A group of 13 artists has turned a former tobacco shop into a workshop for projects that resemble social experiments as much as they do art.
The West Bank Shop — named for the sign above their rented space on Cedar Avenue — has embarked on a 50-day experiment through the end of November, when the former tobacco shop will take on new tenants and the group hopes to set up “shop” elsewhere on the West Bank and continue their work.
That work is not the traditional studio/gallery experience, but a series of activities that engage strangers and passersby, turning the artist and audience into the tools, canvas, and medium of the work, which is more about meeting your neighbors than formal artistic practice.
“We conceive our project as an engaged, fluid, critical and playful endeavor,” states the group in a release — a manifesto of sorts. “A project that is open and experimental, collaborative and process-based, conceptual, and social.”
Particular emphasis is placed on the social. Beth Jeffries Barnes gave examples of some activities that “buck the tradition,” like a record party, to which “people bring in their vinyl that they can’t listen to anymore [because they lack turntables], and we all listen together.”
Jeffries Barnes is trying to start a project through which hairstylists pair with artists and then translate their work “into a hairstyle or a look for the artist,” she said. “Rather than working with materials, the artist becomes the material.”
Lauren Herzak-Bauman holds story hours every Tuesday, and artist Travis Freeman has held “breaking bread” sessions at the shop; a simple exercise of inviting people into the space to share bread and talk with him.
Jeffries Barnes described — if that’s possible— Jason Gaspar’s “Sunday Sidestep” (Sundays, 9 a.m.–noon). “[It] could be anything,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for people to come and in, I don’t know. You never know what’s going to happen everyday.”
That seems to be a key element of the fledgling collective. The shop is open to the public, and many events encourage — even hinge upon — the participation of others. Along those lines, the group is based on the West Bank for a reason; their mission has a lot to do with engaging the area’s diversity and vitality.
“We want to be part of the community, and we want to contribute to that,” said Jeffries Barnes, one of the many current or former U of M graduate students in the group. “We chose the West Bank because we have a lot of involvement there already with the school, but, too, it’s just a great place to be, and we really enjoy the flavor there.”
She explained that the projects can be just a starting point, from which people can share language, cultural, ideas about art “and what they’d like the neighborhood to be,” she said.
Like Freeman’s breaking bread, Peter Haakon Thompson’s “Teach Me Your Language” is all about that interaction. Haakon Thompson said he hopes to use the weekly open sessions — Thursdays, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. — to learn about the language and culture of the people of Cedar-Riverside, especially Somalis.
Like the space itself, people have a difficult time at first figuring out what his project is. “People thought I was teaching English,” he said. “No; I’ll teach you some English, but I want to learn some Somali, as well.”
Haakon Thompson has had “language” sessions with Japanese students, as well as a Somali shop owner two doors down. He explained that the experiment — like Freeman’s breaking bread — is more about engaging people than traditional art forms, but that the same artists’ mindset is applied.
There’s this idea that artists apply their knowledge and their way of looking at the world,” he said. “[Here, we] apply that same mindset to a different medium — social interaction, language, meditation, breaking bread.”
Mohamed Keynan, manager of Al Karama Mall, just a half-block from the West Bank Shop, stopped in one day to break bread with Freeman. Keynan, who Is “not an art person,” he said, was surprised by the experience.
“I wasn’t thinking it was art,” he said. If the bread itself was art, “how could we break art?” He soon understood how the bread was utilized as art, and he is grateful for the connection the West Bank Shop collaborative is making, both for himself personally and the larger community. He cited not just Freeman’s project, but the work of Abdi Roble — who has photographed the Minneapolis Somali community for his book The Somali Diaspora, — as examples of direct contact between Somalis and artists.
“In Somali culture, we are interested in learning about art,” he said.
The artists’ days in the old tobacco shop are limited — a new tenant moves in in December — and the group is seeking funding for a new location in the neighborhood. Jeffries Barnes said that the West Bank Business Association, West Bank Community Coalition and the university’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) have been supportive of the group and its artists. In an interview with The Bridge, Keynan voiced interest in offering the group space in the Al Karama Mall.
While they don’t know where they’ll end up, one thing is clear: the West Bank Shop wants to stay in Cedar-Riverside. “It seems like the most direct place for me to learn,” said Haakon Thomspon, noting that “there seems to be a lack of connection between the university and the neighborhood.”
No matter where they physically end up, Jeffries Barnes said she hopes the group will grow and bring in new people. All in all, the future of the month-old experiment is as open as is its interpretation.
“The outcome will most likely reveal itself with only more questions, due to both failures and successes,” states the group’s release. “Both are welcome.”
Check out their website, which includes a blog, description of the project and a calendar of daily events; or, better yet, stop in at the West Bank Shop, 404 Cedar Ave. S.