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In the spring of 2005, I ascended the stairs to an un-airconditioned warehouse loft in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia. I was there to interview for a summer work-study position as a grants manager for Spiral Q, a nonprofit I knew had something to do with puppets—but what I saw at the top of those stairs blew me away. Eighteen years later, climbing the stairs at Grounds for Sculpture’s Domestic Arts Building last week to check out Spiral Q: The Parade, an exhibition on view until 2024, I found myself remembering that initial sense of awe.
As a lifelong fan of the oeuvre of Jim Henson (I taught myself to read thanks in large part to Sesame Street), I had a very clear idea of what puppets were supposed to be, and how they were supposed to operate, when I showed for my 2005 interview. Instead, I was greeted by an eight-foot, technicolor, fabric-and-papier-mâché figure that I learned later would be worn and operated by one person. It was grotesque. It was beautiful. I was hooked.
This day in history
That puppet probably doesn’t exist anymore. In September 2021, flooding due to Hurricane Ida wiped out the majority of Spiral Q’s collection. Signage at the Grounds for Sculpture exhibition say 70 percent; contemporary reporting after the storm said 80 percent—either way, it was a near-total loss.
This unfortunate circumstance makes Spiral Q: The Parade feel remarkably current for a museum installation. While other institutions favor career-spanning retrospective exhibitions, it’s literally impossible to capture Spiral Q’s 27-year history through artifacts. So instead, this gallery space shows an impressive body of work that reflects the world we live in today.
During my summer of grant work, I quickly learned that Spiral Q isn’t just about puppetry: it is about using puppetry to effect change. Spiral Q organizes parades and demonstrations; its artists lead workshops and teach art classes to people who might not otherwise have access to them—children and adults alike.
So for those still unaware of the organization’s mission, it might be surprising to enter this exhibition space and see a collection of signs and portraits celebrating trans lives and advocating for the trans community, propped up in the shadow of a towering wearable unicorn called, fittingly, “Trans Unicorn.”
This isn’t safe, comfortable museum art. It’s deliberately provocative and so current that the same day I visited Grounds for Sculpture, the Associated Press published an investigation that showed many states’ anti-trans legislation is identical or similar to model legislation circulated by a handful of conservative groups. This placement of the signs and the unicorn—in a gallery located in a safe haven state—is not just intentional, it’s strategic. It cannot be ignored.
Advocacy, joy, and action
The crisis facing trans Americans is only one issue covered in Spiral Q: The Parade. Other works showcase advocacy efforts for immigrant rights, accessible housing, and environmental advocacy. A cardboard cutout painted to look like a giant Jeff Bezos sports a sign that reads “Union Buster-in-Chief;” behind it a leaning tower of Amazon delivery boxes is topped by a sign that says “Amazon workers need a union.” There are signs for fast-food workers’ unions, too, and a cardboard model of the US Capitol sits on a green pegboard lawn, into which exhibit visitors can literally plant a flag for an issue they care about, reminding us, as second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch wrote, that the personal is political.
And ultimately, the personal is also joyful. In the back of the exhibition, projected on a bare wall, you can see Spiral Q’s work in action. From a portrait-aligned video that shows “Trans Unicorn” popping and locking to a produced mini-feature about Spiral Q’s annual Peoplehood Parade in West Philly, the artistry of Spiral Q is on full display here, in the way it’s meant to be seen. Because as impressive as the works look in a museum, they look even better in action on the street—where they were always meant to be.
What, When, Where
Spiral Q: The Parade. Through January 7, 2024, at Grounds for Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. $12-$25. (609) 586-0616 or groundsforsculpture.org.
Spiral Q: The Parade is on the second floor of the Domestic Arts Building at Grounds for Sculpture and is accessible via an elevator. Grounds for Sculpture’s main path is wheelchair and ECV-accessible, but some smaller paths may be difficult to navigate with mobility aids. Tours tailored for guests with limited mobility or vision are available. For more info, visit the accessibility page.
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