The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now

By Anne Cross

The exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania until March 19, is the kind of show that I find myself encouraging everyone to go see. It is required viewing not only for anyone interested in radical black aesthetics, but also for anyone interested in the larger relationship between creativity and community activism. Originally conceived and presented by the MCA in Chicago in 2015, the exhibition is centered on the history and influence of the African American art scenes that arose out of the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, particularly the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA). By linking these interdisciplinary movements to later contemporary art practices, the exhibition offers an optimistic vision of the legacy of community engagement and creative efforts toward self-representation. This exhibition has a certain poignancy in our current political environment under President Trump (two words that still seem to not go together, despite the reality of their congruence), a time when the marginalization and disenfranchisement of many communities, particularly those of color, seems tragically inevitable.

The exhibition is essentially divided into two parts– historical and contemporary practice, though these elements blend together more-or-less seamlessly, with certain thematic and visual affinities dropping in and out like the soft, low sounds that emanate from the video and kinetic installations in other rooms. Taking its name from the title of a 1984 book by Chicago jazz critic John Litweiler, the exhibition at the ICA opens with a dynamic display, as we are immediately funneled into the black box of the video installation Hors-champs (1992) by Stan Douglas. This installation, which consists of a double-sided screen displaying varying footage of a performance of the piece “Spirits Rejoice” by Albert Ayler, serves as a sort of free-jazz reveille, a call to arms for our attention and engagement before entering the larger exhibition space.

The first two galleries then serve as our introduction and thorough seeping into the art and culture of the AACM, an organization that continues to actively support experimental music in Chicago, and the visual arts collective AfriCOBRA. AfriCOBRA shared with the AACM a commitment to the relationship between art and social justice, but was more explicitly tied to ideologies of political activism and Pan-Africanism. Both groups represent important parts of a historical avant-garde that sought to challenge both formal aesthetics and institutional structures, providing opportunities for black musicians, artists, and their communities through artistic experimentation.

In this we see the ICA wading into more traditional museum territory than we would normally expect, with plexiglass cases of archival materials such as posters, brochures, photographs, sheet music, and concert tickets providing a historical context for the adjoining art. This section, however, is not the dry sort of content that you would quickly tire of at other institutions. The ICA has done an excellent job of limiting the amount of historical artifacts and didactic labels to only that which provide a necessary grounding to the more elusive elements of historical performance and community. These artifacts breathe life into the larger conception of the show, providing us with the names, bodies, and friendships that served as a base for these artworks’ social engagement.

Highlights of these galleries include the multidimensional collage View from Within (1985) by Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the founding members of AACM, and JamPact/JelliTite (for Jamila) (1988) by Jeff Donaldson, one of the cofounders of AfriCOBRA. I also enjoyed the inclusion of textiles by the female artist Jae Jarrell and photographs of the now-lost murals of Ayé Aton. Though the photographs of Aton’s murals appear to have suffered some degradation over time (a parallel to the destruction of the murals themselves), they continue to reverberant with the psychic vibrancy of his Afro-cosmo-futurist imagery and give visual form to the forward-thinking philosophies of these communities of artists.

The exhibition importantly lacks a clear division between the past and present— the works exhibited present more of an ongoing conversation between generations through the recurring themes of improvisation, formal experimentation, and political engagement. Subsequent rooms (as well as the second floor) begin to shift our focus toward the continued relevance of the AACM and AfriCOBRA through more-recent works by contemporary artists. I was particularly drawn to the monochrome paintings of Jennie C. Jones, whose works translate acoustic absorption panels into minimalist canvases reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s zips. In these, Jones provides a quiet counterpoint of postmodern negation, implying the presence of music in contemporary abstraction through its absence, as the panels absorb it. Other highlights include the collaborative kinetic installation Rio Negro II (2007/15), by AACM members Douglas R. Ewart and George Lewis and sound artist Douglas Repetto, and the anticipatory vibrancy of the cymbals in Native Son (Circus) (2006/15) by Philly’s own late Terry Adkins.

Not having seen the original installation in Chicago, I cannot comment on how the exhibition has changed since its first iteration. However, the curatorial team of the ICA has presented a companion exhibition entitled Endless Shout, a program of performances chosen because of their engagement with themes of improvisation, collectivity, and black aesthetics. The necessary need for performance space seems to have been the reason for the somewhat sparse installation on the second floor, though the work on display is not to be passed up.

Connecting the two floors is a ramp on which is installed the work A Small Matter of Engineering, Part II (2017) by Tyler MFA student Kara Springer. Though not officially a part of The Freedom Principle, the work seems to fit in well with some of the larger (and perhaps somewhat unspoken) themes of the exhibition. Springer’s work is a reimagining of an installation originally presented on Temple’s campus this past fall. The installation consists of the words “white people. do something,” written in white marble dust on a black wall. The fragile, ephemeral material of the words will ultimately degrade over time as visitors pass through the exhibition floors, and their current ghostly presence reminded me of discarded banners and other detritus left behind after a protest. In this way Springer’s work seems to be a companion to the opening of the exhibition with Hors-champs, and an index of our potentially waning political commitment.

In the wake of the 2016 election, I had found myself, as an art historian, constantly asking myself “Why does my work matter? What is art contributing to the world?” This exhibition in a way serves to provide an answer to that question. Our work – as artists, writers, musicians, and art historians – matters, especially now, because we can provide examples of community engagement and institutional critique that may inspire the next generation of artists, writers, musicians and art historians to build on that legacy. Though their juxtaposition is unintended within the context of the exhibition, the pendant pieces of Stan Douglas’s Hors-champs and Kara Springer’s A Small Matter of Engineering, Part II implore us to find connections not only between varied artistic practices, but also between the individual and the collective and the aesthetic and the political, and to beware the waning of that commitment lest our engagement fade to dust. Despite the seriousness of these themes, this exhibition ultimately serves as an injection of optimism into a current cultural landscape that is otherwise characterized by anger, frustration, and fear, by pointing a way ahead through creative engagement. Though The Freedom Principle was organized and developed well before the election of Donald Trump, its current presence in Philadelphia arrives at at time of profound relevance, and stands as a testament to the ICA’s prescient curatorial vision.

Anne Cross is a Philadelphia-based art historian and curator. She is a second year PhD student in Art History at the University of Delaware, where her research focuses primarily on photography and print culture of the long nineteenth century. Anne received her Master’s degree in 2013 from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Prior to attending the University of Delaware, she spent two years as the Luce Fellow in American Prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Anne’s most recent curatorial project, The Systems We Have Loved, was on view at the Recitation Hall Gallery at the University of Delaware from February 7 – March 3, 2017