New Grant Supports Artists Addressing Censorship and Autonomy

In its continued commitment to preserving, protecting, and promoting underrepresented avant-garde art, the Franklin Furnace Archive, the organization-in-residence at Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn campus, has selected two winners from its pool of applicants for the inaugural XENO Prize. Performance artist Alex Mari in Atlanta, Georgia, and artist Nick Thornburg in Lander, Wyoming, will each receive $5,000 in three installments to realize their project proposals circumventing the government’s overreach into bodily autonomy and literary censorship.

Franklin Furnace Director Harley Spiller told Hyperallergic that the XENO Prize name is derived from the word “xenophile,” which means someone who is attracted to foreign cultures, manners, and people. The new prize aligns itself with the advocacy organization’s mission of bringing attention and support to time-based art that would otherwise be overlooked due to controversial content, cultural bias, ephemeral nature, or institutional neglect.

For the Performance Art sector of the award, Franklin Furnace opted to select an artist who lives and works in one of the 18 states flagged by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation for prohibitive legislature and policies against gender-affirming care. Out of over 250 applications, Mari’s proposal for a performance called “Rapture-Trap” stood out to the five peer-review panelists as an anticipated social endurance performance work nested within an installation — a phenomenon that crops up frequently in Mari’s practice concerning otherness, identity, and social spaces.

A still from one of Alex Mari’s live performances utilizing both physical and time-based media in a surrounding installation (image courtesy Franklin Furnace Archives Inc.)

Mari’s installation-based performance will examine “the intergenerational resilience of women of color designed to present the possibilities of epigenetic generational curses,” something that Spiller is eager to learn from and share with the others. “We want to learn more, especially about the concept of epigenetic curses, and we think that that’s important that the public is more informed about it — so here’s an artist who knows they can pull it off,” Spiller remarked. “And, it’s weird. It’s right up our alley.”

Mari was careful to not expose any details about the project with Hyperallergic just yet but specified that the concept had been conceived two years ago at “a small bubble tea shop in Suwanee, Georgia.” The artist said that the installation components will be produced within their studio practice at the Creative’s Project and the Goat Farm in Atlanta, and that the performance would take place in New York City most likely at the end of summer 2024.

For the Artists’ Books award sector, Franklin Furnace wanted to immediately address the influx of literary censorship across the nation through book banning and book burning. Of the 68 applications received, juror Coreen Simpson pinpointed Wyoming-based Nick Thornburg’s proposal for “Forbidden Resonance,” which will draw connections between the concept of forbidden knowledge and the historic suppression of autistic voices. Franklin Furnace will assist with the publication of 120 editions of the multi-disciplinary artist’s book and sending copies to the Library of Congress, all 50 State Libraries, the organization’s Artists’ Book Collection, and the Pratt Institute libraries.

“As an autistic person from a rural locale who has struggled to find a place in society, it generally seemed impossible that I would ever find a toe-hold in more dominant art circles,” Thornburg told Hyperallergic. “Receiving the XENO prize gave me hope —not just for myself, but for many other outsiders as well.”

Thornburg Nick Reclamation 2017 2
In Nick Thornburg’s “Reclamation,” an ink and acrylic rendering of a sage-grouse over a topographical map of priority conservation areas in central Wyoming celebrates the species’ proliferation under new protection efforts. (image courtesy Nick Thornburg)

Thornburg specified that the book will explore alternative “approaches to communication, unconventional learning styles, and narratives challenging the mainstream autism discourse” through an interspersing of mixed-media artwork, personal narratives, and testimonies from autistic perspectives.

“It will illuminate unseen, ignored, and forsaken perspectives of the autistic experience and the immense cost neurodivergent individuals have paid for belonging to this marginalized community,” the artist concluded.

On top of the $5,000 prize, Mari and Thornburg will be awarded individual, custom-made “Banned Book Bandoliers” from practicing artist and Spiller’s wife, Micki Watanabe Spiller, as a physical keepsake celebrating the achievement.

“It’s just really cool to be able to support artists like this,” Spiller said, stripping the prize down to its core. “Especially artists that don’t easily get that recognition very often.”

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