Friday, August 28, 2009

Steal This Art

A couple posts ago I alluded to an exhibitor at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Fest who gave me pause. The guy collects street art and hosted a pretty breathtaking installation in an old shoe store along the festival route.

He basically goes on reconnaissance missions to uproot each piece from its original context (building walls, signposts, fences, etc). He fashions himself a Robin Hood of the built environment, claiming that the pieces are, by design, ephemeral: If he doesn't take and protect them, the police will, and they'll disappear from public view altogether. Not a single piece he owns is for sale. Once it's in his possession, it's his to keep.

His collection includes work by noted Chicago koo-koo Wesley Willis (RIP) as well as some fly three-dimensional buildings by Wesley's far less well-known brother Ricky. There are tributes to the murdered artist Solve, though somewhat gratefully not a single original Solve work. (He seems to consider Solve his holy grail.) I still see Solve's handiwork on signs now and again and feel nervous for it, imagining this guy heffalumping his way through the public domain and then all the way to the bank.

So I struggle. On the one hand, the work was amazing to see, easily some of my favorite pieces in the show. Your heart beats a little faster to be in their presence. And it's true: I probably would never have had the pleasure of experiencing them without this guy's intervention.

On the other hand, do the pieces mean the same hanging on an exhibit wall as they do in the public context? (Of course they don't, but how damaging is that slippery geography to the overall meaning of the work? Negligible? Monumental?) And to what extent is the guy participating in the very tradition of the artists themselves, vs. claiming production he has no right to call his own?

SOS: Is he a noble preservationist or a rotten thief? And is looking at this material at an art show a fair exercise, or something akin to ambulence chasing? A penny for your thoughts.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tabula Rasa

When I got home Tuesday it’s like everything had died. My zucchini plants, so lush and overgrown when I left that morning, had simply deflated while I was gone—the stems chewed up by disease in a matter of hours.

Inside the house, my peace lily drooped like a willow. After months of blooming, its knees had buckled.

Maybe most catastrophically, my laptop refused to start. I pressed the On button, the engine revved, then the whole thing shut down. Over and over as I tried in vain the rest of the night.

And here’s the problem: I’ve never backed up a file. Ever. Yeah, yeah, of course I know better. But you want the truth? I don’t floss much either. I don’t strengthen my core muscles. I don’t take potassium or do my monthly breast exams. I don’t clean the cheese that drips to the bottom of the oven, and I don’t take the rain barrel in for the winter. I don’t use fancy moisturizer. To my father’s incessant protests, I haven’t tested my house for radon. I don’t organize my closets. I don’t limit my wine to one glass a night, and I don’t always tell my doctor the truth. These aren’t philosophical positions on my part. This isn’t some kind of libertarian stubbornness. It’s just that -- and I have to come to terms with this -- there are certain things I never get around to doing, even though I wish I were the kind of person who made them a priority. (Please don’t send comments about how important each of these activities may be, because I can promise you one thing: Unless you’re coming over to do them on my behalf, they’re probably not getting done).

So I guess I was supposed to be kicking myself over all that lost material. Every short story I ever wrote, every wedding I ever officiated, every resume sent and digital photo taken, and my entire dissertation. Letters to my husband, letters to the editor, my entire archive of block-group organizing . . . all of it up in smoke.

But the only thing I really missed was my list of restaurant meals from 2009 (something I’ve been religiously cataloguing since January 2007; I have printouts for all but this year).

In the ensuing days, a tech-savvy friend was able to recover all those lost files. I guess I felt some degree of relief. But no real gladness, no legible joy.

Am I really that indifferent a person? Do I have such a detachment to my ‘life’s work’ that I feel absolutely nothing when it’s gone? I remember getting so frustrated with John when he lost his bookstore all those years ago and he didn’t shed a tear or betray a moment of sadness. Maybe I’m that more like that than I realize.

Or maybe, when it comes right down to it, there’s a sense of liberation in losing all that content. Maybe I’m sort of curious what happens when you have to start from nothing, when you don’t have old texts and templates imposing themselves on the first word, the first paragraph. Maybe there’s relief in that capaciousness.

I won’t be able to test the theory since my files have been recovered. But I’m hopeful for one thing: When I see a clean slate on the laptop I buy as a replacement, I hope I’ll fill it judiciously. I hope I won’t transfer all those files just because they were there before. I hope I use a benchmark stronger than simple existence.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Art walk (and walk . . . and walk . . .)

Things have been so crazy I've had no time to post about the recent Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival. This is like one of those belated birthday presents that arrives so late you might as well call it a Christmas present. So Merry Christmas one and all, because the fest still seems worth a reflection or two.

By all reports, and despite a few crotchety critiques (my sympathies for drivers' frustrations in getting around a blocked street evaporated a long time ago: it's summer, and a perfect time for hoofing), this was a splendid event. It had a pretty interesting evolution to boot. Its seeds were the Taste of Logan Square, a strange, glorified carnival run for several years under the watch of our previous ('machine') alderman, and a place that featured very little food from Logan Square and more than occasional outbursts of violence. Our current alderman's brother was actually killed there one year, so it's no surprise that when he unseated his predecessor, his fair would change both its venue and orientation.

Cue up the Palmer Square Arts Festival, a kinder, gentler summer fair. But it was almost too kind and too gentle. The music never strayed from various folk traditions. The art had no internal conflict whatsoever. And the attendance was pretty lukewarm from year to year. Still, with actual local restaurants featured and a productive use of one of our neighborhood's few patches of green space, it was a tilt in the right direction. A shame, then, when the alderman lost favor with the folks living on the perimeter of Palmer Square by supporting the construction of a playlot in one corner of the park's greenway. Scroll ahead a year: the Milwaukee Arts Festival was born.

Stillborn, you might say.

Its first year or two was an earnest but pretty anemic, taking up an awkward corner at the confluence of three busy car arterials. There were a handful of artists featured--most of them pretty darn talented, if you could actually make your way to their exhibits--and some live music in the parking lot of the liquor store across the street. But it'd be tough to call this progress.

Which is why it was such a surprise to see this year's festival come to life. Is there such a thing as two steps back, 1000 steps forward? Because that might be a fair description. More than three miles of exhibit space up and down Milwaukee Avenue, 2+ full days of activity, live music of every stripe on the Square, an open-air gallery where you could look at art but also get a heaping bbq pork sandwich and a decent local beer. And my favorite part: installations creatively intersecting with the built environment: not only in existing exhibit space, but throughout an entire collection of empty storefronts decimated by the current economy.

The former PUSH 'nutrition supplement' store (a front, no doubt) housed the artists' marketplace, filled with felted scarves, dioramas in jars, and handmade jewelry I've regretted not buying ever since. A one-time medical office featured the results of art in the park, where amateur artists of all ages got together on a few consecutive weekends to paint whatever inspired them at the moment. And a recently closed hip-hop clothing store showcased what was for me the most controversial exhibit (and one that probably deserves its own entry): a personal collection of street art 'appropriated' (stolen?) from its public context that I have to admit was amazing to see. More on that to come.

But overall, it was great to see all our neighborhood assets, from green space to a stalled retail corridor to an abundance of locally created art, put to such productive use. Some of the owners of those empty storefronts have actually asked to keep the exhibits hanging for a while--a nice way to 'stage' the space for would-be business owners. If it works, the alderman (and all the rest of us) owe those hard-working artist/organizers an even greater debt than we realize.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

1000 Words

Today I share with you my favorite example of 'branding' in the history of mom & pop retailing. Around the corner from our house, on a bustling but uninspired commercial corridor, and among photos of babies in Christening gowns, kids in 1st communion outfits, and stiffly posed couples on their wedding day, sits this beauty.

This little girl probably isn't so little anymore. She could be in college now for all we know. Or tending to kids of her own. This display seems to have graced the owner's window for as long as the business has been around, which--judging by the discoloration of some of the photo paper--seems like an awfully long time. There are worse things than being a business with such longevity that its display window starts to fade.

But I get such a kick out of the thought of this photographer, thumbing through his portfolio for just the right pieces to promote his business, coming across this scowling little girl, and thinking "Eureka, that's the one!"

It's even more curious to think of passersby looking in the window and deciding this is the guy who should take the photos at said Christenings, 1st communions, and wedding celebrations. Truth be told, I've almost been tempted to go over there myself: book a session with me, John, and the dog for posterity. And I don't mean that with any kind of kitsch arrogance. I'm genuinely curious about this guy. What did he do to provoke this particular look from this particular little girl, and can it be replicated? Better yet, who's the guy who takes this portrait and considers it photographic gold? Because I have to say, the more I look, the more I can't help agreeing with him.

This isn't so many worlds apart from the portrait studios I remember from my youth: There was Van Ramsey, portraitist par excellence in my hometown (or so we thought), creating his own cottage industry out of school pictures for all the graduating seniors in town. When the occasional kid got a photo taken elsewhere, you could always tell in the yearbook: it just wasn't a telltale Van Ramsey.

Or the sessions at the local Sears or Olan Mills, where they'd pose us with our elbows on mini split-rail fences with phony flowers in the background. Or they'd shoot one image face forward and the other to the side, so a ghostly profile could be superimposed in the upper right-hand corner of each 8 X 10. This little girl gave exactly the look we should have been giving them. Nothing they were doing was cause for a smile. It was ridiculously artificial and frankly a pain in the ass. Yet thank goodness, in some ways, for those legacies. We know not only what we looked like, but what we looked like in the context of those decades.

I sort of wonder what the age of digital photography, Facebook, and the like, is doing to the genre of the portrait. Like so many things, it seems to be going the way of the dodo. No one goes to sit for a portrait anymore unless there's some professional purpose (bank presidents, annual awards, driver's licenses). And the ways we present our images in social networking tend to be partial shots, looking away from the camera, doing something goofy or propping up intentional distortions for a laugh. It's as if we have some collective cultural embarrassment over taking this kind of thing seriously. We're more likely to have professional portraits taken for our pets (who have no capacity for cynicism) than for ourselves. And yet what is Facebook or MySpace but self-representation writ large?

Regardless, sometimes when I need a good laugh or a good reminder of humanity, I walk past the window of the portrait studio just to stare back at that little girl. I hope the rest of her day brought her a moment or two of happiness. Clearly, she'd earned it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Playing in the street

At last, I find myself on the other side of an event I'd been dreading: last Friday evening's B'Ball on the Block. At work we sponsor a heroic program where on six consecutive Friday evenings, we cordon off a troubled street so kids can play basketball, have their faces painted, eat free hot dogs and apples, and generally find an alternative to trouble.

Last Friday's game was held on the block where we've slated our next affordable-housing development. The opposition to that project has been both strategic and virulent, so we wanted to create something that shows what we're about. We pulled out all the stops. Not just basketball, but a tumbling group, a youth spoken-word initiative, arroz con gandules made by one of the local residents, dancing, a jumping jack, and a goofy clown (played by none other than the head of our construction office) who only made a single baby cry.

It was a beautiful night. The event went seamlessly, and even members of the opposition joined the effort, one of them offering to referee, another providing electricity for our sound system, several setting up a candy raffle and using our sound system to announce the winners, and still others applauding as a teen spoken-word group 'spit' (their word) about HIV, relationship abuse, the dangers of drugs and premature sex, and the value of a good education, despite the crumbling quality of their public schools.

I'm a little sick this week and maybe it's making me soft, but I left the event feeling like much was possible here, including good neighborly relations with even the folks involved with the campaign against the project. I sensed both common ground and good will that weren't there before. Debates are good and important -- but I'm thinking the best conversation may be demonstration. What we demonstrated there is our something that goes beyond philosophy or divisive polarity. We showed our human faces, and we saw human faces in return.

As we left the game two open-air drug deals were happening just beside our van. This speaks more loudly than anything else about the need for an event like this. And especially for the need for additional eyes on this street, which well-managed residential development will inevitably bring, as it's brought to so many communities throughout Chicago. It does a heart good to be a part of that effort, even with hefty roadblocks along the way.