This weekend, the Chicago Cultural Center officially kicked off its latest exhibition — a collection of innovative "urban betterment" projects from across the country. Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good is making its U.S. debut with this installation after a successful show in Venice last year, showcasing everything from iPhone apps that connect activists with urban locales in need of action to guerilla public art initiatives. We caught up with Cathy Lang Ho, curator of the eye-popping exhibit, after a Saturday tour of the collection and talked with her about why the Institute for Urban Design chose Chicago and what local visitors can learn about their own city. Spontaneous Interventions is free and runs through September.
Curbed: How did the Institute for Urban Design choose Chicago as the first U.S. location of the installation?
We got the invitation from [Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner] Michelle Boone, who is great, but there couldn't be a more fitting city to bring it to because, if you look at our timeline, there are actually a lot of Chicago moments on there so it's an important city in the history of the evolution of the city. The first skyscraper; the City Beautiful movement; perfecting the idea of numbering systems and grids and the organization of streets; and there's also all these other moments. There are just a lot of important things — the Haymarket Affair and social rights, so it's a progressive town, right?
And for us it's also gratifying to be here because the Venice Biennale was great but it was a pretty rarified audience, the people going there were an architecture audience and they paid their 20 or 25 euro to get in, so for us it was very important to be on this prestigious global stage because I felt like we were saying something important. The architecture critic for the New York Times, he tweeted "The U.S. Pavilion makes the U.S. look good," and we were really proud to represent the country with this idea. The president of our board, Michael Sorkin, he said, "We're proud to represent the country during the tenure of a president who actually has really strong urban roots." Obama started his career as a community organizer in Chicago, so bringing the show here, I don't want to say it's more important, but the audience is so completely different [than in Venice]. This is a public building. It's on the street. It's giving us a chance to share this information with an audience I think it should be shared with. We've been sitting here watching people interact with it, swarms of kids, teenagers, so I kind of feel like it's a real education. It's just more gratifying to be a truly public show.
And the added reason is Chicago is like a lot of American cities and it has a lot of problems right now and I feel like what this show is really about at heart is equity of social justice. So that begs the question, what's missing in cities? Because if everybody's needs were being taken care of you wouldn't have interventionists. What is it about cities that's inviting people to intervene?
We already had six or seven [Chicago projects] in the Venice show and then we did a new call for projects for Chicago and we did a special callout from regional projects, not just Chicago but Midwest. And we wanted a chance to engage local participants.
Curbed: What can Chicago residents learn from the exhibit?
We all can play a role. Engagement is an important thing. I think there are waves and periods where people feel more inclined to be politically and socially engaged than others and I think we're at a high point. There's a lack of confidence in institutions because what's been happening the last five years with corruption and financial institutions and the Millennials' generation is more idealistic, they want more from the world. Every kid graduating from school right now wants to make a social impact, whether it's philanthropy or technology or design, it's this design for the common good. Every kid now, everybody has to design their own platform, because the traditional ways of getting work and getting paid are not the same.
Curbed: What would you say the overall goal of the exhibition is?
To provide a platform for public debate about urban issues and the spaces that we share. And to remember that public space isn't just to push your stroller and sit and have a nice cappuccino but to look at each other, and for community. And to aspire to a better society.
Millennium Park, that fountain is such a great example of what public spaces should be because it's a total equalizer where young and old and every class and every type of citizen, every color, they're all mixed up together. And what did it take to get them there? It's design and art and so we hope that there's a lot of this kind of information here.
·Spontaneous Interventions [Official]