UD artists explore art as social practice at Front Street

By Brittany Erwin

Photo: Joel Whitaker’s ‘Alternative Processes’ class exhibits at the Index Gallery

Front Street Building Co., “home to the largest Community of Artists and Artisans in the Dayton area” has a newly branded University of Dayton-owned resident, Index Gallery. Judith Huacuja, chair of UD’s Department of Art and Design explains, “Index is informal, open, and immersed in diverse communities. Index can be experimental, and as such, can invite many more people in who may not already attend many gallery events.” Index will serve as “extension of and reference to” UD’s recently renamed on-campus Radial Gallery (formerly Gallery 249). Graphic design Professor John V. Clarke, who led the rebrand with students Kaylee Schneider and Daniel Martin says, “The idea of extension and outreach become guiding factors and we see the [Radial] gallery as the center of learning.” Together, these reimagined spaces demonstrate UD’s increasing commitment to diversity and community engagement through art.

For UD—often regarded as insulated in privilege despite its proximity to less-privileged areas—this is an ambitious undertaking. Glenna Jennings, assistant professor of photography, acknowledges this while working to spark change via art in her course “Art and Social Practice,” which emphasizes the creation of socially engaged art. For those unfamiliar, Jennings describes, “[It] can take the form of public performances, written proposals, city tour, community gardens, protests—basically any form of collaborative making and/or doing that furthers some form of institutional critique or community building.” For those in the course, Jennings explains, “[It’s] a way to break the proverbial ‘UD bubble’ and help connect both myself and my students with the greater Dayton community.”

So, how do the students enact this? “Students begin by focusing locally,” Jennings says. “They choose a site on campus, analyze its design, its users, aesthetics, intended purpose, etc. They then create work for that site and stay engaged over the course of the semester.” She cites two students who designed a proposal to implement a recycling bin along a bike path. When their proposal went unanswered, the students placed a bin there themselves. It was removed.

“So they tried again with better signage stating their purpose,” Jennings recounts. “A week out, the bin is still there. However—can this be called art? Again, we don’t answer that question categorically. I encouraged them to document the bin at different times. They will place those in a grid… now you have art!” She stresses, “This document is not ‘the thing itself,’ but it opens conversations about land use, sustainability, human interaction, and the state of photography itself.” In whatever form, socially engaged art should inspire critical thought and meaningful action.

Students collaborate on a larger project to highlight food insecurity in Dayton with professor Julie Jones’ “Digital Processes II” course. According to student Hadley Rodebeck, “The installation will address the fact that hunger and lack of nutrition is not a choice for insecure food desert areas in the Dayton community.” The new Index Gallery at Front Street serves as a fitting space to showcase this effort.

The tentatively titled “The Dayton Desert Chronicles: Tales from the Front Lines of Social Art Practices & Digital Photographic Processes,” will run from Dec. 9 through early January. Jennings describes what to expect: “Visitors can view photographs ranging from documentary to constructed-narrative genres, and interact with other socially engaged art performance sand pieces.” She also notes, “The exhibition will include a silent photo auction and can drive with all proceeds going to local organizations dealing with food insecurity. Guests may reserve a seat for dinner at the Desert Kitchen Collective and are encouraged to bring a can of food to be exchanged for a small archival edition of student photographs.”

The show’s focus on food poverty traces back to 2014, when Jennings, Dr. Ruth Thompson-Miller, and local artist Issa Randall founded the Desert Kitchen Collective, which raises awareness of food insecurity.

“We were then living in the fourth hungriest city in the nation—now ninth thanks to the work of so many great community partners like the FoodBank,” she says…

“[The Collective] was a response to Conflict Kitchen—a restaurant in Pittsburgh that serves food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. They also run programming and art exhibitions around these cultures.” Once the idea was awakened, each member of the collective was inspired. “Raising awareness about food deserts became the agenda of my course,” Jennings says. “And the Collective is in its infancy with plans to invest over the long term… the upcoming exhibition is working towards this aim.”

From fair trade, to eliminating hunger, to bringing fresh produce on campus, Jennings points to other on-campus change-makers: “The Hanley Sustainability Institute, Campus Ministry, The Fitz Center, Catholic Social Services, The Human Rights Center, and the newly renamed IACT at ArtStreet [formerly IAN]… it’s all about sharing resources and amplifying the number of events and pathways that raise awareness about sustainability, human rights, and social justice issues.”

Inspired? To learn more about these and other socially engaged groups, go see the ‘Dayton Desert Chronicles’ exhibit, and seek out creative opportunities to improve Dayton.

The ‘Dayton Desert Chronicles’ exhibit opens Friday, Dec. 9 from 6-9 p.m. and runs through early January at the UD Index Project Space at Front Street Building Co., 1001 E. Second St. in Dayton. There will be dinner seatings at 6 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9. For more information, please visit FrontStreetBuildings.com udayton.edu/artssciences/academics/artanddesign/gallery/index.php, or GlennaJennings.com.

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Brittany Erwin
Reach DCP freelance writer Brittany Erwin at BrittanyErwin@DaytonCityPaper.om

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