During the golden age of comic books, All-American Comics debuted Alan Scott as the Green Lantern in 1940. At the time, Scott was a railroad engineer who, when in possession of a ring had multiple powers. In Chicago, The Green Lantern is a gallery and press that exhibits and publishes emerging artists and writers. Although Founding Director Caroline Picard lacks the ability to walk through walls and read minds, she has acquired the ability to balance artmaking, running a gallery space and press, writing, and co-producing a podcast about literature.
Meg Onli: The Green Lantern operates both as a gallery and as a publisher. Did you initially see yourself having an exhibition space that also published books or did it begin as one idea that sort of grew into a larger project? Do the two projects ever cross?
Caroline Picard: Yes, actually. I’d been thinking about running a print project for years before The Green Lantern took shape in Chicago. I’d also been exposed to different gallery environments — as an undergrad, I happened into a Baltimore warehouse that had been converted into a gallery where a bunch of artists lived. And then, of course, I worked at threewalls and frequented unusal exhibition spaces here. My impression of those spaces conspired so that when I happened into the loft at 1511 N. Milwaukee Avenue, the idea of opening a gallery/press hit me all at once. The space, the press, and the gallery became a single idea at the same instant, despite being vague notions before. Having said that, my interests in writing and visual work stem from the same place. Because I’m interested in how ideas and mediums influence one another, I like drawing connections between those mediums. It’s the same with public programming. I hosted live music events, performances, screenings, lectures. I started thinking of the space as a gateway for independent and emerging art practice — practices that were not often accessed outside of more traditional, specialized venues.
MO: In the past year, The Green Lantern closed its exhibition space. There has been some discussion about the sustainability of apartment galleries if the city of Chicago continues to regulate how they are operated. What are your future plans for The Green Lantern’s gallery presence?
CP: I love this subject. I find it incredibly interesting that there is an inherent, legal conflict between the apartment gallery and the city. While the conflict seems unnecessary (and silly), it points to the way in which apartment galleries defy traditional models of business classification. The city’s laws are accidentally prohibitive of apartment spaces. The city prosecutes them because it needs money and some dude walking around wants to make his ticket quota to keep his job. To change the laws would mean navigating a bureaucratic mess of red tape. While I think it would benefit everyone to create legal avenues for idiosyncratic, non-commercial exhibition practices, I nevertheless appreciate the way that this relatively self-sustaining community defies civil categories. There is a mix of domestic and public space in which the public party becomes an intimate one. There is very little (if any) money earned from these ventures and as such, the apartment gallery illicits confusion and disbelief. When I talked to people at City Hall it was sort of like, “If it quacks like a gallery and looks like a gallery, what do you mean it’s not a gallery?” or, “You don’t sell artwork? But in these pictures, there is art on the wall. What do you mean there isn’t any revenue?” What I find most interesting, however, is that the community that attends those spaces understands how to relate to them.
While I’ll always be a lover of such spaces and I find them to be invaluable experiences for artists and administrators alike, I’m interested in pursuing a different avenue for The Green Lantern. Now I hope to take the exhibition space out of my apartment and insert it in a public storefront. Instead of integrating domestic and private spaces, I want to integrate for- and non-profit models, such that the non-profit gallery/press is sustained by a for-profit business. In doing so, I hope to explore an alternative model for sustaining contemporary art practice — one in which artists can, at least for a prescribed amount of time, support their practices outside the commercial gallery system.
MO: You are an artist, a publisher, a gallery director, a writer, and an archivist. How have all of these things influenced each other?
CP: Taking this apart is probably as tough as taking my own leg apart and explaining how all the different ligaments, sinews, and muscles work together. I’m too close to all of it. I know that I like to think about the connections between things, so I think that’s where I spend a lot of time. I also spend a lot of time in my house and thus The Green Lantern became an aspect of my research process. It helps to live in a place where one is regularly impressed and inspired with the work of others. I found that work constantly challenged my own assumptions about the world and the position I assumed as a person within it. At the same time, I write books, short stories, and articles. I make visual work about those books. I make movies about that visual work. It’s like any one facet is constantly informing the whole.
MO: In 2007, in conjunction with threewalls, The Green Lantern published Phonebook. Essentially, it is a printed database for alternative spaces across America. How did this project come about? It’s an invaluable resource when traveling to new cities and attempting to locate new spaces to visit. It also is a really useful tool for artists who are looking to show outside of their community.
CP: That’s awesome! That you like it, I mean. I like it too. It’s amazing to see all of these spaces in one place — it shows such a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm everywhere. I still can’t believe that it came together the way it did. Like many ideas, the Phonebook started as a pipe dream. Basically, Shannon Stratton [director of Three Walls] and I were talking one day about how it was hard to find unusual sites for art exhibitions if one was not already familiar with a particular community. We started theorizing that within Chicago, there were a number of spaces (and affiliated communities) that didn’t know about each other, just [as] other cities probably boasted similar projects. We noted that once a space closes, which often happens, that space is usually forgotten. Phonebook was an answer to those thoughts. By compiling spaces into one resource, we could simultaneously raise awareness within the artist-run community, while also archiving exhibition practices.
After 2 issues of Phonebook, we pulled our focus back a little and put out a book about artist-run-spaces in Chicago (Artists Run Chicago Digest) that documents exhibition practices over the last 10 years. It was a collaborative effort between threewalls and The Green Lantern Press and The Hyde Park Art Center, who hosted a show last summer (curated by Britton Bertrand and Allison Peters Quinn) of the same name.
MO: The Parlor is a monthly literary podcast operated by you, Joanna Topor MacKenzie, and Terri Griffith. Are there aspects of the Chicago literary community that are closely connected to the art community?
CP: One of my favorite pasttimes is thinking about and comparing the different worlds. Though I spend more time trying to articulate their differences, they’re very similar. Above anything, both communities are incredibly supportive. Basically, writers write because they love to write and artists make work because they love to make work. People who run artist-run spaces are very [much] like the people who run small presses. Communities crop up around those portals of dissemination. I find that writers and artists have non-traditional schedules and though people say [that] writers are solitary, the writing community I know is as vibrant and close-knit as the art community.
I have been part of conversations with publishers in which we hypothesize that the publishing world is as friendly as it is because it’s a fool’s errand. In that same conversation, we suggested that writers (excluding the every-so-often Audrey Niffeneger) have no chance of making money. Poets even less. While most artists struggle to make a living, the myth of fame and recognition seems palpable enough as to provide a perceptible carrot.
More recently, I was in a conversation about first-person narratives and short stories and that conversation yielded speculation that in writing, perhaps there is less pressure to try to “do something new” or justify one’s choices. For instance, if you set out to write a murder mystery novel, it doesn’t have to be about what that novel contributes to the genre of “murder mystery.” By contrast, the art community strikes me as a hyper self-aware place, where one always takes into account how a practice fits into the collective art canon. If you make work about your personal experience, it better have a larger resonance. I remember a writer read at The Parlor and an artist in the audience asked why the story was a “written” text rather than, say, a film or a drawing. The author responded that he was a writer, so he wrote. That moment illustrated an interesting distinction, namely [that] artists must regularly justify the medium(s) in which they work, whereas the writers, for the most part, can take that medium for granted.
MO: Many of your projects — your art, your writing, The Green Lantern Press, and The Green Lantern’s exhibition space — are a balance between literature and art. Are you conscious of balancing both or was this just a natural progression?
CP: I work more intuitively. I don’t calculate any specific balance. At the same time, the project began with an interest in the intersection of mediums. My primary interest is working to create a venue in which people have access to work outside of a mainstream cultural market. Similarly, I am interested in facilitating a space in which artists have access to a public. I am especially interested in the dialogue that happens around that work, within that community. Being open to different mediums develops my thinking, just as it seems to further support and enrich the art community with literature, or the literary community with art.
MO: The Green Lantern Press’s blog is updated pretty frequently. Recently you posted about some of your ideas for the new exhibition space. How do you use the blog to flush out ideas for your projects?
CP: Ha! I don’t even know exactly, except that the blog is this great venue and impetus to form thoughts in a formal/semi-formal way. I like thinking about it as a notebook, so I’ll post sketches of things that I’m working on, or make posts about events at The Green Lantern. Sometimes it feels like a site for public address (for instance when I made the post about what the next incarnation of The Green Lantern will be about, mapping if it’s gallery/press/cafe/bar/bookstore/residency. I have really good weeks where I have tons of things to post and then all of a sudden, I’ll feel very dry and it’ll be harder to focus on posting something. I think it’s great though; it’s like watering a plant.