The following is an artist talk by Red Wedge's Adam Turl at the opening of his exhibition, The Barista Who Disappeared, at Artspace 304 on June 1, 2018 in the artist's home town of Carbondale, Illinois. This exhibition marks the last (for now) iteration of Turl's two-year project, The Barista Who Could See the Future, about a coffee shop worker and artist living in southern Illinois who believes he has visions of the future. Parts of the installation were based on writing done in collaboration with Tish Markley (who also helped set up the installation). The city of Carbondale is facing a crisis as budget cuts and inflationary tuition hikes are undermining Southern Illinois University (the city's main employer) with the active hostility of the university's board.
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Thanks for coming. I hope you will indulge me. I plan to be a bit tangential.
My work is, in large part, about the dream life of working-class people. It is rooted in surrealism, magical realism, irrealism, speculative fiction and the narrative conceptual art traditions that came out of underground art in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. My work is often about how the artificial constraints of this society twist and deform our unique subjectivities. Especially those of workers.
It is also about push and pull – visually, narratively, conceptually, etc. The unique individual and the differentiated totality of collective life. The digital image and the unique hand-made image.
In this my work borrows a lot from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (the push and pull of his plays) and the “expressionist agit-prop” (as Amiri Baraka described it) of Emory Douglas (the artist who did much of the design and art for the Black Panther newspaper).
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This is the final iteration of a project I began in 2016 – The Barista Who Could See the Future -- about Alex Pullman, a coffee shop worker who lives off Old 13 in between Carbondale and Murphysboro, Illinois.
He has contradictory visions of the future. A revolution unfolding on the surface of Mars. Great denunciations in which millions of people form their own nation states while stranded in the flooded waters of Manhattan. Post-industrial debris that suddenly has healing properties.
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In this world our dreams become nightmares. The world punishes working people for working; Black children for the color of their skin; trans youth for being themselves; the children of immigrants; the people US bombs fall on around the world (under presidents of both major parties).
Our world is a carnival (an endless spectacle of images and loud noises) and a grotesque menagerie of horrors.
My work is political but not purely didactic. Art cannot be reduced to politics even though it is always political. And there are many things I would love to talk about.
But I walk down the strip [S. Illinois Ave.] here in my hometown and I see the empty storefronts. People are getting laid off at the university [Southern Illinois University-Carbondale] and the college [John A. Logan College]. Administrators are conspiring against the university; a university that historically served working-class and diverse students; raising tuition to a point where those students cannot afford it; while politicians refuse to tax the rich and powerful.
So talking about dreams and art isn’t enough -- with people aiming to destroy my hometown. It doesn’t matter if it is on purpose or incidental (and it is both). Just like private corporations conspired against the union coal miners and factory workers of other southern Illinois towns in recent decades, they conspire against us now.
They divide us. But it is a scam from the people who love money more than reason, beauty, pathos, or kindness.
This town taught me to dream: the punk houses, writers, teachers, musicians and freaks. And none will be spared if, in the end, we do not fight. Power concedes nothing without a demand – as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas once argued.
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One of my favorite songs is “Pirate Jenny” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. A woman cleans up after men in a hotel. She is treated like shit. She dreams of pirates who will come and mete out justice – with her as their queen.
And they’re chaining up people
And delivering them to me
Asking me: kill them now or later?
I believe a reckoning is coming. The empire is collapsing. Life is getting harder for millions of people. The question is – which side will be Pirate Jenny?
Will we have a radical democratic reckoning that lifts up the exploited and oppressed and tears down the haughty?
Or a witches’ Sabbath like that in the middle of the last century?
When I began this series disbelief still reigned. Post-modern disbelief in the arts; suspicion of the “big metanarratives” of modernism, feminism and socialism. Neoliberal disbelief reigned in politics and economics. We kept being told – even as we couldn’t pay the bills – that this was, to borrow from Voltaire, the best of all possible worlds. The loser of the 2016 presidential election told us this repeatedly.
But belief is no longer the major problem. The future is becoming clearer. So my barista who can see the future is going into exile.
The old ideas – fascism, socialism, feminism (and I am not equating these things, they are not the same) – are returning like Eldritch Gods.
We can have a world of solidarity – where we fight together against the destruction of our town, university and world. Or keep hustling as atomized individuals trying to salvage what little we can, while monsters (like the alt-right) grow in strength.
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We invented what became art when we still lived in caves. We projected our imaginations on all that we did not yet know. We came up with stories and myths. How we stole fire from the gods. How Pharaoh’s armies drowned. We reckoned with the randomness of life and death with trickster gods – Spiders and Coyotes.
Myths are stories for living in the world. But living in the world is becoming increasingly impossible. So our myths stumble toward telling us how to not live in the world.
Nihilism is growing around the so-called art right.
But a new mythology, yet to be fully developed, might tell us how we can play our role in bringing the disaster of history to an end.
I hope my work plays a modest role in the formation of those myths.
Adam Turl is an artist and editor at Red Wedge. He grew up in southern Illinois.He has a BFA from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and an MFA from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in Saint Louis. Turl's exhibits include 13 Baristas (Brett Wesley Gallery), Kick the Cat (Project 1612), The Barista Who Could See the Future (Gallery 210), Revolt of the Swivel Chairs (Cube Gallery) and The Barista Who Disappeared (Artspace 304). He is an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. His website is evictedart.com.