Since 2014, the youth-led Baltimore production company Get Your Life! has put out a vibrant array of videos, the results of an ongoing creative conversation between middle-school students from the city’s Waverly neighborhood, practicing artists, and local institutions. This Saturday, the Baltimore Museum of Art opens a retrospective screening room of work from the group inside its Patrica and Mark Joseph Education Center. It will be up for a full year.
Get Your Life! stems out of the artist Lee Heinemann’s work as a volunteer and teacher at the Waverly community center 901 Arts. After some time at the organization, the opportunity arose for Heinemann to create a program of his own, the end product being “a situation where kids write, direct, and usually star in videos that are then produced at a higher production level by a group of capable adults,” Heinemann explained to me over the phone recently. The videos incorporate green-screen technologies and have an ecstatic, poppy energy that feels connected to both contemporary video art and the rich history of community access television.
Although the program moved to the art museum The Contemporary in 2016 and 2017, this is the first formal exhibition staged by the group. “We didn’t set out to do this,” Heinemann, who took a position at ArtCenter/South Florida in Miami Beach in September, told me, of the retrospective. “But we’re at a point in our project where people’s lives are changing, the kids that we’ve worked with are now in high school, and they’re scattering, and our more adult team, their lives are changing as well.”
The show also gave the group a bit of a break in the production schedule. “When the museum approached us about doing something there, it seemed like a good moment to think back on what we’ve done instead of continuing to frantically produce more work,” Heinemann said.
The exhibition centers on videos produced by the group between 2014 and 2017, the centerpiece of which is a three-episode serial reality show entitled The Real Artists of Get Your Life, which the team worked on for around a year and a half. Surrounding the videos will be an installation of costumes, props, and related ephemera from over the years, as well as some new items. “We were able to hire the kids that we’ve been working with as consultants on the project, and they oversaw the design of furniture and lighting,” Heinemann said.
The artist singled out one collaborator, Daja Haleem, as a particular bright light throughout the run. Heinemann said they met when she was only 8. “We found this photo of her from way before Get Your Life!, where she’s wearing a really crunchy mom wig and holding a green screen,” Heinemann said. “I think that Get Your Life! really came from the energy that students like Daja were bringing to the art center anyways.”
(It should be also noted that Daja is somewhat of a hot wing fanatic. “Daja loves hot wings and jokes about hot wings, which really permeates all of the videos and now the gallery space,” Heinemann said. “There are some hot wing artifacts that have been generated through video production, but there are also some new hot wing-related furniture pieces and other apparati in the exhibition.”)
Within the larger project, Heinemann’s role is ultimately that of a facilitator. “We’re really trying to bring in the actual ways that contemporary art is produced, which is collaborative, which doesn’t necessarily rely on technical skill in the traditional sense, and focus on having a critical and visionary perspective,” he said.
On that note, the artist told me about a student who “wrote this whole situation about a girl who lived in a post-technology world where her only friend was a horse, and she didn’t have electricity or any of those things.” To film the scene, the crew was able to source an actual mini-pony off of Craigslist and have the farmer bring it in. “That’s the most dramatic example of, a kid has an idea, we try to make it happen,” he said.