Jonathan Calm is a visual artist who works in photography and video that integrates as well as challenges the aesthetic and ideological tenets of architecture, documentary journalism and sculpture. Over recent years, Calm has primarily explored the socio-cultural, historical and geopolitical imprint of public housing on both sides of the Atlantic, tracing the development of the American ‘project’ back to its European Modernist roots across a palimpsest of visionary theoretical predicates and harsh urban realities, with an eye toward ever more critical reinvention of communal city life.
Calm’s art has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Britain, the Museo Reina Sofia, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Jersey City Museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institute and the Chelsea Art Museum. Numerous publications, among which The New York Times, Art in America, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Artforum and The Washington Post, have given significant mention to his output.
Calm received his BFA from Montclair State University in 1997 and his MFA from Columbia University in 2000. He is an Art Matters grant recipient and regular full-time faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he has been teaching since 2009.
Public housing and its diverse socio-historical manifestations is the subject of my recent work. It was the backdrop of my childhood, living seven stories up in the Linden House projects of East New York. I remember those stairs as a test of courage, a passage to get through as quickly as possible before something bad could happen. It was a daily reminder of a simple truth — architecture matters, the core premise of my work over the last ten years.
I begin with research, sifting through archival footage, contemporary news accounts, and local mythologies to uncover stories of life in similar places. I talk to the people who live there, traveling to meet them in neighborhoods outside the economic and cultural centers of New York, Chicago, London, Paris and Berlin.
Modernist ideology permeates these developments, self-contained capsules set apart from the surrounding communities by design. Untitled (Stage) is a detail from le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse (Radiant City) in Marseilles, conceived as a utopian housing complex but recognized as the prototype of public housing to come. Residents enjoy access to groceries, recreational facilities, medical and child care without so much as leaving the building.
Subsequent iterations reveal flaws in the principles behind these theoretically efficient human containers. Just because you can accommodate large numbers of people in such fashion doesn’t mean you should. **The Parisian Ville de Nanterre projects echo the same problems as Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing development: joblessness, poverty, drug addiction, crime.
My latest series use black and white imagery to reduce visual “clutter” and isolate architecture as a skeleton beneath the dysfunction. The Chambers series depicts quarters in urban zoos, environments contrived to celebrate the lives they constrain. The Reconstruction series dissolves exalted figures into humble places, pairing popular and historical found images to register present day reverberations of African American history from 1865 and after.
I present these subjects to reframe a problem, to move from a discourse of victimization to one of design intent. The accumulation of images offers the promise of insight — a way to make visible underlying patterns of thought that give rise to failed communities — and proposes new possibilities for rising populations transitioning from rural environments into megacities worldwide.