Love Of Labor | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader


at Creative Reuse Warehouse,

through June 29

By Justin Hayford

It is the first Saturday of summer--sunny, warm, conspicuously free of humidity. Along the six-block stretch of Halsted south of Roosevelt, near the former site of the Maxwell Street flea market, the sidewalks are full of men strolling back and forth. They offer me gold chains, sweat socks, porno videos. When they fail to make a sale, a few tag along for a half block, keeping a respectful distance, asking for a buck, some spare change, anything will help. Up north people cram the lakefront in their Rollerblades, but down here everyone's hard at work.

Just around the corner a gaggle of artists is getting down to business as well. They've come to take part in Dig, an all-day "performative installation project" focusing on images of labor, from the most mind-numbing to the most poetic. The event is housed in the Creative Reuse Warehouse (CRW), which collects "junk" from businesses and individuals and makes it available to social-service agencies, public schools, artists, and anyone who will put it to good use. Dig is scheduled to start in about half an hour, but like the street merchants, the artists don't seem particularly rushed. Clearly no one in this neighborhood is on the clock.

On the chain-link fence that lines CRW's 80,000-foot lot, performance artist Ken Thompson and writer and photographer Jason Greenberg have mounted a banner that announces in bold black letters "30 People Died Here." The sign is a reference to the Battle of the Viaduct, an 1877 anti-union massacre that took place a half block away when infantrymen opened fire on a local carpenters' union parading down Halsted. Next to the sign is an old-fashioned blackboard with 30 names written on it, and above them the question "Would you die for your job?"

In contrast to these artists' historical and political take on labor, performance artist Kate Thomas's vision is decidedly absurd. Inside CRW's 40,000-square-foot storage shed she is holed up in a tiny cinder-block bathroom six inches deep in shredded newspaper, warming up her birdcalls, which she'll be making for the next eight hours. She sits on a raked perch fashioned from logs, her head enveloped in a twisting nest of twigs, the surreal handiwork of Columbia College professor Phil Berkman.

Behind the building, in the well-tended community garden, two enormous office desks sit side by side, planted there by choreographer Sheldon B. Smith. At one, a man in a T-shirt that proclaims him to be a "master gardener" fills his metal drawers with neat rows of carrots. His job for the afternoon will be to make carrot juice. Beside him a pleasant fellow in overalls waits for his work assignment to arrive; he's supposed to sit at his desk for eight hours and assemble blank jigsaw puzzles. "I'm doing this mostly because my girlfriend is friends with one of the artists," he explains. "It's not so much work as relationship maintenance."

Back inside, other artists stroll up and down the aisles of office furniture, display cases, and shrink-wrapped computer monitors. They're trolling for raw material--all the installations are to be built from CRW stuff.

I've been here for about an hour, nothing's happened yet, and I'm wondering how much longer I can kill time effectively. Twenty minutes was long enough in a curious corner of the building called the "Product Development Studio," where I found, among other things, orthographic line drawings of semicylindrical, multihosed contraptions labeled "Stumpfschach" and "Schmoouwghdsttschoawghgy." The drawings, I am told, are by someone named Tyner who works at CRW, is a genius, and "floats through the place like an apparition." I ghost hunt for a while to no avail.

Then I spot a small sign with a hand-drawn arrow pointing down an aisle. I follow it past an industrial vacuum cleaner, numerous boxes of two-by-fours, and a credenza full of shopping bags and wristwatches. I squeeze through a narrow passageway along the building's outer wall, and at the end of the corridor is a large window, in front of which artist Monica Bock has built a wall of glycerin-soap bricks. Like Rumpelstiltskin's spinning wheel, the translucent sculpture turns sunlight into gold. The corridor bends 90 degrees, and I'm suddenly confronted by the singularly arresting image of a free-standing, six-foot-high black metal cabinet, its door swung wide open like an upended coffin, its gold-leaf lining inviting me in. Above me a woman lies across the rafters, humming tunelessly, hauntingly, seductively.

Things are happening after all. You just have to dig.

Dig is the brainchild of Kate Thomas (the bird lady) and Julia Mayer (the woman humming in the rafters). The original idea was simple: bring together choreographers and installation artists to create a series of collaborative performances. Of course, the idea is 40 years old, dating back to the Black Mountain College pandemonium in 1952 through which Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and their cronies bequeathed to the American art world an aesthetic that would coalesce into performance art the following decade. In returning to primal artistic sources Thomas and Mayer had to avoid mere imitation, and more important, "avoid the usual collaborative trap of visual-artist-makes-a-set-that-dancers-ignore."

The couple teamed up with CRW, offering to create an ongoing residency at the site. The personnel grew to five pairs of artists. Each team would create a performance installation, and all the pieces would be performed simultaneously, all day long, over the course of four days.

A few months before opening, Dig was in danger of becoming an unmanageable and, worse still, humorless affair, if the dreary four-page press release was any indication. Thomas and Berkman intended to connect themselves with an umbilical cord of "natural grasses" and electrical wire, stationing themselves in adjoining bathrooms to explore "themes of nature and technology, male and female communication, and waste management" (a pit stop at a highway rest area would accomplish much the same thing). Carla Jean Mayer and Smith, by setting up desks at which people did mundane tasks, hoped to examine "human labor in all its manifestations." Greenberg and Thompson planned to don 19th-century period costumes and build a "large grandstand," stopping to offer spectators prerecorded audio tours of the neighborhood's labor history. And in Bock and Julia Mayer's golden corridor installation performers would "come over the roof, climb down trees next to the external walls and find themselves in an urban 'secret garden'...[where] relics of the neighborhood--rocks, refuse, broken glass--will be fetishized by covering them in gold leaf." The performers would somehow drill through the brick wall, pass their fetishes back and forth, and then--I couldn't read on, my neural synapses clogged by artspeak. I could only imagine dozens of self-absorbed, self-important people creeping about portentously, pulling artface.

But today, before the wall of soap, there are no fetishes to be found. Just a metal cabinet, golden light, and a woman singing in the shadows. Two rope ladders hang from the rafters. I ask if I can climb up, and the ceiling siren wards me off, explaining that some of the beams are bad. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, she coos, "It's really quite magical here. You should come up anyway."

Struggling with the rope ladder for several minutes, revisiting a handful of humiliating traumas from sixth-grade gym class, I finally ascend to the rafters, beholding the rugged geometry of a few hundred wooden beams supporting the massive, graceful curve of the roof. The byzantine symmetry recedes into seemingly infinite blackness. As Bock and Mayer knew, with a little work (or in my case a lot) you can discover the unintended poetry of warehouse architecture. Had they stuck with their original plan, the glut of performers climbing trees and painting fetishes might have obliterated the transcendent lyricism of the merely actual. All that work would have been for naught.

All of the pieces have been similarly distilled, allowing complex resonances to emerge. Thomas and Berkman aren't tied together as they had planned, a gesture that might well have devolved into a cheap imitation of Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh's 1983 endurance-art piece in which the couple spent a year tied together at the waist with eight feet of rope. Instead, Thomas sings in the bathroom, barely visible through a door propped open only a few inches, her right hand gesturing languidly. Occasionally she lowers her head from its nest and gazes out at the spectator, sometimes joyfully, sometimes plaintively, sometimes mournfully. Her work might be considered entertainment, the highest value our culture attaches to performance, except she continually retreats into oblivion by tucking her head away among the twigs, refusing to offer her talent up for consumption. She doesn't sing for her supper. She sings for no reason at all.

Such elegant mysteriousness is nearly unavoidable as I wander about for the next few hours. Carla Jean Mayer and Smith, in their desk duets, don't pretend to examine "human labor in all its manifestations." Rather they present sly images of meaningful and meaningless work. At a desk near the front door of the building, a soft-spoken man says he is "making dreams," cutting black-and-white images from a 1960s medical pathology textbook and attaching them with black lace to small remnants of white carpeting. He then secures them to a large plastic pillow bearing a tag that reads "No Rest." He seems deeply involved in a satisfying task. At the desk next to him, however, a man in a suit and tie stares at several dozen blank puzzle pieces laid out before him. He's finished the border, but during our ten-minute conversation he can't find a single piece to fit into the puzzle's interior. "I'm not sure if this is interesting or just infuriating," he says, trying to find the art in his labor. But at least he's not working on a deadline. "I think of myself as the union employee--it gets done when it gets done."

Throughout the day the artists merely execute their tasks, chatting with the occasional spectator rather than retreating into a misty art cocoon. Despite the modesty and candor of the performances, the images produced are enigmatic, intriguing, and deliciously ambiguous, from the blank puzzles to the ceiling sirens to the twin toilet-tank-to-ceiling stacks of National Geographics in the bathroom adjoining the bird lady's nest. The images refuse to fully reveal themselves, more often poking fun at our imagined need to "understand" them. In the National Geographic bathroom, for example, a sign admonishes the patron to "Wash Hands Before Returning to Work," although no sink--or work--is available.

Most everything produced, with the exception of the carrot juice, is unabashedly useless; Dig flips the bird at the American work ethic, which values productivity over fulfillment. These artists manufacture the potential for experience, potential activated by the willing participation of the viewer. If you don't climb the ladder, you don't see the sights. Like the piles of detritus awaiting reuse, the artists invite us to rework the obvious, to burrow for hidden gems. For me, the most provocative evocation of this theme is Julie Hopkins and Lance Ehlers's piece, in which they build and occupy a secret clubhouse somewhere in the outside lot. Try as I might, I can't find them.

Out in front of the building, however, it's impossible to overlook the most poignant piece of the day. Thompson and Greenberg have set up a small factory of sorts. Thompson sits at a metal table with a list of the 30 people killed in the Battle of the Viaduct. He announces each name, then types it onto a card stock tag, the kind usually attached to a corpse's toe. He also types the name onto a small yellow flag mounted atop a stiff metal wire. Meanwhile two workers tear the collars and cuffs off 30 work shirts, writing sequential numbers in black marker on the breast pockets. From there each shirt is passed to another worker, who punctures it with a railroad spike and then inserts a grommet into the hole--positioned where a man's heart would be. He then strings a tag to the grommet using bloodred yarn. He hands the shirt to the last worker, stationed behind an electric sewing machine, who sews up all the shirt's openings and then lays it in a crude wooden box. Each shirt memorializes a man who fought against the crushing dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution in the Battle of the Viaduct, but ironically by putting the shirts through the factory process these artists imbue a mass-produced item with a bit of humanity.

To finish all 30 shirts takes the better part of four hours. Once the shirts are finished and placed in their coffin, the workers place a wooden lid on the box, atop which 30 yellow flags are mounted. A tape-recorded voice that has been emanating from a bullhorn all day mentions that Marshall Field lent his trucks to the Chicago police to help quell the disorderly carpenters. The performers lift the box onto their shoulders, carry it down the block, turn right on Union Street, and proceed over to the community garden, where they dig a hole in the earth, remove the shirts from the box, and lay them to rest. They again place the wooden lid on top of the shirts and cover it with dirt, the yellow flags emerging from the makeshift grave. An identical set of yellow flags waves a few feet away; the artists' factory produced a similar memorial two days ago on the first day of Dig and will spit out another one over the next four-hour shift. By the time Dig completes its four-day run, six sets of flags will wave in the garden, testimonials to a history that has been all but expunged from our collective memory.

Meanwhile, half a block west on Halsted men continue to hawk their wares to the occasional passerby. Once upon a time people flooded this neighborhood on a weekend afternoon, hoping to unearth a treasure or two at the Maxwell Street market. Now that location is a featureless expanse of concrete, a parking lot no one ever seems to use. I wonder if anyone will plant yellow flags there a century from now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ken Thompson by Jason Greenberg.

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