THE JUNGLE

Apr 18, 2020

Reynolds Avenue in North Charleston is where conNECKtedTOO chose to present its cumulated works, when it was time to unwind two years of collaborative art thinking and art making. 

Reynolds is far from the centers of Charleston’s culture, in a rundown urban neighborhood ripe for gentrification. That is if covid19 does not successfully mutate greed into societal empathy.

2023 Reynolds is a store front, a cockeyed glass door centered on a full set of show windows, a 1200 sqf raw space, rather narrow, with a brick and cinderblock wall on one side, sheetrock on the other. Complete with roof joists and air-conditioning ductwork in full view. We mitigated these features with lots of flood and spot lights, which beam down on each art piece, in the space and on the walls.

Welcome to 2023 Reynolds! I will be your guide today. So, let’s enter!

Check out this 10 foot high batik work by Arianne, one of cTOO textile artists. Two layers of transparent silk organza. It is like a theater curtain you have to open to access the stage. Behind the curtain …

Whew … It’s a jungle!

Yes, you can say that. That’s why we named it THE JUNGLE! But I am a good scout. We will find our way. And we will make sense of it. Trust the process.

Start with the coffee station, right here, at this blue fireplace. Reynolds was open 5 days a week, from 9 to 5,  for the first few weeks. Visitors, neighbors, some homeless people too, would come in. We offered them coffee or hot tea, sometimes with a bite.

Look at this wall now: a ‘Wall of Papers’. Dazibaos, notes, Post-its, images, diagrams, schedules – many layers – almost to the back of the space. These represent the bulk of the intellectual and operational output  the collective has produced, from the start.

What a story!

More than two years ago, in December 2017, conNECKtedTOO received a $300,000 grant from ArtPlace America, to establish a network of smaller than small, TINY BUSINESSes in Charleston. The official description of the project is: an Art and Culture in/with Community Experiment for Economic Development.

The first 6 months were spent developing a Vision and Mission statement, a budget, strict timelines, tons of statements and texts in defense of TINY BUSINESS as an essential form of commerce in town.

We did not really start making art in earnest before we knew why we should. Now, this wall is our reference book, our history, and we add to it as the project develops.

This is important: art in/with community is not expression only. It is also a means to create tools to an end. Among the early tools, were booklets of questions, filled out with individual TINY BUSINESS owners, ice breakers really, followed with a set of friendly promotional postcards and maybe the construction of a model of some brick-and-mortar businesses, to be given to them later.

The aesthetics of the Jungle is partly defined by its function, which is its dream too: social and economic justice, and equitable urban development to protect TINY BUSINESS. As we see it, TINY BUSINESS still defines the texture of Charleston’s neighborhoods and  as such it requires our loving attention.

Feel free to explore this Wall of Papers and … Welcome in the Jungle!

To the left of the front door,  the first piece of 3D work you see is the Bleachers, a three-tear set of seats facing the window. It is meant for public gatherings. It is also used as a very functional office space to sit or stand for computer work. As a matter of fact, we have built a copy of it for the new conNECKtedTOO office, a few blocks away.                                                                                                                                                       

Right behind the bleachers, the first free standing sculpture is the Portal into the Jungle. You can walk through it and read the writing on both sides; it is the edited version of a dialogue with Justin. Justin owns a fine wine shop on Upper King street. He comes from New York. He is an outsider. “I am a gentrifier, he declares. Why do you come to see me?”  Well, because you are not a taker, Justin. You have made friends with your neighbors, you do not discriminate. You are a plus for your neighborhood … At the end, we think that Justin is Okey with us!

Pass the portal – by the way, in the Jungle, feel free to touch the art! Give a light push to the next piece. See it rock. Right-left-right-left. A visual introduction to conNECKtedTOO’s practice of Ideas-as-Art. This piece is about reading the world in binaries. Good-bad, right-wrong , black-white, us-others. conNECKtedTOO, rather,  promotes the value of people and things multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-generational and grassroots, vital for communities and identity. With this sculpture, you can see the same dialectic at play between the transparency of foliage, the lightness of water, the weight of a brick wall.

The piece is  collaborative (Morgan – Jean-Marie). We believe that creating collaboratively is a great way to overcome individual (self) limitations.

Right behind it, this Giant Bird? When she saw it standing, for the first time, Morgan remarked: but it is organic! Yes, organic is OK when it represents ascent, no? Aspiration! On it, Gwylène transferred paper labels she had created to memorialize defunct TINY Businesses, (why did they disappear in such numbers?), or to enhance the knowledge one has of existing ones, (longevity, legacy, impact, trust, discrimination …).

Maybe this suspended gutter, filled with pennies free for the taking, is a bitter valuation of them …

Jungle of forms and of ideas which collide here and pair up there. Jungle of personalities and of artistic practices. For example, Morgan would send Jean-Marie drawings from her iPhone. He would build a sculpture from them in his studio. Then she would bring them to her studio and work on them. This way, you may get an uninhibited array of shapes and colors, forms and contents. A different representation of diversity and the freedom to imagine together.

This low one, down here is “the Trough”. Cut out of a single 4X8 sheet of OSB (Oriented Strand Board ) at $9 or10 a piece. By the way, all the pieces here are OSB. It is a cheap but beautiful material. A bunch of  wood chips pressed together. It brings out very rich textures, depths, and transparencies. Easy to cut and build with.

The Trough is a commentary on climate change and living together at a global scale. This forces so much vulnerability on all living things that only more knowledge of and more respect for animals, plants and humans will save the planet from neglect, a direct consequence of having lost our sense of belonging together. Looking at the piece from above, you can make up all sorts of stories, if you jumble up the toy-size objects and the words/sentences tossed into this rather grim landscape. Altogether, though, it’s a loud call for resistance and hope for each (autonomy) and all (community). But “the Trough” is a pre-coronavirus piece. At this point it requires serious updating to be fully relevant. Morgan, Markelle, Gwylène and JeMa worked on it. They may again.

Let’s move to this other low piece, a bit reminiscent of a Tony Caro sculpture: our Caro! Two representations of derelict Charleston frame houses sit on a structural base which carries a message: “ No socially just public policy on vacant and derelict buildings? Let’s write one.” Morgan and JeMa made this piece. It is when we were working on it that, as a team of sculptors from very different backgrounds and practices, we asked ourselves about the place of words as political messaging in visual works. I think both moved their thinking a bit on this. JeMa learned to respect the deep silence of her representations. She saw new virtues in words. In this piece, words and silence define a lasting poetic space.

Between the Caro and the Trough, acting as a hinge in size and in meaning, this tall sculpture is a visual study, by Morgan, of how a crumbling manmade environment has registered, as if burnt into it, quietly fading memories, images, the textures of past times. The work bears no words. Its Silence is an other welcome pause, a clearing in the Jungle.

Yes, a welcome pause before we climb into this monster. Yes, you can go up the ramp! “I bet ’n you ’n you ’n me”, is a jungle within the Jungle. More like a jungle gym actually. 20 and some TINY Businesses clinging for their life, as if after a tsunami had uprooted them. They precariously hang on the limbs of this haphazard structure. But they seem happy! Still together as a community.

Here, the collaborative work is shared with TINY Businesses themselves. Markelle, Morgan, Timothy and JeMa built the models, inspired partly by conversations with owners. JeMa built the structure with the help of Gwylène.

This work was created six months before the Jungle and presented separately twice, before Reynolds.

Let’s walk behind “I bet ’n you ’n you ’n me”. This is the Indigo and Batik Workshop of Arianne. She invites visitors and members of the collective to create art with her, on wearables like vests, scarves, other art objects, fans or umbrellas. She visited owners at their shop and listened to their story.  This is how conNECKtedTOO integrates, celebrates art making and the place of craftsmanship and artisan techniques in the creative process. Some of the objects will be given to TINY Businesses to promote their shop. Some may be multiplied and sold.

The Green Mane here, on this funky pink body, is the last piece built for the Jungle. JeMa really wanted to know how each member of the collective had reacted to the whole conNECKtedTOO experiment so far. So, he repurposed the piece into a double-entry catalogue. Entry 1: What did you bring to cTOO so far? Entry 2: What have you taken away from cTOO so far?

Everyone’s answer fit on the paper provided. Except for Jean-Marie’s. In a way, he considers his answer to be 453 pages long and counting:  The Diary he keeps of the project. Once pitted and sieved by Gwylène, it will become an other paper trail, left by conNECKtedTOO.

And then there is Markelle! This is Her Creation. Her first sculpture, she says. She designed it, cut it and assembled it all by herself, in JeMa’s studio … Then she started embellishing the raw OSB … Markelle, he said, hold it! Here, one does not embellish. One creates art pieces which become beautiful as every gesture on it participates in the affirmation of its spirit!

Markelle – she was an apprentice with conNECKtedTOO at the time – hesitated a few weeks. In the meantime the piece was moved to Reynolds. She finished it here!  And see, a powerful, bright piece of sculpture for the bright purpose of celebrating a TINY asian restaurant. The owner told her the story of her escape from Laos. We had to integrate it, in writing, in the work.

At this point, we are turning back towards the front of the space. This one, here, was the first piece drawn by Morgan. She texted it to JeMa. He cut it and put it together. She painted it in the studio. Shape-wise, it is wonky,  but colors bring it together. These bright pink reeds on one side give reality to the crepuscular gradient of the surfaces, from blue-grey to reddish-ocher. It was their first collaborative piece. They did not really know where to go with it. Then, much later on, JeMa added a roll of paper, fed from the back to the front of the sculpture, for visitors to write an answer to this question: Why Reynolds?

Is this is enough to call it an interactive piece, though?

What do you think?

Look toward the front, this tall red surface. With a large drawing and a phrase: ‘Resist with a Smile’. It is a quote from the local farmer. Fresh Future Farm is one block away from here – This could be the slogan for the whole Jungle. Despite the very serious issues we approach with the art works at conNECKtedTOO, each piece leaves some room for humor.

The smile is by Gwylène. Everything else by Morgan and JeMa.

The back of the smile is in sharp contrast. This dark tail-like set of jagged elements carries severe messages. Carved in white inside black ‘word bubbles’, they come from direct interviews with TINY BUSINESS owners in Charleston. In general, they are not happy with the lack of official support, although they are so dedicated to their city. Bubbles look more like funeral announcements, with a touch of pride and lots of hope. “Why doesn’t the city support us more? We are authentic” – “The city is not including minorities in its vision of Charleston” – “We are creatives. Like artists we communicate through our work” – “ … the mayor … had forgotten about us, the Tiny Businesses still downtown Charleston, so proud to be there” – “Service? To me it is reciprocity. It is instinctive.” – and more.

The last panel of the tail is Morgan’s way to end the Jungle loop. A split sentence jumps from here to the last sculpture, a few feet away. As if to force you into a mental exercise, it reads, from left to right:  ‘so do the rents’ – ‘when the waters rise’. But from right to left, it becomes a strong condemnation of the city, as it plans to wall itself off against the rising ocean: “When the waters rise, so do the rents”.  The real victims will, again, be those least able to afford rent in this privileged fortress-to-be.

The last sculpture then! Morgan’s design, JeMa’s shaping. Back side: ‘when waters rise’. Front side?  It jumps at you when you enter the space from the street – LET’S TALK ABOUT SYSTEMIC INEQUITY – We have gone full circle. We are left with an invitation, more like an injunction.

Let’s rest a minute.

Dear visitor to the conNECKtedTOO Pop-Up Community Lab at Reynolds, there is an important thing you need to know about the Charleston Rhizome Collective: our real ambition is to establish cTOO as a permanent, viable TINY BUSINESS in Charleston. For this purpose, we have launched a Mobile/App which is becoming a hub where artists, activists, youth, educators and TINY BUSINESS owners converge in self-defense, for social and economic justice against the forces of gentrification, which want to deny them a future. TINY BUSINESS is the human face of commerce in a city sold to big hotels, big box retailers, big cruise liners, big real-estate, and confronted with a bigger than big pandemic.

Until just before Corona Virus hit, there was a 20 foot long and narrow platform here. It was splitting the space diagonally from the bleachers to this  right wall. Now the piece is confined at the Main Library, downtown. The Rag Quilt and Paper Bag Neighborhood is a collaboration between Sharon Cooper Murray and Kit Loney.

. Sharon Cooper-Murray is a storyteller who learned the Gullah rag quilt technique from the elders on Wadmalaw, and incorporates the practice into her storytelling performances. For this project she has made a 24-foot long rag quilt road onto which some flooding is occurring.

.Kit Loney is an artist and poet who makes artist’s books. For this project she has made a series of accordion books arranged into zigzag display along the quilt road. Each “house page” has been folded from the bottom section of a grocery bag. Bag handles have been used to make the sidewalk and roses. In general, the pages have been made in response to visits and conversations with businesses involved in the conNECKtedTOO TINYisPOWERFUL project, and with members of the collective.

And here, above our heads, is a vestige of Kit’s neighborhood. It gives a good idea of the delicate detailing of her work, as compared to the  sculptures in this space. As for the ladders,  they are certainly the expression of an urge for Kit to dream on and away, even past her already poetic world. This aspirational energy, Kit and Sharon share it with every other member of the collective. We are all in/with community artists!

We definitely encourage you to go and visit it as soon as the Library reopens to the public.

Let’s look towards the street now. This edifice here, is a 36 drawer -high cabinet: the Reynolds Tiny Library.

.18 drawers hold documents about waters rising in Charleston. They were assembled by Bryan, an anthropologist, the single volunteer of the conNECKtedTOO effort. We met him very late in the game. He was so excited by the project that he did not ask for any compensation! Otherwise, we always make it a point to pay artists and others for all the work they do.

.The other 18 drawers are about education, gentrification and the struggle for social justice. It is the work of Pam, cTOO’s education coordinator. Thank you Pam! The Jungle at Reynolds is also to culturally serve the culturally underserved.

You see,  all those photographs, on the right wall. They are a report on The Charleston Cut, the project we developed with local Barber Shops in town. cTOO identified barbershops as true anchors of neighborhoods.

Not only do they perform the look-good-feel-good miracle hundred of times a day, they also are a safe space, a TV salon, a dry sports bar,

a story reservoir, a forum. They are unique grassroots, social activators. It is very disturbing to see that they were among the first TINY Businesses to be targeted for shut-down under covid19. There must be a lot of despair in the neighborhoods they serve and we should all be ready to run for a cut as soon as they reopen.

conNECKtedTOO has also produced a set of 8 Large Posters, meant to be either public shout-outs around our mission/vision; about micro loans; in praise of existing businesses or in memory of closed businesses. One is of our first programatic diagram. One announces “In the Whorl of Time” the Mandala by Sonia – the sole visiting artist we invited from out of town – and installed at James Simmons Montessori. One is of the first 30 participating TINY Businesses, with picture of owners and original quotes. And one announces “I bet ’n you ’n you ’n me”, when it was installed at the Cannon Street Art Center, downtown!

There are still important elements to this installation, here and there.

Earlier, we went by a set of very large hangings, against the back wall.

They are elements of the Mapping Project. Here, a dedicated team superimposed three maps of the MLK Corridor and made it one – we are talking about the Spring and Cannon area. One map is from the 1960’s, one from the 1980’s and a current one. Then they went hunting for memories and stories and were able to place and name TINY Businesses from each period and gauge the changes. As they went through cycles of opening and shutting down, it is clear that most of the shops, in what many called “the Black Wall Street of Charleston”, are not owned by Black entrepreneurs any longer. Even a simple analysis makes us believe that pushing minority populations out of their historic neighborhoods in Charleston, participates in the long but relentless trend of reserving cities to privileged dwellers. To which Gwylène would interject: “ I don’t understand: why do they want to be rich without us?”

An other area was mapped this way: the King Street Rutledge Avenue district. No large copies of it have been printed yet.    

Way back still in the space, we passed by three video stations where you can review all the work done by Jason, conNECKtedTOO video artist. He has recorded most cTOO events and gatherings over the last two years: public conversations, question-relay sessions, studio actions, “I bet ’n you ’n you ’n me”,  ’n much more! His contribution to the cTOO Mobile/App is part of a ground breaking work, as far as the App Portal is concerned.

The App itself  TINYisPOWERFUL.com – is the future of cTOO in its virtual form. It is a library,  a meeting point, a forum, a promotional tool also. It is a common. The collective is at work, expanding its reach to more and more TINY Businesses, artists, activists, educators … and customers. It has to become a hub of solidarity in Charleston and beyond.

TINYisPOWERFUL.com is also developing a blog, under the leadership of Rain and Aysha. I Like my Tea Sweet invites you, right now, to visit and hear an interview with Theron, our cTOO TINY BUSINESS Coordinator, who facilitated so many conversations and connected with most of our present members. As Rain and Aysha say: Please stop by and enjoy the HonesTEA, T-E-A!

Before you leave, say hello to Victoria. If she is not at her desk, to the right of the front door, or at the bleachers – she uses them as a communal work station, she is rocking her baby somewhere in the space. Although the whole organizing of Reynolds as the Pop-up Community Lab is Gwylène’s work, Victoria was her shadow all that time. Now, she is taking the lead. Bravo Victoria.

So, here we are. conNECKtedTOO hopes this tour gave a good overview of what conNECKtedTOO does. Until this moment, a month after we had to shut down Reynolds because of the pandemic, the project has not ceased. The whole team is now fully adapted to working on line, practicing social media, having very regular virtual meeting. Every Wednesday night, members of the collective are invited to share a Virtual Potluck Dinner. It starts with a light chat. Then we taste each other’s cooking – usually very palatable. Then we go on to organizing, building the network, planning the after-covid … Two weeks ago a 2 o’clock Friday Check-In routine started, where everyone, from everywhere, is invited to Zoom together, share a skill, present artworks, listen … encourage.

The conNECKtedTOO.orgTINYisPOWERFUL.com community is growing, in leaps and bounds maybe, but it is growing.

Thank you all for your interest and your support.

Keep in touch! Stay safe.