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Farm Stands on the Information Superhighway

The artists' collective Chicago County Fair wants to put the "face" back in "interface."



Atena Danner sat on the lip of a white plywood booth in the Chicago Cultural Center's GAR Rotunda, explaining to a young ponytailed woman that it really is possible to have an orgasm while giving birth. "You're basically working with the same equipment under not dissimilar circumstances," said the 23-year-old labor assistant and health educator, who had decorated the frame of her booth with a swatch of pink fabric and a sign that said "Doulas Rule." "You generally don't see it in hospitals. It tends to be more of a home-birth kind of thing. I was telling someone about it earlier, and a woman walked by and said, 'I had one of those.'"

Her booth was one of 16 similar structures ringing the mosaic-tiled rotunda. Reminiscent of the stand from which Lucy Van Pelt dispenses "psychiatric help," they bore signs advertising a variety of topics--everything from Iraq to entomology to the Tamms supermax prison and the Stone Mountain Confederate monument. Each was staffed by an expert on the topic at hand. Next to Danner's booth, six-year-old Power Rangers and Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card enthusiast Nathan Martinez could barely see over his toy-covered tabletop. "Most people can't tell them apart," he said, looking at his props and sighing.

Together the booths constituted "Ask Me!," a "performative collage" created by a group of artists calling themselves Chicago County Fair. The collective specializes in interactive projects designed to bring together people who normally wouldn't interact, according to CCF member Laurie Jo Reynolds, who mounted a version of "Ask Me!" at the School of the Art Institute in 2001. "Every one of us is an expert in some way and is curious in some way," she says. "But it takes some kind of interface to fulfill those needs. It seems like such a radical act to talk to a stranger. There's no place to have a conversation like that. That's why we love booths--they make that act possible in a lot of different contexts."

Saturday's event was staged as part of the four-day-long digital arts festival Version>03; in the hall adjacent to the rotunda, multimedia installations housed in domed white tents explored concepts relating to, among other things, surveillance, video gaming, and genetic engineering, and artists dressed as robots roamed the floor. "In an environment with such a proliferation of information," says Reynolds, "it's important for us to find projects that allow you to examine your relationship to information acquisition in general. There's face-to-face communication here--what we call embodied knowledge--so you're getting information from a person who has an investment in the subject they're talking about as opposed to getting your information from mainstream media sources, which don't." Staging "Ask Me!" as part of a digital arts festival, she adds, gives the piece an additional layer of meaning. "The juxtapositions that are provided kind of have a connection to the Internet--you can go from insanely specific subject to insanely specific subject. It's like the Internet incarnate, but the incarnate part is really important."

When the event began at noon, traffic in the rotunda was slow, so Reynolds donned a sandwich board and, with several other volunteers, hit the downstairs cafe and the street to recruit visitors. A wide range of passersby, including tourists, students, and several homeless people, took the bait and came upstairs, where the artists provided them with macaroni and cheese, cookies, lemonade, and a list of icebreaker questions. Across the room from Danner, the Reverend Bill Lovell, 88, sat on a chair in front of his cubicle--"I had to get close to people"--and talked about his experience as a conscientious objector during World War II. At one point, he said, an older couple had asked him if he'd have gone to jail rather than to war if he had known at the time what was happening to European Jews. "That," he said, "was a difficult question."

Nearby, a woman reading from a flyer asked Muslim Community Center outreach director El Kheir El Kheir, who was wearing a white cap and robe and sitting under a sign that said "Islam," whether he could ever return to Iraq. El Kheir, who is from Sudan, gently explained that she was at the wrong booth--perhaps she was looking for the booth of dissident Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal? The woman stuck around to hear him talk about the pilgrimage he made to Mecca last year, and asked him how he came to the U.S. (He'd won a scholarship to study linguistics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1991.) A few yards away, activist Mary Johnson told a group of listeners crowded around her table how dehumanizing daily life at the Tamms supermax is for prisoners, and how difficult it can be for families to make the seven-hour trip downstate for a two-hour visit. "They talk about family values, but it seems like they're doing everything they can to break up the family," she said. Many of the visitors wrote postcards to Tamms inmates before they moved on.

One of the most popular booths was staffed by Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum animal manager Jan Dean--who wore a name tag that read "Larva Girl." At her station people crowded around an ant farm, sampled edible crickets and grasshoppers from Thailand, and learned the difference between a millipede and a centipede (the millipede, a vegetarian, has two pairs of legs per body segment, while the centipede, which eats other insects, has only one). Across the room two men wearing glasses sat in front of a booth touting expertise on "pre-MTV" televised soul and rock. They sat in silence, watching a grainy video set to John Lennon's "Imagine."

"One woman asked some oddball questions," said the booth's resident expert, VJ Darrell, standing afterward in the Museum of Broadcast Communications watching Elvis Presley's '68 comeback special. "She wanted to know the physical size of the Beatles and Prince Charles. She got quite aggressive, and wanted to see British invasion videos of Tom Jones and the Beatles."

Unsurprisingly, one of the busiest booths was the one on Iraq, staffed by Bilal and Voices in the Wilderness member Joe Proulx. Over the event's four hours, they fielded questions from people of a wide range of political persuasions, including a veteran with whom they "had a heated exchange," said Reynolds later. "Someone said, 'You've only spent time in Iraq, what do you know?' As if reading the paper makes you more knowledgeable."

The CCF folks hope to bring "Ask Me!" to block parties and small towns this summer, provided they can get funding. "We want to go to places where we can get a bunch of different people as close to their own living and working spaces as possible," says Reynolds. "We'd like to do it in smaller places, where people might not have collisions with these issues or individuals."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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