Whitehot Magazine

February 2010, We Are the World @ Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center

Bailey Salisbury, Solitude, 2009, (detail); Internet transfer to digital, archival print
; courtesy Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center

We Are the World 
Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Centerʉ۬
1034 N Milwaukee  
Chicago, IL 60622
January 23 through February 20, 2010

Curated by Liliana Lewicka

Participating artists: Ninna Berger, Caitlin Denny, John Henderson, Parker Ito, Zachary Kaplan, Anne Guro Larsmon, Matt Momchilov, Justin Olerud, Job Piston, Melissa Sachs, Bailey Salisbury, and Justin Swinburne

In the 1980s, popular music and all of its visual and material culture permeated the airwaves via one pervasive medium, Music Television (MTV). Like most lower-middle class white suburban kids in America, the majority of my cultural experiences came directly from videos on MTV. My first encounter with social activism and a world beyond the US was through We Are the World at the age of five. Born out of Harry Belafonte’s Africa relief initiative, the song was a pop ballad for the post-modern world. In the video, fifty of the recording industry’s best entertainers came together in one large studio to record a song about global unity and the struggle against famine in Ethiopia. 

We Are the World became a well-meaning multi-platinum activist pop anthem in 1985. Although the album / song was about a desire to unite as one people and stop famine in Africa, the success in record sells, collectable merchandise, and three Grammys overshadowed the noble effort. Today, the phrase We Are the World could signal a number of social, cultural, and economic meanings: from a pop song to post-colonialism, global wars on terror, globalization, third world development, structural adjustment programs, the global economy, a new world order, global governance, global warming, an effort to provide proper aid to Haiti, etc.

We Are the World then, for the purposes of this writing, represents twelve international visual artists whose work is currently on view at Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center in Chicago. Curated by artist and California College of the Arts graduate, Liliana Lewicka, the exhibition unfolds in a small intimate setting. As the press release states, We Are the World is “conceived as both a critique of the ineffectiveness of the original program and an embrace of its cultural significance.”

Melissa Sachs, Making Lists, 2010; Digital print;
courtesy Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center

Roots & Culture consists of two rooms and one hallway leading to an open three-wall area towards the end of the space. Works in this exhibition are neither literal interpretations of the song nor obvious visual efforts to critique it, rather, each work was created in this cultural moment by artists born within the decade of or before the song's release. Most of the artists in the show do not know one another; the cohesion exists through a curatorial vision by Lewicka and the act of twelve international artists showing under one concept.

Each single work is empowered to convey the artists’ personal interests and to signal the collective meaning. The works represent not so much global / international views, but connected human interests. As we are told repeatedly by corporate news, the earth has become metaphorically “flatter”, more “crowded” (connected), and the local is everywhere via new forms of technology and social media. I certainly do not endorse pseudo-cultural critics like Thomas Friedman, but I do recognize the ever-decreasing distance between humans and experiences.

What I managed to take away from my interaction with this We Are the World experience was the significance of having international artists show work under the framework of one-world representation. Located within this show’s very existence is a symbolic meaning that reveals how anything created collectively today can represent the world, symbolize a slice of the world, or actually be the world. The group of artists, in their very assemblage, are the world. Being the world is living in the present reality of the world, under its momentary conditions, and having access to it from multiple perspectives. The exhibition made me realize in an obscure post-structural historical way, that anything created by artists who lived through We Are the World’s debut are thus connected to it culturally by way of her/his own cultural experience

Zachary Kaplan, Can You Feel Me, 2010; Digital video projection; courtesy Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center

Keith Brown

​W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.


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