Category Archives: Critical Non-Fiction

Swimming Lessons and the Red Scare at Vox Populi Gallery

One more Philadelphia talk scheduled! See below:

Moles Not Molar Reading & Performance Series presents
Friday, September 23 @ 8pm
Vox Populi Gallery, 319 North 11th Street, 3rd Floor

SUE LANDERS (Brooklyn)

Sue Landers is the author of 248 mgs, a panic picnic and Covers, both from O Books. Her new chapbook, “15: A Poetic Engagement with the Chicago Manual of Style” is forthcoming from Propolis Press. She grew up in Germantown and now lives in Brooklyn.

MAUREEN THORSON (Washington, DC)

Maureen Thorson  is a poet, publisher, and book designer living in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the chapbooks Twenty Questions for the Drunken Sailor, Mayport, and Novelty Act.  Maureen is the publisher and editor of Big Game Books, a small press dedicated to emerging poets. She is also the co-curator of the In Your Ear reading series at the DC Arts Center and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

ADRIENNE SKYE ROBERTS (San Francisco)

Adrienne Skye Roberts is a writer, curator and educator committed to engaging queer, anti-racist politics through the arts. Her work focuses broadly on issues of identity and place; specifically this includes the role of the artist in shifting urban landscapes, the relationship between public art and urban politics, the visuality of race, mobility and the myth of the American frontier.  Her writing is published on SF MOMA’s Open Space, Art Practical, Plastic Antinomy: Visual Arts in San Francisco and Oakland and Make/Shift: Feminisms in Motion. She teaches in the sculpture department at UC Santa Cruz and organizes with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Swimming Lessons and the Red Scare, Press Release


In 1953, at the height of the McCarthy Era, 9 leaders of the American Communist Party were arrested in Philadelphia in violation of the Smith Act and tried for conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. Over 50 years later, Adrienne Skye Roberts, current artist-in-residence at the Philadelphia Art Hotel and granddaughter of Joseph Roberts (one of the 9 Smith Act defendants) retraces her lineage to Philadelphia and this legacy of dissent and radicalism. Through archival research, interviews, letter-writing and visits to locations that were significant to her grandfather, Roberts’ constructs an incomplete narrative of a political and familial history that remains largely unseen. In addition to presenting a history of socialism in Philadelphia, Swimming Lessons and the Red Scare raises questions about family inheritance; what is passed down through generations and migrations and what is not and place; how we are taught in which spaces we belong. Swimming Lessons and the Red Scare takes the form of a performative lecture and accompanying publication based on The Daily Worker, the former Communist Party newspaper. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011 @ 7PM
Coral Street Arts House
2446 Coral Street at East Hagerty Street

Sunday, September 11, 2011 @ 9PM
Boggsville Boatel and Boat-In Theater
Marina 59
5914 Beach Channel Drive
Far Rockaway, Queens, NY

Monday, September 19, 2011 @ 7PM
Wooden Shoe Books
704 South Street
with Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood

(Design by Kris Holbrook)

Philadelphia Research, Part 2: Sherman Labovitz

Sherman Labovitz is the only surviving defendant of the Philadelphia Smith Act, a former professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and author of the book, Being Red in Philadelphia, A Memoir of the McCarthy Act. He is helping me solve the mystery that is my grandfather and is illuminating for me the role of the Party in Philadelphia 56 years ago. This following quotation is excerpted from the statement Sherman prepared to deliver to Judge J. Cullen Ganey after the defendants were found guilty. Upon recommendation of the defense attorney’s, it was never given.

“I stand before you today because I am afraid. Afraid of war. Afraid that because of war I, my wife, my two sons, my mother and brohers and everyone I love dearly may die too soon. I stand before you today because this fear moved me again to speak to my neighbors who can halt the drive to atmoic destruction just as they helped to win the truce in Korea. I stand before you today because the real advocates of force and violence, the would-be war makers, who fear and hate the ability of my neighbors and others like them throughout this nation to impose their will, will today jail the advocates of peace…

…What have I done these past few years? My neighbors can tell you. That is, those who can speak freely, who do not fear for their jobs. Most, for the time being, watch these proceedings silently, confused. The politically ambitious prosecutors did not produce on of my neighbors to testify against me. Why not? These are the people with whom I live. These are the people with whose children I played. These are the people I have tried to influence. These are the people who know I am a communist. Some of my neighbors, I learned recently, addressed themselves to you, Your Honor. ‘Mr. Labovitz is a communist, but Mr. Labovitz is a good man,’ they said. I say to my neighbors and to you, Your Honor, I am a good man because I am a communist.”

In a conversation with Sherman over lunch this week, he described why he left the Party in 1957 and affirmed that despite the 56 years between the Smith Act trial and today, his politics haven’t changed. He said:

“I believe capitalism is an incurable sickness, in all of its manifestations. I continue to hope for a peaceful transition into a society that is concerned about the well-being of all its people and that shares resources in the world. In the late 1940s, during World War II and in the 1950s, despite the ugliness in the world, I believed that that society was just around the corner. I was optimistic that the world was changing and capitalism driven by profit and greed was dying.

I left the American Communist Party when I no longer felt that it could be the instrument to bring socialism to the United States. However, my politics remain the same today. The difference between 1953 and today is perhaps the existence–at least, in theory–of an alternative that we, as a people, can attach to and believe in.”

Where We Are Not Known, Queer Imagination and the Photograhy of Kirstyn Russell in Make/Shift, Issue 9

Kirstyn Russell’s photographs are haunting, beautiful and oftentimes, comical portraits of place framed through her queer lens. After working with Kirstyn on the exhibition Suggestions of A Life Being Lived, I felt compelled to spend more time with her project, “Where We Are Not Known.” In this ongoing project she photographs real and imagined queer spaces throughout the United States: gay bars tucked away in rural towns and businesses recontexualized as queer spaces.

Beginning with my own relationship to queer locations as a San Francisco Bay Area resident, I wrote a piece about Kirstyn’s work in which I discuss the imagination required of queer people who must so often create our own spaces and realities. This article was published in the most recent issue of Make/Shift: Feminisms in Motion. I am thrilled to be included in this publication with a roster of contributors whose work I respect and admire. Check out Issue 9 at your nearest independent bookstore or buy it online! And check out Kirstyn’s work here.

Image: Dyke Photography: Flint, Michigan, 2006

Memory in Place, Part 2 on Art Practical

Part 2 of my series, Memory in Place was just published in Art Practical, Issue 13:  Critical Mass. The article, “Where This House Once Stood” follows the  story of the Zenke family whose historic home was moved from its original location in downtown Greensboro last September in order to make room for a new Guilford County jail. In this article I focus on the paralleled injustices of different scales occurring within one city block; the displacement of one home and the future incarceration of nearly one thousand people and consider the use of involuntary displacement as a form of civic control. You can read it in full here.

In/Visible Borders: Urban Neighborhoods and Representations of Belonging

I just came across this paper written during my first year of graduate school and thought it deserved to be out in the world. It’s a little rough around the edges but continues to feel relevant to San Francisco politics.

The landscapes of urban locations are constantly shifting.  Within San Francisco, a city that is spatially small and therefore relatively condensed, these changes are easy to observe.  In walking through San Francisco, people find themselves quickly crossing the boundaries of one neighborhood into the next.  These boundaries, although physically invisible, are present through the visible shift in an economic class, racial or cultural identities, tourist destinations or business districts.  These parts of San Francisco or any major metropolis are an obvious aspect of city living, yet the arrangement of urban neighborhoods and representations thereof offer a rich and provocative site for investigation and analysis. It is through the representations of these urban neighborhoods and their residents that it becomes visible how particular neighborhoods are imagined and therefore understood by the public. This interrogation allows us to further understand the effect that these representations have on the physical landscape of urban neighborhoods.  In this paper I will examine the representations of two urban landscapes, San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point and post-Katrina New Orleans.  I will consider how under-valued spaces and marginalized communities are represented in mainstream media outlets.  I will question who benefits from these representations and how they benefit.  I will do so through an analysis of the formation of neighborhoods and spaces of belonging.

Map of Hunter's Point, San Francisco

Neighborhoods are defined through physical space and geographical location.  Yet, the boundaries that serve to demarcate neighborhoods are imaginary and mark more than just spatial organization, they define who belongs and who doesn’t belong within certain spaces.  Thus, creating sociological borders that produce meanings and significations beyond physical spatiality. According to Fran Tonkiss in her book Space, the City and Social Theory, the making of borders creates “zones of inclusion” and  “draws lines of social division and exclusion.”[1] These lines of division are often understood in terms of social and cultural diversity, creating a spatial separation of ethnic and racial identities.  The borders that exist between neighborhoods serve both to separate and connect various communities and landscapes.  By recognizing the neighborhood in which one belongs one also recognizes the spaces in which one does not belong.  Further, the imaginary boundaries of neighborhoods facilitates an ability to recognize those who do not belong within one’s own neighborhood.  This recognition occurs through both the separation and connection inherent within this process.  In acknowledging the separation between neighborhoods, one also acknowledges the potential of their connection.  The separation is therefore always “shadowed by the idea…the danger of their connection.”[2]

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BY VIRTUE OF THEIR IMAGINING: the creation of multiple publics through the work of four contemporary San Francisco artists

This essay was included in Images Nr. 3, a catalog published by San Francisco art collector, Steven Leiber and was written to accompany contributions by four local artists.

In recent contemporary art practices, the notion of the public is increasingly prominent. No longer solely the audience for the action and production of artists, the public is conceived of as participants, collaborators, as well as a space in which to frame one’s practice. The term “the public” holds political implications referring to the totality of the people or “the masses.” While it is true that working outside the gallery allows contemporary artists to more directly engage with current political issues, it perhaps does artists a disservice to assume that by working publicly they can bring about social change for the masses. Social theorist, Michael Warner draws a distinction between “the public” and “a public” in which social space is created through the circulation of a reflexive discourse that creates relationships among participants. If we dislodge the notion of the public from the level of the masses, there is the potential to create multiple publics through site-specific activities, thus effecting change and initiating dialogue at a local level. Within the recent work of San Francisco Bay Area based artists, Elisheva Biernoff, Travis Mienolf, Matthew David Rana and Amber Hasselbring publics are utilized as a space and a mode of production. The projects of these four artists create multiple publics through ongoing exchanges in which both ephemeral and longer-term relationships between the artists, participants, passersby and neighborhoods are developed.

Elisheva Biernoff's storefront installation "Living Room" in Bayview, SF

From September 2009 through February 2010, Elisheva Biernoff was selected to participate in San Francisco’s Art In Storefronts program, sponsored by the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery and the Office of the Mayor. Biernoff was assigned to create a project for an empty storefront in the Bayview district, a predominately African-American neighborhood on the southeastern side of San Francisco. Through her project, “Living Room,” Biernoff borrowed personal photographs from the neighborhood’s residents and recreated these photographs through small-scale paintings on plywood. These images were then re-presented to the neighborhood through a window installation that was organized as a kind of community photo album—a formal black and white studio portrait of a woman from the 1940s hangs beside another family’s informal portrait taken in color that hangs above an image of a man holding a toddler inside a corner store. At the end of the storefront exhibition, residents will receive both their original photograph and the painting by Biernoff.

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Memory in Place, Part 1 on Art Practical

My article, “Misplaced Memorials, Preservation and Civil Rights” was just recently published in Issue 7 of the new Bay Area arts journal, Art Practical. This contribution is my first in a three-part series of essays loosely titled, Memory in Place in which I examine how site contains and conveys collective histories and memories of events, including public artworks and political action. “Misplaced Memorials, Preservation and Civil Rights” was conceived of during my time in Greensboro, North Carolina. In this essay I look to the transformation of the F.W. Woolworth’s Department store, the site of the first sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement into the International Civil Rights Museum and Center as a means of exploring the function of monuments and most importantly, how we can memorialize something as important as the fight for racial justice without regulating it to a thing of the past. You can read it in full here.