Still from ‘Present Tense’ © Kirsten Leenaars
The exhibition is part of Illinois Humanities’ larger Envisioning Justice initiative, designed to engage diverse Chicagoans in imagining a system that fosters justice, accountability, safety, support, and restoration for all people affected by the criminal justice system. During the past two years, the initiative has cultivated and strengthened a network of community organizations that have held community conversations, art education classes, and skill-sharing sessions about incarceration and its impact on local communities. These activities highlighted the voices of youth and community residents impacted by incarceration; some of these are reflected in the exhibition.
The Envisioning Justice exhibition, curated by visual artist and independent curator Alexandria Eregbu, with support from assistant curator Jameson Paige and curatorial consultant Danny Orendorff, features diverse media and art forms, including fiber-based works and textiles, audio, sculpture, performance video, animation, a “Resistance Architecture” structure, and community and activist ephemera such as posters and drawings. Contributors include seven artists commissioned by Illinois Humanities, as well as youth and adults who have been participating in Envisioning Justice programming. One of those commissioned artists is Dutch interdisciplinary video artist Kirsten Leenaars, who created the movement and performance video “Present Tense” for the exhibition.
Kirsten is working in Rogers Park with Circles & Ciphersand other community organizations. Kirsten’s project, which incorporates themes and interviews from youth leaders of Envisioning Justice Community Hub Circles & Ciphers as well as others in the surrounding Rogers Park community, will culminate in a movement and performance video entitled “Present Tense.” This music video is inspired by Circles & Ciphers’ hip-hop infused restorative justice practice and their collective creative talent. Personal stories and communal experiences are woven together in this video to express the performers’ individuality whilst being part of a collective. The work is about connecting individual stories with community stories.
The video shoot itself is organized as a multi-day community event in which members of Circles & Ciphers and local residents can partake in the creation of the music video as authors, performers, and stage assistants, thereby fostering community healing and connection and raising awareness about the lived effects of the current justice system and prison-industrial complex.
Kirsten Leenaars is an interdisciplinary video artist based in Chicago. Various forms of performance, theater, and documentary strategies make up the threads that run through her work. She engages with individuals and communities to create participatory video and performance work. Her work oscillates between fiction and documentation, reinterprets personal stories, and reimagines everyday realities through staging and improvisation.
Leenaars examines through her work how we relate to others. Leenaars has shown nationally and internationally. Recent projects include The Broadcast (2019), a video project for the Broad Museum in East Lansing that considers truth and distortion in public address and media representations and (Re)Housing the American Dream (2015-ongoing), a multi-year performative documentary project with American-born and refugee youth commissioned by the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee. Leenaars has received grants and commissions from, amongst others, the Andy Warhol Foundation, The Mondrian Fund, Milwaukee Art Board Production Grant, and Illinois Humanities.