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In Conversation with Edra Soto

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In Edra Soto: Open 24 Hours, the inaugural artist commission for the Commons, Edra Soto presents liquor bottles that, in an act of documentation, she collected over the course of two years in her neighborhood of East Garfield Park. Over the course of the project, these objects will become art materials as Soto collaborates with visitors to graft remembrances of her Puerto Rican heritage upon them. Visitors are encouraged to take part in a series of writing stations, talks, performances, and workshops that consider the nature of urban space, cross-cultural dynamics, and the legacy of colonialism. As we prepared to launch our new, civically engaged space, we asked Soto to share more about her background and the research behind the project. Below we feature an excerpt from that conversation.

January Parkos Arnall: Over the course of the project, you will collaborate with audiences to create art objects. Tell us about the layering of shells—symbols of Puerto Rican culture—onto the bottles, which have become icons of the culture that you experience as a Chicagoan.

Edra Soto: The layering functions as a reflection of my geographic relationships—with Chicago, my neighborhood, and Puerto Rico. In the early stages of the project, I started thinking about my role as an artist archiving material. By applying a crafting language to the archived objects, I aim to bring public awareness to issues such as littering that surround us on a daily basis. A friend who happens to be a tremendous curator and writer, Ruslana Lichtzier, drew a connection between my boulevard in East Garfield Park and the beach. She recognized how the gesture of picking up a shell mimics my gesture of picking up glass bottles.

Seashells are the outer skeletons of mollusks. The outer skeletons provide shelter, sometimes camouflage, for the animals inside. For Open 24 Hours, I thought about the housing qualities of a shell and about how to build a symbolic shelter—a space associated with support, refuge, sanctuary—or a safe house.