Editor’s note: Both Adam and Tish Turl use they/them pronouns.
Adam and Tish Turl, two of the co-founders of the avant-garde Locust Arts & Letters Collective, are the big booming hearts behind its brick-and-mortar manifestation, the Born Again Labor Museum, in Carbondale, Illinois. They inaugurated their immersive art and left movement space in March earlier this year. Like a lot of their works, visual and literary, the name is meant to be lighthearted (as is their fanciful locust-filled “origin story”). Changing the world for the better is certainly a task they take seriously, but a lot of their charm comes from the fact that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re not exactly your prototypical evangelical Marxists proselytizing scripture from the sacred texts of 19th-century German philosophers. As you’ll see for yourself if you ever happen to visit the Born Again Labor Museum, Adam and Tish uphold no orthodoxies, artistic or political. They did, however, post signs around town offering free copies of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. (Eight people so far have responded to the offer.)
“So far, we only got one negative call. We’d put up a sign on the side of one of the dorms on [the Southern Illinois University] campus and a libertarian called us to tell us to go fuck ourselves,” Tish explained with a laugh. “We used his message in the intro to one of our podcasts.”
Aesthetically, BALM is a museum of the radical weird infused with what Tish calls “aspirational escapism” (as opposed to “acquiescent escapism”). Aspirational escapism is about you writing potential alternatives and lives for yourself, they say. Acquiescent escapism, however, is something different—something that requires giving up being the author of yourself altogether and just hiding from the world for a while.
Even though it’s devoted to the working class, BALM is not anything like The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which offers informative displays for visitors detailing working-class immigrant life in downtown Manhattan in an actual tenement, and everything inside is suffused with the tint of the American Dream. BALM is also definitely not like the immersive arts and entertainment company Meow Wolf, which, while structured as an artists’ cooperative that revels in the weird, has no radical political core (but does have a history of mistreating its own workers). Moreover, BALM is not at all like the splendid four-story Andy Warhol museum in downtown Pittsburgh: the contents of the museum track and curate the (market-driven concept of) Warhol’s singular genius, from working-class art prodigy to international art superstar; the museum itself, on the other hand, is a sterling example of how cultural institutions can be catalysts for gentrification.
The Turls refuse to be gentrifiers.
“Opening an art space just to make art and share it—that’s something that’s alien in most cities now,” Adam told me. “I’m not making a moral argument exactly, and I especially don’t blame artists who got caught up in this 40 or 50 years ago, but it’s so obvious now, and you can’t pretend to wash your hands of it.”
They see Carbondale as gentrification-proof, at least for now. 14,000 of its 25,000 residents are college students.
“For Carbondale to gentrify, something huge would have to happen,” Adam noted, gesturing outside. “There would have to be a critical mass of well-paid professionals, and that’s not gonna happen here. And it’s definitely not happening at the strip mall.”
BALM’s neighbors in the run-of-the-mill strip mall located two miles from the university’s campus include a head shop, a record store, a music store, and a “hippie place where you can get a tarot card reading.”
Adam, a self-described Brechtian, thinks every art space is a theatrical space that tells a story. “So what is the white-cube fancy art gallery saying about rich people in new shoes, having mid-shelf wine, looking at really expensive paintings? Because that changes the meaning of the work in there, in a big way,” they said. And the story told by hoity toity exclusive art galleries is the story of bourgeois rot and cultural constipation. BALM, of course, hopes to tell a different kind of story with the space and resources available (Adam kidded that they’re “not poor, just broke,” but also that they wouldn’t mind if the occasional rich person wandered in to support the museum).
Joking aside, catering to rich patrons is wholly besides BALM’s point. Tish writes about eating them. In their short essay “Class Revenge Fanfiction,” published in the winter ’22 issue of Locust Review, Tish doesn’t mince words:
I want to create characters not that people aspire to be like but whom people see themselves in who end up doing things they already aspire to do but won’t, for whatever reason. Probably this penchant for fictional violence against wealth hoarders will get me into trouble eventually. Until then, however, I will continue to write about working class robots in sewers trying to shoot the evil meat above.
“The most important thing about having the space,” Tish said, “is to provide working people with a place where they can walk in and see themselves. And [where they can] also know that it’s safe here to start doing the stuff that they need to do, which is not safe to do elsewhere. We can disagree on some finer points of things, we don’t all have exactly the same ideology, we can discuss things. But we’re not tolerating certain kinds of passive aggressions, microaggressions—things like that don’t fly here.”
BALM has a central meeting area where local Starbucks workers organized their successful unionization campaign (the union election, which took place on Aug. 11, had a final tally of 11 “Yes” votes and 2 “No” votes). In that same meeting area, pro-choice activists have made protest signs and hashed out plans to support a new abortion clinic in town. The Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter holds its political education movie nights there, too, viewing films like 9 to 5, Matewan, Land and Freedom, United in Anger (a documentary about Act Up), and The Janes (a recent HBO documentary on the underground abortion rights group in Chicago before Roe).
On display where the mostly young people gather are photos and posters of revolutionary leaders and iconic scenes of working-class, radical, and socialist struggles, all finished with gritty touches of cotton and ash. The images are hung so high on a wire affixed by clothespins that most people have to look up to see them. They are part of the intentionally never-finished installation—an unspoken but purposeful reminder to activists to document our actions for posterity, lest they be forgotten.
Adam, who is older than Tish by more than a decade, can name each photo’s subject with the kind of nonchalant expertise of a diehard sports fan rattling off key player stats and team lore: “This is Paris in ’68, Memphis in ’68, the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, a Black Panther poster by Emory Douglas, a still from Harlan County USA,” they explained. “The cotton is a reference to the slave crop and the ash is a reference to General Sherman’s march to the sea. One of my ancestors came over from England, went right into the army, and was part of the march to the sea.”
Like many socialists, Tish and Adam have thought long and hard about how unfairly society is currently structured and how it could be remade in a more just way. And that desire to restructure comes from a place of love—for the world, and for other people. Contra the Fredric Jameson axiom, popularized by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism, it’s far easier for these two to imagine the end of the capitalist order than the end of the their earthly home. Adam grew up in Carbondale, which is surrounded by natural beauty.
“When I was a little kid, I thought everybody lived in the forest,” Adam said. “I’m not religious or anything, but those forests are sacred. That’s the closest thing I have to cathedrals, and they’re in trouble.”
Neither Tish nor Adam believes that the climate catastrophe has even the remotest chance of being solved by market-driven solutions.
“If you can’t imagine anything else other than capitalism, over time that narrows your options considerably. The amount of space to think outside of the market, outside of hustling every day, is narrowed,” explained Adam.
BALM is meant to be a bulwark against that constriction of imagination. Tish and Adam are swashbuckling.
In every BALM gallery, original artwork by the Turls will spin you round and stop you in your tracks, even though, as Adam confessed, “sometimes it’s not even necessarily fun to make it, but it’s something you have to… try to do.” There is a room, for instance, where handcuffs dangle off fry baskets. It takes a minute to register their startling reminder that what happens in workplaces is often traumatic and cruel—and that workers’ subjugation is mandatory. In the Slow Apocalypse Room, an angel’s wings are attached to a toilet paper display, prompting one to wonder what happened to all of those essential workers stocking the shelves during the toilet paper frenzy at the outset of the pandemic. Also on display is a Wounded Tool Library, where the stories of the tools themselves, and how they came to be broken and wrecked, are told. Passing through space, the personification of the tools conjures in one’s chest an uneasy sense of the ways flesh-and-blood working people, whose stories are rarely told or listened to, are objectified.
The Turls are deeply in love with each other—and with their communities of struggle, in Southern Illinois and beyond. Like so many others in the international working class, despite having a multitude of oppressive forces bearing down on them daily, they still have everything to live for. They will not be relinquishing their happiness to the ruling class anytime soon. After all, it is that same class that, if it considers them at all, sees queer, non-binary low-wage-earners like them—who give their all to the world while they themselves are just barely scraping by—as little more than swarming insects to be avoided. Nonetheless, as Adam and Tish believe, there is power in the swarm.
“The amount of trauma that I have experienced in my life,” Tish said, “not even related to capitalism, but also the capitalism on top… Even if you’re not necessarily conscious of it, if you’re doing writing and creating, you’re processing that trauma. It’s either moments of vengefulness that I wish could’ve happened or, ‘Look at this thing that is a fact of our life that is disgusting. We have to stop it.’”
Exercising (or, more precisely, weaponizing) their imaginations in the service of the working class is one of their primary daily joys. Over breakfast, Tish might tell Adam a dream they just had.
“I was in a room full of people and they weren’t wearing masks, and there was an elephant in the corner with a large knife,” Tish explained, half-groaning. “And I woke up and I told them about it, because I was frustrated at how obvious it was. As a writer you want to plumb your dreams for the weird stuff, but I was like, ‘Really, brain? You’re just gonna give me a big elephant in the room with a knife!”
Later Adam will paint that dream scene and make Tish gasp.
They pass the inspiration back and forth like a glowing baton in a relay race against time—and the stakes of winning that race couldn’t be higher. From the locusts’ point of view, they are able to see how corporate executives and government bureaucrats are normalizing policies of exterminism in the face of rising fascism and climate destabilization.
While “exterminism” may sound too extreme to some, how else are we to characterize the logic on display with an institutional “response” to COVID-19 that has condemned hundreds of thousands of essential workers in the US to an early grave—and still claims an average of 338 lives a day? “The handling of the pandemic brought a 40% increase in working age deaths according to an insurance industry report,” Adam explained. “They consider a 10% increase in working age deaths to be a catastrophe, and it was 40%. It’s one of those things that’s not talked about in the ‘tight labor market’ discussion, but there were about 400,000 people who are no longer alive, who were working.”
Maybe it’s one of the weird effects of the curated displays, but BALM can feel a little bit holy at moments, a temple of sorts for the souls of ordinary folk—who are, as Adam and Tish believe, anything but.
“I don’t think anybody is actually ordinary,” Adam said. “And that’s part of the problem, because everybody’s actually amazing, and I live in a world that doesn’t allow them to be.”
The inspiration for BALM stretches all the way back to artisan workers of the 19th-century Parisian working class who would gather in studio garrets and cafés to stay up all night talking about a world more suited to human flourishing than the contemporary, industrializing one taking monstrous shape all around them. “They would talk about what kind of art people should make to help realize [that better world],” Adam said. “It was a normal part of life, and that’s what we should build in working-class communities all over the place. Let’s get together and talk about how we make our life better.”
One of the ways that Adam and Tish make BALM available to working-class people who are not already politicized and organizing is by renting a room within the museum to the Carbondale Tool Library. It’s a lending library stocked with a good amount of inventory.
“One of the deficits of meaning in a lot of contemporary art is that it’s situated next to well-heeled people who don’t really care about it,” Adam explained. “If it speaks a little to people who are coming to borrow a drill so they can fix their table, that’s a much better use of it than sitting on a wall 10 feet away from some other artwork.”
Burger King Parking Lot’s Wife is a work that gets noticed and commented on … well … a lot. It’s a sculptural column made of salt packets that references Genesis 19, a Bible story about a man named Lot and his wife in the land of Sodom. In the parable, she turns back to look at the sinners being destroyed by God’s wrath and, having disobeyed the angel’s instruction specifically not to look back, is changed into a pillar of salt. The rabbis argue over many things. Was it defiance, or worse, a sign that she loved that fast city life God was in the process of scorching? Or did she see with her own eyes God manifest raining terror down on the Sodomites, a sight so terrible that she could not contain it and remain human? “For us, it’s maybe you look back at your trauma, and then you become salt, in the sense of salting your workplace,” they said.
The graceful column made of salt balanced on a scalloped pedestal, the salt apportioned and commodified in hundreds of tiny packets. Its construction seems to defy physics, all the constituent parts held loosely together by the lightly netted force of solidarity. Adam and Tish have already made a Wendy’s Parking Lot’s Wife and a Hardee’s Parking Lot’s Wife, and the three columns now stand shoulder to shoulder. Good ideas, like good structures, can multiply and proliferate in a given locus, and ideally can nurture the full flowering of the subjective expression of, by, and for the working class.
“I want total liberation of the working class,” Tish said unhesitatingly when asked about BALM’s vision for the future. “I want for us to be in charge, to do what we know we have to do to reverse the things that capitalism has done to ruin this planet. I really, really hope that we can get there.”