On the matter of public space: or my apartment gallery is an arctic explorer

December 10, 2009 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Caroline Picard

This essay was first published in the Artists Run Chicago Digest published jointly by threewalls and Green Lantern Press in 2009.

On the matter of public (1) space : or my apartment gallery is an arctic explorer

“‘Oh, you have a roommate?’

“ ‘Yeah, she’s actually here right now, but she’s sick….Don’t do that—she’s trying to sleep.’

“I heard them but pretended to remain asleep by keeping my eyes closed; [closing your eyes] is what passed for privacy then. My ‘room’ was in a corner of the kitchen on the other side of a folding screen. If you were tall enough, you could see me from either side at any time. The above exchange took place during the installation of a show when I happened to have a cold. I lived at the Green Lantern from 9/06 to 8/07. Recently out of college, I moved to Chicago to get my bearings. I had just spent two years living in the French countryside with no heat, no car, no Internet, no noise, no zines, no sushi, no shows, no jargon. When I moved in, I had never owned a computer. Suddenly I was in the middle of an art scene.

“Any Chicagoan who’s hip to the jive knows that an apartment gallery poses a unique set of problems. Someone actually lives there—sleeps and cooks and poos there—and yet the obligatory neutral space of the gallery must remain white-walled, spacious, antiseptic. At the GL in the earlier days, the gallery was clean, airy, spare, while on just the other side of a makeshift wall was a seething and barely-controlled chaos. A visiting friend once described the living space as ‘under a great deal of pressure,’ like the lack of density in the gallery half had to be balanced by ultra-density in the living half. This density consisted of, among other things, a large mounted buck complete with antlers, a five foot plaster statue of a fat man with an umbrella, a bong made out of steak shellacked to a milk carton, a taxidermied rooster, two large Chinese screens, many works of art in various stages of undress, two living cats…enough plates and stemware to host a diplomatic gala, a sink doubling as a bookshelf, a home-made up-ended ‘bar,’ an enormous vintage fridge, a miniature vintage stove, an easel, double-stacked books, innumerable trinkets ranging from delicate Eastern figurines to an ancient can of spam, an old-fashioned sandwich press, two Dictaphones, one enormous toaster (not in use) and a tiny one (in use). People liked throwing around comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, but that was legit. The fact that the two-foot high pepper mill was three times as tall as the delicate teapot, for instance, made me wonder if I’d accidentally swallowed a pill. And keep in mind that I’ve listed perhaps a sixteenth of the contents of those two or three improvised rooms. I haven’t even mentioned the huge quantities of building supplies, the aluminum ladder, the planks and tools and cans of paint…” (2)

This book is filled with the evidence of relationships. It is a book of conversations, including conversations about conversations and, sometimes, conversations about conversations about conversations. Each perspective constitutes one piece of an artist-run community reflecting on its endeavors. While it is important to archive these conversations for the community to which it speaks, it is also important to examine the consequences of such a culture in the context of a larger world—a world unfamiliar with the pattern of organizations described herein. Particularly if the conversations outlined here claim to cultivate new models for achievement, one must consider what the artist-run community looks like from the outside, from the vantage of a stranger.

What, indeed, is transgressive about artist-run exhibition spaces? Certainly those contained in this book will have their theories and while some of these organizations were constructed as political experiments, a number of them won’t characterize their activity as political at all, saying instead that running a space is done for personal/professional experience, or as an experiment, or a labor of love. And yet. Regardless of stated intentions, all action is political.(3) Such an opinion comes from within a community where the practice of running an apartment gallery is fairly common.(4) In order to categorize such activities as transgressive or political, one must label them somehow. In doing so, necessary comparisons must be made to the world at large. Generalizations must be made about what the world at large consists of, what expectations it places upon members of its society and, ultimately, how its constituents measure themselves. Other generalizations must then be made about the smaller niche of artist-run communities, in order to discover the tension between them.

When compared to the world we watch on television, the practice of apartment galleries seems absurd. (5) Compared to the stories told via sitcoms and commercials, all young women want to get married, everyone desires fame and all clothes look brand new. Obviously the average viewer is literate enough to know that television is a fictionalized hyper-reality. Nevertheless as a primary source of cultural consumption, most viewers recognize subtle conventions that support the more prominent story lines. A home, for instance, means something specific. As a cultural symbol it provides the framework for countless many sitcoms—a framework based on common expectations of what a home should supply to its occupants. The viewer won’t likely conceive of their living room as a potentially public place, a place for cultural distribution. Building a public environment of cultural creativity in one’s home challenges traditional boundaries between public and private spheres just as it encourages intimacy between the art object and its epicyclic community. In such a community, relationships become as important as the work on display and validation occurs through non-monetary, communal support.

The collusion of public and private space, mixed with a living contemporary art and the communities that support it, is trans-gressive in and of itself. Such a recipe breaks down the societal expectations of public activity. Furthermore apartment galleries agitate common definitions of “home” and “domestic space.” The people who inhabit apartment galleries organize their homes according to the possible descent of an unknown body of people: the public. Meanwhile the public modifies their expectation of public space such that they are sensitive to the generosity of their hosts. A code of behavior has manifested between the host and the public. That code, while organic in its inception, facilitates the relationship between the audience, the art and their administrative hosts. While that code is not readily apparent, (6) Sarah Stickney witnessed that code as a newcomer only to embrace it as a resident.

In Chicago, the public consumption of visual art is not allowed by law to exist in intimate settings, (the house, the apartment, the garage, etc.,). The apartment gallery is essentially illegal. The illegality of these spaces occurs when they struggle for some shred of sustainability (i.e. through the selling of goods),(7) attempt to operate legally (by way of purchasing the necessary licenses and tearing through the ensuing red tape of bureaucracy), or when they attempt to avail themselves to a larger audience, one not restricted to Facebook friends. (8)

Obviously that isn’t to say apartment galleries don’t happen, or (even) that city officials don’t in some blind-eye-manner endorse cultural DIY activity; the city of Chicago seems to enjoy identifying itself with those practices.(9) Nevertheless, said practices are not technically allowed. Thus, while a private party is acceptable, a publicized, public exhibition is not—especially when money changes hands. The city maintains its ability to control the watering holes this community frequents; the city can shut apartment galleries down.(10)

In our day and age much of the cultural production that takes place within the art world has been tamed and funneled into pre-existing power structures that support the larger mainstream. Artists often seek gallery representation, striving to achieve standing in the commercial market, such that they might support and (thus) justify their art making practice through the pursuit of public acclaim and monetary compensation. It makes sense. It is almost impossible to expect anything else. After all, how does an artist justify spending hours reading, thinking, painting and writing in a studio while his or her significant other goes to work sixty hours a week in order to support both of them? And what if the artist has a child? How does the artist explain his or her non-commercial and largely interior processes when a kid needs school clothes? It is perhaps impossible to strive through consumer culture, where legitimacy is typically measured by purchasable signs of success—homes, cars, televisions, computers etc., making objects that are neither compensated by monetary sums nor attributed with an inherent non-market value.  Indeed, on such a quest the consumer landscape becomes a veritable wilderness.

It is thus essential to create alternative methods of public validation. Exhibitions are one way to take a potentially monkish studio practice and drop it into the public sphere in which an audience can respond. Apartment galleries, while affording meager monetary relief, at least appeal to different values, values based on esteem and reputation—ambiguous, difficult-to-define attributes.

In Chicago, they seem accrued by way of hard work, talent and generosity. Within such a community an artist with little to no interest in (or access to) the commercial world can relate to an audience comprised of other artists, art enthusiasts and, sometimes, the uninitiated. Further, they can contextualize their efforts to their family, the spouses or parents that might support them. The apartment gallery provides a different criterion for validation and empowers small groups of individuals to cultivate unique and potentially iconoclastic aesthetics.

Aside from those bastions of non-traditional/non-commercial artistic production, most cultural activity is distributed via mainstream arteries that reach millions of people at once. The same television shows are watched, the same movies, the same news sources owned by the same parent companies. Most people listen to the same music, read the same books and, therefore, refer to the same common body of knowledge. Contemporary America has a common vocabulary of cultural symbols that comprise the dreams of the individual. It is possible, for instance, that Tom Cruise made over a million cameos in dreams across the country last night. While the peculiar context for his manifestation would vary, he is nevertheless saddled with very similar associations, associations that stem from his public persona. As the mechanism of such a society continues, as the material for our thoughts sets, it will be harder and harder to transcend those ideas we take for granted: ideas about what a home is supposed to be, for instance. As we get locked into unconscious expectations of the world, it will be harder and harder to have new ideas, moments of inspiration, and innovation in which we might transcend ourselves.(11)

I believe that small hubs like the apartment gallery, the small record label, the small press, the underground movie theater: such venues generate and sustain micro-cultures that encourage unpredictable thoughts, ideas and enthusiasms. If anything, they might simply encourage people to believe once more in the capacity of the individual to influence the world. Exploring the tension between public and private, commercial and non-commercial, regulated and non-regulated business is good and valuable. It’s worth always carving out our own identities, our own terms and communities, means of support, and methods of validation.

FOOTNOTES

1.     vs. Private

2.     Excerpt by Sarah Stickney from It’s Your Turn, a silk-screened zine edited by Young Joon Kwok and Rachel Shine. Printed in an edition of 90 in June of 2009.

3.   John Huston, the Arctic explorer, gave a lecture about an expedition he conducted where he traveled, primarily on foot, along the Northwest Passage. The Northwest Passage had long been sought after. In the 1800’s, Norwegian and British ships set out to discover a passage that would improve shipping routes. It was never found in the 1800’s because it never  existed. Those expeditions only ever found ice. Last year, the Northwest  Passage came into being for the first time. Climate change has melted enough ice such that a passage opened up, connecting the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. Just this summer John Huston walked along its bounds. He suspects that in years to come the unassisted expedition he conducted with expedition partner Tyler Fish will be impossible. In the years to come there will be no ice upon which to walk. I suggested that his journey was political, that it had the appearance of a quiet protest. In walking so many miles with so much risk he was calling attention to the ways in which we are  destroying our environment. He denied the interpretation, saying instead that he was only interested in the application of  the human spirit against terrible odds. While I understand that he has his own intentions, I also cannot avoid interpreting those same actions in a different, and in this case, political, light.

4. Me for instance: I started the Green Lantern Gallery & Press in 2004. Over  the last four years I have hosted between six and eight exhibitions a year. I have hosted countless other public programs, including live music events, screenings, performances and readings. Working with Nick Sarno, Editor for the Green Lantern Press, we have published ten small edition books. In 2007 we achieved 501c3 status. In 2009 we closed the gallery portion because we did not have a business license. Throughout this process I have lived in the gallery, assuming my day-to-day life as though the public might, at any  moment, descend upon it. I am thus sensitive to the nebulous boundaries prescribed by such a vocation.

5.  A real estate agent once bought a copy of the Phonebook Annual Index of Alternative Art Spaces from me. Her eyes were big and wet with this million-dollar idea: She wanted to rent a storefront out to artists. It made sense to  her that artists would pay for exhibition space. It made sense to her that they would pay more than a store because their occupancy would rotate over shorter periods of time; further she felt she would do some larger service to the neighborhood. We shared a mutual bafflement as I explained that, by and large, artists did not pay for exhibition space. “The spaces in this book?” she asked, shaking the Phonebook. “Definitely not those spaces,” I said. She asked me how anybody made money. I said, “With the exception of a few commercial galleries, nobody makes any money at all.” She asked me how people made a living. I think I shrugged.

6.   A friend of Sarah’s, call her Jennie, came through town once. Jennie was in the midst of what she called a “journey,” leaving an old life behind in search of a new one. She left a girlfriend in Portland. She was in the process of buying a car from that ex-girlfriend’s parents, parents who happened to live in the Midwest. Jennie and I went out for drinks the first night. We had a great time. She was full of anxious enthusiasm and kept shaking her hands in the air, as though to exorcise the frenetic energy of transition. Because the gallery was between exhibits, she slept on the gallery floor.

After a few days, Sarah and I realized that we didn’t know when she planned to leave. She was waiting on the suburban parents who couldn’t find the necessary papers to change the car’s registration. Over the course of ensuing days the radius of Jennie’s personal belongings extended in a wider and  wider arc. Her personal possessions could be found in any number of places, a mislaid sock under the gallery desk, a hairbrush on the window ledge. The more she seeded the gallery with her things, the more frightened we became. Sarah and I could not, for some reason, bring ourselves to directly ask about her plans. She provided a variety of unsolicited excuses, all of them likely legitimate enough: there were problems registering the car, the car wouldn’t start, she couldn’t get out to the suburbs that day, the train wasn’t working, their family dog died. Yet palpable in those was a feeling that she was very happy with Chicago. She dropped hints now and again about how the new life she sought might be staring her in the face. “This is so cool,” she might say. “It’s a great life. All I want to do is get drunk every night and meet new people. I’ve been having the most amazing conversations. Everyone I meet is on the cusp of some massive coming-into-being transition.” There were rumors that she might have fallen in love again and she began conducting long, hushed conversations on her cell phone. Sarah and I found ourselves avoiding the gallery altogether, as though the 600 square feet had become Jennie’s bedroom.

A few weeks later, one week before the next exhibit, I came home to find laundry hanging from a clothesline strung across the gallery. I went into the kitchen and a boy came out of the bathroom in towel. He had just showered.  I don’t think I said anything to him, but I imagine I was pale. He smiled naturally and struck out his hand. I ignored it. I went to the back porch and found another boy smoking a cigarette with his feet up. I didn’t recognize either of these boys. “Where’s Jennie?” I asked, snarky. “She’s on her way,” he said. I did not ask from where.

I’m quite sure Jennie would have stayed indefinitely. She said as much later; the space seemed so large and empty that a girl in a sleeping bag—or even, a boy and a girl, for that matter—in her mind, seemed inconsequential. She scoffed a little on her way out of town, because the space was not what it appeared, at first, to be. From her perspective, she said she thought it was a carefree environment where progressive people stayed up late, absorbed in bohemian activities, having lots of sex, doing exotic drugs,reading philosophy, dancing, automatic writing, drinking black coffee all hours of the day and smoking copious amounts of cigarettes.

I realized then that I was not bohemian. I also realized that the Green Lantern was more “serious” than I had thus far pretended. And then I realized that I was part of a community of artist-run spaces that had taught me, by way of example, what kind of space I wanted to run. I had never before had to define that model to anyone, because here in Chicago I was participating in a pre-existing custom. Unlike the wayward traveler, artists in Chicago understood the Spartan emptiness of the gallery space. To that audience, the space, while “empty” was in constant use. To my guest the empty space seemed wastefully idyll.

7. ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES THAT TOOK PLACE AT THE GREEN LANTERN:

1) Purchase of artwork

2) Purchase of books

3) Purchase of alcoholic beverages under the auspice of “donation”

4) Live music performances for which people paid at the door (a PPA license

is needed for this)

5) Operating without a business license

6) The burlesque show in the front window

8.  The Green Lantern was ultimately shut down because we carried a sandwich board out onto the street. A man from the city came to ask if we had a  license for said sandwich board. We did not. He then asked if we had a business license. We did not. Had we never put the sign out, the man from the city would never have found out about us. Neither would the five weekly strangers who stumbled in to an exhibit from the street. The sandwich board  encouraged people from outside of our immediate community to come up the stairs and see contemporary art.

9.  Upon receiving my ticket from the city I went to City Hall. They sent me to the seventh floor where I waited for three hours. When I finally spoke to an administrator—a chubby, self-deprecating man—we filled out paper work. He didn’t make many jokes but he did laugh at mine, albeit nervously. He plugged the information into an archaic computer and the computer rejected my proposal. He sent me up to the ninth floor.

On the ninth floor, I waited in line again, paper work in hand. When my turn came, I spoke to a woman behind glass. It was difficult to hear her and she seemed to carry on two conversations at once, the one with me and the one with a co-worker sitting next to her. When she saw my paper work she said, “Oh! You don’t need a business license, you need a live/work space. You’re an artist, right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s like a studio, right? You show your own work?”

I waffled, “Sometimes,” I said. (I never show my own work.) I hesitated. “What if sometimes I show other people’s work?”

She smiled. She winked. “You only show your work.” She winked again.

“Oh. I get it. Yeah. I only show my work.”

She sent me back downstairs.

After waiting another thirty minutes I spoke to the same self-deprecating man. Thumb tacked to his cubicle wall were several awards for Customer Kindness spanning almost ten years. “They told me I don’t need a business license,” I said to the award from 2006. Then I looked at him. “I need a live/work permit, they said.”

The computer almost accepted my proposal. At the last minute it said we needed approval from another woman at another desk. This woman asked me twenty questions, after which she shook her head. “You need a business license,” she said. “You need to research the history of the building to see if there have been previous businesses.”

They sent me to the thirteenth floor.

I took the stairs.

On the thirteenth floor, I walked down a long corridor and into a corner  office with two baskets—one brimming with paper work—on a front table.

Behind the table there were several desks, all finished in faux-wood. The place looked like an office from an 80’s sitcom that had fallen into disrepair: an old set no one had since paid any attention. I couldn’t see anyone in the office so I called out, “Hello?”

A small, middle-aged woman stood up. She reminded me of the secretary from Ghost Busters. She had short, pink hair and very large glasses. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“I need to request a history for the building I live in?”

She pointed to the basket with fewer papers. “Fill out the form in that basket and then put it in the other basket.” She pointed to the overflowing basket.

“When will I find out?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’re all backed up,” she said.

It has never before occurred to me to bribe anyone before. I didn’t bribe her, though I think I should have because while waiting on the history of the building I got a second ticket.

After this second ticket I called my alderman. He put me in touch with a higher up at City Hall. Again, the woman I spoke to was very nice. “We don’t want you to close,” she said.

“What should I do, then?”

“You need a business license,” she said.

“Can you give me one?”

“You can’t get one at that location.”

The Green Lantern was unable to get a license because of zoning; the building was not zoned for a business. Yet. Even if I had gotten a business  license I would have had to move my apartment out of the space. They told me that if a) more than 12 people visited the space a week, b) objects were sold, c) there were two doors, d) either 100 sq. feet or more than 10% of the living space (whichever was less) was used for the business, then it was disqualified from the live/work permit. If I had qualified for a business license, I could not have lived there at all. You see? Apartment galleries are illegal.

10.      In the recent year, The Aviary was shut down for not having a business license, as was Lloyd Dobler, as was Alagon. The Hyde Park Art Center also had some problems recently and were told not to serve any kind of refreshments.

11.  We need new models of sustainability. Even as reports of global crisis encroach our daily consciousness, we continue to live lives dependent on fossil fuel. In order to remedy the current recession, we are encouraged once more to consume to resuscitate the country and our current way of life. Because consumable objects function as societal symbols of stability and success, members of society cultivate those objects. In order to alter the course of desire, we must change the meaning of those symbols and virtues for legitimacy/achievement, we might. If we do not, if we continue to follow our present mode of production in which more money means more exterior power and more self-worth, we will continue to ravage our resources. If, perhaps, we could find other symbols and virtues for achievement, we might make a better home in the world at large.

Caroline Picard is an artist and the director of Green Lantern Gallery and Press.

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Editors’ Note: All this week we’re running some of the essays written for Floor Length and Tux’s “Untitled Circus” event last weekend. A number of essays on Chicago’s thriving domestic/apartment gallery art space scene were solicited from local writers/artists/curators involved in the running of such spaces, and we’re posting some of them here on Bad at Sports as a way to extend the discussion. Please feel free to email us with your comments at mail@badatsports.com, or if you’d like to contact the folks at FLAT directly, you can email Erik at erik@ floorlengthandtux.com.

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