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Participants at Lucky Pierre’s Final Meals, program at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 2015. Photo: Emerson Granillo

Experiencing A Lived Practice

Kate Zeller

It is now only four months since the conclusion of our A Lived Practice series of exhibitions, programs, symposia, and publications (with later volumes in progress), thus the reflective moment feels almost too soon, understandings and effects still being processed. But, when invited to present this program and its engagement of Chicago histories for publication here, I thought immediately of our processes that began over two years prior, which organically — and now, I might say, appropriately — led us to end up where we did. Given that our forms and outcomes were continually shaped and re-shaped by living and responding to the process itself, such current ruminations might offer new insights.

From the beginning, connecting to Chicago’s remarkable history of influential activists and artists working towards social justice and reform was a major tenant of our approach. The cornerstone of which was the work of John Dewey and Jane Addams who, at the turn of the century, shaped notions of embodied citizenship that extended far beyond this city and continue to remain relevant today. Personally, I was drawn to the history of Dewey’s Laboratory School, founded here in 1896 at the University of Chicago, where many of his theories of the conscious development of the individual played out in practice.1

In researching its early years, I encountered profound, informative, and heartfelt primary accounts from the first Lab School teachers who, alongside Dewey, shaped its experimental curriculum. Their understandings and analysis of the school’s aims and the implementation of its pilot plan had — and continue to have — resonances for me with the why and how of A Lived Practice’s approach to the discourse of social practice. This, of course, is not to say that it even compared to the undertaking of their ambitious and revolutionary experiment in education. Yet, I was inspired by their deep and thoughtful questioning of what it can mean to cultivate one’s relationship to and role within one’s environment — self, family, community, and society — in all the complexity that was and is the modern world.

In 1936 the Lab School teachers published a book in which they perceptively examined the school’s first seven years. In the introduction Dewey observes:

The problem of the relations between individual freedom and collective well-being is today urgent and acute, perhaps more so than at any time in the past. The problem of achieving both of these values without the sacrifice of either one is likely to be the dominant problem of civilization for many years to come. The schools have their part to play in working out the solution and their own chief task is to create a form of community life and organization in which both of these values are conserved.”2

This balance of self and society, and how you go about preserving the motivations of the former in the face of the welfare of the latter — a lesson that extends far beyond elementary school education — was reshaped by Dewey’s words and work. And I have thought about it often since encountering it in the research process.

As described by the founding teachers, the Laboratory School was “experimental living guided by intelligent thinking.”3 Each group (or what we might today refer to as grade level) engaged in similar processes of investigation and learning, though the topics and range of query varied by level. Everything was rooted in students’ primary experiences, then pursued and expanded to bring about a greater awareness of their relation to larger life systems.4 This expansion of knowledge — with personal experience as its basis — and the facilitation of questioning of how their experience came to be, led to embodied understanding. “Information about a process became knowledge of a process because it was the result of experience,”5 which the teachers came to understand and embody themselves, for this was a process of shared investigation with individual insights contributing to the collective, one driving the other forward.6

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Elementary class at the Laboratory School. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.

In reflecting on our recent work, I feel that the way this theory was enacted at the Lab School offers a perspective in which to consider our curatorial process as it came to be played out in the many programs developed as part of A Lived Practice. Dewey’s idea of process driven by invested individuals, then allowed to unfold, to follow open and critical lines of inquiry was, to me, the process we sought to put in place, finding such invested partners in the artists and practitioners. And, as Mary Jane Jacob discusses, there was a similar point of view in our process for the publication series, as we sought to bring forward a range of perspectives and voices to the conversation. We also used this mode in approaching the exhibition component of the project, A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, which began with invitations to 10 artists whose long-term practices deeply engaged critical social issues and were embedded in various Chicago histories.7

For example, Michael Rakowitz, building on his ongoing project and continued collaboration with Chicago’s community of Iraqi émigrés and US veterans of the Iraq War, held gatherings to prepare masgouf, the national dish of Iraq, at sites across the city. The dish, traditionally made with fresh carp from the Tigris River, became a starting point for conversations on the past and current relationship between US and Iraq, as the main ingredient — carp — is currently viewed as an “invasive species” in the States.8

Michael Rakowtiz, Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right, 2014. Photo by the artist. Michael Rakowtiz, Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right, 2014, SAIC Sullivan Galleries. Photo: Tony Favarula
Imagem 1: Michael Rakowtiz, Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right, 2014. Photo by the artist.
Imagem 2: Michael Rakowtiz, Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right, 2014, SAIC Sullivan Galleries. Photo: Tony Favarula

Pablo Helguera’s Addams-Dewey Gymnasium explored possible intellectual and historical roots of socially engaged practice, enacting curriculum from the turn-of-the-century and presenting new experimental actions in response.


While Temporary Services’ Publishing Clearing House was a fully-functioning print shop that brought into the galleries the artists’ over 15-year history of producing publications, which they consider “a living, breathing, collaborative, generative, and empowering activity.” They produced many new booklets during the show, inviting a range of guest authors with a particular interest in presenting voices from marginalized and disadvantaged populations, and those who represent or articulate narratives counter to dominant cultural norms.9


Of course, this is only to name a few of the ambitious works presented in the exhibition, and it merely begins to touch on the complexity and depth involved in each of the artists’ projects.

Given that all of the practitioners we involved were directed toward action, not just theory or art as representation, it was important to generate related programs that were more than one-off moments of participation, that when embodied could have a deeper effect. Moreover, as curators we realized we did not need to author our programs, but could take care to help further those practices already deeply engaged in a line of questioning and make them part of the process. We are lucky to have in this city numerous artists, activists and organizations already engaged in influential work challenging the status quo. Present in our process was a great sense of respect for these efforts, not seeking to make an exhibition version of them, but to consider if an exhibition could be a resource for their causes. So we brought together over a dozen practitioners, starting with those we knew, to share our aims for A Lived Practice and asked what support, if any, we could provide for them and their work.

The programs ended up ranging from public conversations with US veterans of the Iraq War to group meals prepared with “rerouted” food from local shops and restaurants to public school teacher workshops to high school debate teams practicing in the galleries and taking up issues addressed in the exhibition. But, from the outset, a topic clearly emerged for its importance and urgency: the criminal justice system, prison reform and use of police force. While such human rights issues are in the news nearly each day in the US, and certainly present in the world, they are also not new, as Addams had fought to make reforms in her times. Chicago also has its own marred history. Current embattlements range from repeated and arguably systematic cases of torture by Chicago police, to mismanagement and neglect in the Illinois juvenile justice system, to a recent push by lawmakers and labor unions to reopen the Tamms supermax solitary confinement prison in southern Illinois.10

Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation, program poster, 2014. Design: Kevin Kaempf and Sarah Ross. Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation, program poster image, 2014. Design: Kevin Kaempf and Sarah Ross.
Imagem 1: Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation, program poster, 2014. Design: Kevin Kaempf and Sarah Ross.
Imagem 2: Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation, program poster image, 2014. Design: Kevin Kaempf and Sarah Ross.

One result of engaging artist-practitioners in the planning around this topic was their interest to be more aware of each other’s efforts, to establish a broader network between themselves and others across the city working toward change. Artists Kevin Kaempf and Sarah Ross took this forward, forming Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation, a monthly forum that asked: “What kinds of projects are happening in Chicago that create a culture of change? Can art de-carcerate? Can the law change and how? What is it to liberate communities from violence? How can we envision and enact new futures?”11 Each gathering featured presenters who shared their experiences, challenges and successes; an open mic offered an opportunity for others to communicate their related projects. Perhaps the modest budgetary and promotional resources expended in facilitating this mattered; certainly to say, “Yes, go” to these artists, morphing the usual exhibition invitation into a call to assemble seemed to give impetus, if not also validation; and partnering with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum enabled different points of access for various audiences. But I will close with one other related example, less discursive than the Creative Resistance program, more experiential in a Deweyan way of learning by participating as it took up this issue. That was Final Meals.

Lucky Pierre, Final Meals program at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 2014. Photo: Emerson Granillo Lucky Pierre, Final Meals program at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 2014. Photo: Emerson Granillo
Lucky Pierre, Final Meals program at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 2014. Photo: Emerson Granillo

On a frigid Chicago October evening over 70 of us gathered in the historic dining hall of the Jane Addams Hull-House. The invited group — which included artists whose work engages the prison system, city officials who oversee local criminal justice policies, administrators of social service organizations, human rights activists, persons formerly incarcerated, and a consortium of civically minded students we had convened from seven area universities — entered the hall and each selected a covered plate from stacks labeled “Final Meal Request #39,” “Final Meal Request #92,” and so on. Taking our seats at the dining tables that stretched the length of the hall, a requisite quiet filled the space with just the slightest clank as lids were lifted to reveal chicken and dumplings, cheeseburgers, salads, bananas, peaches, and other desired foods though one selection was nothing at all.

The Chicago-based artist collaborative Lucky Pierre, which we had commissioned for this event, shared with the attendees that the dinners before them had been drawn from 310 last-meal requests of death row inmates published online by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from 1982 to 2003. For over a decade, Lucky Pierre had selected and prepared meals from this list, with one of their members eating a meal — or not — sitting alone and in silence for about 20 minutes while being filmed.12 But that evening was the largest and one of the very few group meals they had ever organized. There were no video cameras present; they would not have been able to capture the palpable weight, reverence and tension that took hold across the group. It had to be experienced. Only a bit later, as we sat with our plates, eating or not, did conversation begin to flow with discussions of the meals evolving into exchanges about each other’s work and then shared questions around prison reform, prisoners’ rights and what justice might truly mean.

That evening we heard moving, impassioned accounts by Benneth Lee, previously a leader of a prominent Chicago street gang and former death row inmate, who is today head of an organization that seeks to empower the formerly incarcerated. We were touched by the story of Geradline Smith, who told us how she did not give up her hope for justice during the 19 years she was imprisoned, the only female inmate on death row in Illinois. She fervently told of how she fought for her life, writing 500 letters to an attorney she had never even met; she made clear she needed to willfully assert her agency, powerfully recalling to us the moment she decided: “I’m going to wear the shackles. They aren’t going to wear me!” No sooner was she released, having proven she was wrongfully charged, than Smith founded a grassroots organization to help other women redirect their lives and successfully re-enter society after imprisonment.13

Sitting there, deeply moved by the experience and the words of Lee and Smith, I could not help but think of the many others who had inhabited, energized and brought a call to action in that exact same dining hall: sociologist-civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, historian-civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois, women’s suffrage leader-activist Susan B. Anthony, first lady-activist Eleanor Roosevelt, journalist-activist Upton Sinclair, along with theorist-activist Dewey. I also thought of the critical efforts of Hull-House residents who were among the group of reformers who founded the nation’s first juvenile court in 1899.

There was a powerful energy present in that space again that day, one that was made possible by the shared experience of a collective of persons whose knowledge, understanding, consciousness, and openness — whatever their personal circumstances — had brought them to the table.

At the Lab School, the importance of the collective was often emphasized in the organization of the students’ activities. Given that a significant objective of the curriculum was to cultivate an awareness of how one’s actions relate to the greater environment or to society, close association with others and the “constant and free given and take of experiences” was deemed an essential aspect of the growth process considered true learning.14

One Lab School teacher noted in her assessment of why it is so important for students to consider, question and explore the responsibilities of life roles of others, whether in history or in the present day: “It is the art of living that changes and progresses. This, children seemed to recognize in all phases of their work and play, whether constructive or experimental. Their activities were real and continuing, because they answered the genuine, ever present needs of life.”15

Whether the effects of Final Meals at the Hull-House becomes manifest in direct action, collaboration or heightened individual consciousness, each constitutes a changed way of seeing and being within the world. That is the lesson embodied experience affords. I know that having shared that moment with others will continue to impact my own thinking.

1 Dewey was brought to the University of Chicago to serve as, rather fittingly, the head of three academic departments: philosophy, psychology and pedagogy. The Laboratory School continues today at the University of Chicago, see http://www.ucls.uchicago.edu.

2 John Dewey, introduction to The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903, by Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company Inc., 1936), xv. Full text for The Dewey School can also be found here.

3 Laboratory School teachers’ remarks as quoted in Anne Durst, Women Educators in the Progressive Era: The Women behind Dewey’s Laboratory School (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 122.

4 Students explore the setting, use and life of the cow and finish by constructing churns, making butter and even building model farms and developing irrigation systems. See the University of Chicago’s extensive online archive of teacher reports, Guide to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools Work Reports 1898-1934, Winter quarter, 1900, Miss Lackersteen.

5 Mayhew and Edwards, 109.

6 Mayhew and Edwards, 64, 68.

7 For artists and descriptions of their works in the exhibition, see the A Lived Practice website.

8 See further description for Michael Rakowitz’s Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right on the exhibition website.

9 See further description on the exhibition website. A full listing of booklets published by Temporary Services and downloadable PDFs are available here.

10 See organizations such as: Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and Tamms Year Ten, as well as the volume in our current publication series, Art Against the Law edited by Rebecca Zorach.

11 Further description and the forum’s complete schedule can be found here.

12 For more information on the Final Meals ongoing project, see the Lucky Pierre website.

13 Lee is a community liaison for Illinois prisons Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities and cofounder of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated. Smith is the founder of Life Builders United.

14 John Dewey, appendix in The Dewey School, 446.

15 Mayhew and Edwards, 114.