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Art People: Robert Peters has a name for people like you

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Robert Peters has a pretty good gig for an egghead. He's posted an 800 number on CTA buses, rigged up an answering machine to talk trash, and invited Chicago to call in.

Peters is a WASP, a breeder, a hick raised on a fruit farm, and no spring chicken. Right now, he's on sabbatical from his regular job teaching art at the University of Chicago, but before he took up the art game he was a science nerd, a biometrician for the USDA. He still does a lot of data collection and analysis, though the results are anything but standard.

His art is not the sort you're likely to buy or hang in your living room, unless you're into dead dogs under glass and big blowups of quotes from the likes of Karl Marx. It's conceptual, participatory stuff--word games, happenings, walk-through collages full of pregnant juxtapositions. When he talks about it he says things like "Art is a vehicle to think my world" and "Process is everything."

For his current project, "Naming Others: Manufacturing Yourself," Peters has been thinking about the way we slice and dice each other with language. Inspired (and troubled) when he stumbled on a 30-year-old list of "Terms of Abuse" used by Chicagoans, he devised a questionnaire and began his own survey, collecting the names we now use for all the ghosts and gangbangers, queers and codgers who make up this town. He says we build our own identity by applying these monikers to others: we can say to ourselves, "Whew! At least I'm not that."

Peters wove the terms he collected into an interactive ear play that sounds like market research on drugs. Call the number to become part of it: "If you are one of us, press U; religious, press P-R-A-Y; uncertain of your sex, press X." At the tape's conclusion, each auditor is asked to leave a self-description, using terms they've heard. Part of Sculpture Chicago's Culture in Action program (a series of projects that has artists working in collaboration with the community) and cosponsored by Randolph Street Gallery, this is performance art you can reach out and access starting July 4. If you're a six-pack, yum-yum, jungle bunny, round eye, houseplant, mossback, carpet eater, lulu, head knocker, tail fruit, or any of the myriad Other, this pointyhead wants to hear from you. In case you missed the bus card, the number is 1-800-808-THEM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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