Mussels don’t inspire much contemplation, although they have an aptitude for quiet stillness.
Kerry Bickford, a curator at Philadelphia Contemporary, the innovative art organization, points out mussels “can move a little bit” if necessary. But not much.
They sit and wait for what the world brings, which over the centuries in Philadelphia has meant obliteration by poisoned tides and/or a highly limited future as a button.
To Bickford, who has just been named Philadelphia Contemporary’s curator of ecological futures, the mussel’s past, present, and future — as filtrated through the imagination of Brooklyn-based artist Jean Shin — offers a large-scale opportunity to explore “how we as humans understand our place in the environment and our relationships with other species that inhabit the Delaware River, for instance, with the composition of the urban soil, how we think about our relationship to these other forms of life, and our place in the environment and the ecology.”
A curator of “ecological futures” thinks about art in those terms and Philadelphia Contemporary, founded five years ago by Harry Philbrick, former museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, provides the place to do it. Over the past couple of years, it seems safe to say, the organization has filled out its staff and programming profile in unpredictable ways.
Bickford had been Philadelphia Contemporary’s director of programs. She was named curator of ecological futures earlier this month, one of several appointments that signal PC’s robust organizational expansion. J.J. El-Far has just been named director of advancement, and Libby Vieira da Cunha is now curator of education.
Earlier this year, Rob Blackson, founding director of Temple Contemporary, joined PC as curator of citywide initiatives, pairing off with Yolanda Wisher, former Philadelphia poet laureate and named PC’s curator of spoken word in 2018.
Jean Shin’s mussel project should be ready to go by June, more or less, said Philbrick.
“It turns out in the 19th century, there was a huge industry in Philadelphia of harvesting freshwater mussels,” said Philbrick. “You can’t eat them, but they were harvested to make buttons. And there was a big button-making industry in Philadelphia, and I have to say, the longer I live in Philadelphia the more blown away I am by the industrial past of the city. I just keep discovering layer after layer that I never imagined. There was a button-making industry using freshwater mussels but the population got pretty decimated.”
The city water department, Drexel University, various watershed organizations, and other groups have sought to reintroduce freshwater mussels to the Schuylkill and Delaware in recent years. The creatures are powerful water purifiers — one small mussel can filter about 15 gallons of water daily.
Shin is fashioning a large glass vessel, Philbrick said, that will serve as a container for mussels. Visitors will be able to watch the process of filtration and actually “see the difference of the water that comes out of the Delaware and the water that will then be returned back into the Delaware,” said Philbrick.
With Blackson, known for large land-based community projects, the idea of curating “ecological futures” may be somewhat puzzling. But he said that a city like Philadelphia requires “a different way of thinking” about art.
“A city of this size truly demands that because there are ecological concerns, there are historic concerns, there are all kinds of ideas so that the old model of ‘Well, let’s think about it as a painting’ doesn’t really always fit,” said Blackson.
Hence, in a radical “curatorial” approach at Philadelphia Contemporary, Blackson has largely jettisoned the idea of a single curator, replacing it in part with an “advisory council.” The council, composed of younger community members and those familiar with cultural issues, meet regularly and chew the cultural fat, theoretically coming up with unusual collective projects that PC might develop.
Blackson said that he utilized a similar advisory-council model at Temple Contemporary, where it came up with a number of successful projects like Funeral for a Home, which looked at the demise of a simple Mantua rowhouse from the perspective of the entire community.
Philbrick noted that Blackson “does large-scale projects that often are kind of citywide,” not tied to a gallery.
“He will continue that approach with us,” said Philbrick. “He’s right now working on developing a really big project on health care” with artist Pepón Osorio. Osario is focused on the process of healing and enabling people “to tell their stories,” said Philbrick. The project is expected to take about two years, he said.
Not all of Blackson’s projects originate with PC. Some, by way of example, come from the Andy Warhol Foundation regional regranting project, the Velocity Fund. The fund supports new collaborative projects with grants of $5,000. The William Penn Foundation has augmented the program, and Philadelphia Contemporary now administers a second round of $15,000 “Extended Velocity” grants to previous winners.
Yaroub Al-Obaidi is a recipient of both Velocity and Extended Velocity funds in support of his Schuylkill Center project Al Mudhif — A Confluence, which features a traditional Iraqi ceremonial house woven from Phragmites reeds.
“Me and another artist, Sarah Kavage, she’s an environmental artist, and we built this,” said Al-Obaidi. “We invited Iraqi community in Philadelphia. And we also invited veterans, American veterans who served in Iraq, to be together to build that space out of Phragmites and then a few months later, we started to have some activities, some gatherings, some Iraqi tea ceremony.”
They used the second grant of $15,000 largely to winterize and repair the structure.
“Yeah, we just winterized because the environment here is different than Iraq,” he said. “We hope by this help from the new [$15,000] grant, we hope to have one more year after programming.”
Similarly, not all of Bickford’s projects grow from her focus on “ecological futures,” but fit the Philadelphia Contemporary scheme of things anyway.
For instance, British artist Tracey Emin’s sculpture, A Moment Without You, is part of PC’s “Water Marks” series of public works placed recently in proximity to the Delaware River waterfront.
Emin conceived of the piece, which consists of bronze birds atop slim 13-foot poles, as a personal memorial marking the passing of a friend. It is now temporarily sitting at the end of Race Street Pier where it has already served as a foil for a spoken-word performance mounted by Yolanda Wisher.
Wisher had arranged for a performance by pianist V. Shayne Frederick, a bandmate, whom she characterizes as a “kind of the quintessential jazz musician,” at the end of the pier, transforming that public space on the river at cocktail hour.
“We started developing a program called Birdsong that was just in response to the sculpture,” Wisher recalled. “We invited a couple other musicians to perform bird-related songs, whether they were originals or covers. To just create, oh, you know, a conversation with the artwork that night … It was a Friday night.
“Yeah, OK. It rained us out the night we had planned to do it the week before, but we got the November 5 date. It was super cold. We had tea out there. And it was definitely a little nippy. But you know, there’s that nice kind of moment between night and day that the music kind of helped us navigate.”