In 1967, the city of Detroit was drastically altered. A blemish in American history, the Detroit riots lasted four days, leaving the city in a state of utter disarray.
The deterioration spread to surrounding neighborhoods, and entire streets were left empty and abandoned. It was a local artist that reclaimed Heidelberg Street: a street in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood on the east side of the city that gradually became neglected after the riots. Tryee Guyton founded the Heidelberg Project in 1986, and converted the street into an outdoor community art environment.
Despite two cases of demolition in the 90’s and the latest arson—committed earlier this month of the projects oldest instillation, the Obstruction of Justice House—the project lives on as a beacon of social practice art, exemplifying the power of public art in the dimmest of circumstances. Like the Heidelberg Project, Philadelphia’s Hidden City Festival strives to hoister this power out of the shadows of our city’s ruins. Yet in order to understand the social significance of missions, like the Heidelberg Project and Hidden City, we must view them outside of the constraints of the traditional art-historian definition of art and within the blurred boundaries of social practice art.
A single definition has yet to be pinpointed for social practice art, but is collectively understood as a new and developing, loosely described, genre of art that encompasses a vast subset of categories. Environmentalism, political activism, and urban planning, all fall under the expanding umbrella of social practice art’s ambiguous term, and it is often considered interchangeable with art forms like, socially engaged practice and dialogical aesthetics. Randy Kennedy from the New York Times recently wrote on the subject, stating, “If none of these projects sound much like art—or the art you are used to seeing in museums—that is precisely the point. As the commercial art world in America rides a boom unlike any it has ever experienced, another kind of art world growing rapidly in its shadows is beginning to assert itself.” As institutions struggle to tape off the perimeter of this topical phenomenon, projects that consider themselves a part of this movement, like Hidden City, are gaining momentum. And this is because, like Guyton’s Detroit, the same stream flows through Philadelphia.
In various neighborhoods throughout the city entire blocks are left vacant, subjects of urban decline, and historic landmarks fall victim to bureaucratic indecision. From our commute to work, we can see that the current cultural climate in Philadelphia demands for drastic social participation to salvage the facade of the city. But the answer is not in demolition, or concealing the city’s past with million dollar skyscrapers, but to address and redress the spawn of urban sprawl. Hidden City Festival may just be that answer or at least a step in the direction of citywide reconciliation.
The festival takes place over six weeks and covers nine sites with ten art projects. The intention of what might seem like an ambitious project is actually simple: Reintroduce the community to otherwise forgotten places. Locations like Hawthorne Hall, on the corner of Lancaster Avenue and Hamilton Street in Powelton Village, are restored to places of creation. The project brings relevance, through contemporary site-specific artwork, to buildings that have fallen to the wayside of public and political interest.
Thought to be a late Queen-Anne Styled theater constructed in 1895, Hawthorn Hall, has been a host to the Knights of Pythias Union Lodge No. 14, the Irish National Foresters, and several churches. The theater’s history is what influenced art collective Rabid Hands, who have transformed the building into the headquarters of a faux-secret society, the Society of Pythagoras. According to Andrew Schrock, one of Rabid Hands’ members, “our group is responding to past experiences that this building has had.” Through their work, the collective intends on, as member Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels describes the experience, “manifest fantasy through ceremony.”
As fascinating as elaborate narratives and secret societies are, the true intrigue lies within the very walls of these structures and the ability Hidden City has to influence them. Once the doors are unlocked they have the potential to stay unlocked. The original Hidden City Festival in 2009 saw great success. After the festival, several sites kept their facilities open to the public. The Drop Forge building at Disston Saw Works acquired a tenant; local dance companies used South Philly’s Shiloh Baptist Church as a practice space, and Girard College’s Founders Hall was converted into a performance space.
This year’s festival is already displaying signs of promise for some of the chosen sites. Nicknamed, “Little Shul,” a synagogue that was originally constructed as a storefront in the early 1900’s, has seen a strong increase in attention from both established members of the Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Isreal congregation and outsiders. “In their collaboration with Hidden City they [Little Shul] found that two things were happening. First, their own community is more energized, people from the congregation are getting more interested and getting back in touch. The second is that new people are coming out of the woodwork because we are doing something new here now. They’re getting all kinds of people contacting them,” says Lee Tusman the Creative Director of Hidden City, who mentioned that Little Shul was speaking with the National Museum of American Jewish History. “They’re thinking about what this performance will look like afterwards, what kind of community events can happen there, and this is exactly the kind of thing we love to see happen. ”
More than a handful of comparisons can be made between Philadelphia and Detroit, but one of the most significant relationships lies in both cities’ advancements in shaping our understanding of social practice art. “There’s a reason Hidden City Festival happened here and not in some tidy city like Portland or Minneapolis, and it’s because we have an outsized share of buildings that make you wonder; what the heck is inside,” the opening words, of Hidden City Festival 2013’s pamphlet, reads. Like Heidelberg Project, Hidden City will continue to bring new life to forgotten landmarks.
The festival runs from May 23 to June 30, 2013. To find out more about ticket information, volunteer opportunities, and up to date news on festival events visit hiddencityphila.org.
All photos are courtesy of Peter Woodall at Hidden City.