Guest Post by Kate Ingold.
When I tell friends and colleagues that I’m going down to Pullman to see art, I get one of two responses: 1) What’s Pullman? or 2) That’s so far away! Let me address both of these responses before moving on: 1) Pullman, nestled near I-94 and Lake Calumet, is one of Chicago’s most significant and interesting neighborhoods, the site of of a 19th century labor strike with national implications, and a place of such architectural and historical significance that it will likely be made a national park by the year’s end [President Obama named The Pullman Historic District Chicago’s first National Park on Feb 19th – Ed.], and 2) it is only 12 miles south of the Loop, easily accessible by Metra or by car (and I suppose by bike, if you’re feeling energetic). But what about the art?
A number of years ago my friend JB Daniel, a conceptual artist and accidental community organizer, opened up the foyer of his late-19th-century Pullman row house to artist friends to make installations. The smallish space, lit by a transom above the front door, includes the area from the building’s modest entrance to the stairwell it faces and the two doors to the row house’s first floor guest room and studio. JB named the space “MOSNART,” or “transom” backwards, and welcomed the public for the opening of the installation only, though he encouraged visitors to come and peer into the windows during the time the installation remained up to see the art from the outside. Local, national, and international artists have presented work in MOSNART, from sound installation (Jenny Roberts’ “Now and Here”in 2010) to video (Noel Hennelly in 2012, Rosa Gaia Saunders in 2013) to art objects (Gwen Gerard in 2009, Laura Davis in 2010, among others) and textile installation (Jens Brasch’s “inside/out upside/down” and my “Night Telegram/Water Speak,” both 2009). Over the years, the MOSNART project has grown and JB has found other sites in Pullman for artists to work, including one of the grand rooms in the former Hotel Florence (where Atlanta-based artist Gyun Hur installed a stunning “carpet” made of pulverized funerary silk flowers in 2011), the center of the burned-out market square (see Matthew Hoffman’s current “Go For It” installation, up since October 2014), and the administrative clock tower building of the factory itself (Carrie Iverson’s recent “Groundwork”), where the famed Pullman train cars were built.
It is easy to forget that we were once a nation in near constant labor turmoil. Workers stood up for their rights in powerful, sometimes violent ways against the corporations and oligarchs who were exploiting them. Chicago was at the epicenter of this turmoil more than once: during the legendary Haymarket Affair of 1886 (whose actors were either anarchist terrorists or martyrs, depending on who you ask), which resulted in the deaths of seven policemen and four strikers, followed by the state-sanctioned deaths of four others, and during the three-month-long Pullman Strike of 1894, which perhaps is most notable for the federal reaction to the strike, the defending of the corporation by the National Guard on orders of President Cleveland.
George Pullman built Pullman Town in his utopian vision of the perfect company town: workers were housed in cutting-edge homes designed to be energy efficient and light-filled, with air moving easily through the spaces to make the workers as happy and unstressed as possible. In the center of town was a market and a multi-denominational church, along with stores and schools and a library, each and every building owned and managed by the Pullman Palace Car Company. Workers lived in apartments and homes that reflected their status within the company, with managers and other administrators living in single-family homes close to the factory and skilled hand workers living in smaller homes and multi-family buildings farther away from the work site. There were no options outside of the Pullman-owned and -run facilities, yet still the town went along relatively trouble-free until the stock market crash of 1893, when Pullman could not maintain his mandatory 6% profit on the town without cutting wages, making it impossible for workers to feed themselves and their families. By 1899, two years after George Pullman was buried in a lead-lined coffin embedded in concrete (to avoid reprisal by his former employees), Pullman Town was annexed by the city of Chicago and the company town was no more.
Why the detour into history? Because it is against this history, or in conversation with it, that the art happens. The history of the neighborhood and the buildings themselves are present with every installation, whether the artist is directly confronting that history or not. Matthew Hoffman’s “Go For It” installation, currently on view, is a massive text piece placed in the center of the burned out market square just blocks from the old factory. Crafted in wood with plastic laminate sides, the three-dimensional script reads as both a directive and, perhaps, a tongue-in-cheek, pollyanna wish for the rebuilding of the market square, or even the company town itself. While Hoffman’s work is unabashedly and purposely optimistic (see his ongoing “You Are Beautiful” project), this installation has an edge because of where it is.
While I’m not sure if Hoffman intended that edge or if he meant only to empower Pullman residents to go after their dreams (which the piece certainly could do — it’s joyful!), Carrie Iverson, an Oakland-based glass artist, printmaker, and poet, embraced the history and confronted it head on with her recent installation, “Groundwork,” made with her husband and fellow artist Jeremy Scidmore, Portland-based artist Nathan Sandberg, and artist/master metalsmith Kelly Ludeking. The project, which began in September 2014 and was uninstalled in December 2014, had several parts: a community iron pour on the factory grounds, a community iron-tile-making workshop, and an installation within the factory’s administrative clock tower, a building that has the empty, hollowed-out feeling of a ruin after it was ravaged by a significant fire in 1998 and later stabilized, though not rebuilt, by the state of Illinois.
Iverson’s work is driven by research and often engages the public. For “Groundwork,” she organized the first iron pour on the factory grounds since its production heyday (executed by Chicago artist Kelly Ludeking), and invited the community to participate with her and her collaborators both in the spectacle of the pour itself and in the making of artwork for the installation. Community members designed their own tile molds and attended to the pouring, then later had their work presented in the clock tower building. But “Groundwork” was not just about community involvement; it was also about the history of labor and industry and decay present in Pullman itself. While researching the project, Iverson discovered that the historic Pullman train line ended near her studio in Oakland, CA. She found the end-point and made aluminum casts of the train tracks intersecting and ending, a literal tracing of the very ground the train cars made in Pullman had traveled. In Chicago, she installed them on a brick wall at the back of the clock tower building’s large atrium facing the community-made iron tiles. Placed in a grid with the subtle cross-hatch pattern of the tracks interlocking across the work, the installation echoed Carl Andre’s metal tile floor sculptures, but more significantly connected the artist with Pullman in a visceral, labor-intensive way.
Along with the aluminum tiles, Iverson also installed a lectern made of protruding glass plates scattered in a brick-like pattern and a metal table with three twig-like metal objects. Set in the main atrium of the building, the glass plates quickly collected dust from the crumbling infrastructure, becoming a ghostly, ephemeral ledger recording the coming and going of shadow and light, not unlike the ledgers that once recorded the timecards of the factory workers in the clock tower building. Taken with the relic-like objects on the adjacent table, the installation became something of a shrine to the collapse of utopian capitalism.
Within the atrium and the large room adjacent to the south, Nathan Sandberg placed several fields of white picket-like obelisks covered in the reflective glass beads used on highway stripes and medians. The “pickets” referred to the picketing of the workers, perhaps, but also to the inherent danger of working in the factory, where workers were killed and maimed routinely, and also to the danger of living near the train tracks themselves, particularly near crossings. Set together in a grid and of varying heights, they rose out of the damaged concrete floor like cautionary tombstones. In a room north of the atrium, Jeremy Scidmore installed neon triangles and pyramids that glowed like electric fires in the corners of the building: a pink-red pyramid covered a pile of debris stacked on a wooden pallet; a yellow triangle framed two leaning stones where the brick wall met the floor. The sculptures acted as remnants of the fire that consumed the interior back in 1998, and also as signifiers of the hobo fires that once burned along train lines across the United States, as well as the fire of the molten metal needed to make the train tracks and the train cars themselves, and even the iron that poured at the site in “Groundwork.”
Last summer, JB installed an interactive piece on the side of the Hotel Florence to ask a deceptively simple question: “What is your vision of a contemporary utopian community?” He painted the concrete side of the hotel that faces 111th Street with blackboard paint and printed the question on the top of the blackboard, inviting neighborhood residents and visitors to answer with the bundle of chalk he left on the ground. George Pullman built Pullman Town to fulfill his dream of what a utopian community could be. Over the decades, the factory shut down and the neighborhood has faced issues of development, stagnation, and decay. One commenter scrawled under the question a simple statement: “Your utopia could be my nightmare.” JB’s installation, and his ongoing MOSNART project, open Pullman up to discussion and inquiry, fulfilling a contemporary utopian dream by questioning the very idea of it.
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