Descending a Staircase Darkly

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Abigail DeVille and The Contemporary’s Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars at The Peale Museum By Bret McCabe

On the second floor of the Peale Museum in downtown Baltimore, artist Abigail DeVille and her collaborators have created a room-filling bricolage out of stretches of white picket fences and trellises. White window- and porch-door frames are suspended in the air, with white French doors leaning against the walls. These are fragments of suburban and small borough homes, a jagged and abstract construct that evokes neighborhood facades found in both Levittowns and sundown towns.

The Peale building’s windows are covered in raggedly ripped black plastic that permits a bit of light to peek through. A single incandescent light bulb hangs about eye level toward one wall, and the room is bathed in a blue hue coming from a pair of track lights mounted on the ceiling. The installation is titled “Invisibility Blues,” but it feels more like a modernist remix of the idealistic and illusory postwar American Dream: Mayberry Descending a Staircase.

IMG_20160421_144355-640x475“Invisibility Blues”

A tube enters the room from an adjoining one, and it ends in metal trash can some of us remember from public school classrooms. The tube runs to the installation a room over, where a sound piece’s volume nearly consumes the entire second floor. Standing inside “Invisibility Blues” you can glance into another adjoining room and see an old, motorized dry-cleaning rack, whose mechanical buzz sneaks into the ear like the ghost of a manufacturing warehouse floor. You imagine the tube/trash can functions like a pair of tin cans connected by string, providing some conduit for sound’s waves to ripple some distance from its source. And if you tilt your head toward the trash can as if the RCA dog Nipper searching for his master’s voice, what do you hear? The flat-line gargle of dead analog radio/television channels, noise’s nothingness.

We’re going to come back to that nothingness in a bit, so keep it in your brain’s back pocket as you wander through Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars, the building-filling, site-specific new Contemporary commission from New York-based artist DeVille.

What you see is the result of a mammoth undertaking: the exhibition’s one-sheet names theatrical designer Kent Barrett, stage director Charlotte Braithwaite, and composer/sound artist Justin Hicks as collaborators; thanks Jackson Gilman-Forlini, program coordinator of the City of Baltimore’s Historic Properties, recycle artist Michael Metcalf, and James Dilts, president of the Peale Center nonprofit working to restore and reopen the Peale Museum, for their guidance and expertise; thanks 29 other artists, composers, filmmakers, and creative workers for their support; and names eleven local organizations and businesses as partners, including the nonprofit building materials repurpose organization the Loading Dock, the Real News Network, The Afro American newspapers, and the Maryland Historical Society.

Part of these acknowledgements are the expected it-takes-a-village thank yous that underwrite any nonprofit art endeavor, but the intellectual, historical, and, ultimately, political terrain the exhibition covers makes these individuals’ and institutions’ collaborative efforts more intimately part of its thematic power. We’re going to come back to that idea in a bit, too, as it takes a bit of interpretive wandering to get there. That’s because first—and even second, third, and fourth—encounters with See the Stars barely scratch the surfaces of its complexity.


Yes, this show is a heady plunge into the story of the first North American building erected for the purpose of being a museum. Yes, this show is a reconstructed timeline of the building and the city since it was built in 1814. Yes, because the story of Baltimore from 1814 to the present is also a story of American racial politics from pre-Civil War slavery to #BlackLivesMatter activism, this show is a timely consideration of the American experiment. And, yes, this show articulates its own points of view about the relationship between disenfranchised people and various forms of economic, institutional, and state power.

More than anything, though, See the Stars is a shockingly emotional hijacking of that elite and sometimes state-controlled manufacturing industry we call history.

It really doesn’t matter where you start in this two-story, eight-room and one outdoor installation exhibition—See the Stars‘ emotional intensity is cumulative, not sequential. Each installation is an essay unto itself, exploring and commenting upon uses of the Peale building during its past.

IMG_9469“Colored Grammar School No. 1 1874-1888”

“Colored Grammar School No. 1 1874-1888” addresses the period in which the building served as Baltimore’s first secondary school for black kids; a mannequin sculpture, clad in an Orioles sweatshirt and a collage of mirror shards forming a face, stands in for a student in this classroom. “Charm City Roundhouse” remixes the Peale’s role as a natural history museum with the Star Spangled Banner Flag house a few blocks away on Pratt Street, where flagmaker Mary Pickersgill sewed the garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 that caught Francis Scott Key’s eye and inspired the poem that became the national anthem. Both of these rooms illustrate DeVille and her collaborators’ modus operandi: an installation born of intense site-specific and local history research articulated with repurposed materials found on site and acquired from local organizations, and dramatically arranged to create rooms as tableau vivant, where visitors are the human actors activating the stage.

That theatrical element is articulated most explicitly on the second floor. For “The People’s Theater,” DeVille and her collaborators turn a large room into an actual theater, with rows of pews facing a small stage. A live microphone is onstage and available for whomever to do whatever during gallery times throughout the exhibit, with a series of salons running on select dates. Also onstage is sculptural something-or-other, a mass of stuff and zip ties and mirror shards that contains lights that that slowly pulsate, fading from unlit to soft glow to bright at its own rhythm. Overhead, an expanse of black plastic sheeting is ripped and tattered, creating a magic-hour dusk in the room.

IMG_9493“The People’s Theater”

A pair of Justin Hicks’ sound pieces—”Black Hole Physics, a Kind of Fire” and “Home Sweet Home”—run on a loop and fill “The People’s Theater” and the nearby “Black Whole,” an overwhelming experience that we’ll get to in a second. One of these two sound works is a percussive thrum punctuated by chants; there’s a faint echo of demonstration march vocalizations coursing through it. The other piece sounds like an almost sacred choral work riding an haunting electronic rustle; a fragment of the “Auld Lang Syne” melody flits through it. Depending on which piece is cycling through its loop, it colors the mood to “The People’s Theater”—a crucible for spirited discussion one moment, a place for meditative reflection the next, much in the way churches function as multipurpose hubs in communities.

When standing in “Black Whole,” however, the sound pieces can’t offset the imposing power of the installation’s visual onslaught. The room is tightly packed with 500 metal trash cans—rows and rows of them around the walls, strings of them like Brussels sprouts vining toward the ceiling, stacked in a cabinet-like object that divides the room into two narrow pockets. Sheets of crunchy, black something or other are piled on the ground in curving strips like wood planed from a plank. The trash bins are filled with even more stuff: glass jars of various sizes, metal things in stages of rust, something that looks like a porcelain figurine. It’s difficult to say exactly what all this stuff is or what the exact layout is because the room is illuminated only by strobe light, so our eyes only get bits and pieces of information in each flash that our brains have to piece together to form an incomplete understanding of the whole shebang. On the exhibition’s accompanying one sheet, the room is described as:

“500 metal trash cans, detritus, with Black Hole Physics, A Kind of Fire, and Home Sweet Home composed by Justin Hicks featuring Kenita R. Miller-Hicks and Jade Hicks to consider the voices lost to time, space and recorded history; to the histories that speak to us that are embedded in our genome; to 500 years of ancestry living in our DNA; to use the metaphor of the bottle tree, unknown narratives, and the invisible repository of information erased by darkness.”

“Black Whole,” with its accompanying quasi-explanatory text, could be mistaken for a potently realized but otherwise simplistic mission statement: the difficulty of comprehending history from where we stand now given the tidal wave of information we have to sift through, the reverberating echoes of meanings those waves amass, and the challenge of putting history into some organized narrative given time’s entropy. Such a reading lends itself to the language of information overload and superlatives about history being too messy, complicated, overwhelming, and challenging, to distill into a nutgraf.

Such a reading also reduces the creative labor that went into this exhibition to an act of curatorial scrounging, as if See the Stars was merely Hoarders with an MFA. A more disarmingly pithy streak runs through this entire building, though, and it’s laced with outburst of barely contained passions. And one way to get to those moments is to stop looking at the individual rooms as stand-alone installations and consider a few elements that almost all of them share.

IMG_9467Looking into “Charm City Roundhouse”

Most obvious is the stuff we’re looking at itself. The installations are comprised almost entirely out of the historical material that conventional institutions and businesses didn’t want—whether that be the salvaged architectural and construction objects obtained from the Loading Dock or the various things left over from the Peale’s incarnation as the anchor to the Baltimore City Life Museums. The City Life consortium was established in the mid 1980s by a city bond issue, and was set to include Brewer’s Park, the Carroll Mansion, the Center for Urban Archaeology, the H. L. Mencken House, the John Hutchinson House, the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, the Phoenix Shot Tower. The City Life Museums closed June 21, 1997, and their various holdings were parted out. In 1999 the city sold the John Hutching House to a couple that turned it into the 1840s Carrolton Inn bed and breakfast. A private nonprofit group took over the Carroll Mansion. The Maryland Historical Society took over whatever material object holdings it deemed important.

See the Stars creates its worlds almost entirely out of such unwanted things, and sometimes their use is strangely affecting.

There’s a table in the back corner of the “Charm City Roundhouse” room against which an old bike rests; covering the table and floor in its immediate vicinity are heaps magnetic self-adhesive refill pages for photo albums, many still in their original clear-plastic packaging that is discolored due to time and the elements. A parent or grandparent probably has a few photo albums that use these pages on a shelf somewhere, their stiff pages earmarked with snapshots falling out. That these sheaths for personal memories were deemed useless makes perfect sense from an archival standpoint—you can still buy new pages online, why keep old ones?—and yet somehow feels oddly wistful, as if each unwanted and unused page is a reminder that the moments we care enough about to take a picture of and keep probably won’t matter to the historians, archeologists, or even relatives who come across them in the future.

The sorting of valued object from the valueless, history’s triage, is as much the “work” of See the Stars as the installations that we take in when visiting the Peale. What Deville’s project does is turn an impromptu coalition of artists, civic and nonprofit employees, and various local businesses/organizations into the kind of knowledge factory typically monopolized by museums and institutions.

Investigating history with the artifacts that institutional history didn’t want isn’t the only enterprise that DeVille touches on here, though. Two other leitmotifs that recur in almost every installation in the Peale are the use of black plastic sheeting to cover windows and mirror shards as a sculptural element. In the context of constructing history, the mirror pieces act like wry commentary: we sometimes turn to where we came from to gain a better understanding of where we are now, but we’ll never be able to form a complete picture of the past, only bits and pieces.

The black plastic has a pragmatic component—it’s a low-tech and probably a cost-effective way to control the amount of natural light permitted indoors—but given the show’s title and the cosmos allusion of “Black Wholes,” there’s a celestial aspect to the sheeting as well. It creates an artificial cosmos indoors, each sheet’s rips and holes becoming a night sky’s stars.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.50.53 AMDeVille presenting The Bronx: History of Now installation at the 2015 Creative Capital retreat in 2015

Remember: what we see as stars is merely light finally reaching us from many light years away and back in time. As a 2014-15 fellow at the Radcliff Institute for Advance Study at Harvard University, DeVille researched “the 18th-century idea of dark stars and the rejection of black holes,” and while speaking about her The Bronx: History of Now installation at the 2015 Creative Capital retreat, DeVille described black holes as “containers that are laden with forgotten information, the absence of light, power, knowledge, and the harbinger of historical inaccuracies.”

In the talk she continued: “I use these celestial forms to think about our place in history and link us to a 300 billion year time line versus the last 300 years.” This exhibition’s title, as well as the title of one of the second floor’s installations, comes from the final speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. Colloquially remembered as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in it King talks about an economic boycott in support of striking Memphis sanitation workers.

How he gets there, though, is fascinating: in the speech he imagines being at the beginning of time and, to g-d’s question about when he’d like to live, leaps from Egypt to ancient Greece to the Roman Empire to the Renaissance—all the way up to the then present. King asks only to live a few years in the second half of the 20th century, a time when people are rising up around the globe. It’s a dazzling display of rhetoric, moving from Western history as it is taught in schools to a recap of the more recent events of the Civil Rights movement as a parallel narrative of equal importance. Like many men of g-d and philosophers, King uses the imagery of light and dark to discuss the journey from ignorance to knowledge, from human to the divine, from this life into the next.

IMG_9480detail from “But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” (Title quote from MLK, Mountaintop speech, April 3, 1968)

When he talks about that movement in this speech—about how the world is all messed up, the nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion is all around but, “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars”—he’s adding a political component to light’s illumination that echoes a speech he delivered almost exactly a year before. In the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered April 4, 1967, at New York’s Riverside Church, King compassionately outline how his own nonviolent Civil Rights efforts overlap with anti-war, anti-capitalist movements that, for all intents and purposes, put his thinking in direct opposition to American public and foreign policy:

“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.”

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light: Churchgoers and fellow collapsed Catholics will recognize that line as Matthew 4:16, as King here offers as radical an interpretation of scripture as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which imagines Jesus as the first Marxist.

Given the many layers of shifting and double meanings that artifacts have in See the Stars, I suspect DeVille is far too sophisticated an interpreter of history for this element of King’s language to be incidental, and the mere awareness of a political component in the metaphorical journey from darkness into the light lends the exhibition an activist’s insistence. It’s there in that installation with the motorized dry-cleaning rack, which shares the room with two walls of televisions—not the flat-screen monitors and tablets familiar to today’s galleries and museums, but those big, bulky consoles used in video art of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Some of the new show loops of Civil Rights news footage provided the Real News Network and Critical Past. Some show loops of Margaret Rorison’s “One Document for Hope”, which includes scenes of celebration and protest shot in Baltimore from April 28 through May 3, 2015. Some show loops of Malaika Aminata’s Not About a Riot documentary about the uprising.

And some merely show dead air static, screens with no input, as if they’re waiting for the next pieces of the (his)story to be added to the footage and film collage. They feel like a challenge and reminder that documenting, making, and interpreting history is a constant activity: it requires both listening and speaking. And “Invisibility Blues” reminds us what happens when we become passive receptacles to history. Because even when you’re aware of history as told and your brain and body are woke to histories untold—even when the cosmos provides a wormhole to the voices lost to time, space, and recorded history, the histories in our genome and DNA, the invisible repository of information erased by darkness—if all you’re doing is turning an ear to listen to the past’s deafening roar, it barely makes a peep.

The exhibition will be up at The Peale through June 11 and includes a schedule of weekly programming. Check The Contemporary‘s website for more details.

Author Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.

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