Artist and media theorist Victor Burgin, and philosopher and artist D.N. Rodowick (University of Chicago, Department of Cinema and Media Studies) investigate displaced or effaced histories of architecture and urban space in the near South Side of Chicago through the creation of site-specific audiovisual installations.

Sit where the light corrupts your face,
Mies van der Rohe retires from grace.
And the fair fables fall.
– Gwendolyn Brooks, In the Mecca

Together, we envisage a project that investigates displaced or effaced histories of architecture and urban space in the near South Side of Chicago through the creation of site-specific audiovisual installations.

The built environment – as a theatre of wishes and fears about past, present and future – is at the forefront in all of Burgin’s production. His work is concerned with the ways real objects in actual space are mediated through memory and fantasy – the way “space” becomes place. Many of Burgin’s video and photographic installations respond to specific architectural sites and explore the erased or disappeared cultural histories, real and/or imagined, inscribed in those spaces. Many of these sites provide occasions for exploring how historical conflicts between utopian and counter-utopian forces are expressed.

We imagine a transdisciplinary collaboration (between ourselves, and between ourselves and students) that investigates how artistic practice can produce counter-historical knowledge of the conflicted histories of specific urban locations. We are especially intrigued to take as our point of departure the vexed history of The Mecca. Built in the late 19th century, The Mecca was an architecturally significant structure representative of Chicago’s claims to modernity and innovative urban planning through the combination of high-density structures with more suburban residential features. By the 1920s, the building became a “mecca” for African-Americans aspiring to the middle class. The great poet Gwendolyn Brooks worked there, and wrote about it in her book of poetry, In the Mecca.  Civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells and heavyweight champ Joe Louis lived there as well, and the structure even inspired a popular song, “Mecca Flat Blues”. Despite great protest, The Mecca was demolished as part of the expansion of the Illinois Institute of Design under the plan of Mies van der Rohe. This site and its Bronzeville environs thus present many fascinating opportunities for us, and students, to explore themes of displaced architectures, competing visions of modernism and utopia, and conflicts in popular and cultural memory.

The risk and the experiment of our proposal involves finding new forms and practices for conducting what we call research in practice. In other words, research conceived not just as preparatory and prior to creative activity, but as taking place in and through artistic practices that seek out experimentally new strategies of text-image relations, spatial and temporal organization of installed elements, and novel moving image forms, including digital design and 3D computer modeling. We wager that critical historical knowledge can be produced not only through representation and designation but also in disjunctive and associative combinations of text and image, and the imaginative colligation of different media forms.

 - D.N. Rodowick