Melaney Mitchell of Kansas City received a Rocket Grant from Charlotte Street Foundation for a “radical public programming” project for her Informality blog, informalityblog.com, which she started in 2013.
The yearlong series of public programs aims to broaden the audience for the arts in Kansas City. Projects include Guerrilla Docents, where Mitchell and her partner Blair Schulman take First Friday visitors on a gallery tour and ask questions designed to deepen their experience of the artworks, and Roof Chill, videotaped rooftop chats that document dialogue about the Kansas City arts scene.
Mitchell was raised in Chicago and moved to Kansas City to attend Kansas City Art Institute, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in 2013. She has a studio at the Drugstore studio space in midtown, formerly Katz Drugstore.
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This conversation, shortened and edited for clarity, took place at Little Freshie on the West Side, near Mitchell’s apartment.
Q: What will the $2,000 you were awarded allow you to do that you otherwise couldn’t have done?
A: It will allow us to make a video series that’s really professional, with professional sound equipment and professional lighting, and we can pay someone to do our sound the first couple of times and learn from them.
Q: What do you do on your Guerrilla Docents First Friday art tours?
A: We go up to people on the street and ask if they want to go on an art tour. Some act like they think we’re trying to lure them into a pyramid scheme, and some say yes right away.
So we take a small group into a gallery, and Blair (Schulman, her collaborator) will start talking about the artist and the gallery. Then we tell them to look at the work. There’s a method I use that I learned when I was working at the Nelson-Atkins (Museum of Art) called visual thinking strategies. It’s a way of looking at art that doesn’t impose an authoritative stance but instead asks questions. It allows the viewer to find their own adventure within the work.
Our role is to boost up the people that have already made the decision to come out and look at art by making it about more than food trucks and shopping and drinking.
Q: Another part of your project is an arts writing workshop and critiques of artists’ work. Why?
A: A lot of artists don’t realize how their work is seen and interpreted as a document.
In the digital age, the way we get into exhibitions, the way we get into grad school, the way we get awards is through digital portfolios. Artists aren’t taught how to market themselves, and it’s a hard thing, you know: Sell your work!
Q: There can also be a language barrier for artists who use academic language in non-academic settings.
A: Totally. That language creates a disconnect. At the Art Institute I struggled with friends wanting to invoke this highly academic language.
I love reading theory, but I find it’s better to just pose the right bare-bones questions about your work: What is my work asking of the world? What am I trying to answer with this visual language?
I was lucky to have professors in the painting department who, although they were very astute, could also have conversations about the YouTube videos you were watching and how those are equally important to your work as that (French philosopher Jacques) Derrida reading you did.
Q: What are some of your favorite YouTube channels?
A: Idea Channel, by PBS, where they take these big formal ideas and break them down into really digestible videos with GIFs and jokes and satire.
Feminist Frequency is a great one for criticism of video game culture.
I also love “The Daily Show” (with Trevor Noah) and John Oliver, because what’s a better way to talk about politics than through sarcasm? I also watch Samantha Bee and Jon Stewart. I watch more political shows than I read art writing.
Q: Do you see an intersection between the current highly charged political atmosphere and art?
A: I’m interested to see if it comes up at Roof Chill. We will start with a skeleton script and a macro topic. Garry Noland (“New Surfaces,” June 17-July 30 at Haw Contemporary) is going to be our first guest. If he ends up talking about duct tape and Bernie Sanders, that’s cool.
I feel like Guerrilla Docents and Roof Chill will make art approachable like “The Daily Show” made politics approachable. And like Stephen Colbert by playing a persona like Bill O’Reilly was able to point out the absurdity of it, I think we have a unique opportunity to do a similar thing by pointing out the absurdity of Art Forum or October magazine-based writing and how it is exclusionary, and it doesn’t have to be.
And I would like to pull the museums into it and have a forum to say things like, “Don’t paint the wall behind a Vermeer blue. Don’t do that, Nelson (the museum just closed “Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer”). That is enraging.
A: Vermeer used lapis lazuli pigment, and by putting that blue behind it, it mutes all the other subtleties in tone. So I can bring up things that bugged me about a show, but it can be lighthearted. I don’t know why I can’t write a serious review but also have a joke in it.