G-Sync: Multi-disciplinary artist Hugo Claudin reflects on how art transforms a community

Part of the charm of many of our modern cities is that within each are indicators of their overall health. One of those areas that we often survey is a city’s artists and the community their presence can enable to happen for the area residents.

As we hear more and more stories of artists in other cities having to adapt quickly to survive during an era of explosive and fresh growth, within Grand Rapids our creative folks, like multidiscipline artist Hugo Claudin, have had options for years ahead of our current growth spurt. 

Because of this project that has been led by Dwelling Place with the assistance of area funders, city planners, and artists, our Avenue for the Arts can offer affordable live/workspaces that enable artists to practice the experiments within the culture that shape our arts community. 

Claudin mentions in his live radio interview, that you can listen here courtesy of WGVU’s The Morning Show with Shelley Irwin, that his journey began in the early 1980s and still continues to this day at his alternative art space called Mexicains Sans Frontieres that he opened in 2006.  

When asked what his time in Grand Rapids has taught him, he says a big takeaway was that he started to learn over time about liberated art spaces and pleasure activism. So while it may seem we can place him in boxes with others who contribute via painting, photography, music, and producing events, it is the arc of all of his events and their many threads that are connected to others in our arts world that make him the most interesting artist in Grand Rapids in my opinion. 

The Future Needs All of Us,
Tommy Allen, Publisher

TA: While we covered a lot of ground in our interview on WGVU's The Morning Show with Shelley Irwin, you mentioned that you recall a time when jazz was being played out on the streets. Did you have to have a permit or rent a space to make this happen?

HC: Back in the late '80s/early '90s, my friend Rick Todd started a place called the Enclave Cafe (101 S. Division) around the same time the Reptile House was happening. Rick’s idea then was centered more in a communitarian, anarchist vision of what an art scene should be like, and while the experiment was a commercial flop, the idea about the occupation of space to create art was something that took many years for me to understand.
I met Alan W. Moore, who is an expert on such things way later, and this shined a light on my own journey to investigate the concept of liberated art spaces. In those days, we did not have the fancy vocabulary to describe these efforts.

TA: Well, that is the beauty of reflection. So about that street jazz culture? 

HC: Yeah, we used to play jazz on the street corner with cats like Stewart Cunningham (Mr. Sports jazz) and other folks. Also at this time, jazz music was also being showcased in punk venues. In fact, bands like Medeski, Martin, and Wood and the Either Orchestra (who all played here in Grand Rapids when starting out) were already hip to playing jazz to punk and rock audiences and in doing so their offerings created a real turning point for the dying jazz scene.

TA: I think we forget this is the time period when Kenny G arrives big on the scene. Looking back on the many spaces you have inhabited/lived, can you estimate for us how many acts you booked to perform in our city?

HC: It has to be over 1000. I have a journal at home with all the big names, many have been lost to obscurity, but a lot of these acts that I brought to Grand Rapids were nobodies when I first programmed them. 

And look at them now? Many of these acts have gone on to win awards from Billboard, Down Beat, and Wire magazines. These local performances also gave many of our local bands their first shot at opening for touring bands or big names. 

For example, Burton Greene played a show at my loft and did only three U.S. dates. I have had many of my favorite players, poets, plays, and even puppet shows from names like Cooper Moore, Burton Greene, Hamid Drake, Jack Wright, Tatsuya Nakatani, Fred Longberg Holm, Federico Ughi, Frode Gjestard, Tony Malaby, Wolfang Reisinger, Steve Swell, Barry Altshul,  poets John Ross, Ana Castillo … so many more.

TA: That is an impressive list that we will need to explore later in time, but was there an act that stood out to you and why?

HC:  You know, Tommy, a lot of the musicians that have played here in Grand Rapids actually came out of the New York jazz loft scene made well-known to the world through people like Sam Rivers, who had a loft but also used other spaces that belonged to New York artists. 

When they tell me I am carrying that tradition forward, it brings tears to my eyes. Jack Wright is a famous improviser saxophonist who also wrote a book, "The Free Musics," about the jazz scene after the loft years. In this book, he talks a lot about occupied spaces and liberated spaces. Reading this history is what gave me a new boost of energy because I recognized I had made this space Inhabit into a public space.  A person can literally see how I live when they attend a show, thus blurring the lines of my space and their space, public and private. In this space, we commune.

TA: Local musician Claire Fisher, who has performed at Mexicains Sans Frontieres replied after being asked to share her thoughts on your space said, “I like that I can “get weird there.” While this is clearly her opinion, I doubt she is alone having been to many of your shows over the years. So what does “get weird here” mean to you?

HC: It means the person feels liberated from the norms of the outside world, that we are in a safe environment with other creatives. [With this space] you get to f*ck up, fall down, forget the lyrics, go off script, as the listener partakes in this creative journey together. It is fun, too, since we get to suspend belief for an hour or two and go into play mode. I believe that is what she means.

TA: I believe that you and Vito are the last two remaining original tenants of Governor Granholm’s Cool Cities project the Avenue for the Arts (live/workspaces) which have enabled a lot of activity to flourish over the years on the avenue, so has it remained cool? 

HC: Vito (aka Derrick Hollowell) and I have the special art sauce. It never runs out because Vito is always hip because he lives as an artist all the time. He is not pretending to be big Vito. He knows he's big and has already left his imprint on our hip hop art scene in this town. 

TA: Well, that staves off anyone's claims of imposter syndrome. You have nothing to prove it appears by both of your records.

HC: We no longer have to prove anything ... nor pretend. We have lived our vision. What is cool is to continue to welcome new artists to this field because it has always been cool to encourage others regardless of where they are on their arts journey. 

To me, it will always be cool to open your home to art and let chaos reign. Art is not neat, it is a big mess behind the curtains.

Photo by Tim MotleyTA: But what threatens spaces like yours is growth and since we are no strangers to growth, what are the challenges, if any, on the street these days for artists?

HC: I am facing difficulties with my space, as my neighbor does not like my freedom, what I share with the world, what I have created. I believe he doesn't understand that he has living legends playing next door. That I invite emerging talent and get them ready for the stage. It is not quiet, neat, nor fun to be around sometimes for sure, but I hope one day they will come to understand that what I do has value that while it is not monetary, it enriches the soul, it enriches our culture.

TA: Lots of folks like to “play city,” bringing overlays that range from suburban perfection to a warped view based on what Hollywood has widely distributed. But I have learned that cities are really about embracing the chaos of hundreds of thousands of humans all trying to navigate our lives with the hopes we will find a home … and home is a community. So what advice do you have for other cities considering adopting similar techniques to lure new folks to their community by propping up their arts scene? How do we ensure that they hit their goals of creating a community that does no harm to others who have often endured under very harsh conditions?  

HC: A similar project was done in Detroit; they had a communal space with a gallery for gatherings and art. Each artist had to spend time learning about all the work within the space and be able to be well-versed in the art of the gallery. This would have helped a lot here had we thought of this at the time. Also, there are no closets in my space ... that would have solved a lot of my problems.

TA: While on the topic of value, looking back on the many intersections of our own lives over four decades, I really believe you are one of our city’s most important cultural assets, so looking way ahead, what do you hope will be your legacy? 

HC: My new bag is pleasure activism, a term I learned at a fellowship through the National Equity Program. This term has allowed me to expand on what I am already doing in a more emphatic way. 

TA: Can you expand upon this?

HC: When folks look at the area of music programming, often a funder will seek ways to find leverage points by asking the artist or producer questions like, "Why should we fund this?"

The answer to me is that being exposed to music at an early age can increase your math skill.  The pleasure activist in me would argue that music is enough. We can forget its relaxing qualities as the pure joy of music alone should be enough. We don’t need to tell you what the benefits to being exposed to music or art should be.  

So I am playing around a lot with these new ideas. The liberated spaces I talked about should encourage this type of thinking.  Art is not going to keep you sane, or simply be to raise your math scores, it should be a pleasure to enjoy it and in a place where you can meet others like you. This is how music welcomes dialogue, critiques, and even deeper conversations. I like to introduce and welcome people who come through my space to the artists, filmmakers, poets, models, etc., who all inhabit this space but also our city.  

Photos of Claudin provided by the artist.
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