St. Louis is in a unique position. Strategically situated at the confluence of the mighty Mississippi and its longest tributary, the Missouri, the Midwestern metropolis has long been viewed as the portal to the fertile lands of the west. The shimmering Gateway Arch — designed by famed mid century modernist Eero Saarinen in 1947 and completed in 1965 — commemorates the ambitions of “manifest destiny” though not the dark side of the rampant colonial conquest it also embodies.
St. Louis sits on unceded land historically inhabited by the Osage and Missouria nations. As the centre of the Indigenous Mississippian culture, the area played host to a number of earthworks associated, today, with the preserved Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in nearby southern Illinois. With the advent of settler expansion and subsequent river-borne and eventual rail-linked industrialization, these archaeologically rich land-formed forts and dwellings were periodically destroyed. Irish and German immigrants quickly established themselves on the frontier of what would become Southern and Northern states. St. Louis — once a Fur trading stronghold within the vast French-controlled Louisiana Territory — emerged as a major slave marketplace in the 19th century. The city played an important role in the lead up to the American Civil War as inhabitants with opposing views — including scores of recently freed people — engaged in early skirmishes that would ignite the larger conflict. Thanks to its long-standing ambitions as an important transportation hub, the city later played host to the 1904 World’s Fair.
Throughout the 19th and 20th-centuries, the city’s Black population grew significantly. The central Mill Creek Valley neighbourhood emerged as a hive of cultural activity — and in no small measure contributed to the rise of Jazz legends Jospehine Baker and Scott Joplin. Various urban renewal projects (undertaken under the scope of the 1954 Housing Act) saw the vibrant area demolished in the guise of so-called progress and in favour of new development, dispersing the community. Now seen as a symbol for the ineffective development of social housing “projects” throughout the country, Pruitt–Igoe was constructed with federal funds in the 1950s. Eventually demolished in 1972, the residential complex — designed by Minoru Yamasaki — had little to no recreational space, too few healthcare facilities or shopping centres, and limited employment opportunities. More acutely, mounting economic disparities and racialized disinvestment effectively destroyed the neighbourhood through poor maintenance and public neglect.
St. Louis was subject to segregation and Jim Crow laws well into the 20th century, and some explicitly discriminatory measures remained in place until the early 1980s. Outlying Black neighbourhoods, including those surrounding Pruitt–Igoe, received extremely little support, yet still fostered strong cultural engagement. Beginning in the 1980s, meanwhile, urban gentrification led to the partial redevelopment of the city’s downtown. Long-standing racial tensions came to a head in 2014 when Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in the suburb of Ferguson, sparking the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. In the near-decade since, numerous grassroots cultural and political organizations — such as gallery, community centre, and arts incubator The Luminary — have proven to be vital resources in the re-emboldenment of marginalized communities.
First mounted in 2019, Counterpublic is a new type of civic exhibition aimed at harnessing the potential of different creative mediums in expanding political and cultural discourse across St. Louis. The curatorial initiative utilizes art and architectural invention as a form of social design, community engagement, and placemaking, negotiating between different historical narratives and a contemporary drive to forge better outcomes. The event seeks to elicit new site specific and responsive conversations unlike other urban art festivals, which primarily focus on outsider or global perspectives.
Yet, as co-founder and art director James McAnally explains “The issues explored within the scope of Counterpublic, frames St. Louis as a crucible for how most U.S. cities — if not also, others around the world — in beginning to address their complex histories, reconsidering their prevailing narratives and histories.”
Programmed as a Triennial, the four month-event activated different parts of St. Louis with installations, performances, talks, and other activities that appealed as much to a local audience as it did to national and international visitors. This year’s program — the largest such public art initiative in the country — incorporated some 30 public psycho-geographic interventions commissioned to a carefully selected raft of contemporary talents operating in and outside of St. Louis. (Many of the works were developed in partnership with a group of independent curators.)
Strategically situated along a six-mile stretch of Jefferson Avenue — a thoroughfare that traverses the city and its layered past — these various works implemented and riffed-on different components of the build environment to highlight distinct facets of public memory and to help begin to cultivate the sense of a reparative future. Beginning with an installation at Sugarloaf Mound, the last remaining yet severely obstructed Indigenous mound in St. Louis (erected by the Osage Nation) and ending with Torkwase Dyson’s architectural installation Bird and Lava — an abstract homage to the lasting legacy of Jazz forefather Scott Joplin. Some of the pieces are permanent — Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s changing of road names in the so-called “State Streets” to reflect Indigenous tribes or their leaders instead of the names of states that dispossessed them — while others remained on view for the duration of the festival. The installations presented a mix between conceptual works and those that were more intuitive and tactile in conveying their core messages.
A number of the pieces in this section of the program were mounted in partnership with New Red Order, an anonymous collective closely associated with the Land Back Movement, an organization advocating for a transfer of decision-making power over land to Indigenous communities. The movement does not ask current residents to vacate their homes but maintains that Indigenous governance is possible, sustainable, and preferred for public lands.
With most of the commissioned works constituting as outdoor installations and performances held at Greenfinch Theater and Dive on the final two nights of the event in mid July, Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Lightening Bison work was presented at The Luminary as an augmented reality overlay. The app-enabled digital work depicted an individual in traditional dress as they might have appeared in this very location hundreds if not thousands of years ago but also in the present day and future. Counterpublic 2023 comprised projects derived from different layers and components of St. Louis life, such as the murals painted on the side of buildings — visual artist Simiya Sudduth‘s tarot card-esque Justice — or the interactive musical instruments mounted in a park — composer Raven Chacon’s call and response Drum Grid performance.
This approach was perhaps most evident at the historic St. Louis Union Station — a repurposed train terminus turned hotel and amusement park. Three site responsive installations by Steffani Jemison, produced by guest curator Diya Vij, played on the location’s current function to highlight elements of the sites’ history. Sky Is the Only called to mind different narratives from the past with spoken words and songs played within a specific gondola of a popular ferris wheel rising above the area in question. Untitled (Ripple) comprised retired stage drapes and a coin machine minting medallions commemorating Jospehine Baker. This project constituted a radically accessible form of art and played on the concept of crafting souvenirs.
Local post-disciplinary talent Damon Davis unveiled a striking permanent work dubbed Pillars of the Valley. These replicated monolithic sculptures were installed as multiples in a grid to reflect and abstract on the architecture of the gridded town homes that once stood as part Mill Creek Valley. Nine etched granite and limestone architectonic forms mounted near the recently completed St. Louis City SC soccer stadium. Many more of these works will be installed in nearby empty lots, ultimately forming a large-scale monument to an overlooked history. The practice of monument making — perhaps a challenge to the conventions established by the domineering Gateway Arch looming over the skyline — was a common motif throughout this year’s Counterpublic Triennale. The many ways in which this type of application was achieved, be it ephemeral or long-lasting, revealed the full potential for such tribute and creative expression.
Located near the widely celebrated Griot Museum of Black History — at the northernmost point in the event’s trajectory — artist Jordan J. Weber’s regenerative sculpture Defensive Landscape introduces a new monument to Peace Park. When completed later this autumn, this earthwork’s rainwater garden, gathering space, and play area, will benefit the predominantly Black College Hill neighbourhood, which has experienced outsized effects from toxic flooding.
It all amounts to “A start — and a statement,” McAnally concludes. “We [were] interested not in a return to some imagined past, but rather in codetermining livable futures rooted in repair,” he says. “CounterPublic’s ultimate ambition was to inspire a new level of awareness but also keep the lines of communication open, ensuring the continuation of conversations started during this multi-pronged event.”
Thirty public artworks interrogate displacement, erasure, environmental racism, and the legacy of westward expansion.