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OP TER EN C

open center a conversation with jordan martins

by bad little brother


UNRESTROOMS: AN UNFINISHED SURVEY OF GENDER AND PUBLIC SPACE

cover image and frontispiece: a projector resides in the restroom of Comfort Station Logan Square over the course of Jarad Solomon’s video installation ‘Digital Fountain,’ 2018. All photos by Jordan Martins and Comfort Station Logan Square.


UNRESTROOMS: AN UNFINISHED SURVEY OF GENDER AND PUBLIC SPACE

Open Center an interview with Jordan Martins of Comfort Station Logan Square by Bad Little Brother


OPEN CENTER: AN INTERVIEW WITH JORDAN MARTINS

Unrestrooms: an unfinished survey of gender and public space March 2—April 1, 2018 Front/Space 217 W. 18th St. Kansas City, MO 64108

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(BLB) Bad Little Brother (JM) Jordan Martins, executive director,Logan Square Comfort Station BLB: Were you familiar with comfort stations as an architectural type before getting involved with Comfort Station Logan Square? JM: Not at all. You know it’s funny, my involvement began very early on, in the initial, unofficial, programming that was happening in the space. The curator whom I had met, one of the first people to curate shows there, invited me to show there, and it’s like eight blocks from my house. She said the name of it and I said, “What’s the name again?” And she said “Comfort Station— you’ll recognize it” I had no idea that it was operating, let alone what a comfort station was. It’s only after hearing the story of its renovation that I learned more about that term, that type of space. BLB: Did you grow up in Chicago? JM: No, I moved here after grad school, ten years ago. My dad grew

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up in Chicago and I have a lot of family here but I didn’t grow up here. BLB: I only ask because in Chicago, I think comfort stations—this is pure speculation on my part—maybe they were particularly useful in the early twentieth century because they could double as warming and cooling stations in a place with such extreme winters and fairly hot summers. One thing I wonder about is if cities will begin to revive that scale of civic building as they prepare for more extreme weather or more consistently extreme weather. So, with that in mind, I wonder what other groups or spaces in the city do you see operating at the sort of neighborhood scale that Comfort Station works at, in terms of space if not in terms of engagement. JM: It’s hard to say because of the kinds of projects that I’m familiar with that are a similar scale and a similar ethos are in very different buildings. There are lots of DIY, contemporary art practice places or “social practice” projects that are operating either out of storefronts or houses or backyards. They have a similar scale in terms of usable space and ideas about socially-engaged programming, but I don’t know of any other groups that are using

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public property. That says more, I guess, about the nature of public property and city management than about the willingness among art programmers to get into spaces. Typically, quote-unquote “cultural” programming or cultural activation of a public building is done through very narrow cultural mechanisms— anything in Chicago, there’s the Parks District… actually there’s been some very recent developments in the Park District where they are hiring freelance contemporary art-minded people to do programming, which is really exciting. When I look at Comfort Station as a small model, and think about how that could get carried out within the parks, I think that’s really exciting. But normally, any cultural programming that happens on city property, there’s just multiple layers of filtering in and out who gets to use that space and to what extent. We got our hands on the [Logan Square comfort station] space totally accidentally, through a number of accidents that lined up perfectly. I’m not really aware of any other public project that’s operating at a similar scale in a

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public space. BLB: I wasn’t aware of that initiative with Parks. That’s an exciting way to think about something like Comfort Station acting as a model or scaling up to something more city-scaled or at least more dispersed. Our interest in Comfort Station is admittedly a little bit backwards, since we’re approaching it as a case study in reviving a public comfort building by introducing a new cultural program rather than approaching you as the director of an arts organization. So, how does the restroom at Comfort Station function? The space is no longer designated as a municipal public restroom, but it is accessible at events that are open to the public. JM: Throughout the programming, we’ve struggled with that. Our mission statement as an organization is overtly focused on the public nature of our building, and we respond to that idea first and foremost by trying to have a very full calendar, and have the space open as much as possible. But in the majority of the week [if there’s no public programming], you can’t use the bathroom

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there. Which is ironic, because it was this very nuts-and-bolts, pragmatic space for staying warm or staying cool, and that original function is almost the hardest thing to get back to. It’s easy for us to have free concerts and exhibitions, but it’s hard to just have the space to be open for people to use the bathroom throughout the day. We’re all-volunteer, so people are usually excited about the idea to volunteer time to a program series; people are less excited about the idea of hanging out in the space and keeping it open so random people can come in and use the bathroom. There’s a particular conundrum on Sundays in the summertime, because the Logan Square Farmers’ Market is right across the street. It’s kind of this ridiculously booming thing—it’s gotten bigger each year—and we try to have public hours just to take advantage of that and to offer something where people are passing by. We’ll have various lectures and workshops, and we’ll always have people wander in; it’s immediately clear that they’re looking for a bathroom. And it’s kind of a problem, because if we simply just advertise it as an open bathroom, it would be very disruptive to the programming

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we do; on the other hand, it’s totally absurd to be like, “Sorry, no public restroom,” when that’s the only function this building had. It’s a funny paradox we’re trying to work through, logistically. In the bigger picture, the thing I think about is that we will be able to successfully operate it as a public restroom if we are successful at having more programming. The more programming we have going on there, the more we can activate a network of collaborators and volunteers and programmers to just keep it up so it’s active all the time, the more it will be open and as a secondary, or tertiary, effect of that, there will be a restroom available. So, solving the problem of making it available as a restroom is part of a web of more complex programming logistics to solve. BLB: Can you talk a little bit about your programming and the audience that you envision—your ideal audience—and the audience that you actually engage day-to-day? JM: Our ideal is a plurality of audiences, so we try to approach our set of programs pluralistically, and, I would even say schizophrenically, where we encourage each program to tap into their own different

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creative communities. So, the people who come here for a film night don’t often come for a music night, or the art exhibitions. It’d be nice if we could get more cross-polination, but I’m not too concerned, because I think for us, it’s a matter of this space and this programming being relevant to a broad and pluralistic set of communities around us. That plurality [of] artistic genres and the subgenres and subcultures of those artistic genres, but also the real work we do is trying to expand it in other ways. So, for instance, we’d love to be relevant to local Latinx teens. Logan Square is aggressively gentrifying— they’re a demographic that is feeling the weight of that the most at times. They’re not going to naturally wander into our space for a lot of reasons, so we have to work with partnerships with other local organizations like the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and we also have to think about specific programs we can do that would be relevant. So we randomly had a metal show one time—it was actually part of an art show, where the reception was just like, ridiculously loud metal bands, and he was using a chainsaw to, like, tear up furniture in the middle of

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the space, and it was only viewable from the outside. And, all of a sudden, there were like, sixteen Latinx teens hanging out, and I was like, oh, I get it, they just want loud metal music like the rest of us. That kind of informed me about other programs that could be responsive to segments of the community that we aren’t naturally attracting with other programs. It’s a constant experiment, and it’s a constant process of collaboration. You can only do that by continually connecting with other organizations, other voices, other curators, and other stokeholders. BLB: That seems like a different or, maybe, new model for an arts organization, that’s not necessarily about holism or a unified type of content or type of engagement. It seems like the way you’re talking about it is much more open to irresolution or inassimilable difference. I don’t know if you would agree with that, but I wonder if there are any organizations or models that you look to as you’re developing the Comfort Station mission and programming. JM: It’s hard to say, because we were so making this up as we went along. The Co-Prosperity Sphere, in Bridgeport [on Chicago’s near South Side] is a great, long-standing organization that I think has a

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similar kind of pluralism. They have their own kind of scene, which maybe is a little more holistic, but they quite operate by letting some other outside curatorial voice occupy their space. That, to me, is really powerful and important. I think, honestly, it came about in our case really from the ground up, and only after the fact could we really point to those attributes and think, oh that’s kind of a good thing, or that’s kind of an interesting principal to follow. It’s simply a matter of a few people started curating art shows there first, and then my friend and I started running concerts there. And the first year, we would walk into the space and there’d be a new show which had no communication, where the other person that was doing it wouldn’t know it was happening… For the first year or two, the free programs had little-to-no communication or coordination, because the person who was the main key holder for the building, who had been given de facto authority to run the space, was, for better or worse, not really interested in a coordinated effort. They were just excited about people using the space. Since then, we’ve gotten way more organized, and all of the programmers know one another and

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work together, and there are regular meetings where we can talk about a cohesive vision, but those early years laid the groundwork for this kind of weird autonomy. So, like I said, I’d love for there to be a rippling out of these autonomous zones, into holistic effects, where someone who came to one series might say “oh, I’m going to come back for this concert.” But, you’re right: I don’t think it’s necessary to imagine some unified, cohesive curated content that is supposed to speak to everybody the same way. I also think about it in terms of a certain kind of underground organizing principal, in terms of how different segments of a community operate, and I think back to when I learned how to play chess when I was a kid. There are some simplistic principals you get taught always: if you don’t have one of your pieces occupying one of the center four squares or leveraging or threatening one of those squares, you’re not in the game. And we are kind of like that— we’re in the middle of the neighborhood quite literally, so I imagine us as one of those four squares sometimes. It’s a matter of letting all

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these other pieces occupy this square, and taking turns occupying the square, and having that power. BLB: That’s a great metaphor, and I can understand Co-Prosperity Sphere in a similar position in Bridgeport. I used to live near there, and had a lot of friends who were involved with Bridgeport community organizations like the Benton House, one of the oldest social service organizations in Chicago, or the Jane Addams HullHouse Museum, which is a couple miles north of Bridgeport. I can see geographically how they’re positioned as a potential meeting ground between Chinatown, South Loop, Bridgeport, Pilsen, Little Village, and Heart of Chicago. I think that’s an interesting connection that I hadn’t drawn before, between Comfort Station and Co-Prosperity Sphere, which can explain them succeeding in spite of not having a lot of funding, or an extensive donor base or a lot of municipal support JM: There are so many interesting ways in which there are these specific overlaps in an otherwise non-overlapping set of conditions. Like, we can’t have any alcohol in our space, but Co-Prosperity Sphere is run by someone who runs a brewery and takes advantage of that by having events with beer. There’s a lot of events they can

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do because of that, that we just can’t do. The funding— us being a public space, it’s really easy for us to write grants, and weave into that narrative and that context. Co-Prosperity is a private entity. They’re a non-profit, but it’s a private space more or less. BLB: We’re exhibiting Unrestrooms in an arts district in Kansas City— it’s largely a post-industrial place that’s never really been residential. Now that it’s been gentrifying over the past 15 years or so, there’s a little bit more residential development. But in general, it’s a destination; it’s kind of an entertainment district that’s always a kind of “third space” for everybody that’s going there. I don’t know if Front/Space has the same kind of local responsibility as Comfort Station or Co-Prosperity Sphere or other arts organizations that are more embedded in residential neighborhoods, but it has that same potential to act as the “center four squares.” To act as a sort of commons between very different populations. I wonder if you can talk briefly about the structure of Comfort Station. Can you talk briefly about transitioning form an informally-programmed space to something that is an actual non-profit 401(c)3. What was that process like, and what were

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the incentives to pursue nonprofit status? JM: It’s funny, I was looking back. I’m filling out a grant right now, and they need to know our date of incorporation, so I was like, looking through my Google Drive and email and typing in “nonprofit.” And I found some notes from a meeting five years ago about a potential nonprofit group— we didn’t act on that until another four years later. So it was a very long conversation that kept popping up. There were lot of—I don’t want to say roadblocks—but there were lots of things in place that were ruling it out. One, we were operating informally in this space, so we didn’t have any formal authority. The city leases the space to Logan Square Preservation, and they let us use it. So, for the first five years or so, we were considered a subcommittee of LSP. We didn’t have an independent entity. So one, Logan Square Preservation wanted an actual nonprofit to be operating in the space. So there’s more implications to that, than just a rag-tag team of volunteers doing some free programming in there. We had to have a conversation with them.

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We had to think about the questions that every DIY-inclined space should ask themselves: are we serving the industrial-nonprofit complex for no reason; are we one node of that floating out mindlessly? Or are there a few, very necessary reasons we can point to? And actually the person who I, thankfully, recruited to be our board chair, early on in the process she was really interrogating this. She was like, “we need to make sure there’s a strong case for us to be doing this, and what’s wrong with just staying with what we’re doing? What’s wrong with this very informal thing? There’s a good understanding in relationship to this organization.” And it boiled down to a few things: I think a lot of people end up going nonprofit because it’s supposedly easier to get funding and grants, and that’s certainly true to a certain extent. And to us, that was part of it, because we couldn’t apply for grants via [Logan Square] Preservation because they’re not an arts non-profit. So we’d want to get an arts grant and we just couldn’t do it… Applying for funding is cumbersome on its own, let alone when you’re trying to do it through another organization.

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So, [funding] alone wouldn’t have been a good reason. The other main reason was just a belief that this is a project and an entity that should continue. If the winds happen to blow away the current crop of people running it, it would be a shame for it just to end. So, creating a non-profit was just a way to create a set of stakeholders and a board that would be responsible for a long-term sustainable path for this thing to exist. And give us some more leverage with our presence in that space, our presence in the community, our presence in the city. I think the third thing is that I really believe in the immense potential of this tiny little space. I think we are barely scratching the surface of what this space can be and what it can do and how it operates. And I think to get to that next level of activating that potential, we needed more capacity, more funding, more organization. I think oftentimes, people create non-profits and they, sort of, suffer through creating by-laws and creating a board because they just want the paper [ie: non-profit status]. And in our case, I think it may have started that way, but I can see now

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how all the mechanisms of a non-profit and a board is benefitting us in terms of our ability to better activate the potential of this space.

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Open Center, an interview with Jordan Martins  

In conjunction with Unrestrooms, an unfinished survey of gender and public space, Bad Little Brother interviewed Jordan Martins, executive d...

Open Center, an interview with Jordan Martins  

In conjunction with Unrestrooms, an unfinished survey of gender and public space, Bad Little Brother interviewed Jordan Martins, executive d...

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