One cold day last spring, four young men in winter jackets sat at a picnic table in a Milwaukee park, eating Dunkin Donuts and trying to form a master plan. They wrote down a few words: "handmade," "recycled," "functional." They threw around some guiding principles: make stuff for cheap and sell it for cheap, reach a bigger audience, have a purpose. "We didn't know exactly what we were doing," says Scott Reeder, who was at the picnic table that afternoon, "but we knew we wanted to do something."
Milwaukee was already something of a haven for nebulous creative endeavors. In 2001, playwright and performance artist Theresa Columbus had started up Darling Hall, a venue that hosts nightlong talent shows featuring three-minute acts. For eight years self-taught artist Nicholas Frank had run Hermetic Gallery, where he hosted discussions and lectures on such subjects as darkness, salt, first ladies, and revolving doors. When Hermetic closed in 2000, filmmaker Xav Leplae had taken over the space, transforming it into River West Film and Video, which rents out videos and moviemaking equipment, and Chez Xav, which serves a $3 prix-fixe dinner.
It was the energy created by those endeavors that the four men were trying to harness. Reeder and his brother Tyson are painters, as is James Franklin, while Ray Chi has a master's in architecture. What they had in mind were large-scope visual art projects. "Film is always collaborative, and so is music--there aren't too many one-man bands," says Scott. "But for some reason art is supposed to be just one person, and that's kind of a new idea, a really Western idea that there's just a genius alone in a room with a vision, and that seems sort of weird."
Besides collaboration, the four friends wanted to emphasize "feeling like you don't have to be an expert or have a master's degree to make something," says Scott. "Kids grow up making art and liking it--but somehow when you grow up only a few professional geniuses are supposed to be in charge of it."
They called their group Milhaus--a combination of "Milwaukee" and "Bauhaus," after the avant-garde Weimar design school--with the intention of thinking up a better name later. After a few meetings, they decided to spend less time worrying about formalities--like a better name, or a list of specific goals--and more time having fun.
Scott and Tyson Reeder grew up in Okemos, Michigan, a suburb of East Lansing, and as teenagers they made videos, played in bands, and hung out with their friends in a small guest house on their parents' property. "We were just having good, clean fun--no drinking or drugs or anything," says Scott. Every New Year's Eve they'd hold a ragtag talent show where their friends would put on half-baked plays, give readings, and play punk rock. Even after graduating from high school they continued the New Year's tradition, and they and their old friends spent several college breaks making movies and putting on plays in Okemos because, says Tyson, "it felt so good to be together."
Scott, the older of the brothers, headed off to the University of Iowa in 1988. Tyson left two years later for the University of Minnesota. Both got undergraduate and master's degrees in art with a focus on painting, and in 1998 the Reeders decided to follow their high school friend Ray Chi to LA, where he was moving to attend the Southern California Institute of Architecture. There Scott got in touch with painter James Franklin, a San Bernardino native he'd met when they were both at Skowhegan, an artists' colony in Maine, a few years earlier.
While they held down day jobs--Scott occasionally assisted abstract painter Laura Owens, Tyson freelanced in commercial film production, and Franklin did graphic design for a start-up clothing company--they also worked on individual projects. But the uncooperative art scene in LA quickly turned them off. "We were constantly surrounded by artists," says Tyson, "but people rarely talked about art, and if they did it was just career gossip, like who sold what for how much money. People were really guarded and competitive. If you asked someone to do something he'd say, 'Oh, well my rate is $20 an hour.'"
In early 2000 they heard from another high school friend, Chris Smith, who was living in Milwaukee. Smith had been teaching at the University of Wisconsin's film school. He'd also recently won the grand jury prize at Sundance for American Movie, his film about the exhilarations and frustrations of another Milwaukee filmmaker, Mark Borchardt. On top of that Sony had granted Smith and his partner, Sarah Price, close to a million dollars for distribution rights.
Smith told the Reeders he had an idea for a Web-based TV station. Shows, he said, would average around four minutes and could be shot and edited in about a day. The sun was still shining on the dot-com industry, and Smith thought his friends could make a living making weird little programs for his Web site. The Reeders figured Smith knew what he was talking about. Then they went to Milwaukee for a visit, and they liked it. "When you went out somewhere in LA," says Scott, "everyone would be looking over their shoulders for something better....In Milwaukee, people could make something out of nothing. You could talk about ideas and get excited about projects, and people would help each other out." So the Reeders, Chi, and Franklin--who'd never been to the midwest or collaborated on an art endeavor before--headed for Wisconsin.
The five friends, along with two other pals from Okemos, Bobby Ciraldo and Eric Lezotte--both adept at graphic design and computer programming--worked long hours every day for three months to start up ZeroTV.com. "We first started brainstorming over the phone," says Scott, "deciding what it would look like and how it would work." When the basics were in place, the Reeders started directing and shooting Milwaukee, a soap opera about a family that owns a failing brewery. "It was like Dallas," says Scott.
Funded by Smith and a few ads, ZeroTV.com went live in fall 2000, and the staff drew meager paychecks. For about six months the site was updated at a maniacal pace: a new Milwaukee episode appeared at least twice a week, and viewers would post comments on the site's message board minutes after it went up. The cast grew to 35. ZeroTV got press in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee magazine, and the New Art Examiner. Much of its traffic came from a link on the American Movie site, and when ZeroTV was Yahoo's pick of the week in winter 2001, the number of hits soared.
But "it was hard having so many characters, especially with everyone working on a volunteer basis," says Scott, and the increase in income they'd expected never came. "It seemed like there'd be more investors, but that never happened. And we were sort of on the fence about what ads would mean and what it'd make the site look like; we decided the amount of money wasn't worth ruining the aesthetic. Then the economy began to look less cheery, and the first thing everyone cut was Internet advertising."
Plus, after a year working on the project, the Reeders felt alienated from their audience. "All we knew was Fatguy2000 was posting on the board," says Scott. "Who's Fatguy2000? And who were the rest of the people looking at the site?" In early spring 2002 the Reeders, Chi, and Franklin also realized they missed painting and making other tangible art. "We were working on stuff together, but we weren't making art," says Scott.
The last episode of Milwaukee went up a couple months ago. Scott says they have footage for 15 to 20 more episodes, and they have an ending in mind. "We don't want to let it die, but other things have taken over recently."
Milhaus's first project was a video. The four partners got 20 friends and family members (including some kids) to draw one crayon each from a box of 64 Crayolas, then make a costume using only that color, out of anything from fabric scraps to cardboard to thrifted clothes. Then participants videotaped themselves dancing in the outfits to short songs they'd written and recorded separately. The results ended up on ZeroTV.
The number of Milhaus contributors grew as the core group organized other small shows and productions. Projects tended to evolve from parties thrown at someone's apartment, mixtures of arts 'n' crafting and all-night drinking.
The second major project took place in Chicago--at the Pilsen gallery Deluxe Projects, in spring 2002. The gallery had offered a solo show to Scott, who had moved here in January. But he wanted Milhaus to do something with the space instead, and the gallery agreed to it. So the Reeders, Franklin, Chi, Bobby Ciraldo, Theresa Columbus, Xav Leplae and his brother Didier, and several participants from the Crayola project moved into the gallery for a month. Spoofing on dorm-room furniture, they furnished the space using several dozen modular plywood boxes, which they'd built, and plastic milk crates they'd found, borrowed, or stolen. They also brought a hot plate and coolers so they could set up a makeshift kitchen, though they ended up eating out about every other day.
For the first two weeks of their residency, they took turns sleeping in two three-tiered bunk beds they made using the boxes and sheets of plywood. On opening night they held a giant drawing circle, where people who had come to look at art made it themselves using markers and crayons while watching old home movies made in Okemos. Milhaus members served beverages from behind a bar they'd built out of their crates, several of which they'd transformed into light boxes.
Their second week at Deluxe kicked off with a 12-hour cookout, starting at 9 AM with waffles--they mixed batter in water bottles and cooked on electric griddles--and in the afternoon moving on to hot dogs, grilled on a poorly enclosed loading dock. The building's super and Sarah Price played guitar and drums in the evening, but it was raining so hard there was a flash-flood warning, and only five people showed up: the Reeders' parents, New York art critic Walter Robinson, and his two local escorts. "We never had any hope anyone would come," says Scott, "but we lasted the whole 12 hours." The next day Milhaus dragged some of their crates over to an abandoned building across the street, constructed a basketball hoop, split into two teams, and played until the score was tied.
By week three they'd turned the bunk beds into a stage. One night they set up what they called Interactive Superjam With the Song Machine, assigning one colored light box to each instrument or microphone and inviting everyone to come onstage and jam. Whoever manned the control panel determined which lights to turn on and how bright, thus choosing which instruments would be played and how loud. "We wanted to show that anyone could play anything," says Tyson, and that it was possible for an amateur to conduct a band whose members perhaps didn't even know one another. Milhaus members played with people who had thought they were coming to watch a performance. The super showed up again, as did a guy from the hip-hop studio across the hall. "Some people would just switch all the lights on and off real fast," says Scott. Others directed 15-minute-long jams. It lasted five hours.
Throughout the month, each of the Milhaus participants wore almost exclusively clothes the color of his or her designated Crayola. They filmed and videotaped countless hours of their stay, and on the fourth weekend they screened a montage of that footage called Goodbye: The Movie. On the last day members of the group performed a dance
they'd spent a month perfecting--a series of interlocking angular arm moves and whole-body jerking--on one of the bridges over the Chicago River. Milhaus then went down to the water's edge, got on a raft they'd built out of their boxes, lit fireworks, and paddled upstream. "We wanted to make it seem like we were going back to Milwaukee," says Scott, "but the flat wooden paddles we built were useless." They struggled for a couple hours, "and then we saw barges and stuff and got scared, so we retreated back to Pilsen."
Everyone in Milhaus works on projects outside the group. Chi is currently working with other Milwaukee architects on an elaborate footbridge to cross the Milwaukee River. Franklin recently had a solo show at a gallery in LA. Work by Emotions, a sneaker-customization duo made up of Tyson and Frankie Martin, has been in several group shows in LA, New York, and Chicago, as has Tyson's solo work. The Reeders together have shown in New York and Chicago, and Scott's work has shown in galleries all over the country. Scott also teaches painting at the School of the Art Institute.
In January, art critic Holland Cotter wrote about Milhaus in the New York Times for a story on collaborative art groups. Though the Reeders say they sent him a list of people involved in Milhaus, Cotter mentioned only the two brothers by name. Tyson supposes he singled them out because he was familiar with their work as individuals--just before the story came out, they had exhibited paintings at the Daniel Reich Gallery in Chelsea. But Cotter's omission almost broke up the group. "People were angry with us and thought we were trying to take all the credit," says Scott.
Cotter's story compelled local sniffing from the Journal Sentinel in February, says Scott. This time Milhaus would only agree to a group interview via E-mail and refused to give names of any of the members. The resulting story had a tone that was "a little weird," says Scott; he says the author sent them a snide E-mail saying they were "too cool for school."
Milhaus's founders were starting to realize that their vision of a completely democratic creative process had its problems. "There are a ton of definitions about what a collective is," says Scott. "Some wanted to take the most extreme route, which is that every decision is made equally by every single person." But it was hard to work that way with 40 people in a group. "We value collaboration and not having a hierarchy, but logistically we had to have some sort of structure to move things forward."
So recently they decided that the four of them, plus former Hermetic Gallery proprietor Nicholas Frank, would take charge of the group in a more official capacity. After all, says Scott, "four of us kind of designed the first project. We came up with the Crayola structure and asked people to participate." Still, he says, they consider themselves more facilitators than leaders. "This core group could change," says Scott. "We're allowing for fluidity, because we know people will eventually get more involved in their own things. It's
hard to figure out--we're just sort of winging it."
About five weeks ago, as their first official act, the facilitators organized an art-making session at a party Xav Laplae was throwing. In early May, Milhaus was getting part of a stall in the Stray Show, and they needed something to sell.
Exhibitors at the Stray Show--Thomas Blackman's offshoot of Art Chicago that's supposed to feature "emerging" artists, held in a 37,000-square-foot warehouse in the Goose Island industrial corridor--are there by invitation only. Milhaus got its golden ticket through Scott's girlfriend, Elysia Borowy, who works in marketing for the Museum of Contemporary Art and was asked to curate a booth. Borowy mostly solicited work from Milhaus, but she invited art collectives Paper Rad and Fightworms, among others, to contribute as well, asking them to keep their art cheap, functional, and sellable.
Tyson says Milhaus was thinking of the show as sort of a test to see how they might handle their next big project: opening a store in Milwaukee. "Who knows what would be sold from day to day?" he says. "Our identity is so amorphous....We think having a location that maybe has a catalog and a Web site will help solidify whatever it is we're trying to do."
Borowy's stall featured a plywood tree designed to showcase the merchandise she solicited. From the limbs hung T-shirts. Shelves attached to the trunk (made from the Deluxe Projects boxes) were filled with tiny pleather wallets embroidered with deer and little girls, hand-bound and self-published books, buttons covered with handmade fabric, animated videos, and coasters. There was furniture Ray Chi and Scott Reeder made from coffee cans and a tree stump. Tyson and Frankie Martin also set up shop for Emotions, customizing sneakers with felt cutouts, fabric, yarn, and glitter. Everything was for sale, most of it for under $20.
Whenever an item sold, it was noted on a laptop so the money could go back to whoever had made the piece. "Everything we've done so far has been out of pocket," says Scott. "This booth was the first thing we did where we didn't lose money, which seemed encouraging." Milhaus contributors were excited about the booth, he says, because they got money for what they made, which was the only way the facilitators could think of to give clear-cut credit to those involved.
Many of the items had been made the weekend before, at the Milhaus party at River West Film and Video. It started at 2 PM Saturday. A banner announcing the party hung in the window, and white streamers fringed the door. In the front of the space a different DJ played every hour. Xav made a feast for the event--a giant pot of bean soup, a tray of baked potatoes, a boat-sized bowl of salad, carrot sticks, loaves of bread, and brownies and key lime pie for dessert--and set it up in the back kitchen. He also videotaped the dance floor and set up monitors so anyone in the kitchen could watch what was happening. Near the food, Milhaus set up heaps of colored T-shirts, baskets of feathers, glitter, pipe cleaners, puffy paint, markers, yarn, pom-poms, nail polish, and glue. Anyone could sit down and decorate a T-shirt, make a coaster, give a manicure, or anything else. (Drawing on slices of American cheese was popular.)
For the first few hours fewer than ten people at a time were in the store: Xav Leplae, Theresa Columbus, filmmaker-musician Stephanie Barber, some neighborhood kids and their parents, and a few others. By 6 PM the first shift was gone and Tyson was playing obscure hip-hop records when a group of five thugs sauntered in and demanded he play the Eminem CD one of them thrust at him. They took turns halfheartedly freestyling into the mike, pretending to karate kick one another and threatening to fight. After a half hour of this, they declared the party boring and left.
By 2 AM, the place was packed with hipsters, the street thugs from before, ravers from the bar across the street, crusty punks, and parents of the kids who participated in the Crayola project, all of whom seemed to be having a great time, dancing or crafting or both. Around this time someone yelled, "Laughing party meets in the kitchen right now!" Twenty-odd people ran to the back and looked at one another blankly for a few seconds--this wasn't anything they were used to doing. Then a guy began to bellow--big, fake ho ho hos. His friend followed suit, as did someone else, and suddenly a roomful of people were forcing themselves to chortle. After a few minutes the laughter was genuine.
By 6 AM the place stank of beer, cigarette smoke, and sweat. The ten or so people remaining spilled onto the street, where they danced and drew with chalk. A couple cop cars came by. One officer got out and told them, "No. It's too early. You can come back outside at 8." By 11 the activity had died down considerably, but not entirely. Most people were putting their energy into making masterpieces out of the pancakes Xav had made for breakfast, then devouring them. A few were still lethargically dancing to a melange of hip-hop, new wave, and funk. The same group was in place, only more sleep deprived and slaphappy, when 1:45 in the afternoon rolled around. Someone pulled the battery-operated clock off the wall and stuck it in a tree outside. A game of limbo was improvised on the sidewalk using bodies as the pole, with people climbing on one another to create constantly changing fleshy sculptures. And when the little hand reached the two, everyone took part in a giant group hug.
For more on the Milhaus scene in Milwaukee see the Visitor's Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.