Ellen Mueller

Interview with JeeYeun Lee

by Ellen Mueller on January 22, 2024, no comments

a map of Detroit with five lines highlighted across it

JeeYeun Lee, “Walking Detroit” (2017-18) (map)

As part of the release of my book, Walking as Artistic Practice (pre-orders now open for softcover shipping in April!), I’m going to be publishing some brief interviews with the various artists, authors, researchers, creatives, collectives, and platforms whose art practice, written material, or other works I cite and mention.

My 23rd interview in this series is with JeeYeun Lee, an interdisciplinary artist based in Chicago. After quitting a PhD program in her twenties, she worked as a full-time nonprofit worker for over twenty years, and then quit that to focus on art-making. Now she deploys her academic and nonprofit skills in her art projects, using various topics and mediums to see if art can enable liberation.

EM: First, thank you for chatting with me about your work Walking Detroit (2017-18). I cite this work in chapter two (Analyzing Walking Works) in the subsection on “Written Texts,” and in chapter five (Who Gets to Walk and Where?) in the subsection on “Race.”  How would you describe the work and its accompanying book for people who might not be familiar with it?

JYL: I went to the Detroit metro region in 2016 to start an MFA program at Cranbrook Art Academy. It was a discombobulating place and environment. Someone told me that the radial roads in the Detroit area were built on trails that Native people had used, and immediately I thought of walking them. I moved around a lot as a child, and walking had always been a way of orienting myself. I hadn’t known that artists used walking as a practice before I started this project. I walked five radial roads for 25 miles each, and also walked the borders of three different suburbs. Walking was a way to both research and witness the structures of racism, colonization, and capitalism as they have shaped the region. I edited my thesis book from the MFA program into a self-published book documenting this project, with writing and photos from each walk.

The book also includes a few related projects, including my MFA thesis piece. For that project, I decided to focus on the Cranbrook campus, which is celebrated for its place in the mid-century Arts and Crafts movement in the U.S. I created an hour-long audio walk around the 300-acre property that narrates excerpts from my research on the construction of the Cranbrook campus, the white settler history of that region, settler colonialism in general, and Indigenous perspectives on land. I hadn’t thought much about settler colonialism before coming to Detroit, but focusing on place pretty much forces you to look at it. This is when I began really thinking about my position as someone occupying Native land, and what I wanted to do about that.

The book basically is my personal compendium of all the learning and thinking I was doing about Detroit at the time. The appendices in the book include a bibliography of Detroit, and slides from a talk I gave about the history of racism and colonization in the Detroit area. These were all partial in every sense of the word, since there could be no way to include everything.

EM: What are your thoughts on walking as artistic practice?

JYL: It’s a contradictory position. I like that we’re in an era when walking (and almost anything) can be considered as part of an artistic practice. So you can be an artist and say that your artwork is based on walking, and while most regular people will require a lot of explanation (and doubt that you’re really an artist), the people who like to push the boundaries of what’s considered art will feel like they are hip to include your work in that definition. At the same time, I’m glad that walking is such a mundane activity that it still degrades that definition of art, and as a time-based performative medium, walking doesn’t really create anything that can be put on the art pedestal. I enjoy those contradictions.

A crowd walking down a Chicago sidewalk

JeeYeun Lee “Whose Lakefront” (2021); Photo by Peter Fitzpatrick

EM: Can you tell us about any recent or upcoming projects you are excited about?

JYL: My two most recent projects involve the Chicago lakefront. When I came back to Chicago after the MFA program, I wanted to learn more about this city that I had grown up in. I was inspired by a book by Potawatomi historian John Low called Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago. In it, he describes a lawsuit that his tribe filed against the city of Chicago in the early 1900s for the land along the lakefront. The tribe said that in the treaties they had signed ceding land in Illinois, the eastern border was the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Since then, the city had created land along the shore with landfill, extending beyond that border. So the Potawatomi sued to get that land back, or have the city pay them for it. The case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which of course ruled against the Potawatomi.

I had never learned about this case, and never thought about any contemporary claims that Native people might have in Chicago or Illinois. So I worked with Professor Low and a committee of Pokagon Potawatomi and other Native artists and community members to produce Whose Lakefront. This was a procession in downtown Chicago where we drew a line of red sand along the sidewalk of Michigan Avenue, the border of the landfill, to mark the presence of unceded Native territory. This was the biggest project I’d done up to that point, with over 120 people in the procession, 40 volunteers, 1,600 pounds of red sand, and tons of bureaucracy.

Doing the research for that project got me fascinated with the actual construction of the landfill, so I just wrapped up Shore Land, which is an audio walk. Everyone loves the lakefront because it’s public access green space, but it’s such a contradictory place because the Burnham plan, which inspired much of Chicago’s park system, was created to suppress working class discontent, and, as I said, the lakefront is also unceded Native land. The audio narrative looks at this contradiction, with excerpts from the treaties, lawsuits, legislation and planning documents that have created the landfill. I wanted to focus on the languages that have made this settler engineering possible. But it couldn’t just be the settler side, so I also included excerpts from interviews I did with Native environmentalists and artists who talk about Indigenous perspectives on the sovereignty of land and water. I’ve released all the audio segments, and I’m going to work with the Chicago Park District to see if they’ll let me put signage along the lakefront so people can access and listen to the audio segments as they walk.