[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]
I have lived in Rogers Park for over 10 years. I was attracted to Pratt Beach as a site for artmaking for a number of reasons. First, it is a beautiful place that is within walking distance of my house. Second, beaches are places where city residents can cool off during a heat wave. During past heat waves, Chicagoans often slept on the beach. And last, the beach offered diverse locations and elements with which to play.
Monday, January 10
A perfectly lovely dinner conversation was cut short so I could haul up to the open mike at Chase Cafe, which was inexplicably closed. So I decided to explore an idea I’ve had for a while: Walk Backward to the Beach. Katherine’s added flavor: pat the earth every so often. Movement teacher Nana Shineflug has noted on several occasions that I seem to have a real problem moving backward. And indeed it scares me. I walked a backward circle up Ashland, East on Morse, South along the lake path, and back west on Pratt…at least a mile. It took about an hour. I wore all white and attached 2 red bike lights to my back. People stopped and watched, children were delighted and helped me figure out when it was safe to cross 4 lanes of Sheridan Road, a squad car stalked me all the way down Morse. The cops asked whether I needed help, or if I was “just doing something?” I say tail me all you want: one less young man bent over your hood. Once they were satisfied that I had fallen backward over a snowbank, they peeled away. I was touched by the man who passed me heading the opposite way, but turned to face me, walking backward himself until we were out of sight.
Saturday, January 15
5:00pm. Sunset at Pratt Beach. Structured improvisation at the end of the pier at Pratt Beach. Last week Asimina Chremos suggested that I start writing a list of rules/suggestions for making outdoor improvisational dance. #1: inclement weather reduces your chances of getting hassled. It has been cold and beautiful in Chicago, and tonight there was no greater comfort than my forehead on the cement while the waves shuffled chunks of lake ice.
Sunday, January 16
6:30am. Sunrise at Pratt Beach. I recently came across Christopher Appoldt’s photograph “Pratt Beach Sunrise,” and was forced to admit that I had never been to my neighborhood beach at sunrise. The 4 degrees/10 below wind chill weather was a challenge, and I felt grateful for the ability to run hard and fast enough to warm my body quickly and efficiently. Book-ending last night’s sunset at Pratt Beach made the dances seem like two parts of a whole.
Friday, January 21
Pratt Beach Snowstorm, 8:00 pm. Wind from the south blew so hard that the beach was covered in the sensual shapes of snow craters. Drifts formed rounded mountain ranges, protecting a valley of bare sand. Katherine requested snow angels which, when created face down, felt like a caress. And they were blown away in an instant.
After a run & dive roll series north along the lake, aiming for patches of snow, I turned back to look for body prints and was momentarily disoriented by the lack of evidence that I had ever been there.
Sunday, January 30
Beet painting performance on frozen Lake Michigan at Pratt, 5:00 pm. I dressed in white and took a spray bottle of beet juice to the beach. I walked onto the ice and found a nice patch of snow. I began by spraying a circle of beet juice around my feet. Then I sprayed my feet and the bottoms of my pants, and kept spraying from the bottom up until I reached my waist and ran out of beet juice.
From the description above, I’m sure you can see why the cops needed to stop me IMMEDIATELY.
But actually, tonight’s first audience member was not a cop. He was a young man with his big yellow dog, trying to keep from slipping on the ice. When he was done with that, he walked back up the beach to the place where a squad car had just pulled up. I distinctly heard him tell the cops: “that guy has a can of gasoline and definitely a lighter.”
I am absolutely fascinated by the narrative he created from what he saw: young white [man] walks out onto the frozen lake to douse self in gasoline and possibly ignite self. Do not investigate-alert police.
So the cops walked down to the edge of the ice. We had to yell to each other.
Cop: Hey, Buddy. (They think I’m a guy.)
Cop: What are you doing?
NG: I’m making a painting.
Cop: What you got there?
NG: It’s beet juice.
Cop: What’s in your left hand?
NG: It’s a camera. (I hold it up for him to see.)
Cop: Do you live around here?
NG: Yeah, I live right up the street.
Cop: What’s going on?
NG: I’m an artist. I’m making kind of an experiment. I wanted to see what the beet juice would look like on the snow. Did that guy tell you I had gasoline?
Cop: He didn’t know what you had. Are you aware that what you’re doing does not look normal?
NG: Yeah, I know.
They went back to their squad car but stayed parked in front of me and I continued spraying and documenting. When I was done I decided to talk to them about it.
I approached the open passenger window of the car.
NG: Hey. Listen, I wasn’t trying to freak
anybody out. I just wanted to see what this would look like.
Cops: Okay. So what have you got in the
NG: Beet juice.
Cops: You just squeeze the beets at home and bring it over?
NG: Yeah, I have a juicer and then I strained the juice through a coffee filter so it wouldn’t clog the sprayer.
Cops: Now why did you spray your pants?
NG: Well, I was thinking about what would happen if you stood in a pool of something, you know, and it kind of soaked up from
Cops: Oh, so that’s the concept.
Cops: All right, well, we thought maybe you were in trouble.
NG: I understand. Well, have a good night.
Cops: Have a good one.
I almost said see you later, because honestly, I probably will.
For a minute I felt a little sorry for myself. How come I’m not performing for anyone besides the cops? But when I thought about it more, it occurred to me that maybe Chicago’s finest were my most important audience this year. During the 1995 heat wave they were, after all, on the front lines: the first people to be called when someone in an SRO suspected their neighbor was dead. They were the ones who found bodies and called paramedics. I need to start talking to them about the heat wave.
Wednesday, February 16
6:30 am. If all you could see this morning were the long shadows on Pratt beach, might you have mistaken me for one of the trees? We four stretched our legs ridiculously far out along the sand, tall and vain. The vainest of us then fell in love with her own negative image imprinted on another’s patient, solid trunk.
Thursday, February 17
6:30 am. If you’re planning on playing dead caressing a driftwood log on Pratt Beach, you should remember that the early morning lakefront is owned by the neighborhood dogs, joyously liberated from their leashes. The unlikely siblings of black lab, border collie, and something tiny in a sweater scolded me for not bringing a canine playmate. They kept sniffing around and barking indignantly, as if to say: surely you must have your dog with you here somewhere…
Saturday, February 19
Pratt Beach sunset movement improv in red with visiting artist from Seattle. Lessons learned: contact improv on the beach is a great way to get sand in every possible orifice. Two days later we were still digging it out of our ears.
Tuesday, February 22
8:30 pm. I had been plotting to hit some open mike later in the evening, but when I emerge from the subway to a brilliant blue sky with an almost-full moonrise, all my other plans get chucked. What could be prettier than a body in white rolling along the beach in the moonlight?
Monday, April 4
Heat Wave Elements #1: electricity and water. One of the reasons that the heat wave of 1995 caused an emergency was that it was accompanied by a major power outage that interfered both with peoples’ ability to cope and with emergency services. Mayor Daley made a big deal of deflecting attention away from the failure of city services by blaming the disaster on Commonwealth Edison. I dragged an orange extension cord tied to my leg out the pier and across Pratt beach to the water. Something visceral in me was disturbed by the image of a power cord in water.
Monday, April 11
7:00 pm, Pratt Beach. Indi’s performance assignment includes a directive that I have not yet addressed, but which has stuck in my head: Find a way to commemorate all 739 heat wave victims. So today I felt the weight of 739 beach stones and then divided them into death counts by day.
Thursday, April 14
6:00 pm, Pratt Beach. Find a way to commemorate all 739 heat wave victims. On the subway ride home I still hadn’t figured out what the night’s performance would be. But when I got off the train I noticed that the woman I see every day inside the train station was grasping a plastic food container bursting with ice. So I counted out 739 ice cubes on Pratt Beach while the dogs kicked sand on my pile and licked my freezing hands.
Sunday, April 17
6:00 pm, Pratt Beach. I thought I was going to make a piece called 739 Blades of Grass. But then Joel (left) walked up and asked politely what I was doing. I explained about the grass and he convinced me that the grass was going to blow away, suggesting that I try sticks instead. He offered to help. So Joel and I made 739 Sticks. We collected and counted sticks, and talked about the heat wave and internet romance. I really appreciated Joel’s aesthetic choice to break the sticks into uniform sizes. Handling them reminded me of bones.
Monday, April 25
6:00 pm, Pratt Beach. Body stencil collabo-ration with Indi. Materials used: bodies, sand, spray bottle of lake water. I tried to create a reproduction of the tree shadow from February 17.
Tuesday, April 26
9:00 pm, Pratt Beach. 739 Footsteps in the Sand. The tide was high, covering the soft sand closest to the water, so my feet got acquainted instead with the cold pebbles.
Sunday, May 8
739 Blades of Grass, 6:00 pm, Pratt Beach. Joel talked me out of making it a couple weeks back, and I think he was right that it was the wrong time and place. This time I looked for a more sheltered space. I chose to place my blades of grass in relationship to another artist’s painting of grass, dedicated to the memory of someone named Sage.
Tuesday, May 17
10:00 pm, $7.39 from Fire to Water. Indi said, “I’d like there to be a trail from something that is fire to something that is water. 739 pennies are a lot of pennies. But maybe you have $7.39 in change that someone would like to pick up.”
I built a fire in an old cookstove at Pratt Beach. Then I dropped $7.39 in change from my fire across the sand into the edge of Lake Michigan. Audience members seemed intrigued by my firebuilding and by the clink of change as I crossed their paths on the pavement.
Wednesday, May 18
7:00 pm, 7+3+9=19, 1+9=10, 1+0=1. Therefore I did one round of the following dance: 7 forward dive rolls, 3 forward falls, 9 backward rolls. The two guys in the picture watched attentively while possibly getting high.
Sunday, June 5
4:30, Pratt Beach. Day #3 of Three Days of Cherries. Spending time with HIJACK dance company and friends made me jones for more work with beets. I wanted to see what the beet juice would be like on the beach. So I used beet juice and spray bottle to “paint” a bunch of cherries on the sand.
Tuesday, June 7
10:00 pm, Pratt Beach. Light the Fire, touch the Water: 6 of 19 Attempted Trips. The moon is new, and the beach is dark. June in Chicago has blasted in with 90 degree temperatures. The piece I went to make was Light the Fire, Touch the Water. I planned to light a candle near the sidewalk, then walk across the sand and put my feet in the water. The candle blew out by the time I returned, so I relit it each time. I planned to make this trip 19 times, and I was tallying my trips with marks in the sand.
Around the 4th trip back to the candle I saw some people working with my candle and matches and was enchanted that someone might be interacting with the work. In the process, they may have lost patience with my box of Russian wooden matches (they need a delicate touch), because I returned to find the box of matches semi-destroyed.
In the meantime, there was someone sort of following me up and down the beach a little too close for comfort. He didn’t seem that interested in the content of the heat wave. Instead, our conversation went something like this:
Person: Excuse me, I’m not inebriated. I’m in my right state of mind. I just want to say that you have a superb body.
Nicole: Yes, I know. But I’d rather not talk to you about it.
At this point I decided I didn’t feel safe on the beach, and stopped the performance. Hence the 6 of 19 Attempted Trips.
Sunday, June 12
7:00 pm, Pratt Beach. 7 Things Before Dying. Made from alphabet pasta stained with beet juice, cardboard box, left for some person or dog to find.
Indi had been talking about what might happen to alphabet pasta in the rain. And then I got an email from Leah about conceptual art and ways to push on these lists of things to do before dying. These are not necessarily the most important 7 things of the 19 to do before dying, just the first part of the list, abbreviated drastically.
Monday, June 20
Pratt Beach pier, 10:00 pm. Under an almost-full moon I watched a red beach ball float out of sight and sang “Looking into You” for the benefit of the people illegally swimming in Lake Michigan.
Tuesday, June 21
Pratt beach pier, 7:00 am. On Monday I received in the mail one of the postcards I left on June 14. One fabulous Rogers Park neighbor wrote a list of the 19 Things she would do if she had only 2 months to live, and sent it off. So I read her text out loud this morning while Ben fished for perch. For each item I threw one piece of white bread into the lake, watched it float away, and watched the gulls descend, carrying bits of dying wishes off in their bellies.
Monday, June 27
5:30 pm, Loyola Park. Seven Cups of Water.
I am interested in making a larger piece that involves a lot of little cups of water, and I wanted to see what it would look like to write text in the cups and then fill them with water. The words in the cups all had something to do with the heat wave.
Tuesday, July 5
8:30 pm, Pratt Beach. My neighbor Stephaun rode to the beach with me. We talked about how hot it had been in Chicago recently, and then wrote about it in the sand. Stephaun wrote “96 Degrees” and then told me I should write “weather is hot.” We also filled a water balloon at the drinking fountain.
Wednesday, July 13
9:15 pm, Pratt Beach Pier. Performance assignment from Karen G. Williams: run in place for five minutes on three separate occasions before July 22. Document each time you do it. I did my running and went home to write text in 739 cups for tomorrow.
Tuesday, July 26
6:30pm, Pratt beach. This morning the pastor described Melissa’s generous good nature, but made sure we knew she came with a “shot of Tabasco.” Tonight I sent 34 shots of Tabasco into Lake Michigan, one for each year of Melissa’s sweet and spicy and too-short life. And I’m stealing that expression while I can still feel the burn on my lips.
Wednesday, July 27
6:30 pm. On such a beautiful evening, who could be inside at an open mike? I arrived home from work with no clue what to make, and then opened a letter from Chris Gramm, who was briefly a horticulturist in residence at the Pratt-Ashland Co-op. She wrote: “I finally got to the beach the morning of my departure and IT IS TOTALLY INCREDIBLE! What a resource for the soul and the neighborhood!” So I took that as my sign to go to the beach, where I scrawled “739” in the sand and watched it wash away 19 times.
Saturday, July 30
8:00pm. I have a friend who encourages me to leave things for people to find. So after removing identifying information, Lisa’s e-mail was packaged in cardboard business card holder and buried in the sand at Pratt beach.
Tuesday, August 9 & Wednesday, August 10
7:39 pm, 7:39 am respectively. Over the course of our friendship Indi has asked me about 15 times if people really swim in Lake Michigan off the coast of Chicago. Every time I say sure! Tons of people swim! It’s great!
But I have a confession: I have never been swimming in Lake Michigan off the coast of Chicago. Over a decade living in the city, all this time spent making art at the beach, and I’ve never actually gone in the water.
So I took three of my cups (739 potential fluid ounces) and stuck them in the sand at Pratt Beach. At precisely 7:39 pm on Tuesday, and 7:39 am on Wednesday, I walked into Lake Michigan. I swam in the same waters I had stood on making beet juice stencils in January. I floated on my back among the microscopic remains of dying-wish bread and tabasco sauce. I saw the people I want to be-come: stocky seniors who meet their friends at 7:30 am for a dip, chatting in Russian.
And then I dripped these juices off of my body and directly into my cups.
Saturday, August 13
7:30 pm, Pratt beach. After it had rained most of the day, the sand was primed for scratching out words. The idea was to write Emily Dickinson’s Poem 739 in the sand off of the pier so that people walking by could read it. I think people were plenty interested in the act and in the resulting text, but it could not be read from the pier. I’ll have to work out the technical aspects in the future. But that didn’t stop the guy in the white T-shirt from taking his own photos of the work.
Friday, August 19
8:30 pm, Pratt Beach. The moon rose full and hot straight out of Lake Michigan tonight and then blazed across the water. Continuing with the theme of leaving things for someone to find, I put a message in a bottle someone else left on the beach for me to find. I remembered the project Katherine and I did years ago when we asked people to write letters to their mothers and/or daughters and put them in bottles.
Monday, August 29
9:00 pm, lonely Pratt Beach. At the precise moment during which I am forced to admit my fear that my lack of artistic inspiration will disappoint my friend, my eyes focus on two beautiful spirals in the sand, connected by a road. A symbol of infinity, imprinted by someone’s shoe. Indi’s idea was to frame it with twigs and point an arrow to it. She is right that so often, framing something makes it art; and loving attention makes it precious.
Tuesday, September 13
Pew, Pez, Sex, Rex at Pratt Beach. These are all words you can spell if you choose from the letters that correspond to the numbers 739 on the telephone. Installed on a painting of the Picasso sculpture that stands in Daley Plaza.
Sunday, November 6
In her book For the Time Being, Annie Dillard writes: “The Scotch-Irish in the Appalachians once buried their dead with a platter of salt on their stomachs, signifying the soul’s im-mortality.” Further research indicated that my people (Appalachia McClintocks) may have placed a wooden dish containing salt and dirt on the chests of the dead: dirt representing the return of the body to the earth, salt representing the soul. At 4:00 on Sunday I lay on Pratt beach until the sun went down. In lieu of a wooden plate I used a leaf for some earth and salt.
Saturday, November 19
I am aware of wanting to share gems from Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast with you, dear audience member, and anyone else who cares to read these messages. Yesterday’s quote, and today’s beach writing: “We couldn’t keep the dead out of the present if we wanted to. They’re nowhere to be found, and firmly here, now.”
Saturday, November 26
In August of 1995, about six weeks after the heat wave ended, the 41 heat wave victims whose bodies had never been identified were buried in a mass grave in Homewood, IL. They were buried with 27 other unidentified people who had died between July and August.
A 160-foot-long trench was dug, and the bodies were buried in plain pine boxes.
I’m not one of those people who visually calculate distances. I didn’t understand what a 160-foot grave would look like. Weatherbeaten and prone tree trunks always reminded me of corpses. So I began at the end of this log at Pratt beach.
I measured feet in footlengths, and start-ed walking toward the cement wall of the pier. Imagine my surprise when the footstep that ran into the wall was the 160th. I dug a trench back along my footpath and discarded all further plans. The gash was so stark, its shape so touchingly made by a human hand, that there was nothing more to say.
Saturday, December 31
Collaboration with Indi McCasey. I have been feeling such a sense of gratitude and community around this project that I really wanted to just gather people together, make the last work of the year, say some thank yous, and have a party.
A few weeks ago I asked a lot of people to email me one thing that they would do if they knew they would die before 2006. It was fascinating to get responses up through the evening of the 31st. From each response I took a word and froze it in an ice cube.
Around 8:00, a group of about 15 friends processed from my apartment to Pratt beach carrying candles in some of the 739 cups we had used in July’s heat wave commemoration. We gathered at the end of the pier and I read out loud the last wishes I had received, all in the first person, no names attached. Then we handed out ice cubes for people to toss in the lake, use to chill their drinks, or dispose of as they wished. Later there were toasts and treats and dancing, and if I hadn’t made it to 2006 I would have died happy.