In my estimation, Phoenix Commotion’s ongoing project (founded around 1998 by Dan Phillips) does much more than simply supply a university town with a rich dose of local color. While Phillips and his crew are building upon traditions of southern vernacular art, which have made significant and often under-acknowledged contributions to the evolution of American art—perhaps most-recognizably through the work of Texas-native Robert Rauschenberg—their project simultaneously engages with issues enjoying currency in contemporary art discourse. Most notably, this involves the impetus to devote one’s art, including one’s artistic process and not just the finished project, to the goal of raising an ethical awareness of our interconnectedness to each other and to the natural world.
Phillips’s project, which decades ago may have simply been understood as an example of “outsider” art and the product of some “place apart” (psychologically, culturally, and geographically), is today implicated in an ongoing and evolving international debate. The members of the Commotion do not simply belong to a cultural group entirely removed from the reach of influences acting on other contemporary artists whose similarly-minded, if aesthetically-divergent projects, have received critical attention, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s The Land Foundation (begun 1998), Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West and A-Z East (West begun 1999 and East begun 1994), or Tyree Guyton’s The Heidelberg Project (begun 1987). The Phoenix Commotion shares with these projects an exploration of eco-friendly, low-cost solutions to design problems, and the commitment of one’s art to transforming local social conditions. But while Phillips has and continues to spread the philosophy of the Phoenix Commotion near and far, and while his project resonates with these other contemporary examples, the end products of his creative labors remain rooted in his homes of Huntsville. The Commotion’s ideas and methods may circulate in regional, national, and international circuits, but their final artworks stay resolutely put in a place that, in the end, is somewhat removed yet also intimately connected.
A retired dance professor, well-read intellectual, and skilled craftsperson, Phillips is himself more than a “naïf.” Like his project, he is a conglomerate of complex cultural influences. He is perfectly comfortable seamlessly shifting among multiple modes of presenting himself and his work. I have heard him eloquently discuss his creative process in relation to the philosophies of Martin Heidegger and John Dewey, elaborate on the political implications of building a house inspired by the Budweiser beer can design in the Bible Belt, and explain the relationship of his project to the historical examples of southern vernacular architecture from which it draws inspiration. Through such presentations, Phillips effectively demythologizes ideas of “the folk” that have problematically been associated with notions of essential cultural origins and that in American history have been used to construct and solidify perceptions of certain groups (often black people and poor whites) by relegating them to an ingrained, natural condition of unchanging “folkhood.”
Additionally, the “folk” elements that persist in Phillips’s project—in his use of the discards of the cultural mainstream and the privileging of a taste for making do rather than making perfect—are self-consciously celebrated and not an ironic point of reference. Phillips’s project reclaims a “folk” aesthetic as a positive identity for both the Commotion team and for those members of the community who occupy its homes. The project transforms vernacular style into much more than a cipher for naïveté, nostalgia, or anachronism. While resurrecting and creatively translating the promise of American homesteading (a “folk” dream?) for a diverse “working poor” population of Huntsville, Phillips, who has consciously chosen to take a step away from the academy and back into the region’s history, seems to have found a productive way forward. It appears to me that Phoenix Commotion offers a recession-weary community much more than a quaint throw-back to a better time. Rather, Phoenix Commotion’s project, like those of Zittel, Tiravanija, and Guyton, commits itself to a broader, brighter cultural future–a future not just for a small eastern Texas town, but for the planet.