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

PROXIMAL DISTANCE: reflections on process and proximity


of the body or the point of attachment.
from the Latin proximus – ‘nearest’ + al.
2. v. (trans.) to make someone or something remote
or far off in position or nature, to distance one self.
from the Latin distare – dis- ‘apart’ + stare ‘stand.’


adj. situated nearer to the center of the center
1. n. an amount of space between two things or
people, remoteness, an interval of time, figurative
avoidance of familiarity.

[A video stills from 52 Translations by Guillermo Gudiño and Georgia Wall]

Towards the center, distance.

Organized primarily via internet by Caitlin Gianniny and Cathy Alva Mooses, Proximal Distance is a five month long series of shows, workshops and lectures at the Storefront Studio in PIlsen, exploring the intersection of physical and psychological distance. The series also serves as a point of intersection itself, bringing together wider perspectives and communities.
Artists and collectives include 3-art, Dan Borelli, Trey Burns, DADDY, Nia Evans, Guillermo Gudiño, Ivy Haldeman, Tomashi Jackson, Rose Khor, Louise Manifold, Andrejs Rauchut, Patricia Rose, Danielle Rosen, Martyna Szczesna, Georgia Wall and  Zoohaus Collective; hailing from Boston, Chicago, Galway, Madrid, Mexico City, New York City and Oakland.

Cathy Alva Mooses, originally from Chicago, is currently an artist-in-residence with the Arts and Public Life Initiative at The University of Chicago. She founded the Storefront Studio last summer upon moving back to Chicago after living in New York for twelve years. Caitlin Gianniny is an artist from Boston, formerly based in New York as well.

The project developed from a dialogue about the shared experience of discovering our home cities anew while maintaining close relationships at great distances. Aside from the physical changes our respective cities had undergone in the intervening years, we felt acutely the way time can act as a kind of distance, altering one’s social interactions. Rather than explore these observations in isolation, we developed the series as a platform for engagement.

Proximal distance is meant to evoke a kind of tension. Taken literally, it means the closest distance. However, proximal is a directional term used within anatomy to mean that which is nearer the center of the body, so my knuckles are proximal to my nails, my elbow is proximal to my wrist and so on. Distance on the other hand is the space between. Given this definition, proximal distance is that which is central and that which is in between. The words seem to negate one another and in doing so with their spatial movement echo the complexity of larger scale explorations of space, place, meaning and identity.

The Process

The two of us have a history of working collaboratively on self-organized projects in Latin America, teaching handwork in a Salvadoran village in 2006 and setting up a small-print library and temporary workspace at the Havana Biennial in 2009. This project is the first time however that we have worked primarily at a distance. The majority of our communication has been via phone, email and Skype.

In the midst of these monthly installations, we talk nearly every day or many times in one day. Even though we have only seen each other physically twice in the past four months, we interact more regularly with one another than with people who live closer. Our shared task or goal seems to influence our interactions more strongly than physical proximity to one another. This kind of dynamic is not universal, but rather highly culture-specific, propelled by increased mobility within a privileged sector of society and compatible with American individualism[i].

In contrast to these non-geographically bound relationships, were Caitlin’s experience of the strong collective social structure of Cuadrillas in the Basque Country that are characterized by propinquity.[ii] Cuadrillas are made up of people of similar ages within the same town, in which common interests seem to be secondary. They seem more like families than a group of friends drawn together by shared interests. While this is dependent on a rooted geographic existence, distinct from our own experiences moving between cities, there is marked cultural importance placed on face-to-face interaction and group activity that at times seems undervalued in our experiences of the United States.

The Work

Claire Bishop suggests that it is a desire to counter the “virtual relationships of the Internet and globalization” that drives artists towards “relational forms” in which the art involves physical presence and exchange or at times artists designing their own “possible universes.”[iii]

In the first exhibition for Proximal Distance, Cathy explicitly sought to physically approach her surroundings. She took portraits of business owners on the stretch of 18th street between Halsted and Damen Avenue, also collecting photos of each person from their hometown and one object symbolic of their establishment, to be exhibited along with the portrait.

Equally important to the project, was the chance to introduce herself and the art series that would be taking place in the storefront. By literally reaching out to the people closest to her and addressing the divide between the newer art community and the more established Mexican immigrant community, her project positioned participants to consider a multi-centered sense of self and attachment to place.

Artists Guillermo Gudiño and Georgia Wall similarly embrace subjective experience in their on-going collaborative project, 52 Translations, but use distance and exchange or translation as generative tools. Their project consists of a series of weekly audio-visual exchanges via Internet, with one artist based in Chicago and the other in Mexico City. They draw from their differences in language, location and culture to develop a non-linguistic common language.

Dan Borelli’s project “60608 & 01721”, looks towards the common condition of environmental contamination as a point of intersection between his own community of Ashland, Massachusetts 01721 and Pilsen/Chicago, Illinois 60608. Both areas have been exposed to contamination due to the proximity of heavy industry to residential housing. Dan will work with local residents to visualize the effects of the Fisk Generating Station located in Pilsen and broaden awareness of contamination as a form of patrimony.

Delving into the history of the development of digital technology, Trey Burns’ video investigates a pivotal point by documenting the first images of Mars, transmitted by the Mariner IV mission in 1965. In this pioneering era NASA was able to collect imagery via satellite, but the decoding of the digital information was cumbersome. Due to evidence of a possible malfunction scientists created an analog “color-by-number” bitmap version of the image by hand, rather than wait for the computers to finish processing the data. It is an interesting moment; while technology allowed data to be transmitted at greater distances than ever before, in their anxiety to view what was collected they turned to the oldest rendering form we have, the hand.

Within our experience of conducting this project primarily via technological means, we have felt a fair amount of frustration with the number of hours it has tied us to our computers. It has aided a desire to engage a wider community, but also disconnected us from our environments in the process. The location of the series in Pilsen has also highlighted the juxtaposition of physical vs. virtual communication, because of the largely face-to-face nature of the neighborhood.

The series of shows began in March and will continue through July. Openings are the second Saturday of each month.

Works Cited

Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October 110 (Autumn 2004): 51-79.

Heiberg, Marianne. The Making of the Basque Nation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Oyserman, Daphna, Heather Coon, and Markus Kemmelmeier. “Rethinking Individualism and Collectivism: Evaluation of Theoretical Assumptions and Meta-Analyses.” Psychological Bulletin 128, no. 1 (2002): 3-72.

[i] In country-level comparisons, Americans are found to be more individualistic than most, although there were a fair amount of Latin American countries that out-ranked the US in individualism. Daphna Oyserman, Heather Coon, and Markus Kemmelmeier, “Rethinking Individualism and Collectivism: Evaluation of Theoretical Assumptions and Meta-Analyses,” Psychological Bulletin, 128, (2002): 3-72
[ii]  I lived in Mondragón/Arrasate for seven months in 2009-2010. For an anthropological account of cuadrillas see Marianne Heiberg, The Making of the Basque Nation, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 154-159. The observations on collectivism within cuadrillas are still very accurate, however from my experience there is no longer necessarily a shared ideology or set of beliefs amongst the group.
[iii] Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, 110, Autumn (2004): 54.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s