| On July 15, 1996, thirteen students from Sauk Valley Community
College, four student facilitators, Dr. George Karnezis, and myself traveled
to Chicago to view two of the sites belonging to a project called SculptureChicago.
The trip turned out for all to be extremely rich in experiences, experiences
redolent with both multivocality and nuance.
The idea for the trip began, simply enough, as a way of giving my students a first hand experience of some of the concepts we had been discussing in our HUM 210 (Intro to the Arts) class. In the past, this first hand experience has been provided by field trips to the Art Institute in Chicago. For most of the students, these trips provide their first experience with a museum or viewing paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts directly. While some students are truly moved by the experience and re-evaluate the importance of the arts in their lives, most students benefit more from the mood of the surroundings and the sight of large numbers of people (people who often look just like them) quietly contemplating the objects found in the Art Institute. To see that there are activities which other people value in the way they value their own engagement with Pop culture does give them alternative images with which to view and categorize the folk they will meet as they continue to be challenged by the larger world which higher ed and embarking on careers exposes them to.
However, for a long time I had felt dissatisfied with the Art Institute trip. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that this particular experience, no matter how I chose to talk about it or warn against certain views, still reinforced the ideas that art was done by others ("creative geniuses"), that the value of art was institution-bound, and that all public activities had gift shops attached to them. Regardless of the spirited discussions we would have in class making connections between the enormous prices that some paintings fetched and the astronomical salaries received by sports figures, or about the rather one-sided representation of white males in the art world, or about the debilitating Art-in-a-box syndrome, here I was implicitly giving credence to just such ideas by honoring the experience of going to the Art Institute.
This discomfort was coincidental with several other situations
in which I was involved. First was the experiential education projects
I was asked to help with by the head of the Student Activities Office at
Sauk, projects which were in response to our schools attempt to incorporate
outcome-based objectives into the curriculum. The second situation was
my growing concern over how few Sauk students had any kind of significant
arts experience in their background. Cutbacks in educational funding as
well as a general anti-intellectualism (which extends to the arts) abroad
in our land seem to be the main culprits (helped along, of course by our
growing consumer culture), although I will discuss what I perceive to be
yet a third force in this trend below. Finally, a recent personal experience
which I had while participating in the planning and execution of a memorial
performance hour, while difficult to articulate the substance of, both
valorized and strengthened my own thinking about the function of art. (This
I will also treat below.)
("Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote")
that human thought is basically both social and public- that its
natural habitat is the house yard, the marketplace, and the town square.
Thinking consists not of happenings in the head (though happenings there
and elsewhere are necessary for it to occur) but in a traffic in what have been
called, by G. H. Mead and others, significant symbols--words for the most part
but also gestures, drawings, musical sounds, mechanical devices like clocks, or
natural objects like jewels.......While he lives he [sic] uses them, or some
of them, sometimes deliberately and with care, most often spontaneously and
with ease, but always with the same end in view; to put a construction
upon the events through which he lives, to orient himself within the ongoing course of experienced things, to adopt a vivid phrase of John Dewey's ...........
We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture- and not through culture in general, but through highly particular forms of it........ We live, as one writer has neatly put it, in an information gap. Between what our body tells us and what we have to know in order to function, there is a vacuum we must fill ourselves, and we fill it with information (or misinformation) provided by our culture. 2
Art, also by its very definition, is a product of human endeavor, a making. It requires an active engagement in making choices. But unfortunately, thanks to the aestheticization of art 4 (also see note 1) it is perceived by the general population that these choices are only made by a small select few, leaving the average person no where to stand in the world of art. I therefore have come to see art as not just a particular cultural system but also as a useful metaphor for thinking about my students' relationship to culture in general.
I do not want to rehearse the current conversations about the state of the arts except to say that by and large these conversations are predicated on the notion that the Enlightenment project concept of art (with the obligatory Romantic gloss) is still valid. Even slightly more historical understandings of the arts seem unable to totally shake the lingo and lenses of this notion of an autonomous artist opposed to variously defined groups of performing spectators. Although mostly free of this bias, even David Fisher, in an otherwise excellent discussion of public art (see notes 6 and 11) and public spaces (using "Culture in Action" for several examples) does not stray from this dichotomy beyond beginning his article with the Joseph Beuys statement about everyone being an artist and the survival of humankind being dependent upon "realiz[ing] the social body, the social order, into an artwork." As good as the piece is, it would have greatly benefited from keeping this admonition foregrounded.
All of this is not to say that I see the ideal as the elimination of audience as one of the various roles we take on. On the contrary; clearly, at any one moment, not everyone can be the artist. At any one moment, someone must provide the "reflective surfaces" by which the maker can deepen her own understanding of what she has done. That is, the process is dialogic, 5 a conversation between audience and artist. But audiences are made, not born, and the less one participates in the making, the less one is able to fulfill one's role as audience. Simply put, someone who makes their own music is a better audience for others' music making. (It is my own pet theory that the ritualistic, celebratory, and participatory nature of heavy metal concerts is heightened by the fact that, of all styles of music, heavy metal has the largest number of fellow practitioners in the audience. Many in the audience know what the various posturings on stage feel like and are able to engage with the rites and symbols at a deeper, more felt level.) Conversely, the more actively one participates as an audience, the more one can bring to their own making of art. However, as Fisher reminds us, this conversation is increasingly becoming a monologue--
Having briefly outlined what I see as a problem with our current understandings of art and what may be a few sources for that problem, I would like to make my turn and suggest that everything which I have just said is also true for culture, culture, that is, in the sense of those distinctively human ideas, activities and objects which are used "to mediate[ ] the relations of individuals both to their material terms of existence and to each other." 7
Once I had decided to use SculptureChicago as the focus for our trip, I began to pull together materials which would help the students engage with the experience. Xeroxes of the opening chapter of the Culture in Action catalogue were handed out; lectures on public art, art as discourse, and the exhibits discussed in the catalogue were given; certain students were chosen to explore and report on the Internet websites attached to the current SculptureChicago installations. All of this gradually heightened the students excitement about making the trip and helped define their expectations. I also made arrangements with the Newberry Library for the group to watch a video made by SculptureChicago on the background of the three installations currently on display. Finally, I contacted Dr. George Karnezis of North Central College (Naperville), a rhetorician with whom I myself had previously studied. George is particularly interested in art as a site for public discourse and it was on this topic that I wanted him to interact with the students. I also gathered together four former Sauk students whom I asked to come along as facilitators, but facilitators in two or three very specific ways. One way reflected the fact that all had performance of literature backgrounds. I therefore asked each to prepare about five to seven minutes worth of material to perform at Washington Square Park. Along these same lines, I had the class resurrect a group performance of "Child on Top of a Greenhouse" by Theodore Roethke which they had prepared earlier in the semester. In my mind, it was imperative that this not be merely a sightseeing tour but "an event" ( pace Richard Wilbur).
The tentative itinerary for the day was--
Down the sudden vistas of the vain attempt
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.
The multivocality of the performances and the performance spaces encountered on our trip were evident from the moment we all met on the Newberry Library steps. Filing into the library, each student fell silent as they passed through the second set of doors into the large marble foyer with its high arching ceiling and large faux columns exuding quiet strength. Immediately all were engaged in taking in what was, I was soon to learn, a space which few had ever been in before. (Their reaction called to mind Heidegger's description of the Greek temple. "The temple-work, standing there, opens up a world and at the same time sets this world back again on earth....The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves....It is not a portrait whose purpose is to make it easier to realize how the god looks; rather, it is a work that lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself." 8 )
Once inside, I directed them to the restrooms and then spoke to the gentleman on post at the information desk. The arrangements I had made the week before with Tom Stoltz had included taking the TV and VCR, which were in a corner of the foyer, into the associates' lounge for the viewing. However, Tom had forgotten to let anyone know and James, our "tour guide," was reluctant to allow us to do so. As it turned out, this may have been a lucky turn of events.
As I walked into the restroom, I overheard two of my students, Kary and Jenny, talking.
"Have you ever been in a place like this?" Jenny asked Kary.
A suddenly free stall took precedence over our conversation and by the time I came out of the restroom the two had rejoined the most uncomfortable and awkward looking group of people I have ever seen. With the exception of three students who had boldly wandered into the bookstore, all were standing, leaning, or sitting in attitudes that suggested that they clearly felt out of their element. Apparently Jenny was not the only one intimidated by this particular public space. I was definitely reminded that not everyone lived in my world.
The video turned out to be less informative than I had hoped as we had learned most of what was on the tape from the materials handed out in class the week before. What was of interest were the brief interviews with the artists themselves and scenes of them working with the citizens chosen to represent their neighborhoods. But, as I see now, what going into the Newberry and viewing the tape did do that was of great importance was to serve as liminal space 9 for the students out of which they emerged ready to engage with the Washington Square installation, eGarden, in the manner each interpreted to be in keeping with their experience of the Newberry. Quietly, without immediately clumping up into their normal groupings, they made their way across the street and into the park.
The installation is located in the center of the park where four sidewalks, converging from their starting points at each corner of the park, meet to form a largish open area surrounded by benches. The installation itself is not in the center of this open area, but, rather, is cheated several feet to the east- toward Michigan Avenue and the lake. It is made up of eight poles, arranged in an octagon, each about twelve feet high and supporting speaker horns. In each horn are microchips which reproduce three short speeches by various people, both famous and non-. Infrared sensors are tripped by people making their way through the park or walking inside the space made by the poles. This, in turn, causes the speakers to start up. We were not able to determine exactly where the sensors were or who was tripping which speaker, so it was difficult to choose a single voice to listen to. Most of the time, several speakers were going at once and on several occasions, all eight speakers were engaged. Because of the quality of the speakers and the ambient noise, if more than two speakers were going, one simply could not tell what was being said.
As we started to walk in and around the installation, a young man in a panama hat approached Annette and Cheryl and asked if we all belonged to an art class. As the girls shyly told him no, I stepped in and explained who we were and what we were doing there. I then asked him if he minded if my students talked to him about the work.
The young man explained in response to Annette's question that not only did he live in the neighborhood but that he had just graduated from the Art Institute and was an artist himself. When Cheryl asked him what he thought of the piece, he laughed and said, "well, me and my friends hate it. We come to the park to talk and watch the people, but with this thing going off all the time we can't sit where we usually do. And fewer people come here now so we can't even people-watch like we used to. To be honest with you, we'll be glad when its gone."
Cheryl then asked him, as an artist, what did he think of the work? He laughed a little, shrugged, and then said, "well, I don't like to put down other peoples work, ya know?"
As the students continued to explore the eGarden, the four
student facilitators (Jason, Amanda, Mel, and Phil) were taking turns running
the video camera we had brought with us. Along with their roles as performers,
they also went around and, per my instructions, asked various students
what they thought about the installation. As all four are majoring in some
art form at a four year university I hoped that they could model alternative
ways of talking about art. I also hoped that it would provide my students
with a chance to see that people in the arts are pretty much just like
them (well, for the most part, anyway). And finally, I hoped that it would
make the conversation with George more active by letting the students rehearse
their contribution to the discussion.
Washington Square Park was the sight of "Bughouse Square," an area where local folk and national figures came to get "on the soapbox" and make speeches or debate about current issues. The eGarden installation evokes this history not only with the multiple voices vying for attention but through the choices of what voices to use. Several of the sound bites (none are over one minute in length) are by historical figures who once appeared at Bughouse Square--Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow--or figures strongly associated with Chicago--Studs Turkle, Ken Nordine. But the majority of voices are those of people from the Washington Square Park neighborhood. Clearly the artist, and presumably the neighborhood committee, saw this particular piece of public art as literally embodying the tradition of public spaces, both as spaces used to display art and as a place to gather for civic purposes. As a representative example of the new sort of public art 11 that is SculptureChicago's focus, the piece, almost by definition, should be sensitive to such things as the history as well as current use of the space it will inhabit. I had made sure that we spoke of these things in class prior to the trip and I had asked George if he would at least begin with this topic during his conversation with the students. (Little did I know how prominently space would figure in the day's experience and discussions.)
It had been interesting to note which students had investigated or interacted with the piece at length (Frank Fong, the class's resident computer whiz from Hong Kong, had even tried to get someone to help him shinny up one of the poles so he could get a closer look at the mechanics of the whole operation. It is no surprise to anyone that he wants to make one of these back at Sauk, although he insists only students voices will be used); who had been more interested in interacting with the other inhabitants of the park (besides Jenny and Laurel, Ben and Rich had struck up a conversation with a young man from Guatemala who has only been here for five months. They found that the installation didn't make a lot of sense to him, partly because of his limited English but mostly because he didn't see the point); or who chose to stay fairly unengaged by any of this (Calista and Jeff, who are dating, use their relationship to shield them from most opportunities to interact in class. This trip was no exception). These various approaches came out in the kinds of comments the students then contributed to the conversation. Jenny and Laurel couldn't wait to share with the rest of the class the fact that the women they had spoken with didn't like the installation. This gave Rich and Ben a chance to share their experience. Frank and Scott defended the installation and noted that they didn't particularly care what those people thought, they thought it was neat. Annette, who rarely says anything in class, responded to this stance by reminding us all of the purpose of the piece and the community's express involvement.
"What they think does matter. They're the ones who have to
live with it. We're just, like, well, guests or something."
The next activity on the agenda were the performances. My intention in having the students perform for each other and whoever else cared to watch (no one did) was to give them a sense of their own powers to not only entertain each other but to create their own culture. But an interesting thing happened for me; I suddenly became very reluctant to include this activity. However, I proceeded with it, mainly because the facilitators and some of the other students were looking forward to it, but also partly because I really didn't know what else to do with the time. Once we started the performances, I was distracted by what we were doing, but after we were done and I allowed everyone to go to lunch (we had negotiated that they would be on their own for lunch) I confided to George that I sort of felt like what we had done was to "colonize" the park. Maybe it was the conversation we had had. Maybe it was my own sensitivity to being, on occasion, voiceless. I don't know. But I still feel uneasy about it.
As we all gathered back in the park after lunch, Tina rushed up to
"We lied and told them it was Steve's birthday and they gave him a cake and sang to us. It was really neat!"
I looked at George and sighed.
Scott walked up to me as Tina turned to tell Jenny and Laurel about her lunch time adventure, offering me a small menu from "Joey's." I thanked him, then asked him what it was. "Well, isn't it an artifact?"
I looked at George and smiled.
Making up Our Minds
and to know how we feel about things we need the public images of
sentiment that only ritual, myth, and art can provide.....................
Art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop.
The installation at Humboldt Park is found in the activity
center building next to the lagoon. In order to get to it, you must pass
through the entrance hallway and then what appears to be a community room
with its own murals and artwork. Upon entering, you are immediately surrounded
by the noise of children playing basketball--shouting, the squeak of tennis
shoes on hardwood floor, the plonking of the ball, and laughter. The courts
are located in wings on either end of the building connected to the main
area by hallways. Therefore they were out of sight but not out of earshot,
aurally commanding the space through which we moved.
The work itself is a set of displays honoring six individuals chosen by the community after several public meetings were held. The installation represents the artist's understanding of those chosen. Lengthy interviews with both the honorees and friends and neighbors helped the artist to choose or create items with which to surround large black and white photographs of each person. One installation shows a photograph of a man in a black straw fedora, dark shirt and pants, with a thin mustache. The nearly life-size photo acts as a backdrop to a large collection of brightly painted quintos (fake), mostly black and red, some yellow and black, which sit on top of a space about four by six feet tiled with record albums. The assumption is that this fellow is a musician or, at least, music is what his neighbors most strongly associate with him. Or maybe he makes drums.
The students move through the display quietly and with what appears to be reverence or respect. When they do talk, it is quietly, asking each other what they think various objects mean. Several sit and watch the video for quite awhile, then move back toward the entrance of the room to share what they have learned with others. "See the one with the bars around it?" Laurel softly says to Jenny. "She's really in jail."
"You're kidding. Then how come all those books piled in there are romance novels? What does that mean?"
This particular installation attracts the most attention because
it is the only one which has some sort of text attached to it. I'm surprised
at the number of students who have some Spanish and are valiantly trying
to translate the poster attached to one of the bars. They almost seem desperate
to tell what it says and work together, sharing insights and verbs, in
order to make a whole. My Latin and French are of no use, George's Greek
and German are of no use, Frank's Chinese is of no use. Momentarily, the
six or so who speak Spanish are in the know, controlling the information.
They have the power to make meaning; the rest of us wait patiently, deferentially,
for them to pass it on. (I file this moment away, thinking that later I
will use it as yet one more example of hermeneutics and interpretation.
But deep down I know I will not do so. This moment is too fragile to support
the burden of labels.)
We gather on the steps to the building in order to hold a final debriefing session before heading home. All it takes is the question, "Well, what did you think?" to get things started. While all of the women and one or two of the men prefer this work to the Washington Square installation, the reasons are as many as the number of students. But everyone agrees that the displays almost seem more appropriate as memorials for the dead than as celebrations for the living. Rich offers "Yah, if I hadn't known these people were alive I woulda just assumed they were dead." Heads nod in agreement. He goes on--
"But I guess I'm different. I didn't like this one nearly as
well as the first one."
George and I both smile on that one. But probably for different reasons. That gender thing, you know.
Unfortunately, it's time to go. As the students approach the van they fall back into their usual banter. Their roles as- what?- audience, performers, art critics, learners?- is within minutes of being over. I make sure Phil, who is driving the van, has enough toll money and then, through an open window, exhort them all to keep the conversation going, to see what conclusions they can start to come to, and then to report them to me at the next class. Although I don't actually hear it, I feel the collective, "Yah, right. In your dreams." Still, hope springs eternal.