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Artistic License

Threatened With Deportation, Mathew Wilson Insists Performance Matters

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By Justin Hayford

On a deserted street Mathew Wilson faces the city's far-off skyline. He's conservatively dressed--white shirt, dark tie, dark trousers. He shouts toward the distant buildings for several minutes and waits for a reply. Nothing happens.

Since 1991 Wilson, half of the performance duo Men of the World, has appeared unexpectedly in public like a lyrical accident. In Is Father Dirty?, he and fellow man of the world Mark Alice Durant scrubbed down various statues of war heroes with soapy water. In 30 Minute Handshake x 10, they shook hands for half an hour at a stretch in front of various "sites of power," such as the Chicago Board of Trade, Tribune Tower, and Merchandise Mart. In Under the Indians, they lay for an hour under the enormous statues of Indian horsemen at Congress and Michigan on the day before Thanksgiving. In 9 Packages of Justice, they placed nine white shirts and nine bars of Ivory soap on the bottom step of the U.S. Supreme Court Building.

Wilson neither announces his events ahead of time nor provides explanatory materials to hapless passersby, hoping that mystery, wit, and wonder--three essentials all but expunged from the streets of urban America--will arise spontaneously in the wake of his orchestrated ordinariness. He would like for art to be as easy to find on the sidewalk as litter. Wilson says his performances are acts of faith, gestures of hope; he wants to believe that art will happen. The public expression of poetic futility has become his stock-in-trade.

But now Wilson finds himself in an unexpected public performance drenched in futility but drained of poetry. In mid-March, he got word from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that Uncle Sam wants him out. He now must convince bureaucrats in Lincoln, Nebraska (the site of the regional INS office), that his work scrubbing monuments, shaking hands, lying under statues, and delivering shirts qualifies him to continue teaching performance art at the university level and makes him a valuable member of American society. Once again he's screaming at distant buildings that are hardly receptive to his cries.

"I don't know what my lawyer is telling immigration," Wilson says, "but neither has seen my work, work which I find it difficult enough to talk about. And she's got to convince them that based on that work I am uniquely qualified to teach this obscure discipline. That is the legal issue we're all pirouetting around."

Wilson came to Chicago from England in 1991 to study photography at the School of the Art Institute, where he met Durant, who was teaching there at the time. After Durant moved to Los Angeles, Wilson took futility to an epic scale. On Earth Day two years ago he arranged for 100 people in Daley Plaza to fall down in unison at precisely 9 AM. The mob, mostly in business attire, lay "dead" on the granite for an hour. That same morning Richard Nixon died, and security officers lowered all the flags in the plaza to half-mast in the middle of the performance. Most people walking through the spectacle gave it a cursory glance, asking those of us watching from the side what the protest was all about.

Moving indoors, Wilson mounted Tragedy that summer at the Blue Rider Theatre. Tragedy was a seven-day continuous performance collaboration with Cuban artist Eduardo Martinez-Almaral. Throughout their weeklong ordeal, attended by a stalwart few, the two repeatedly called out names of world cities, hoping that one would sound interesting enough to compel them to travel. It didn't work.

Earth Day 1995 found 100 Wilson devotees entering the Federal Plaza one by one over the course of an hour, each gradually coming to a stop and remaining motionless. That same morning someone blew apart most of the federal building in Oklahoma City, sending a swarm of TV cameras into the middle of Wilson's event.

In August Wilson rejoined Durant in Los Angeles for Men of the World on the Streets of America, during which the two walked from LA's skid row to the O.J. Simpson trial, tagging everything along their route with Men of the World postcards. They sent a series of ten photographs documenting the event to ten people, including Mark Fuhrman, Bob Dole, and Elmer Rigby, a stranger plucked from the Los Angeles phone book (those photographs are currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Photography). "Sending the photos was our way of saying, "We're here! We're here!"' Wilson explains. "You know, a futile gesture."

Now facing deportation, Wilson may secretly wish that he'd performed on Broadway rather than on street corners. Proving his worth as an artist to the federal government would be a lot easier had he pulled in millions at the box office or received raves in the New York Times, at least according to his attorney, Margaret Holland.

"If you've got an artist with real talent who doesn't generate revenue, you're between a rock and a hard place," Holland says. "Immigration Service's goal is to protect the job market. Their mission is to keep the borders closed."

On May 11 Wilson and Durant will perform We Want to Believe--White Handkerchiefs of Good-bye, a piece with a new urgency for Wilson in light of his troubles. That morning 100 people will individually select four locations around the city, stopping to wave toward the lake for a few minutes. At noon, they will all converge at an undisclosed lakefront location where each will receive a handmade white handkerchief with the words "we want to believe" stenciled in black across it. The crowd will wave their handkerchiefs toward the lake until Wilson and Durant bid each a personal farewell.

"It's all about a general notion of hope," Wilson says. "You know, all these people waving off there, and hopefully something will rise up above the horizon and make everything right. But I have this fear that they'll all be waving their handkerchiefs not at the lake but at my airplane flying toward England."

Wilson's taught performance at the School of the Art Institute for the last two years. His H-1 temporary work visa, which expires May 30, allows him to work as a part-time professor. When Columbia College offered him a similar position last year, he had to reapply. "With an H-1 you can work for that employer at that salary with that job title," Holland explains. "If you have any "material change' in your employment, you have to start again, or at least modify your old petition."

In November Columbia College submitted paperwork to the INS in support of Wilson's request for a new H-1. The subsequent government shutdowns gummed up the process, and in early March Wilson received a gloomy form letter. "The documentation submitted is not sufficient to warrant favorable consideration of your petition/application," it begins. The INS isn't convinced that he's been offered a bona fide professional position--teaching performance art to undergraduates--or that he would be adequately qualified to fulfill it if they had considered it legitimate. But the real problem may lie in the federal government's reluctance to acknowledge artists as "professionals."

"An H-1 visa is for people in a profession," Holland explains. "Traditionally that has meant lawyers, doctors, architects, scientists. Business people weren't even considered professionals until about ten years ago."

Since then immigrant-rights advocates have successfully argued that a "specialized area of knowledge" is the equivalent of a profession. A foreign consultant, for example, may not have a demonstrable "profession" but might possess a great degree of knowledge highly valued by an American corporation. The change has come about in part because of the demands of the burgeoning high-tech industries--computer geeks aren't considered professionals--and from the reality of corporate downsizing, with its need for temporary workers with diverse skills.

Despite the recent liberalization of the regulations, it's an uphill battle to convince the bureaucrats in Nebraska that an artist who sat in a public plaza with 90 potatoes for an hour and a half has any specialized (not to mention useful) knowledge, let alone has his head on straight. Holland knows her window of opportunity is a narrow one. "I take the position that the bureaucrat has about 12 minutes to look at each case. I like to give the paperwork to my favorite 15-year-old to review before sending it off. If I've overstated my case and it takes him longer than 12 minutes to read, Matt's lost."

In Holland's eyes, a more insidious problem is our culture's historical distrust of things artistic. "In this country there is not a love for creativity," she says. "We're a young nation. We had an entire country to build. And we value those things that got it built. An artist has to prove his worth in dollars. Our immigration laws have always followed supply and demand, and artists don't fit into that mold."

Especially an artist like Wilson, who can't charge admission for his public performances, and wouldn't if he could. "The thing about work that attempts to generate revenue is that it has this effect on people's expectations that I don't want to be involved with," Wilson says. If, for example, we pay ten dollars to see a performance, we know the value of that ten dollars in a "cold, calculated way." That money could have paid for a movie and popcorn, a paperback book, or a really good burrito. And what performance artist could win against a really good burrito? "I don't want people expecting to get something in exchange for anything--except in exchange for the energy they're willing to put into the piece."

In essence, one must be a participant, rather than a consumer, to understand or even enjoy Wilson's work. As at a sporting event, Wilson wants the experience to belong to everyone living through it, not just the specialists on the field. "The way I look at it is this," Wilson says. "I'll give you something, you give me something, and then together maybe we'll find something." What Wilson gives is the potential for art, lying under a public statue waiting for something to happen, trusting that fate will add resonance to the work. Usually fate obliges--with the death of an ex-president, for example, or, in the case of Under the Indians, with a more lighthearted dose of absurdity.

"In the middle of the performance an unmarked police car came sweeping up onto the sidewalk," Wilson recalls. "The officer demanded that someone get him a ladder. I don't know where the ladder came from but one appeared. They climbed up, looked around, and said, "Have you got a bomb?' We said no. And they drove away."

Of course, the feds aren't necessarily interested in people who have meaningful experiences on the sidewalk, Wilson readily acknowledges. "The only way I can work my way back to a supply-and-demand situation is to say, OK, I've taught a half dozen classes over the past two and a half years at a school that is considered to be top-notch. And a lot of those students have continued on to make performances, but of course they're making things that are considered to be not particularly beneficial or valuable. But those students are paying money to a business, which is the school, and the school is using me as a worker to get that money into it. But if I hadn't made all that valueless, unbeneficial art, perhaps because nobody could come up with an absolute, ironclad reason why it should exist, then I wouldn't have gotten that teaching job and therefore I wouldn't be a worker in that business. But that's a hell of a stretch."

Two days before Wilson expects an answer from the government, on a chilly, gray Saturday afternoon, he paces and chain smokes in his railroad flat in Pilsen. "I'm at my wit's end," he confesses. "I try not to think about it, to be honest. I've got very little control over the situation right at this moment."

He'd planned to do his taxes in the morning (they're also due in two days), but he'd slept until noon, having been unable to get to sleep until 4:30 in the morning. One of his students calls to make sure he's OK--not because INS's final decision is looming but because a few days ago another of Wilson's students read a long essay in class detailing the inadequacies of the school and the ineptitude of Wilson's teaching methods. This morning the mailman brought a letter from a video art distributor in Wales that turned down some of Wilson's work several years ago and now hopes he'll buy some pieces from their new catalog. "You may be completely talentless," Wilson says, paraphrasing the letter, "but you can pay us to look at other people's art."

Friends have tried to console Wilson by saying that being sent back to England is the same for him as going back home. The sentiment makes Wilson bristle. "I tell them that when I go home it's to 18th and Halsted. I've got a wife, a cat, several plants waiting for me. I don't live in Britain anymore. That's not a legal point, but a human point."

Wilson's wife, photographer Malgorzata Gizella, pours him a cup of coffee at the dining room table, implying perhaps that he should take a seat and maybe a deep breath or two. Instead he lights another Marlboro and consults his weekly calendar. On the space reserved for Tuesday at 2 PM. he's written "Tuesday. 2 PM." He stares at the entry for several seconds, cigarette frozen halfway to his mouth. "It's probably just a meeting with a curator who wants to offer me a million dollars," he says.

Gizella sits serenely while Wilson fidgets. The phone rings incessantly. She answers it, even though it's almost always for him. She is, apparently, his saving grace, and for more than her calming influence. In a worst-case scenario, she could become his sponsor and keep him in the country. But since she's a Polish citizen living in America on a green card, her sponsorship of Wilson's visa request would mean that he couldn't hold a job until she were granted U.S. citizenship. That might happen sometime next spring, at the earliest.

"I didn't come to America to sit in my apartment for a year," Wilson says. "I'm in America because this is where my job is, this is where things are happening for me. I can't teach in Britain, I don't know the British art scene. And I consider myself a professional teacher."

If Wilson is sent back to England, Gizella could perhaps go with him and get a British work permit, but she wouldn't be eligible for one until she received her U.S. citizenship. And besides, all of her family is in Chicago.

To make matters worse, Wilson can't seem to find people interested in We Want to Believe. Only a handful of his projected 100 performers have signed up, and the event is only four weeks away. Last night he had a dream that he was at a crowded party, and everyone wanted to be in the performance. But when he turned to pick up the contracts that the performers were supposed to sign, his glasses fell off his head and into his hands, turning to glue, making it impossible for him to handle the papers. "As I woke up, I got this absolutely rounded notion, complete and pure, bubbling out there like some ethereal globe of inadequacy, "There's nothing I can do. There's nothing I can do."'

He slides a piece of paper across the table. Along the top are the words "Men of the World--Contract with America." Beneath them, an outline of We Want to Believe, detailing the actions a "participant" in the piece agrees to perform. "If you want to sign one," Wilson says, "you can be an official Man of the World. All you've got to do is a bit of waving."

April 15 came and went without word from the government. The longer Wilson has to wait, he thinks, the worse the news will be. "They could do one of two things. They could look at the paperwork and say, "Right, very good,' and I'd know right away I'm in. Or they could look at it and say, "Still not convinced.' Then they probably won't make a decision before my current visa runs out, and I'll have to go to England while they work out all the details."

If the news for Wilson is bad, he has an even more difficult argument to make on appeal. His current petition essentially states that Columbia College is a legitimate institution offering him a professional position for which he is qualified. But if this tack doesn't succeed, he'll have to argue his importance to U.S. culture.

Asked how he might prove that his art is important to American society, Wilson sits silently for a moment. "It's one of the questions I wake up with every now and then, you know? "What the hell am I doing?' And if someone in a legal position were to say, "I want you to absolutely prove your worth,' I would have to say I suppose I can't."

Before I leave his apartment Wilson gives me a few parting gifts. First an autographed balloon with his Men of the World logo stamped across it. Then a white business envelope with a silhouette of a black rose; inside the envelope is a card with the same silhouette and the words "No compassion, no cure, no culture" stenciled in red (he handed them out during a Day Without Art observance on World AIDS Day). And finally a Men of the World postcard, printed on one side with a close-up of Wilson blowing rose petals from his mouth. On the reverse side are the words "Men of the World, serving art and society with quality street actions since 1991." Maybe he should send one to Nebraska.

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