place to do it. Over the past couple of years, it seems safe to say that the organization has filled its staffing and programming profile in unpredictable ways.
Bickford had been the program director of the Philadelphia Contemporary. She was named Curator of the Green Future earlier this month, one of many appointments that signal PC’s strong organizational expansion. JJ El-Far has just been appointed Director of Advancement, and Libby Vieira da Cunha is now Curator of Education.
Earlier this year, Rob Blackson, Founding Director of Temple Contemporary, joined PC as Curator of City-Wide Initiatives, working with Yolanda Wisher, former Philadelphia Poet Laureate and appointed Curator of Oral Creations of PC in 2018.
Jean Shin’s mold project should be ready by June, more or less, Philbrick said.
“It turns out that in the 19th century there was a huge industry in Philadelphia of harvesting freshwater mussels,” Philbrick said. “You can’t eat them, but they were harvested to make buttons. And there was a big button making industry in Philadelphia, and I have to say the more I live in Philadelphia the more blown away I am by the city’s industrial past. I keep discovering layer after layer that I never imagined. There was a button making industry using freshwater mussels, but the population was pretty decimated. “
The city’s water department, Drexel University, various watershed organizations and other groups have sought to reintroduce freshwater mussels to the Schuylkill and Delaware in recent years. Creatures are powerful water purifiers – a small mussel can filter about 15 gallons of water per day.
Shin is in the process of making a large glass container, Philbrick said, which will serve as a container for the molds. Visitors will be able to observe the filtration process and actually “see the difference between the water that comes out of Delaware and the water that then goes back to Delaware,” said Philbrick.
With Blackson, known for his large, community-based land-based projects, the idea of organizing “green futures” can be somewhat confusing. But he said like Philadelphia, requires “Another way of thinking” on art.
“A city of this size really demands that because there are ecological concerns, there are historical concerns, there are all kinds of ideas for the old model of ‘Well, let’s think of it as a paint “doesn’t really always suit,” Blackson said.
Thus, in a radical “curatorial” approach of the Philadelphia Contemporary, Blackson has largely abandoned the idea of a single curator, replacing it in part with an “advisory board”. The council, made up of young community members and people familiar with cultural issues, meets regularly and chews up the cultural fat, theoretically coming up with unusual collective projects that PC could develop.
Blackson said he used a similar advisory board model at Temple Contemporary, where he proposed a number of successful projects like Funeral for a house, who examined the disappearance of a simple row house in Mantua from the perspective of the whole community.
Philbrick noted that Blackson “does large-scale projects that are often sort of city-wide,” not related to a gallery.
“He will continue this approach with us,” Philbrick said. “He is currently working on the development of a very large healthcare project” with artist Pepón Osorio. Osario focuses on the healing process and allows people to “tell their stories,” Philbrick said. The project is expected to last around two years, he said.
Not all of Blackson’s projects originate from the PC. Some, for example, come from the Andy Warhol Foundation’s regional grant project, the Velocity Fund. The fund supports new collaborative projects with grants of $ 5,000. The William Penn Foundation has expanded the program and Philadelphia Contemporary is now administering a second round of Extended Velocity grants of $ 15,000 to previous recipients.
Yaroub Al-Obaidi is a recipient of the Velocity and Extended Velocity funds in support of his Schuylkill Center project Al Mudhif – A confluence, which features a traditional Iraqi ceremonial house woven from reeds of Phragmites.
“Me and another artist, Sarah Kavage, is an environmental artist, and we built that,” Al-Obaidi said. “We invited the Iraqi community to Philadelphia. And we also invited veterans, American veterans who served in Iraq, to be together to build this space from Phragmites, and then a few months later we started to organize activities, gatherings, tea ceremony. Iraqi.
They used the second grant of $ 15,000 largely to winterize the structure and repair it.
“Yes, we just wintered because the environment here is different from Iraq,” he said. “We hope by this help of the new [$15,000] grant, we hope to have one more year after programming.
Likewise, not all of Bickford’s projects derive from his focus on ‘green futures’, but still fit the Philadelphia Contemporary scheme of things.
For example, the sculpture by British artist Tracey Emin, A moment without you is part of PC’s recently placed Water Marks series of public works near the Delaware River waterfront.
Emin designed the piece, which consists of bronze birds atop slender 13-foot poles, as a personal memorial to a friend’s death. He is now temporarily seated at the end of Race Street Pier where he once served as foil for a spoken word performance staged by Yolanda Wisher.
Wisher had arranged a performance by pianist V. Shayne Frederick, a member of the group, which she describes as “a sort of jazz musician par excellence”, at the end of the pier, transforming this public space on the river at night time. cocktail.
“We started to develop a program called Birds singing it was just in response to the sculpture, ”Wisher recalls. “We invited a few other musicians to perform songs related to birds, whether they were originals or covers. To just create, oh, you know, a conversation with the artwork that night … It was a Friday night.
“Yeah ok. We rained the night we planned to do it the week before, but we got the date of November 5th. It was super cold. We had tea there. And it was really. kinda creepy, but you know there’s that kind of nice time between night and day that the music kind of helped us navigate.