By Michael R. Allen

This essay first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of All the Art, under a different title.

When I first set out for the Granite City Art and Design District’s first opening in July, I felt some apprehension. How could the often-conceptual, sometimes in-joke world of local contemporary art mesh with a working-class inner ring industrial suburb whose downtown was in full decline? There are many histories unresolved in Granite City – the immigration that helped capitalists build industry, the city’s legacy of being the Metro East’s most notorious “sundown town,” the decline of the downtown and decades of air pollution.

Participants in "The Forgetting and the Remembering of the Air" on State Street in Granite City, July 2015.
Participants in “The Forgetting and the Remembering of the Air” on State Street in Granite City, July 2015. Photograph courtesy of Laurencia Strauss.

Which of these histories would intersect with the quirky aims of the Granite City Art & Design District? Would residents of Granite City see any real connection between their lives and this implanted art world? The words of Roberta Bedoya came to mind: “Before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong.”

There is no perfect way for art to belong to a community, or vice versa. The relationship is a complicated transaction, which one work at the Granite City Art and Design District opening strove to enact with fitting quirk. Artist Laurencia Strauss presented The Forgetting and the Remembering of the Air, which consisted at first view of a fleet of vintage tandem bicycles sporting sanguine windsocks (a warning system, perhaps?).

Already, the site of gleeful pairs of people engaged in the staccato movements of starting and braking broke through this writer’s anxiety about the place situation of the larger project. Here were people exploring, and roaming blocks of a downtown that most probably had never beheld before. Still, music volleyed from the VFW Hall across the street raised a question: where were the people of Granite City?

Strauss had the answer. She had spent weeks interviewing residents about the air of their city, which is famously dense with the scent of the massive United States Steel plant’s various emissions. The air of Granite City carries both the promise of prosperity and the threat of annihilation. Conversations that Strauss recorded about the air lead back to the fragility of being human.

Participants in "The Forgetting and the Remembering of the Air", July 2015. Photograph courtesy of Laurencia Strauss.
Participants in “The Forgetting and the Remembering of the Air”, July 2015. Photograph courtesy of Laurencia Strauss.

On the bicycles, these recordings were available through ear buds for the passenger to listen as the driver navigated. I jumped on a bike twice, playing both roles. Listening to residents talk about their city, the air quality and perceptions of health and happiness came close to mythic. The voices of Granite City residents could have been eternal voices, woven back through the steel town and into the times when the Six Mile Prairie – where the city stands – was a primitive place.

The streets of downtown Granite City hardly are active on a weekend night, with more shuttered storefronts than not. That is the condition that led to the rise of the art-play on State Street. That condition, sadly, could well reinforce an attitude about the city that it is something other than a place where thousands of people dwell. The emptiness could pose a frontier to the unfamiliar. There is nothing wrong with a frontier, of course, when one gets to be the settler. Being the unexpected obstacle is no joy – and other voices fused with the deep prairie history still weep for past frontier episodes.

No one left Granite City that night thinking that it was an edge, unless they skipped over Strauss’ inventive investigation into the common act of breathing that has no edge, and no center. We all take in the air, and when we do this collectively – seen or unseen – we can find an awkward and uneven experience. Until we reach a rhythm, and then we belong to the wind. Together.