From the entrance at Poor Farm.
There is a deep nostalgia associated with driving southbound in rural Wisconsin on a Sunday afternoon in mid-summer. The temperature sits at a humid 90 degrees Fahrenheit while the skies darken to the north, and as I drive in my little Hyundai with two friends, somewhere near New London, Wisconsin, I’m slowing down to 25mph in small towns, behind fishing boats, and speeding up to 55mph again on the highways as the wind takes swipes at camping trailers. It’s the homeward stretch of a holiday weekend in the Northwoods, even though I wasn’t “up north” this weekend. It still feels like it — that’s such a Wisconsin feeling.
In the part of the state where groves of various coniferous trees exist in about equal measure next to rolling corn fields, there is a surprising and glorious little place known as the Poor Farm on a country highway near a town called Manawa, which people from around here don’t really know where it is exactly, except that it’s “over there and up north a ways.” At least from the Fox Cities, where I’m based currently, it’s about a 45 minute drive northwest, give or take.
I first heard about the Poor Farm several months ago from an art professor who brought it up because we had been chatting about Chicago and the artist Michelle Grabner, who co-curated the Whitney Biennial a few years back and currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also is from Wisconsin and has been running the Poor Farm with professor Brad Killam for the last several years. Opening weekend ran July 31-August 2 and I managed to bust up there, chasing the rain, just in time to catch some of the last few hours of the weekend opening.
My friends Claire and Shannon and I arrived to find a group of artists sitting outside, enjoying a beer in the shade on the hot day, and we were greeted so kindly it was as if we had been invited. We all introduced ourselves initially, chatted for a moment, and then we went through the front door and took to wandering.
The exhibition space is built into the old Waupaca County Poor Farm building, first established in 1876. Particularly in the very smart way that all of the historic characteristics and examples of decay in the building have been meticulously preserved as-is besides the plastered exhibition walls, it was very much an entire art environment. The work is not labeled individually; in the entrance there are sheets of information which can be removed and carried around to find the titles of the works on each floor (of which there are three), but it is incredibly enjoyable to avoid the distraction of any sort of interpretation, be it labels or introductions or essays.
The exhibition, entitled Listening and Making Sound, is curated by Molly Zuckerman-Hartung with Nicholas Frank. Every floor contains multimedia video, sound, digital, and sculptural installations. We were treated to a wonderful performance piece by Poncili Creacion, self-described object manipulators and performative sculptors, who were about to tour down to Chicago with their full play.
The program this year departed from previous years’ emphasis on solo projects, and instead provided a platform for a carefully curated group exhibition featuring work by artists whose work is political. It is described best this way, via the website:
“The artists invited to the Poor Farm this year have, by necessity or choice, worked in the spaces between artist and activist. They have been nurtured within and by communities: the San Francisco lesbian community of the early nineties, punk and riot grrrl in Olympia, Jacmel, Haiti’s artists and poets, Act Up in NYC in the 1980’s. Before thinking in terms of a detached audience or critical judgment, these artists were performing in basements, attending consciousness-raising meetings, and listening to poetry readings in dance clubs. (The refashioning of the self in listening.)”
It was a hot day. Windows and doors were open, and fat flies buzzed around video and sound installations, weaving sporadic trails in front of walls of peeling paint and cracked or missing windows. It was all brilliantly wabi sabi. The stone cellar was comfortably cool, and the artists seemed at home on this acreage on the border of the Northwoods. I wish I could have made it for the first couple of days, when cars lined the country road and people pitched tents on the lawn. That would be a sort of “up north weekend” unlike any other around here. And yet coming back home, less than an hour’s drive, I still felt as if I had truly traveled. Poor Farm is nearby, but a world apart.
Poor Farm presents year-long exhibitions which open the first weekend in August and run through the following June. More information can be found at poorfarmexperiment.org.