Haggag and Akins

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Whoop Dee Doo Baltimore. (Image courtesy of Piper Watson, for http://whatweekly.com)

MICA’s new curatorial practice program is verifiably changing the face of Baltimore this year. The rising class’s practicuum “Invited,” for example, brought artists into local businesses in a neighborhood-wide exhibition which culminated in a series of interviews.

We were sold when we heard that last year, soon-to-be grads Catherine Akins and Deana Haggag had spearheaded Whoop Dee Doo Baltimore, a travelling, Kansas City-based variety show hosted by artist Jaimie Warren. The two did everything from kickstarting the show to coordinating local participating talents like wrestlers, Nepali-Elvis, and the local step rhythm team. That project is one example of their ingrained focus on creating space for art outside the gallery system. (Disclaimer: Haggag also gave AFC the best 24-hour Baltimore tour ever).

Both have projects in the works. Akins will soon open a show “Stories in Form” at the Baltimore American Indian Center, and Haggag’s currently at work scoping out cemeteries in Baltimore and Boston for potential exhibitions.

Describe a Baltimore art snob.

Deana: Hmmmmm. We don’t have too many art snobs but we have shit tons of art slobs- so many dirty pants.

Catherine: I think Deana is actually talking about me here.

Are you from Baltimore? Are you still in school?

D: We are not. I grew up in Rutherford, New Jersey and Cath grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. We both moved here in the summer of 2011 to start our MFAs in Curatorial Practice at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

We graduate this May. It’s a new program, the first MFA in a curatorial field, and we’re in the inaugural class. There are ten of us!

In “Invited” you and your classmates seem to be focused on the community outside of the gallery system. Why do you think there’s a need for that?

D: “Invited” was the result of an assignment where we were asked to collectively curate an exhibition that would cater to MICA’s neighboring arts district, Station North, which happens to house many, many diverse groups of people. First off, it’s nearly impossible to curate anything with nine other people especially when you’re being asked to speak to a community in a city you have just recently moved to. We were sort of forced to think outside of the gallery system. Also, we were being asked to invite local residents who never really engage MICA or the other neighboring arts organizations. So, at a certain point, it dawned on us that we needed to bring the art to them.

C: There is absolutely a need for this kind of work and artists are proving that everyday with the rise in social practice and community engagement. Artists are doing something bigger than the gallery. They are challenging these types of systems, the decision makers and the market. It is more accessible to see art on the streets, at the corner store you frequent or the Korean restaurant where you eat lunch.

D: I don’t think that we only need social practice or that we only need the art market- but I do think that providing art to diverse communities cements it in our society’s collective consciousness, thus making it more relevant.

Were there any obstacles to getting local businesses to participate in Invited? Did you sense any distrust at first, or weirdness? How’d you get over that hump and convince people that this is something worth doing?

D: Oddly enough, no. There was no hump. We surveyed every business in our community and nearly 99% were willing, wanting to participate. We were all surprised, which I think says something about the amount of faith we had in what we were doing. It was a strange kind of doublethink. On one hand, we wholly expected people to want art to surround them and on the other hand, we were stunned when they actually wanted us to surround them with art. The business owners were entirely game to make Invited happen. Evidently all you have to do to get people involved with your art project is to ask them to be involved in your art project. Shock!

Are you finding ways of sustaining those relationships between artists and community, after the event is over?

C: For “Invited,” we really had to know who the community members were in order to get this project done. We still shop at the thrift store and we get to witness the kids riding their bikes. The only difference is now we know their names. It may still be too soon to tell if the relationships are solidly sustainable but for now it’s working out just fine.

I see you led an initiative to get Whoop Dee Doo into Baltimore. Very nice. Why’d you think Baltimore needed a Whoop Dee Doo show? And who’d Whoop Dee Doo find to participate?

D: Baltimore definitely needed a Whoop Dee Doo show and, in many ways, so did we. Cath and I organized that project with our classmate and friend, Matt Spalding. Cath, Matt and I met with Jaimie Warren, co-host of WDD, and decided to pursue the project independently. We had no site, funders, or sponsors. We just knew we had to bring them to Baltimore and started knocking on the doors to make it happen. Much to our delight, WDD sold itself- very few people said no.

C: Matt Roche, co-host of Whoop Dee Doo, once told us “We like to work by the rules of improv, you never say no.” I think it was important for us to hear this, as practicing curators and collaborators.

D: I agree. I think it’s immeasurably important for people, generally, to heed that advice. WDD does an amazing thing: they organize a live show that features local talent, performers, organizations and community members. They push diverse peoples to collaborate like drag queens and church groups! Baltimore is still a very segregated city. There are tons of little communities that only keep to themselves and seldom interact. WDD was able to break some of those barriers and introduce various communities to one another via these collaborations that were encouraged in a safe and nurturing space. The shows are brilliant and create an environment that’s so weird and so bizarre that everyone, performers and audience, adults and kids alike, have to just let go and have some fun. It’s like Pee Wee’s Playhouse on steroids- better yet, it’s like Pee Wee’s Playhouse but it’s real life.

C: They make everybody a TV star! We had so many amazing participants including Prem Raja Mahat, who is the self-proclaimed Nepalese Elvis. We also had Miss Baltimore and Miss Greater Baltimore, who were sisters!

D: …the most beautiful family in Baltimore.

C: Totally. Remember when the kids gave them makeovers on stage? They looked so scared! WDD also found a wrestling squad and enlisted the talents of the Baltimore Police Guard and Charm City Cakes. There were these amazing youth organizations, Muse 360 and 901 Arts. At one point, we almost had jousters. It’s the official Maryland State Sport but they had to cancel due to a scheduling conflict. It’s crazy how WDD finds these talents that aren’t often highlighted or known. The audience is always amazed. People cry.