Anticipating Departure

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]

The Historic Fenn House, home to SHOP. 5638 South Woodlawn Avenue.


The word conjures up images of chicken soup and stale bread, joyous family life and crippling alienation, boredom and invention, brotherly love and sibling rivalry… . Perennial and immanent, local and metaphysical, nostalgic and future-oriented, the images and memories of home are a conglomerate of emotion-laden things, spaces, visions, and the people and gods that inhabit them. The homemaker is tasked with the alchemy of arrangement, with flooding physical space with care, with hosting and inviting conviviality, with setting the stage for the performance of selfhood. The carpenter and architect build according to the imagined contours of the human spirit, and its propensities to dwell beyond its own shape. The “Homeland” is always seen through the lens of childhood, where our politics are formed with their personal and collective fences and breaches. Home is the place, imagined or real, to which we are reconciled, and are always in the process of losing.

The Main Room during the opening of This House is Not a Home, featuring music by Zamin

When Laura Shaeffer approached me to participate as the featured artist in the 5th Op Shop, we began by looking at space in the Del Prado building, the former Hyde Park Art Center. While in the midst of exploring that possibility, Laura was approached by a member of First Unitarian Church about proposing a project for the Fenn House. We proposed SHOP and secured a one year lease on the building, arranged fiscal sponsorship with the Resource Center and SHOP was born. SHOP is a temporary art-based social center sited in a Victorian mansion, founded by Laura Shaeffer, John Preus, Gabriel Piemonte, and Mike Phillips. An extension, and longer-term elaboration upon the Op Shop which consisted of a series of temporary pop-up spaces in Hyde Park between 2007 and the present, SHOP features domestically-inspired art exhibitions that take over the entire house and track SHOP’s tenure in the building, starting with It Is What It Is, followed by the current This House Is Not a Home, to the upcoming, On Making Things Matter: Strategies for Preservation. SHOP has among its semi-public offerings, Red Flags Salon, a donation-based pub, open for social events; a children’s project space outfitted with materials, tools glue and tape, managed by students or young adults offering workshops and childcare services for major events; the Soft Shop, a room entirely covered with soft surfaces, used for story-telling, quiet time, and music sessions for kids; the Hyde Park Kunstverein, a Berlin-inspired community gallery, exhibiting the work of Hyde Parkers, known and unknown; a community woodshop operated by skilled managers, open to small scale projects and repairs; a thrift store; a film screening series directed by Mike Phillips; an ongoing public Sunday night potluck; a movement and body work studio; the beginnings of a time bank, a seed bank, a small zine collection, and a few other odds and ends. SHOP pays rent to First Unitarian Church by subletting some of the bedrooms out as studio space.

Even though I am there as infrequently as once per week, I am already beginning to feel nostalgic for SHOP, a sort of home away from home for me and my family. I am in Kassel, Germany for the final months of Shop’s tenure. I will miss the potlucks that I rarely had a chance to attend, the kids workspace that my children disappear into the minute we walk into the building, decorated with masks from Bert Stabler’s art classes, the bridge club that met in the library clacking across Dan Peterman’s plastic floor, the Chinese dancers who met on the 3rd floor everyday and laid their coats on Shawn Greene and Katrin Asbury’s model of a Japanese House, and who communicated with smiles and bowing gestures because they don’t speak English, the nights at Red Flags tending bar badly, and drinking good beer out of plastic cups, the woodshop with the low ceiling,  the exhibitions and art events that I can often only partially attend to because I am trying to get the tap to quit foaming, or trying to get the kids to quit playing with Alberto Aguilar’s booby traps…  This is how I like to look at art. Or more precisely, this is the way which my life circumstances often dictate that I look at anything, and that I have chosen to embrace. How do Kate Baird’s paintings look with a hockey stick leaning against them? (not bad as it turns out, but better blue than red.)  I like Rachel Herman’s photographs even better with a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin playing piano in front of them.

The Soft Shop, by Kayce Bayer and Chris Lin

How did we get the idea that a clean white room with nothing else in it is the best way to look at art, he asks rhetorically? It turns out that just about anything, in a clean white room with nothing else in it looks at least presentable, at least like something worth looking at for a minute. I would not be alone in saying that I don’t trust the whiteness. I understand that it is a necessary fiction, a wish for an uncluttered contemplative atmosphere, a longing for a kind of analytic engagement akin to academic rationality. But I experience things in a white room as demanding my attention, because there is nothing competing with them. They have only one reason for being, which it is my job as an audience to unravel. But I want an art that gets tangled up in its subject matter, at least temporarily. I am attracted to analytic thought because it attempts to disentangle the thicket of daily percepts and experiences. Language, as certain thinkers claim (I think it was Lacan?) is a system of differences, and one of the reasonable critiques of apartment galleries, and non-institutional installations, is that there are not clear enough differences between what is, and what is not art.  So it is possible to make mistakes.

As it happened, Heather Mekkelson’s installation in the butler’s pantry was partially dismantled by some reasonable person thinking that the dish soap bottle held to the side of the sink by an internal magnet was actually a dish soap bottle, and not a part of an installation (the same mistake could have been made with Warhol’s Brillo Boxes Circa 1955, had they been placed by the janitorial closet.) I would hope that Heather had the good sense not to get too upset about that, but I did not have the pleasure of witnessing her reaction. One could also be caught contemplating, heaven forbid, an object that is not art, which I suppose could have serious consequences. I came close to being shot once when I laughed at a policeman pointing a gun and flashlight at me, thinking it was the boys in the neighboring frat house playing a theatrical prank on me. An unusual instance no doubt, but art that doesn’t sit quietly on the walls, or adequately removed on a pedestal can cause all sorts of friction.

The Children’s Project Space

There’s a way, following the feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, to think about domesticity as a theatrical arena, which upsets the conventional dichotomy between the public and private self.  Home is typically where you ‘let your guard down,’ while the public arena is imagined as the space of performance. Butler suggests that to behave in any way other than pure impulse is in a sense to perform, to perform generosity, kindness, justice, empathy, ethnicity, gender aggression, love, animosity, hate, indignation… At some point the identification is complete and it no longer feels like a performance. If we perform something long enough, it starts to come naturally. My attraction to these muddy waters is, i think, an interest in developing a kind of double vision, one that acknowledges and embraces this theatrical condition, while at the same time maintaining a certain remove from it. For instance, life with a family is so deeply incongruous, so troubling and sweet, the renegade pendulum that swings between blind animal impulses and performed rationality threatens from one minute to the next to lobotomize the most sanguine among us. Children grow before your eyes, and you struggle to remember what they looked like a year prior. We remember turns of phrase they adopt, and are saddened when the lisp disappears, or they finally learn to say “crocodile” instead of “buckadido.”  We want them to grow, but we also want to hold onto the amazing, improbable beauty of their infancy.

There are many strategies, more or less familiar for framing these moments, precious or otherwise, to hold back our own dissolution, the eventual dispersal of our collected memories and experiences into the ether. So we are left with our imperfect attempts to extract the full potential of an event or experience. But I am inclined to think that the two impulses are at odds, which is to say, one either has the experience in all of its glory, and lets it go, or one keeps a degree of distance or abstraction from the experience which provides a more convenient framework for comment and documentation. SHOP treats the temporary situation of a building sitting precariously between house and home, as an opportunity for immersive revelation, a moment to do both and neither, to act as if we live here without having to. The final show at SHOP, On Making Things Matter: Strategies for Preservation, opening on May 26th, is about trying to find this balance between holding on and letting go.

Red Flags Family Salon

SHOP is one of what I suspect will become an increasing number of spaces like it, that in some way provide simple services or resources, at the same time as inviting the process of self-reflection and moments of blissful ascension that are sometimes possible through art.  Projects like these squeeze out from cracks in the zoned architectural landscape, partially by necessity, but surviving primarily upon the hard work and good will of a few individuals and their wish to create some kind of framework that does not yet exist. All of them in their turn face the decision of whether to institutionalize or find other ways to share the burden, and the next crop of start-ups emerges. I don’t think we will recover from this so-called “economic downturn”. There are always pockets of “recovery”, as the shell game of wealth continues its market-driven, schizoid stutter-step across the social landscape, leaving in its wake a trail of once thriving (or heavily-leveraged) profit-driven enterprises in the form of languishing buildings awaiting demolition or revival. My hope is that spaces like SHOP will continue to crop up in all kinds of real estate markets and neighborhoods across Chicago, to resist what might seem like inexorable market forces. I bear no illusions of a future or past utopia. We are performing community as surely as we indulge the multitude of impulses that crowd our animal hearts. And fearing our neighbor may be as compassionate a commandment as loving our neighbor, taking into account the dark void between our own intentions and actions. Altruism is among the most remarkable of performances.

When a house is not a home, it is simply a place where things happen, like history understood as one damn thing after another. At the same time, the bifurcation of house and home is misleading. While it may be helpful to imagine the “house” as the materials, the things, the bricks and mortar…while the “home” is the intangible qualities—the love, the care, the attention, the conviviality, general engagement and contentment…it is through the material world that concern is exhibited and redeemed, that caring hands mark receptive bodies. And the ways in which this concern registers varies widely, leaving us all in the midst of experimenting with how to live as both an individual, and a social being. When a house is a home, it invites the unfolding of a person, a family, a group, a neighborhood, an ecology… The “home-ness” of a neighborhood might be the sorts of things that demonstrate a fulfilling and satisfying quality of life, beginning with the basic needs of adequate and affordable shelter, engaging employment, food, health care, education…and work its way up from there to include satisfying and engaging relationships, a feeling of good will, an existential connection to place, a sense of shared and vested interest in the community and the ecology…By these criteria, this house is not a home for very many of us, and does not appear to be getting better, and one can only imagine what it might look like for it to be otherwise. What does it take?  Are we in apocalyptic times? It may be that short of a unanimous embrace of some form of radical forgiveness, on both a personal and global level, justice, truth, freedom, democracy, rationality—all of our favorite ideas—become tools of aggression, meted out according to archaic retaliatory logic. It may be that we keep the home fires burning, as it were, as a sort of vigil, and a house which is not a home becomes a bunker from fear of the outside world, or an institution charged with its own self-preservation, or a church dedicated to the ritual preservation of conventional relationships…SHOP invites experimentation in any and all of these areas.


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