The first feeling that hits you standing outside of Whitman-Walker’s new cultural venue—The Corner—located on 14th & R NW is that it feels out of place. Albeit, not in a bad way. So much of 14th Street is flooded with new variations on how to charge you too much for coffee or apartments where the co-sign is a trust, that you can’t help but feel something when you come across the antithesis to both of those.
“Many of the important services Whitman-Walker provides are free and so instead of divesting their properties, they decided to instead invest into building something that could, in the long run, provide some income stream,” Ruth Noack says. “And instead of turning this space into retail, they wanted a public space that pushed back against the commercialization and privatization in the area. That decision led to this cultural center.”
And while the space is no longer a storied medical center, the spirit of the Corner follows in a similar vein. Much of our consumption of the realities of modern society is filtered or curated. We see yet another report of some gross misdeed and think “that’s awful” and carry on. (Can you blame us in 2020?) The Corner tries to push back against that short-term memory, using art and discussion to force us to acknowledge, reflect, and react.
This [exhibit] was a call for action,” Lucas Michael says bluntly. “Everyone who comes into contact with this project becomes activated. People are angry about what’s happening on the southern border and this exhibit is an activating point where we’re offering a channel to turn that anger into positive action.”
The Corner’s opening exhibit, When We First Arrived…, is a call for action buttressed by incredible and pointed works of art documenting personal accounts of children locked up on the southern border in U.S. immigration detention centers. It’s truly awful to explore the context behind each piece, but it’s an internal discussion you can’t ignore. What’s truly amazing is that each artist created their work of art based on their own interpretation of the accounts provided by collaborators Mary Ellen Carroll and Lucas Michael of DYKWTCA (Do you know where the children are?). And yet, there is a symbiotic energy through the gallery; regardless of how it’s portrayed or explored, the mistreatment of children on the southern border is a universal travesty.
The Corner’s “When We First Arrived…” exhibit curated by Ruth Noack runs until March 29, 2020. Opening times: Wed-Sat 12-6 pm, Sun 3/29 2-5 pm. 1701 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.
BrightestYoungThings: How did this opportunity come about? I still remember when this space was still the old Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center. Now it’s a multi-use space hosting an art exhibit.
Ruth Noack: Many of the important services Whitman-Walker provides are free and so instead of divesting their properties, they decided to instead invest in building something that could, in the long run, provide some income stream. And instead of turning this space into retail, they wanted a public space that pushed back against the commercialization and privatization in the area. That decision led to this cultural center.
BYT: The small public space where you can just sit down is a very simple idea, but rarely incorporated into new developments.
Ruth Noack: It’s also very inviting when people pass by and are able to look inside. I know personally that if I can’t see into an art space or to have an expectation of what I’m about to see, I don’t have a desire to go into the space. And the hope is that this space isn’t just for people that live here, but also Whitman-Walker clients and people in communities that continue to be underserviced.
BYT: How did you personally become involved with this project?
Ruth Noack: After I was hired, I made the decision that exhibitions would be a big part of this space. The exhibitions would be supplemented with an events program that invites the community and helps people understand the different needs of communities in the city. We want this center to be a bridge to our clients and the communities we want to serve.
BYT: How do you use this space and the mission behind it to access communities in places like Anacostia; places that are still often considered too far by a lot of people who live in Northwest or Northeast?
Ruth Noack: Instead of asking people to come into a community, we will go into those neighborhoods and provide our services to the people that actually live there. We want to complement the activities already happening in Anacostia and amplify what’s already happening there.
Mary Ellen Carroll: I also think that the idea of transporting people to the cultural institutions around the city so that they can get their culture is a broken method. It has been for a long time. You have to start from the ground up and build with the community already there.
BYT: How does the idea of working with the community already in a given place translate to this exhibit? And how do you balance providing culture with exploring a difficult issue like human rights issues on the southern border?
Mary Ellen Carroll: When Do You Know Where the Children Are? began working with Whitman-Walker and Ruth on this project, we really thought about what we should do with the Flores documents. Of course, you can just release that information into the world. But as artists, we know that, together, we can do something together that amplifies the information in the documents.
Most of the artists on display don’t make the kind of work you see around you, where the subject matter is provided to them. Lucas and I worked very hard to transcribe the information in the Flores documents and make it searchable for the artists. The artists chose the accounts they wanted to explore and you see that their work directly reflects their own thinking.
Ruth Noack: The way society talks about issues is quite set. We all know of the children locked in detention centers along the border, but we might not know the details. Art gives the issue another forum and it allows people to access it differently. Communication and exploration through art also mean that you can deal with harsh issues in a way that doesn’t let you push them away so easily.
That’s what a cultural center can do.
BYT: Are the artists involved reflective of this thinking? I’m curious if, in the selection process of artists, you were looking for specific types of artists?
Mary Ellen Carroll: Many of the artists involved came from our personal contacts and network. A lot of it is about trust and treating our community with respect. The youngest artist on display is in their 20s but we also have a piece from Bob Witz, who’s 85 years old. We wanted to create a plurality of race, gender, and sexuality with our artists.
Lucas Michael: This was a call for action. Everyone who comes into contact with this project becomes activated. People are angry about what’s happening on the southern border and this exhibit is an activating point where we’re offering a channel to turn that anger into positive action.
BYT: Why this issue? In 2020, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, expansive gentrification, class divides, and climate change are all issues that weigh heavily on society. But what is it about this issue that led to it being the one explored in this first exhibit?
Ruth Noack: Many of the issues we’re facing impact or are related to migration. And as we speak there are 7,000 children in detention on this side of the border and now that I’m in this country it’s my responsibility to deal with this. It’s all of our responsibility.
Lucas Michael: Children are also the most vulnerable. But to your point about why not focus on an issue like gun violence, whenever there is a shooting the media covers it and we’re constantly reminded about gun violence. We’re constantly reminded of global warming because of the fires happening across the world. But when it comes to children being separated, incarcerated, or buried, that’s an issue that we are not reminded of but it’s also an issue that we can not let disappear.
Feature image: Anneé Olofsson
Believe in the Journey, 2019
Size 6 and Size 8, H and M sweatshirt with Frozen iconography with silkscreen 20 x 42.5 x .5 inches. Image copyright Anneé Olofsson.