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That most Chicagoans who have encountered Dan Peterman’s work have done so without knowing it seems as fitting a tribute to the artist’s ambitions as does the current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA). Indeed, as much as I enjoyed seeing Plastic Economies, I have equally enjoyed using Peterman’s installation Chicago Ground Cover (1997)— without realizing it was an installation—while learning to samba, salsa, shimmy, and shake atop the smooth surface during classes held by Grant Park’s SummerDance program. The highly functional exterior dance floor, made of reprocessed, postconsumer plastic, extends Peterman’s earlier, gallery-based project, Ground Cover (1995), which is included in Plastic Economies. Consisting of a small swath of flooring created from the same lightly colored “bricks” that constitute Chicago Ground Cover and a series of bundled palettes of the same material, the earlier work more readily announces itself as a sculptural installation. Without scrimping on art-historical references and stylistic allusions, Ground Cover documents a cycle of waste and consumption: each pallet is sized to match the American per capita yearly plastic consumption. While the work stands on its own as sculpture, the breadth of Peterman’s scope is more clearly outlined in the transformation from lofty art piece to the pedestrian, useful object that Ground Cover becomes when it is, simply, put in the park. Indeed, this transformation marks Peterman’s overarching interest in exploring and occasionally documenting complicated sociological and economic systems—including those surrounding the environmental issues with which his work is so often associated—that structure contemporary life.
As both a limited retrospective and a showcase of several newer projects, Plastic Economies (organized by Lynne Warren, whose involvement with Peterman dates back to at least 1994) labors to emphasize Peterman’s interest in systems and processes and to therefore distance Peterman’s work from its ghettoization as strictly “ecological,” “environmental,” and especially “activist.” The labor is well rewarded, and the exhibition is triumphant in implicating both viewer and institution within the particular process that is art making, positioning both as essential components of the life cycle of an art object. If a work goes unnoticed, its cycle is thwarted and put to an end; whereas once it is seen, it opens a new series of interpretations and associations. Peterman’s most successful pieces mobilize this kind of seeing to generate the viewer’s awareness of his or her concrete physical relationship to the space of the museum, inspiring reflections about the interior and exterior spaces of the museum and the city, as well as the private and public needs that fuel both.
Occupying the first floor of the MCA, Plastic Economies was divided in two: smaller, discrete works to the left side of the gallery, and larger installations to the right. In the center of the room stood the enticingly pastoral Carbon Bank (2004). A functional greenhouse, Carbon Bank is made of transparent plastic sheeting secured over curved metal bars, covering a network of tree trunks perched on a thick layer of wood chips scattered on the cement floor. These chips represent a further denigration—or evolution—in the natural life of the tree, which, as it decays, will release carbon into the atmosphere (here, trapped by the greenhouse). The symmetry of the exhibition around this large installation not only mirrors the natural processes involved, it also reveals Peterman’s aesthetic, wherein waste and destruction represent processes as crucial to art making—itself a parallel to life—as production and consumption. This aesthetic also allows Peterman’s work to serve multiple functions simultaneously; hence, the greenhouse is also a classroom, a place where one might sit (on a trunk, of course) in a communal space and learn, perhaps about carbon, perhaps about art, perhaps just about the sounds made by the crunch of wood chips underfoot.
The small-scale, framed works that constitute the Auto-digestion series coprinus comatus (1997) dominate a far wall. Here, the artist has made twenty achingly pretty prints from the murky ink emitted by a certain species of mushroom as it decays, or “self-digests.” The aesthetic pleasure provided by these tidy images, suspended between glass planes and walnut frames, reverses traditional associations of rot and filth, while also putting to rest any worries that Peterman is an artist more interested in environmental activism than aesthetic processes. In fact, the seeming contradiction gels here quite intriguingly: Peterman seizes that moment when the aesthetic and the active (or the activist) collide, creating a new possibility for engagement.
The decision to install the Auto-digestion series in physical proximity to The Top of the Truck that Hit the Bridge (seasonal fruit stand) (1990) emphasizes Peterman’s interest in the dynamic relationship between decay and regeneration, the trajectory of the biological life of all things man-made and otherwise. The smell of rotting apples, displayed on Peterman’s sculpture (a makeshift fruit stand constructed out of the sheet metal rendered when “the top of the truck hit the bridge”) infuses the contemplation of the Auto-digestion series. However, as compelling as The Top of the Truck is, and as laudable as its recycling ambitions are, it fails in the context of the show, if only for the “please do not touch” signs that surround it on all sides and prevent its further evolution into a construction that might actually dispense food (or garbage, if those apples keep rotting). Protected under glass display cases and similarly labeled, a number of smaller works such as the surreal Pencil Modifications (1991) and Swiss Champ (1992) remain opaque and seem intended to do little more than fill the space as the viewer drifts among the more conceptually involved installations. Of these, the richest is the staggeringly complex Excerpts from the Universal Lab (Good Humor) (2004; a collaboration with Greg Lane and the Resource Center), a variant of Peterman’s 2000 project with (almost) the same name, Excerpts from the Universal Lab: Plan B, which was commissioned by the University of Chicago’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art for the summer 2000 exhibition, Ecologies: Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Dan Peterman.
For the Smart Museum exhibition, Peterman’s “Plan A” had called upon the university to help catalogue and dispose of the unimaginably extensive store of objects, chemicals, tools, and the like, that had been abandoned in a Southside Chicago warehouse by a loose organization Peterman refers to as the Universal Lab. A semiutopian group, the Universal Laboratory (UL) was founded forty years ago by a few University of Chicago technicians who had developed their research using cast-offs from their school’s laboratories. After years and years of accumulation and experimentation, the lab exhausted its resources and abandoned their equipment. When the building that housed the UL was sold, the leftover junk had to be removed. Enter Peterman and the Resource Center, who decided to incorporate the materials into an art project that would also simultaneously help to dispose of the waste, much of it toxic. However, a number of the chemicals left in the lab were too unstable and too dangerous to display or process, and the University of Chicago refused to comply with Peterman’s proposal (despite the school’s original mishandling of this dangerous waste).1 The project was therefore scaled back and presented as a collection of only those objects and artifacts that were nontoxic and that attested to not only the peculiarity of the lab’s enterprise, but also its myriad small successes and even greater failures as well.
In its present incarnation at the MCA, this vast and almost creepy conglomeration of tools, beakers, canisters, flasks, lights, cameras, and an odd assortment of other not-exclusively scientific objects spills from an old Good Humor ice-cream truck, as if to emphasize the collection’s itinerant homelessness. Indeed, four years after Peterman’s initial proposal to the University of Chicago, he and the Resource Center have not yet been able to dispose of all of the UL materials.
As one might expect from an artist whose collaborations with institutions—the Smart Museum, the Chicago Park District—have resulted in work that manages to be critical of the institution while still capitalizing on any strengths to create an object of greater, public good. Peterman’s Standard Kiosk (Chicago) (2004; produced in collaboration with the MCA and the Park District, and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the LEF Foundation) stands out among the strongest pieces in Plastic Economies. While the majority of works in the show successfully and often provocatively archive and catalogue social exchanges that have already happened, the kiosks, positioned outside the exhibition itself, serve as sites for possible, if not probable, future social processes.
Technically, Standard Kiosk (Chicago) consists of three “kiosks,” each created or recycled from industrial-size waste containers. For Peterman, the original waste containers represent “the transience and mobility of the waste hauling and demolition industry and its ubiquitous presence in the urban context,” and he intends their architectural transformation into upright units to reflect “a deceptively simple reorientation of space—the interior space of a standard waste container—transformed from a volume repeatedly filled and emptied of waste material to one that is ‘occupied.’"2 Far more successful than the oddly forbidding structures installed on the plaza in front of the MCA last summer by Garofalo Architects (Between the Museum and the City (2002)), Peterman’s Standard Kiosk (Chicago) continues the MCA’s admirable attempts to reach beyond its own institutional parameters to create a museum that is truly interactive and open to different communities. Accordingly, one of the artist’s kiosks is installed on the plaza, a highly contentious site that “belongs” to both the private and public worlds of the institution and the city. Here, the artist has transformed the kiosk into a volunteer bike-repair service, so that cyclists can pedal by the MCA for a tune-up, to pump their tires, and so on. In this way, art becomes service, and the garbage vessel takes on a second life through the “deceptively simple reorientation of space.”
The other two kiosks were placed in Humboldt Park, a vast green space situated in the middle of the eponymous neighborhood that is home to Chicago’s largest Puerto Rican community. After extended consultation with representatives from Humboldt Park’s businesses and cultural venues, one kiosk was dedicated to matters of “culture,” while the other was assigned the project of housing services related to “community health.” Local organizations were encouraged to teach classes or lead workshops at the kiosks. For three months this summer, such offerings as coconut-shell jewelry making, dance, and drumming were offered free of charge at the cultural kiosk, while a variety of community health seminars were programmed for the second kiosk.
Of the many prescient questions the kiosks pose, two of the most compelling are: “What is art?” and, perhaps unintentionally, “What is community?”—the latter stemming from an ongoing debate about Humboldt Park residents’ ambivalent feelings toward the presence of the kiosks, which many viewed as evidence of the city’s wish to gentrify their neighborhood. Peterman’s work offered radically different answers to both questions than either the Park District or, based on the preliminary responses to the kiosks, the community it means to serve. The Park District, for example, viewed the interruption of park space as one that might provide opportunities for employment and community uplift through specific opportunities gleaned from learning the skills of art making as taught in the kiosk-hosted workshops.
For Peterman, an artist who recognizes that although the work he does with, for example, the Blackstone Bike Co-Operative engages many of the same materials and structural processes as do his artworks, such activist or social projects remain radically distinct from his work as an artist—though they nonetheless inform his discourse.3 Art needs to operate in its own time and place. As the work grows, Peterman explains, “it forms a closed system. Each piece begins with a familiar material, which it intercepts in its normal situation. The artwork begins at that point of interception and intervention. This displays the normal cycles by intercepting it and opening it out.” In these words, posted on a diminutively scaled plaque at the MCA, lies Peterman’s definition of his own art practice. Such a simply stated model would seem of great value in other investigations into today’s “art world,” peppered as it is by the staggeringly ambitious and admirable work of artists such as Marjetica Potrč, Thomas Hirschorn, Minerva Cuevas, and, indeed, Dan Peterman, to name but a few. These artists have eschewed traditional art practice, including the by-now established realms of institutional critique and site-specific installation, to engage in practices that directly involve community formation and focus less on the construction of stable objects that aspire to reflect concrete identities than on the fluid interaction of art as practice and aesthetics as knowledge.
In this model, it is precisely the aspects of dispersal, appropriation, evolution, and ultimate return—what Peterman likes to think of as the biological lifetime of an object—that enables his kiosks to thrive as art, no matter how they are greeted by various publics. That they will be received in some way, and that this reception will produce its own processes, is exactly the point. In Peterman’s world, art functions like all other microeconomies or means of exchange—aluminum cans, recycled plastics, collected scientific materials—which he has turned into art and put on display at the MCA. And around these alternate microeconomies, other communities—less stable, less externally defined, and more fluid—begin to emerge. Just as Peterman’s interest in the recycled flooring ultimately generated a potent site of community interaction at SummerDance, so too will these kiosks face their own “utopic adventure,” wherein they will ultimately arrive at their own identities, structured by the systems and conditions of their making, dissemination, destruction, salvage, and regeneration.
Independent Scholar/Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, Northwestern University, 2004–5
1 I believe that a legal injunction was eventually employed to make the University of Chicago deal with the most dangerous of the chemicals, though no longer in association with Peterman’s project. See Stephanie Smith, ed., Ecologies: Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Dan Peterman (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, 2001) for additional information.
2 Dan Peterman, Standard Kiosk (Chicago), (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, in association with the University of Illinois Press, 2004): 3.
3 Formerly housed in Peterman’s “Building” at 61st and Blackstone and slated to return when the fire-damaged building reopens as “The Experimental Station,” Blackstone Bikes salvages bikes from junkyards, repairs them, and sells them at reasonable prices in order to raise money to send bikes to foreign communities in need of transportation. For more on the Experimental Station, see Dan S. Wang, Downtime at the Experimental Station: A Conversation with Dan Peterman (Chicago: Temporary Services, 2004), available online at http://www.temporaryservices.org/.