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Klip Collective

Not just ruin porn: How three Philly artists are exploring blight

“All my work is very much environmentally focused, and my environment just happens to be Philadelphia.” says one artist.

Ricardo Rivera welcomes visitors to sit in the school desks. Two rows are arranged inside his new installation, Vacant America, which is now showing at Bok. In front of the desks are more desks, in stacks and mounds. At the ends, the chairs are arranged pristinely; towards the middle of the gym, they collapse into each other, a jumbled mess that that to Rivera signifies chaos. Yes, the gym is still a gym. If you’re not too distracted by the projection you’ll notice that the basketball hoops are still there, the gymnastics rings (Rivera raised these) and ropes are too. 

Some libraries keep ephemera collections— with posters, keepsakes and publications from the time. (Bok might have its own memorabilia collection one day; Lindsey Scannapieco, managing partner of Bok’s owner, the development firm Scout, tells Billy Penn they’re working on one with a Bok Alumni group and will try to create an archive on-site.) Sitting in this installation is like having bits of the collection broadcast for you. While Klip Collective would like Vacant America to be a project that will explore the significance of vacant spaces nationwide, this particular piece has been tailored to the space. Yearbook portraits float by from 1940, 1945, 1960. An interview with a gym teacher plays, with music, in the background. The team considered leaving the teacher’s recollections of growing racial tensions as the school’s demographics shifted on the cutting room floor. They kept it. 

Rivera is one of many local artists turning to vacancy for source material. Ruin porn, or photography that captures abandoned properties, has been discussed and debated. Art that uses blight as a point of inspiration more generally less so, but that doesn’t mean it’s new. Sara McCorriston, co-founder and co-curator of Paradigm Gallery, believes artists have been going there for a long while. Philadelphia has roughly 40,000 vacant parcels, an estimate which, according to Philly.com, hasn’t dipped much in more than a decade. Beyond our housing stock’s decrepit segments, an anxiety persists among the preservation-minded, as less than three percent of the city’s buildings are protected under the city’s historic register. As artist Drew Leshko puts it, “All my work is very much environmentally focused, and my environment just happens to be Philadelphia.”

Western Saving Fund Society by Drew Leshko

"Western Saving Fund Society" by Drew Leshko

Courtesy of Paradigm Gallery

Leshko creates miniature, but incredibly detailed, paper reproductions of real-life buildings, dumpsters, newsstands and other structures that one might encounter on a walk. His Western Saving Fund Society sculpture is currently on display at Mount Airy Contemporary. “I think all artists are influenced by their environment and their surroundings; I really do. Whether they recognize it or not,” he says. “People could just say they like the texture of graffiti on a stucco wall; that’s why they’re making a painting of that. But I think it’s more than that.”

For Rivera, there’s always been a love of vacant spaces. “I’m an urbex (Urban Exploration) guy, from a teenager I was exploring vacant warehouses,” he remembers. “A lot of people say it’s really spooky,” he says of being inside a space like that. “I don’t think it’s spooky; I think it’s profound, like this feeling.”

Klip Collective has received international acclaim for its animated projection art installations. “The one thing that Josh and I— Josh James, my collaborator on this— always talked about was telling a story about the space, in the space could be an awesome double whammy,” says Rivera. His creative process has changed from a typical installation. Since it’s sourced from the space’s history and built for the site “the piece makes itself. It’s like we’re documentary installation artists in a weird way,” he says.

The documentary element is oft-pointed to with works like these. While many of properties that Leshko has recreated have been blighted or were demolished afterwards, he doesn’t pursue derelict properties really. “It’s more me finding buildings that I’m attracted to and thinking about how they function in our changing culture,” says Leshko, who is based in Fishtown. “Obviously there’s a lot of gentrification going and the neighborhoods are in flux. I’m interested in making these archives— not necessarily that they’re going to be knocked down, but that they’re going to be changed and they’re never going to be the same.”

This— the impermanence of our surroundings— makes the topic area a resonant one, explains McCorriston, an artist herself. Paradigm held a group exhibition earlier this year called Waning Worlds, featuring art that focused on our less-than-pristine urban fabric. Many of the artists included had been recommended by Leshko, who had a solo show at Paradigm at the time. “People want to interact in a self-reflective way with artwork quite often,” says McCorriston. Viewers can sometimes struggle with the pieces that don’t make room for that, she explains. Not art on blight, though: “What I liked about the pieces in Waning Worlds is sometimes it was so about the narrative of the piece itself, and it was okay that it wasn’t about you.”

A close-up of Leshko's 'Western Saving Fund Society'

A close-up of Leshko's 'Western Saving Fund Society.' “I see lot of hope in the pieces that I make. I see a lot of the history of how things were made. It’s a little bit sad," says Leshko. "It also, to me, can be a little bit uplifting and speak to future possibilities.”

Courtesy of Paradigm Gallery

Whether it’s the spookiness of which Rivera has heard or the possibilities Leshko sees, the work allows for a lot— frustration, sadness, political motivation, an attraction to decay, you name it. McCorriston calls the way it makes some people encounter their nostalgia “very Dorian Gray.” Yes, she’s referring to the Oscar Wilde novel where the protagonist wishes his soul into his portrait, so the painting will age while he stays his most beautiful self. I laughed when she said it. But later when I ran it back, I realized the metaphor may have gone a bit over my head. 

She spells it out when I reach her by phone. “When something is at a state [where people] really feel that feeling of never wanting it to stop… That fear of ‘what if this is the best it’s going to be,’ and ‘what if it’s never going to be that good again?’ Art kind of lets you capture that, even if it’s against the rules,” she explains further. It can freeze a figure in its “ideal desirable state.” We know what Dorian saw as ideal. But this type of art does something else, she says. “I think that we love seeing things in other states too, and we want to capture those too. We’re recognizing that the other stages in the painting are important.”

“I think an artist like Tim Portlock is intrigued by that state of being,” she says. Portlock produces simulated tableaux using photographs of actual buildings, only the whole terrain could be blighted. She clarifies that she doesn’t think Portlock wants the city to be that way, “but that we should recognize it, and have to talk to about it and acknowledge it.”

"Farm"

"Farm"

Tim Portlock

Portlock, who currently has a show at Locks Gallery, hears that people find his work post-apocalyptic. That’s not his intent.

“Early on when I came to Philly, I was thinking that just the volume of empty houses were a monument to themselves,” he says. “Another thing I was trying to do in the work was making it more explicit that there were that many empty buildings by making cityscapes with all the occupied buildings taken out so you could see the scale.”

A monument to what exactly, though? “A lot of different things,” he says. For one, he thinks the houses reflect the “social expectations” of workers at the time — enter the labor force; keep a stable job; buy and own a house. “These buildings were a monument to the failure of this past way of life. And then also it’s a monument to municipal dysfunction today. In our old house, we lived next to an occupied building that hasn’t had running water probably in 15 years, probably hasn’t had heat in the same period of time. So [our neighbor] didn’t have a flushable toilet that whole time. I had been trying to get to the city involved, because it’s a health hazard.” He says the city didn’t resolve the situation. Then, he mentions the building collapses that have occurred in town.

He’s inspired by the Hudson River School, a genre of 19th century American landscape painting. These painters were realists; but the scenes were often condensed, illustrating details as closer than they were to showcase how incredible American nature was, to get across ideas of early national identity. “I’m playing around with their system to talk about how these ideas about America compare and contrast to modern reality in an American city,” says Portlock.

"Sundown"

"Sundown"

Tim Portlock

Rivera has national hopes for Vacant America. “We’re such a throwaway society. This was thrown away,” he says of Bok. “The fact that it was going to sit here and rot is crazy.”

“This building could have just sat here empty, like a tomb,” he says. “I want people to think about it, feel it, walk home and think about ‘okay, this is interesting, maybe we should be thinking about schools in a different way.’”

He wishes his piece could have debuted during last year’s controversy over Le Bok Fin, the rooftop pop-up bar that critics argued was in awful taste in light of the state of Philadelphia schools. He thought the installation could answer perceived insensitivity. One advocate, in an op-ed for Technically Philly this week, has already accused of Vacant America of “art-washing” a contentious issue.

Rivera believes very strongly that returning the building to active use is the best thing for the community. “I live in this neighborhood,” he says. “It’s safer now that people are using it. When it’s empty, it’s terrifying.”

He says he can see both sides of the argument. However, the way he calls it, “The thing that would’ve sucked is if they turned it into condos. I would’ve shot myself,” he says.

Klip Collective has big aspirations for Vacant America. They’d like to launch an app, where people can crowdsource information on vacant buildings that intrigue them. Rivera’s wish would be to have spaces “document[ed] in virtual reality” and “give people VR goggles” when they head in. “This is hopefully the first chapter in a series of installations that aren’t just about schools, but about all kinds of different communities, and what’s happening in the country, and how it evolves.”

Not every vacant building with a story would receive a full-blown installation like the one that’s on display at Bok right now. Just six to eight, he says: “This is like the honey treatment.”

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