Performance Series Exhibit B Rethinks the Literary Reading Model

Exhibit B founders Alex Shapiro, J. Howard Rosier, James Stewart, and Ian Wojcikiewicz

Exhibit B founders Alex Shapiro, J. Howard Rosier, James Stewart, and Ian Wojcikiewicz

by Rowan Beaird

In many ways, readings haven’t changed since the invention of the printing press. Audience members gather in a room, writers stand to read, and then there is polite applause. They’re often staid and unexciting. And as a result, most readings end up feeling like events by writers for writers—not the wider world that writers want to reach.

Exhibit B is looking to change that. Founded by School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) alums J. Howard Rosier (MFA 2018), Alex Shapiro (MFA 2017), James Stewart (MFA 2018), and Ian Wojcikiewicz (MFA 2018), Exhibit B [15]—a performance series sponsored by the Guild Literary Complex [16]—pushes artists to think beyond the typical limitations of a reading and develop new ways to bring their work into the world. “We don’t want to tell people what to do, we just want to create a space for people to express themselves,” shared Rosier.

At Exhibit B, this means that writers experiment with new forms—poets turn their work into video essays—and artists who don’t traditionally exhibit at readings, like photographers, have a new outlet for their work. More than anything else, the founders want the shows to be accessible to all audiences in a way that readings typically haven’t been.

Work from Exhibit B participant Mary Cerney (MFA 2021)

Work from Exhibit B participant Mary Cerney (MFA 2021)

“We all come from the working class. This is nothing against literary writers who are referencing Ulysses, but we know that’s not for everyone,” said Stewart. “We look for artists who address themes of class, who talk about everyday lived experiences.”

The idea for the series in many ways began at SAIC. All four founders met while completing their Masters of Fine Arts in Writing and were inspired by the School’s emphasis on intention and interdisciplinarity. “The most exciting question I was asked at SAIC was ‘Why is this a poem?’ That’s the question I hope writers get to ask themselves when they participate in Exhibit B,” said Shapiro.

“We don’t want to tell people what to do, we just want to create a space for people to express themselves.”

The series launched in March of 2020 and takes place bimonthly. Though originally they imagined the event would be hosted in person, it’s been virtual due to the limitations of the pandemic. “It was a quick shift from live to online, which actually opened up a lot of doors. Who we would get, what we could ask them to do. It’s pushed us into different areas,” said Wojcikiewicz.

All four founders help to curate each show, ensuring that there’s a diversity of backgrounds and art forms. For their January show, they partnered with Awakenings, a nonprofit that promotes healing for survivors of sexual violence through the arts. They showcased art made at the center and interviewed the executive director. The event also featured poetry readings accompanied by photography, video, and collage work.

“We’re very cognizant of who we select for each show,” said Rosier. “It’s important that we have a decent showing of different modes of expression.”

Work from Exhibit B participant Sara Goodman

Work from Exhibit B participant Sara Goodman

Ultimately, through its commitment to accessibility and openness, Exhibit B hopes to build community. An emphasis that—like the series’ focus on interdisciplinarity—stemmed from their MFA program. “This seemed like a very natural extension of our time at SAIC. We were cognizant that community building is an important part of this work,” shared Stewart.

“We wanted to bring people together, even before the pandemic,” said Wojcikiewicz. “Living in the city can feel very siloed. It can be cold out there professionally. Exhibit B is a slightly warmer place for people to come together.”

Learn about Exhibit B's upcoming shows [15]. To support the work of the Guild Literary Complex, visit their site [17].

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