This winter, in tandem with Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950, the Walker Art Center is partnering with four community centers to host free screenings of Cuban films. The series aims to remember and revisit the Neighborhood Media Project (1979–1982) and highlight its similarities to revolutionary projects in Cuba. Here, Simona Zappas concludes her four-part look at the Twin Cities–based mobile media group’s brief, yet storied history.
So, why look the Neighborhood Media Project now? What is the significance of remembering it? The answer isn’t really all that complicated. Someone remembered it, mentioned it to someone else, who mentioned it to someone who works at the Walker. Showing films at community centers is a good idea, and it tied in well with Adiós Utopia. Beyond that, the core goal of museums is to collect and archive culturally significant items. Becoming part of a museum’s collection or archive in itself is a form of validation and recognition of a project’s or artwork’s significance. Major institutions like the Walker can assign greater cultural importance and knowledge to something just by collecting. Inasmuch as the Walker is an archive, it is also a resource for the public and a means for folks to access art. By remembering and revisiting the Neighborhood Media Project, the Walker is both acknowledging the project’s impact on Twin Cities art culture and using it as a guide to better serve its surrounding community by creating greater, and easier, access to its collection.
In the process of researching the Neighborhood Media Project, it was revealed that the Walker provided funding to the project and co-hosted a number of events, including a concert and screening of Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama, as part of a celebration for Black History Month. This information was surprising, as the project truly seemed to operate outside of the institution and was a direct call-out for greater democracy. This partnerships speaks to the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that surrounded the Twin Cities media community during this time, while revealing the scope and achievements of the project. While the success of the original project can be measured by how many screenings they held, how big their audiences were, how much the audience enjoyed it, and how many filmmakers were presented, this partnership with the Walker points out that the work of the organizers broke existing barriers between elitist institutions and under-resourced communities. That in itself is a major success. They worked collaboratively: the Walker provided resources to the Neighborhood Media Project so they could better carry out their vision and, in return, the Neighborhood Media Project helped the museum connect to a broader community while dynamically demonstrating best practices.
Moving forward nearly 40 years to today, the Walker is returning to the Neighborhood Media Project because of its connection to the politics of Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950. Nisa Mackie, the Walker’s curator and director of Education and Public Programs, compared the project to a restaging not unlike recent Walker exhibitions of Fluxus pieces or the dances of Merce Cunningham. The return to the Neighborhood Media Project is a celebration of the original organizers, a collaboration between institution and community, and, most importantly, a celebration of the communities who made up the audiences at the project’s outset, and those who will enjoy the films today.