Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Intimate and Epic, Small Acts for the City @ Lurie Garden

I took part in a group performance over in the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park on Saturday. I won’t comment on that piece as I was in it but I was able to wander around some and want to mention some of the other works that took place during the day as I doubt there will be much media review of the event.

The show Intimate and Epic, Small Acts for the City was part of a larger weekend of events in the park called rather grandly titled The Great Performers of Illinois which seemed to feature mostly music acts in the Gehry bandshell and tourist-info booths. Mark Jeffery and Sara Schnadt should be credited for convincing the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Dept. of Tourism for including contemporary performance into the weekend.

It was a nice line up including The Seldoms, 3 card molly, Cupola Bobber, Stan Shellabarger, Industry of the Ordinary and a few others.

The Seldoms presented a fine processional movement piece that followed one of the central paths in the garden that has a creek/waterway running along one side. The waterway is full of coins (tossed for good luck I imagine) and often on hot days you see folks cooling off their feet in the water.

The dancers, as is typical of the Seldoms, were tastefully costumed and paired with an interesting material element (long, thick, lizard-like tails of braided clear shrink-wrap plastic which I believe was designed by Pate Conaway). The parts I saw had the dancers moving from a small pool, along the path, up a wall, wagging their bodies, leaving their tail behind, proceeding farther, sometimes lifting each other so they seem to walk on the wall, and then finally lowering a skirt of more colorful fabric to trail behind them in place of their tails. The wet tails left thick watermarks on the concrete as they walked. The shedding of the tail and extending of the skirt lent a note of metamorphosis to the piece. Very professional and easy to enjoy.

3 card molly’s piece Blitz was perhaps the most successful piece in the show. As a pair the performers seemed to be on an abstract military mission of exploration accompanied by a fabulous wooden tank and equipment created by Michael Rea. The tank was at least ten feet long with a driving compartment, turrets, missiles and a rear door…it seemed like a large reproduction of a GI Joe toy tank of somekind…and they were able to drive it along one of the walkways. The performance consisted of gibberish vocal communications and a variety of improvised explorations and some movement patterns (such as rocking huge missiles in there arms like babies). The big visual presence of the tank, the abstract political quality of piece, and the playful/interactive qualities made it fit well with the circumstances of this show and the audience of tourists as well as art fans.

Stan did a nice durational walking piece in which he circled the perimeter of the garden for the length of the event (I think he did about 5 hrs total). He was very pedestrian in appearance and had rigged a water filled backpack to send water down to his shoes. Each step seemed to squirt a bit of water out the tip of his shoes and left a watermark on the concrete that would evaporate with a bit of time. Depending on his pace (and the sunlight, though it was most a cloudy day) he might have a two or three laps of watermarks that he was maintaining with his circling. His piece asserted itself quietly but consistently over the day but often felt muted by the big presence of the garden and the other performers in the park. It created an inside/outside boundary, a directional flow and in a way stirred things up.

Mat Wilson of Industry of the Ordinary showed up right at the end of the afternoon with a big rectangular freezer on wheels. The piece, Manual Labor, consisted of leaving hand-shaped ice sculptures (water was placed in work gloves and frozen) around the garden with tags baring the names of workers who helped create the garden.

The piece seems to fit within the larger body of straightforward gestures of labor and production created by Industry of the Ordinary and highlighted rather bluntly an orientation towards labor as the defining activity of the body and a basis of performance for them as well. The somewhat sentimental quality of the melting hands and the lack of further information about who the workers were made the gesture kind of stunted to me.

I suppose it was intended to point to the presence of the effort of labor that saturates the garden in general but by naming names of a group of people who are probably still around Chicago (the garden is just few years old) yet not actually having them there or involved (as far as I could tell) seemed incomplete, disconnected or even a bit exploitive. I don’t have any sense or evidence of the workers being mistreated, unpaid or even somehow shut out of the garden as it stands now.

I wonder if any of the workers come and visit the garden ever with out of town guests or their families. Are they proud of their work? Was the paycheck, and their work in itself sufficient for them or would they like their names honored? Does Industry of the Ordinary have a beef with the general economic-political structure that lead to the creation of this garden? I feel like there is a politics of labor accumulating in Industry of the Ordinary’s work but I don’t know what it is yet and perhaps would need to look further through their past work to figure it out.

I should also mention a kind of moment that happened while I was chatting with Mat…a guy and his son came up to us with and this icebox hoping that Mat had some ice cream for sale. I thought it would have been a rather gruesome twist of this piece if they had stuck some popsicle sticks in these ice-hands and offered them to the tourists. An idea for another show perhaps.

Finally, Cupola Bobber’s piece, Light Curve, was abandoned when the long paper track they were attempting to extend across some of the vegetation in the garden became stuck. Apparently the artist weren’t allowed to venture off of a maintenance path so as to protect the plants. I was barked at by an earnest gardener at one point for laying my backpack in the wrong place so I can attest for the tight situation artists were working with. The garden in apparently still in quite the fragile state and clear and consistent boundaries are probably necessary to keep the general public from damaging the garden. If anything though was missing from the show it was the opportunity to see more direct engagement of the nature of the garden as an aspect of the landscape.

This was a polite show on the part of the artists in general but understandably polite. Having the cultural agents of the city supporting contemporary performance is important and perhaps with time more trust will build and the artists will be able the engage the limitations of the circumstances further.

So as an audience friendly, presentational showcase kind of show, the more visually bombastic and theatrical pieces fared well in the event. The big nature of the garden itself and the rest of the activities in the park were quite a difficult background to distinguish yourself in and a tough place for the quite conceptual work.

It would be appropriate in the future to start to consider how contemporary performance work sits with the rest of the city’s cultural agenda. The drive of the Great Performers of Illinois is obviously to encourage tourism as much as present the cultural gems of the region. Hopefully in the future the programming of the whole park will be a bit more considered so things like the strange decision to book an entire afternoon of loud drum circles in the neighboring (amplified) Ghery bandshell will be understood as a decision to set the soundscape for the performances in the Lurie Garden as well. And also perhaps so strange juxtapositions like having an Abe Lincoln impersonator (another Great Performer of Illinois) walking through the garden at the same time as some contemporary performance piece is unfolding on a neighboring bench won’t be lost.

Listen to talks I did with Stan and Mat in the dialogues section of this site.

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