Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Year in Chicago

About to start pulling together all my writing, photographs etc from my year in Chicago as a student at the School of the Art Institute.

Should be interesting! this is my next big book project.

This is a link to my video diary from my time there.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Public art in Chicago

I have started to edit my book " A Year in Chicago"- long overdue!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Just discovered that this blog is about to be deleted unless I update it!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The future of the 3Arts Club


In 2006 the decision was made to sell The Three Arts Club and use the money to set up a Foundation to help women artists .

These are some video stills from a fund-raising event in 2000 , one of many such occasions,to try and save the Club

CHICAGO – The Board of Directors of The Three Arts Club of Chicago (3Arts) announced today that on June 8 the board voted unanimously to sell the 3Arts building at 1300 N. Dearborn and establish a grantmaking foundation with the proceeds from the sale.

“We believe this will ensure a strong, mission-driven future for 3Arts,” said Cynthia West, president of the 3Arts Board of Directors. “This new direction will allow us to achieve our primary goal, which has always been to preserve the organization while updating our mission in such a way that we can have the most impact on and benefit to the arts in Chicago.”

3Arts has worked closely with the city and state to explore every possible funding option to restore its deteriorating building to house an affordable artist community and public art center. This difficult decision was made after the organization learned that approximately $5.5 million of the anticipated public funds, which it had counted on to initiate the planned renovation and restoration, would not be forthcoming.

“The gap in public financing was simply too great for 3Arts to bear,” said West. “As a mission-driven organization, 3Arts always has been committed to remaining open to all options. And, as board members, we had to be open to making whatever decisions, however difficult, to ensure the long-term viability of our organization.”

“As a long-time funder of 3Arts and a member of the capital campaign committee, I understand what a tough decision this was and I think that nearly doubling an already challenging capital goal for an organization the size of 3Arts would not be feasible or responsible,” said Irene Phelps, president of The Siragusa Foundation.

As a grantmaking foundation, 3Arts’s goal will be to support young women studying the arts, as well as programs in music, theater and visual arts. The foundation will have a broader reach within the arts community extending far past its current Gold Coast location and have an impact on diverse communities.

In 1912, thirty-five women from Chicago’s cultural and educational scene, as well as social reformer and educational activist Jane Addams—formed the first 3Arts Board of Directors and established its charter to support young women engaged in the study of music, theater, and visual arts. 3Arts first opened its doors in September of 1912 at 1614 North LaSalle and in 1915 moved into its current facility.

Farewell to Chicago

"The only experiences you regret are the ones you've never had"

As the plane drops through the mist into Glasgow I wonder what the future holds...

I am reminded of the words of my tutor as we said good-bye: " We all have one story to tell.
Tell it".

And the words of Virginia Woolf reverberate in my head:
“This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, makes me my anchor.”

Fireworks and commuting

(twice weekly firework display during the summer)

We fluff ourselves out like birds on the early morning commuter train into The Loop.
We try to make ourselves seem bigger so that people at the next station wont push on board then we can have a bit of space to ourselves. The guard knows this trick.
”Let ‘em come on board”, he bawls marching up and down the platform waving his wooden baton.
”let ‘em come on board!”.
He pushes more people on at Clark/Division on this Monday morning so that we are packed so close its impossible to move except I am right up against some guy whose hands are free. He feels my bum. I cant turn round to see his face. I cant kick. He knows it. All the way into town he is at it. Finally the passengers disperse. I look around . He has jumped off - a smart looking Hispanic guy with a brief case. Who would have thought?.... He avoids my gaze.

Seahorses in The Shedd Aquarium

This is a short student film I made for my Public Art project but it never got shown because I could not get permission to show it in The Shedd Aquarium-my phone calls, e-mails went unanswered. In the end I did another project based around The Centre for Older Adults. ( Forth church, Michigan Avenue.)

Palestine keys in search of a home

Karla is 20, half Palestine half Australian, and she’s just arrived in America.
She appeared at breakfast.
She sat alone, nervous, and agitated, uncertain what to make of the confident, cool, young American women in the Three Arts Club.

She trys to make eye contact with some. They ignore her. So she sits down next to Elisabeth, a woman in her mid 30’s.
Big mistake.
Elisabeth never but never, talks to anyone. She sits and reads her newspapers. She hopes one day to be a curator. She eats alone,rejecting any overture of friendship.
But the new girl doesn’t know this. So she is ignored again.

The next day she did not make that mistake again. She sits on her own, isolated in a far corner of the room.
After collecting my breakfast from the buffet I feel a sense of remorse. It could be me.
I knew just how she felt.
“Why don’t you join us?”
She accepted the offer with alacrity to join
our international table of older women.
“How long are you going to be with us?” asks Jodie in her direct way.
She wants to know if she is wasting her time getting to know yet another stranger passing through the Three Arts.
“Two more days.”
The atmosphere suddenly became chilly, did we really want the bother of getting to know someone who was only going to be with us for a couple of days?

And that’s the trouble. We are in our own little warm cocoon of friendship.
But I encourage her to tell us her story, certain that she will have one.
“I’m Australian, my father is from Palestine and I am taking a year out to travel the world.”
She’s an art student.

“My father left Palestine in 1948. I have been there once. So beautiful. Do you know there are thousands of Palestinians all over the world carrying very old keys- hoping one day to return?”
I didn't.
“My father has a set . He doesn't know if his home still exists or who is living there.”
“We are all rootless” said Jodie, ” I’m neither East European nor American, I belong to nowhere.”
She added:"We are all looking for our roots."

Tania Brugera - Cuban performance artist

Went to see Tania Brugera do a trial run of her performance before she goes to the
Korean Biennial, except for the class performance she keeps her clothes on.

In South Korea she will sit in the centre of a room on the floor with walls lined with ships fleeces. She will spit on to a stone and every few seconds the room will be plunged into darkness and the sound of sheep ( my Welsh sheep recorded last time I was in Wales) will flood through the space.

So Tania does a dry run. It’s powerful stuff though I have not the slightest idea what it is about and I dare not show my ignorance by asking.

There’s a break for soft drinks and cocktail food. I marvel at the Performance Dep. It seems a lot more civilised and sophisticated than our lot in Video.

Another girl does her performance piece. Its an endurance project of her blowing up a large phallic shaped balloon.
But she didn’t appreciate the symbolism.
I hint at this to the tutor, a mild mannered middle aged man. He smiles and nods.
“She doesn't realise does she?”
“Why is her work not criticised?”
“Making work is difficult. It’s too easy to destroy it.”

Visit to the Green Mill Jazz club

I was invited to film this visiting artist/singer through a friend at the Three Arts club who was herself an opera student and sang earlier in the show.

New Orleans, Orifices and Video

A visit to New Orleans

Had a weekend off and popped down to New Orleans. What a city!....

(end of semester crit)
My social documentary video of the Wood Lot got a resounding bad crit. with the tutor describing it as “ something you watch on public television. Is that how you see us?
Now I took that as a compliment but she clearly did not intend it to be one.

Over coffee break in my next class, a multimedia one containing several staff members of SAIC keen to get up to speed with new media, I ask one, Miranda, why I received such a vicious attack on my work.

After all when I had showed it at the Three Arts club one evening it had got a very good positive response.
So what’s up?

“What was your subject?”
asks Miranda a woman woman in her early 40’s who had helped me on several occasions. I trusted her judgement.

“The Wood Lot, you know that place near Maxwell St. I did a documentary on the two men who run it.”
“You what?”
She looks at me aghast.
“They would kill you for that.”
“They nearly did.”
“Didn't anybody warn you?”
“Warn me about what?”

“The Video Dep. are into orifices. Unless you do work with orifices they don't want to know.”

Aaah!....Now I understand: did I not see a recent exhibition I saw contained video projections into two coffee cups of a man and a woman masturbating , did not the artist teach in the School Video Department.? and I had naively thought I was doing a serious mini doc. on life among Chicago’s soft underbelly of homeless people.
Clearly I am barking up the wrong tree, or leg, in this case, if I want to get on in the contemporary art world.

The Wood Lot -South Side, Chicago

The bus to the South Side is crowded, due to the attraction of the Sunday morning market which pulls in people from a wide area along with a few tourists eager to sample some local colour.
They soon get a taste of this when a cry goes up from the back of the bus:
”Get your hands out of my pocket.”
We all cling more tightly to our purses while straining to see the source of the rumpus. Nothing more is said except we are all watchful and silent and I am glad to get off the bus. Tucked under my arm in an old shabby bag is my 1,000 dollar video camera.
I find Michael and Tyler eager to talk about the fire.
They run The Wood Lot off Maxwell St. Some people may see it as a junk yard run by two former 60’s college dropouts, others as an environmental projects specialising in recycling.
For Michael and Tyler are idealists.
They want to save the planet, starting with renewable resources. High on their list is saving and recycling wood and some years ago they colonised a nearby derelict warehouse and stuffed it to the gunnels with wood which some day someone might want.

After years of dereliction the area is now being regenerated and the new owner, a property developer, wants them out.
Michael and Tyler will have no truck with it. They refused to remove their wood while they themselves occupied another semi-derelict property with no water, electricity nor heating and survive by scavenging through the city’s dustbins.

Michael takes a certain pride in his ability to survive on the Chicago streets, something that Tyler has taught him.

On December 31 at 1.30 am while the Chicago Millennium celebrations were in full swing their warehouse of stored wood burst into flames. Phone calls to the Fire Brigade went unanswered.

They suspect arson.
But they can’t prove anything. And if they could what good would it do?

The site is integral to the new development of the Maxwell St area , all part of Mayor Daly's grand plan .
And that derelict building stood in the way.
“Come and see it,” says Michael. .
He shows me the site.
Its razed to the ground.
We stare in disbelief at the empty ground. Two weeks ago a huge derelict warehouse stood there.
”They cleared the it completely, ” says Michael.
“That’s Chicago”, added Tyler.

I commiserate with them. We return to the yard and Michael makes us some coffee in his makeshift hut.
He lifts the lid on the wooden orange box he’s sitting on.
“Here, take one.”
He hands me an apple from a tray of apples that look like a Cezanne painting.

I eat it with a sense of guilt knowing that he has been given these apples under the “Chicago Feeding the Homeless” programme.

These apples were not meant for folk like myself who have never known the pangs of hunger.

“Is it OK if I come with you this morning?” I ask Tyler.
“Sure. I am going shopping.”

Now Tyler cuts a strange quirky picture. He wears an Afro wig, oversized black-rimmed glasses, no shoes, a layered look of disparate garments long before it became fashionable and sometimes he completes the outfit with an enormous red bra.
Today the final startling accessory is missing .

He pushes a supermarket trolley.
“I ‘ve got some shopping to do. I need to buy a gun.”
I nod.
Did he say gun? Perhaps I did not hear correctly.
He repeats it.
“Yes I need a gun...”

Maybe this is not a good time to be carrying a video camera so I put it away discreetly in my oversize duvet jacket (15 dollars courtesy of Mitzie).

“There’s one.”
He spots two Afro-Americans sitting on the edge of their opened car boot.

They have bags of equipment at their feet.
“I need to buy a gun, y’know to staple wood.”
Phew! and there I was thinking we were about to purchase a shotgun....
The guys root through and produce one.
“That will do. How much?”
“Two dollars.”
Tyler hands the money over and we walk on.

Everyone knows Tyler. He is a minor celebrity in the area having lived there for years after leaving his university research post and becoming a registered schizophrenic who refuses treatment. He speaks several languages and has a PhD in physics . The son of a wealthy East coast family he gets by on a small allowance. Much as I long to film the area I know it is neither the place nor the time: so the camera stays in its bag.
The morning is taken up with research, meeting and talking to the people whom Tyler introduces me to. He is popular and even the police stop and chat to him.

We return to the Wood Lot to find Michael surrounded by four affluent looking middle-aged women.

They are from Cincinnati and they are want to buy some genuine old iron garden gates. Michael assures them he has plenty, it is just a case of finding them, and he begins turning over vast quantities of junk .
The women watch.
I seize the opportunity.
“Do you mind if I film you for my college project?”

The women are startled by the request.
They shake their heads. They don't want it broadcast that they are shopping for second-hand goods in the South Side of Chicago.
But one woman though shows some interest.

“Where you from?”
“Of that’s all right! Nobody knows us there.”
So I film them haggling for the gates then loading them into the back of their station-wagon.
They reckoned without the internet. And blogging.

Chicago Cows and the 3Arts Club

Sunday Breakfast- Three Arts Club

“Too much of life goes to waist in middle age.”

Mitzie shows up for breakfast ready for church. She enjoys the social life, and she is looking for confirmation from us that her latest purchase is indeed a bargain .
Its a fun fur which has clearly seen a lot of fun. She gives us a twirl.
“ Only 20 bucks.” We nod and make approving noises more for her sheer enthusiasm, her zest for life, for a woman in their mid 60s, rather than her choice of clothing which is always at the best of times a little suspect.
I make a mental note to ask her sometime where she finds all these second hand shops, certainly not in the Gold Coast area.
“You’ve heard the news?’
Mitzie is always the first to hear of gossip within the Three Arts.
“Phillipa has lodged an official complaint against the Club on grounds of sexual discrimination!”
We nearly choke, collectively, on our breakfast.

Greta, the young German lawyer studying internet law in the States is the first to regain her composure. She leans forward:
“Tell us more.”
“Well, you know Phillipa ....(everybody knows blonde dizzy Phillipa with her string of boyfriends)well, she claims the Club is discriminating against heterosexuals cause she is not allowed to have any of her boyfriends stay the night whereas the gay women can have their lovers.”
“She has a point”, says Greta. “ It will be interesting to see how the officials here deal with it.”
“I can tell you,”says Jodie, ever the pragmatist. ”She will be told to get lost.”
This prompts Greta to tell us of a new crime in America.

“Girls are blackmailing their fathers over alleged incest. It goes like this:” Give me money for a new pair of shoes/dress/car/holiday or I will say you abused me when I was six years old.”
“Fathers,” says Greta” are paying up rather
“Fathers,” says Greta” are paying up rather than risk the bad publicity.”
“Neat,” says Jodie.
“It’s a new crime. Nobody knows how to deal with it.”
Rita drifts in, tousled, unwashed in a tracksuit which she has slept in.
“Looks like you had quite a night,” says Jodie raising her eyebrows.
Rita nods.
Ah...a collective intake of breath around the breakfast table.
“She’s down from New York for a few days.”

Her appearance is extraordinary even by New York standards, the result of two unsuccessful face lifts and blonde hair that has been experimented on by eager young New York stylists aiming to make a name for themselves with adventurous colours, not that Suzanne cared for, what the heck!, it’s all done free.

“Have you told them the news? I’ve been sacked!”
Rita shrugs.
She is still on her first shot of caffeine.
“I haven’t told them.”

It would be difficult to put an age on Suzanne or to think what kind of job she could still be doing.

“You tell them!”
“I have been sacked from my job as a Life Saver at my local pool.’

We exchange glances around the table, clearly we all had the same thought: if we were drowning did we really want Suzanne saving our life?

”They found out I’m 79 years of age”, said Suzanne helping herself to some of my spare pancakes and syrup.

“Oh my God!” shrieks Maddy “what kind of woman wants to save lives at 79 years of age?”

Suzanne gets huffy:
“I can swim.”

Greta leans forward and asks in her quiet earnest Germanic way: ”How
many times have you been called upon to jump in and save a life?”
“Never!.. that’s my point all these New York kids can swim so its no big deal that I sit there for a couple of hours a day.”

Suddenly I see the time. Ten o’ clock. I am due in Maxwell St to start making my video.

“Sorry gotta go.”
A rumour has reached me that over the Millennium celebrations there was a big fire in the area.
So how much of the Wood Lot remains?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Three Arts Club, college and the beach- Chicago

in each of us there is a bit of all of us


Writing and Art
“ Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.”

College life :The Writing Class
Officially I should not be in this Writing class because it is for post grad students. But I inveigle my way into it.

“I have earned my living as journalist for 20 odd years I think I will be able to keep up," I argue.
So they let me in.

It kicks off with some ten handy hints for aspiring writers.

1. Do not deny your past. Use it as a launch point to the future.

2. You should think of the future. it is all you have got.
3. What are your ten top obsessions?
What connection is there between your obsessions and your work?
“If horse riding is your passion and it is not in your novel then you are making a mistake.”

4 Put some extreme version of yourself into your work.
5. Dialogue. Plays. there are those who can only write dialogue. Ask yourself: are you one of those?

6.. Remember serious literature is read mainly by women.

7. What is your bedside reading? that gives a good indication of what you really like.

8.“Tell the most interesting story you know and let the philosophical chips fall where they may.

9 Rules: Be clear. Don't use too many adverbs. Don't get cute tonally.
10. Pass a “shit detector” over your work - Hemingway always did.


Art and Machines

“I don’t know whether I believe in God or not, I think, really, I am some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to prayer.”
Henri Matisse.

Visit a printmaking exhibition in the Ballroom in Michigan Building.
The hoary old chestnut raises its head: craft versus machines.
One printmaker says:
“ There is something special about a piece of work made by a human hand, about a drawing by another human being that connects you to another human being in a way that no machine can do.”
So true. When will machines be able to evoke an emotional response in us?


Photography and the future

Frank Barsotti, Professor of Photography, reckons soon we will all be digital. He says that traditional photographic processes will go the way of lithography - something that a minority of people i.e. fine artists will do but that it will be largely irrelevant.
The world will be Digital.
Found a message on the printer in the Writing Lab. “ Sylvia has a misfeed.”
I like it. This makes Sylvia sound like a decrepit old lady doing something revolting with her food not a high tech printer that’s jammed.
Have started to read Marshall McLuhan.
He talks of the meaning of the photo in creating a world of accelerated transience. True, so true.
And newspapers are a mosaic form of presenting diverse information about human life while global television has the power to involve the whole world in a ritual process from funerals to wars to terrorist attacks.


The Opera Singer’s Dilemma
We’ve got a new young opera singer , Sophie, in our midst. She’s very ambitious and practises for hours singing and accompanying herself on one of the two Steinways in the Three Arts Club.

Anyway Sophie is upset tonight. She needs to talk and joins our table for coffee.
“What’s the problem?” asks Jodie
“It’s my tutor. He keeps saying I should put more expression into my singing. I told him I didn't know how.”
She gulped and wiped a tear from her face.
“So, do you know what he said to me?”
We shook our heads.
“He told me to think of the last time someone touched me.”
We nod. Sounds like good advice.
“But that’s the problem! I can’t remember the last time someone touched me. Singing is my life. I have no time for relationships.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Find yourself a boy friend,” urges Jodie who believes sex is the answer to everything.
“I don't like men.”
“Well, find yourself a woman then,” says Jodie .
Sophia shrieks.
“I don't like women either.”
“Well, what do you like,”demands Jodie.
Sophia shakes her head.
“Singing. It’s my life.”
We fall silent. For once nobody can think of a solution.
So Jodie changes the subject.
“Do you know what the average American person thinks of the British?”
As the only British person sitting around the table clearly this is aimed in my direction.

“ The average American’s view of British people, and you have to remember that most people have never met a British person- only ten percent of the population have passports.- is that you are a kinky lot,” says Jodie, a former tough New York PR woman turned artist.
“All that boys public school stuff, homoeroticism, leather and whips .”
She doesn't believe me when I tell her I don't know anyone who fits that category.

As for Sophie, she gasps, clutches her hankie, and leaves the table.


Out and About

The El

It’s mid- evening on the El from Monroe to Clark/Division. It’s been a long day in college and I’m tired.
I look around on the El. We are all the same: tired, pretending we are not there, just wishing we could get home as fast as possible with as little hassle as possible.
But it’s not to be.
The silence is broken by a young Afro-American woman on crutches begging inside the train.
She has broken an unwritten rule:” no do hassle commuters inside the train” .
Anyway” beggars do not board trains and hassle passengers.” Often there are security guards around to stop them.
Tonight it’s quiet and there are no guards around.
She is confident and aggressive demanding money from each individual. We all ignore her.
So she goes through to the next carriage.
I get off at Clark/Division and just as I am about to step onto the escalator I look behind. The homeless woman on crutches had got off too. She is standing alone, her back against the wall in a quiet corner of the station her proud shoulders now hunched , her face crumbling into silent howls of despair. The hardness and arrogance of 10 minutes ago has gone. That was her outer skin, her way of surviving.
Now she waits for the train back to the South side to the ghetto.
I am already on the escalator exhausted What to do ? I do nothing. I feel ashamed.

I walk home through the Gold Coast where dustbins ae locked to stop the homeless rooting around inside them only tonight someone has forgotten to lock theirs and I hear a rattling noise come from one of the alleyways. I glance in its direction. There’s a elderly Afro-American man with a supermarket trolley rifling through the contents of a giant dustbin. Our eyes meet briefly.
I look away and go home.


On the beach:Tony and Sharon

They look like Tarzan and Jane.
Every day you see them on the beach, jogging and feeding the seagulls.

He’s is big, bronzed with lots of gold chains, heavily tattooed and spends his time training, weightlifting and feeding the seagulls.
He has a partner a very fit blonde. Only they are not called Tarzan and Jane but Tony and Sharon.

They are happy to talk. Moreover they ae delighted to be filmed.
“We’ve been feeding the birds for ten years” says Tony.
“They are our children,”adds Sharon.

“We go around the fast food outlets in Chicago and get food that’s thrown into dustbins, mainly pizzas cause they at easier to throw in the air.
”The birds are very territorial. They have their own patches on the beach and will not cross over,” explain Sharon. “ They gather each day waiting for us .”
Sometimes dogs run through scattering the feeding process and the birds disperse, so we wait a few minutes and they swarm over again for the food.”

How did they get started?
“I was just a kid and threw some food one day for the birds and they jumped at it. That was it. I was hooked ever since,” said Tony.
I was curious to know what he did for a living that he could devote so much time to the birds.
But I didn't like to ask fearing that the answer would destroy the Tarzan and Jane image I had of them.


Three Arts Club
Breakfast with the morning papers
“You’ve always made the mistake of being yourself.”
Eugene Ionesco.

Jodie pushes the morning paper across the table.
”What do you think of that? We’ve gone nutty.”
It’s an article about a futuristic sofa designed by Philip Starck : a giant king size “bed” in white leather with built in TV , DVD, computer and cellphone. You need never move from it.
Jodie complains: ”Who would want to live their lives on a sofa, even a grand one designed by Stark?”

But is it that far fetched? Today on the student notice board under the For Sale notice is a king-sized mattress, television, vcr and cell phone. All for less than a hundred dollars.

I read the morning papers scanning for crime. My favourite start to the day.
I don’t have to search far.
”Two Irish girls followed home at 4.30 am off the El. Men break into their digs and rape them.”
The twist is that its in a good area. Sheffield.
We discuss it.”Well, what do you expect you travel on the El at that time of the morning? Asking for it.”

I murmur some feminist principles; should not matter what time fo the day or nigh it is a woman shout dbe able to travel safely.”
Jodie looks at me with astonishment as if I had just stepped of another planet :
”Bullshit! its an urban jungle out there. ”
She adds:” This is Chicago. You gotta hit the ground running...”

There's another story. A gun car jack. There’s this guy driving around town with a gun at his neck except nobody outside the car can see it. he passes his son and waves. The son waves back having no idea that his Father has a gun at his neck. he is forced to drive to a cash line and empty his account.

Then there is the story of a four year old boy who shoots his one year old sister with a gun bought by his father for 1200 dollars of cocaine and left lying around the house,

But the main splash of the day is a shoot out in Bucktown, an up and coming area. A woman has opened a new restaurant there and she is shot at during the crossfire at midnight while inside her restaurant. She berates the gangsters in the Chicago Tribune: "What do you think this is Wild West country.” It was a dispute between two gangs and they tore down the street shooting at each other from their cars. Her restaurant just happened to get in the way.”


Red Moon theatre group

Filmed this from my bedroom window overlooking the courtyard in the Three Arts club.
Red Moon, the well-known Chicago theatrical group gave an astonishing performance in the courtyard. This is real theater!

I get a ringside view of the fire-eaters who perform just outside my bedroom window.

Weddings in the Three Arts Club
Imagine living in the middle of somebody’s wedding party - three days a week. Well I had been warned . There had been dark mutterings about “the weddings” though nothing prepared me for the reality.
To help subsidise the low cost of the rent the formal rooms in the Three Arts club are let out to conferences and weddings.
And we are advised to make ourselves scarce during these festivities. Folk who have spent a small fortune decking themselves out don't want to be sharing the same space with scruffy students.
I know some people find these wedding parties a complete pain but I adore them. I loved the glitz, the glamour, the whole American razzmatazz.
I would come home from college never knowing whether I was going to be in the middle of a Jewish wedding, a pagan ceremony or a traditional American ceremony.
It was like living in the middle of a Hollywood movie set.
An added bonus was that I got a ringside view from my bedroom window which overlooked the enclosed courtyard where the wedding ceremonies took place.

Jewish weddings were particularly flamboyant and lovely. We had one the other night. A pair of Jewish doctors got married and both bride and groom gave profuse thanks to their parents for bringing them up.
Afterwards the son went on to reiterate his thanks to his mother once again only this time in written form in the Book of Ceremony, left in the entrance hall.
I couldn't resist a peek.
It ended with the words: :”especially to my lovely mother who is still pretty and doesn't look 74 years of age.”
Later the mother crossed the reference to her age out.
Nobody likes to be reminded of their advancing years. . You never see a grey haired man or woman in the States.

The shelves in our local Walgreens is stacked high with every conceivable product to hide grey hairs.
You may be getting on a bit in years but you don't have to advertise it to the whole world for heavens sake.


Debbie told us at dinner about her “faint”.

“It happened in the Pedro cafe and nobody noticed.

“I don’t know how long I was out. When I came to I called the waiter over and told him. He said he thought I was asleep.
He brought me a glass of water and told me to sit up.
He did not charge for the water.”
Nevertheless Debbie is disturbed by this experience .
We try to comfort her at dinner by telling her its something to do with the enormous swings in temperature - up to 30 degrees in less than 24 hours. She remains unconvinced. She thinks she has got something terminal wrong with her.
Anyway she knows all about the Chicago heat.
“Sometimes I gotta go and sleep over with a friend who’s got air-conditioning.”
And when it gets really hot the city will open cooling shelters for the poor .


The great American taboo
“ If the 19th century was the age of the editorial chair, ours is the age of the psychiatrist’s couch.”
Understanding Media Marshal McLuhan.

We got to talking about death at breakfast.
Lisa , a trainee curator grimaced:” Ugh! that’s a bit heavy !.”
And she moved to another table. Other regulars who had until then been quietly eating their breakfast and listening but not joining in the conversation followed.
“See what I mean?” said Alice “When my husband died 20 years ago many friends just ignored me. They didn't know what to say. They would even cross the street to avoid me.”
Nobody want to listen to Iris and Sheri talking about grief. Iris lost a stepson five years ago from a brain seizure five years ago and she says she has not really grieved his death and she wants to talk about it.
And Sheri trained as a grief counsellor. So Iris talks and Sheri listens.
Later Sheri asks me:
“ How popular is therapy in England?”
“It’s not,” I say.” In fact it’s regarded as a bit weird, a sign that you can’t cope.”
“Your kidding?”
They don't believe me.
Cindy has been in therapy for four years and Karen is about to start a 5 year course of psychoanalysis.
Finding a soul -mate is difficult and the word has got out that there are a lot of wealthy mature women living in the Gold Coast who are looking for someone to share their lives with.
And they go to Church. And the word has spread.
So men from all kinds of backgrounds from all over Chicago troop to churches in the Gold Coast, masquerading as sinners.
“Stay away from men you meet in Church” says Jodie “ I’ve had some bad experiences there.”
I say I have no plans to go to Church.
Meanwhile Alice , approaching seventy years of age, is suffering from overwork and exhaustion. She has been to see her doctor.
She complains at dinner.
“I wanted some pills and all he tells me is to stay in bed for a week! I teach in a poor area. I don't have sick pay. If I don't work I have no money.”
So she took two days off then went back to work.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Grant Park Celtic festival and marijuana rally

“ It is suicide to be abroad. But what is it to be at home...what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution.”
Samuel Beckett.

American self confidence

In Wales we are riddled with self-doubt. We are afraid of “bettering ourselves” lest we fail, or we are thought by our close knit community to want to change our status in life, to be different, to “get on”.
”Giving herself airs and graces” they whisper in the valleys. So we settle for mediocrity . At least its cosy.

Imagine the shock to arrive in a country that not only believes in itself but shouts it from the rooftops.

“You can make it!” seems to be tattooed on every teenagers arm.
This is “the American Dream”.
Everyday 63 millionaires are made in Silicon Valley and all are under 30 years of age. Chicago University has t-shirts proclaiming the number of Nobel Prize winners it has produced. 74 at the last count.

This is a place where possibilities become realities.
To get there, start here...

During my first few weeks I wander around in a daze : can it really be this good? where are the cracks?
One Saturday afternoon I find myself in Grant Park, often described as Chicago’s “front yard”, a huge public park running parallel with the lake. Back in 1835 some foresighted citizens lobbied to protect this open space against development and in 1901 it got its present name after Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States. Today its the venue for all kinds of events as well as housing three world class museums, The Art Institute, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Shedd Aquarium.
Today there’s a huge demonstration taking place with
a massive police presence. The Chicago police look so fearsome that I think twice before approaching them. But I say to myself:”
“This is stupid! these guys are there to protect us.” So I approach one, a big Afro-American, who looks more friendly than some of his colleagues.
"What's going on?"
"Marijuana rally," he replies.
"You mean? legalise?"
He nods.
Whereupon as if on cue a young woman leapt on to the platform.
She has a clean wholesome look about her: healthy, robust, confident, the epitome of young American womanhood. Any mother would be proud of her.

She grabs the microphone in a surprisingly aggressive manner.
"I got busted when I was 16 years of age!"
Cheers and applause from the crowd.

"But I was a good student, and I came from a good home so they put me on probation. They wheeled out all the experts. They could find nothing wrong with me. They said I was sane. I was perfectly normal. Then this psychologist said to me:
"When did you last smoke marijuana?"
"On my way here sir!"

Thunderous applause. The crowd go hysterical, cheering and clapping. More speeches follow from other speakers all eulogising the power of the weed. Its a peaceful rally and even the police seem laid back.

Only the week before on this same patch of ground I sat through the annual Celtic Festival, listened to bagpipes, Gaelic singing and joined in as we Celts tried to find tour roots. And I had failed miserably. Irish and Scots galore! but Welsh? forget it.
There’s no discernible Welsh presence in Chicago, at least not at the Celtic Festival though the history of the city reveals that one of Al Capone’s henchmen was a man by the name of Evans, noted for his silver tongue and the present President of the School of the Art Institute, Tony Jones, is a Welshman too.

On my way home walking through the Loop I see my first case of panhandling, outside Borders Bookshop .
"There's one!"
Something in the tone of the voice, the sense of urgency, made me stop and look back over my shoulder in time to see two young Afro-Americans approach a woman sitting on the wall outside the bookshop.
Suddenly I saw her through their eyes: a middle-aged woman sitting alone wearing a voluminous pastel skirt, floral blouse, flat shoes and clutching a big handbag.

A sitting target. She might as well have been carrying a placard: "I'm a tourist. Rob me."
So they did.
They walked straight up to her, stopped in front, and the smaller of the two boys held out his hand:
"Give us some money."

Obediently, she opened her purse.

School of the Art Institute, Chicago

“Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.”
Mark Twain ( The Perpetual Pessimist)

Electronic rites and rituals- School of the Art Institute

Is this storytelling in the digital age?
I’ve just signed up for a new module called Electronic Rites and Rituals and I walk in to the classroom to find it in total darkness except for a video projection of a fire on the floor and a silent expectant group of students sitting on the floor in a circle around this virtual fire.

We are asked to share information about ourselves, to reveal our ambitions. While the half a dozen of us from Europe and the Far East squirm with embarrassment we listen with astonishment as our North American colleagues sit there cross- legged , confident and articulate their dreams.
They know exactly where they are going, and what they need to do to achieve their dreams.

There follows a discussion on the way
technology is not only changing our lives and the way we operate as human beings but also in the kind of art work we produce and the way it is consumed.
We are urged to check out the web site of the MIT Media Lab.

Already I feel that technology is running my life and I am struggling to keep up not only with the software packages in the college but in the everyday living where everything seems to be reduced to a series of digital numbers. I am not alone in finding this brave new world so foreign.
A chance meeting with a middle aged Canadian artist here to do an MFA confirms its her impression too:
“I didn't expect Chicago to be so foreign. I feel I have to learn how to operate again in a city.”
I feel I have handed over responsibility for my life to a series of numbers.
I cannot get through a day without needing a bunch of electronic cards and to loose one is to be cast adrift from this electronic network.
If you are not hooked up to this digital world its the equivalent of being blind.

The college newspaper carries a series of interviews asking former students to write about their experiences of SAIC. One describes it as a “boot camp”.
He says it’s great if you have a clear vision and you know where you are going , then you will receive all the help and encouragement you want to fulfil your dreams. But for those who are still trying to find themselves SAIC can be a disconcerting experience.
It is not for the weak of spirits and I wonder, not for the first time, how on earth I am going to survive....
Meanwhile students find all kinds of methods to help pay their way through college.
Some female students sell their eggs to infertile women. Its a risky business and requires them to take large doses of hormones to stimulate growth. But the money is good, in excess of 20,000 dollars and that goes some way towards college fees.
So they take the risk.

One enterprising Hispanic poet
got a job looking after the wardrobe of an ultra rich Chicago family in order to pay her way through post grad college.
Now she’s written about it in the local paper.
She says the “walk in wardrobes” were bigger than the average American apartment, and her employer had “advisers” , personal consultants , flown in regularly from Paris to check her wardrobe was not only up to date with the latest designer clothes but that she was also wearing the right accessories to match too.
The poets job was to ensure that all the clothes, shoes and handbags were kept in immaculate condition. Other household staff took care of cooking, cleaning and shopping. Well, it’s certainly beats working in Macdonalds.

Digesting this new found culture both inside and outside the college is a 24/7 job.
There’s so much on offer both inside the college and in the city that one is literally swamped for choice. Every minute of every day one has a choice of lectures, seminars, discussions, concerts, conferences, films, and most of it free too.
like the Writers Conference for those working on the Net. The basic advise was:
“ Get sex in the first paragraph!” and don’t write more than 500 words because that’s about as much as people are prepared to read on-screen at one go.
Afterwards I drift into Borders and decide to seek out the novel “ Going to the Sun” written by my tutor, James McManus in the Writing Class.
There’s only two copies in the shop and the assistant has some difficulty finding them. The book after all was published some four years ago.I thank him and find a chair , sit down to read and open the book at random.
My jaw drops.
“We made love 14 time. I counted.” And much more in a similar vein. All about going to Alaska. What on earth? He's written a homoerotic novel!
It’s totally at odds with the man who harangues us once a week, who goes into a rant over sloppy writing.
I've got the sex wrong. Because he’s written it in the first person I had assumed it was from a male perspective. For the purpose of the book he's female. No wonder the account of lovemaking had a strange ring to it.
Later I ask him about the gender change. Why had he chosen to write it in the first person narrative from a female perspective?
“The majority of readers of fiction are women. They want to identify with the protagonist.”

The Making of a Contemporary Artist
“ The world is made of people who never quite get into the first team and who just miss the prizes at the flower show.”
(The Face of Violence) J. Bronowski

Art today is all about giving people experiences, and making them think about things they may never have thought about before. Well this moment of epiphany occurred to me after visiting Phoebe’s exhibition in Gallery X, the one allocated to student work run by the School of the Art Institute.
Our tutor takes us along to see her work. Everyone, including the tutor, is impressed with the speed at which Phoebe has got her artistic act together. here she is in first semester with her own exhibition! while the rest of us are struggling to complete projects on time.
The work consists of two projections, the one of a woman falling down and the other of a woman getting up.
We stare at them in polite silence secretly wondering : is this it?
One guy asks:
“What is the work about?
Phoebe shrugs:”I want viewers to take from it what they want.”
A few of us exchange uneasy glances: is this a cop out?
Meanwhile our tutor, asks in a solicitous tone:

“ Are you able yet to articulate what your work is about?”
“No” replies Phoebe sitting confident and cross legged on the floor.
Now her work is being considered, along with all other current exhibitions, for selection into an international exhibition on cutting edge art . We marvel at Phoebe’s insouciance and her naked ambition.

Throughout the campus there are notice boards giving regular updates on “incidents” involving students . I read them every day with a certain morbid fascination.
Most alarming are the number of assaults that have taken place in broad daylight, or very early evening , say six o clock, involving being grabbed from behind, with a knife at the throat demanding money.

Today a new one has appeared that is particularly gruesome. A 19 year old girl on crutches was getting out of a taxi near Columbia University at 9 o’clock in the evening when she was grabbed, taken up a back street and raped.

We are advised to be on our guard all the time, to be streetwise, not to travel late on the El.
And there’s an unspoken rule too: if you use public transport make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.
Meanwhile there’s plenty of black humour around. Rosie, the giddy blonde from Nebraska in our digital photograph class, works in a bar and she came into class full of last nights macabre exploits to celebrate Halloween.
“Two men came in dressed as Payne Stewart.”
“Ugh! that’s sick.” says Carol. “His corpse is not even cold.”
Only a few days before golfer Payne Stewart's private Lear jet became de-pressured in flight killing all the passengers and crew and the plane flew for four hours before crashing.
Now men are wandering around Chicago dressed as Payne Stewart.
“I think it’s sick.”
For once we all agree.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Lincoln Park Zoo

“Life is like a tin of sardines we’re all of us looking for the key.”
Alan Bennett

Howling with grief
Its February, cold and quiet in Lincoln Park zoo and a middle aged Hispanic couple stand in front of a cage containing a pair of rare monkeys.
The woman keeps tapping the glass walls, making strange noises in the back of her throat trying to attract their attention. They ignore her.
Meanwhile her partner is bored and preoccupied, hands thrust deep inside his trouser pockets. He keeps glancing around wondering if she will ever tire of her fascination with the Monkey House.
Later they sit down in the almost empty restaurant.

He buys her popcorn, two pizzas and a super-size coke.
He eats a small hamburger and drinks water.
The meal over, he puts his hand inside his jacket and takes out a brown envelope.
“What’s this?” she stops drinking the last of her large coke.
“You’ve got a surprise for me? You mean a holiday?” she half laughs at her own joke.

He avoids eye contact.
He lets her open the envelope.
Her face contorts in horror, a silent scream, and her hand flies to her mouth as if to protect her from the words written on the opened letter in front of her.
“You wanna divorce me?”
He nods.
“ I don’t believe it...why?”

He shrugs and mumbles something.
“It’s simple,” he says. ” I don’t love you anymore.”
And he has used this very public place on a cold Chicago February day to end their relationship.
She sees her life disintegrating before her.
“The house...the kids.... the dogs.” she starts to plead.

He shakes his head.
“Let’s go to a marriage guidance counsellor...anything you say,” she pleads.
That’s when it starts. At first it’s silent sobbing, then the pain within her finds its voice and she gives out the most bloodcurdling howl.
The animals in the nearby Monkey House sense the fear, pain and agitation and add their voices too.
Soon the whole area is a cacophony of wailing, and leading the howling, like the diva in some grand opera, is the Hispanic woman.

The few customers in the restaurant, like myself, find us cast as the unwilling audience in this unfolding human drama.
Every so often she pauses from her weeping to read and reread the divorce papers yet this only induces another round of sobbing.

She has lost her man.
He sits there motionless refusing to comfort her, ignoring the hostile looks of the other women who feel for this woman.
She doesn’t deserve this public humiliation.

She is obese and the grief traumatising her body causes her fat to roll and shake undulating like small waves around her.
He starts to explain the financial arrangements ignoring the crying from his wife and the howling from the agitated monkeys.
He tells her how the home will within them be divided up, who would have the two cars, the dog, two cats and hamster and he points out that the children have already left home so that would not be a problem.

Far from consoling her this only fuels more weeping. It seemed to come from some unknown deep well of feeling within her. She sits there rocking and shaking with grief, hurt, lonely and all the time she keeps up this dreadful howling.
By now the alarmed monkeys are in full voice as if some deep primordial button has been pressed within them too and they howl in sympathy with the human sorrow of the stricken woman imprisoned in her grief.
I pick up my bags and leave.

The Cave, University of Illinois

View from college window ( School of the Art Institute)

“ I am a camera, with the shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Christopher Isherwood (A Berlin Diary)

The Cave is the Holy Grail in immersive environments, the place where Virtual Reality was invented in 1991 and the site that inspired Star Trek, and now the mecca for scientists, politicians, and all those who want to see what the future has in store for us.
We visit it today.
Located at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Technology in the University of Illinois, it’s the highlight of our multimedia course. We had been promised a fully immersive stereoscopic environment and at first we are disappointed.

“ I warned you there’s nothing physically to see,” said our tutor as we stepped into the 10ft wide white room with three walls.

“Wait until you put on all the headgear, and electronic gloves,” said the technician helping us on with our equipment. We begin to look like space robots.

Then he turned the machines on and whoopee!...we were into virtual reality.
Within minutes we are whooping it through a virtual gallery full of the world’s most famous paintings.
A pile of virtual paint pots is in a corner of the “gallery”.
“Help yourself!” said one technician encouragingly.
”Add your bit to the gallery.”
He wanted to see what we would do. His premise was right. We set about destroying these oil paintings, icons of Western civilisation. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was the first to get the spray can treatment. Soon the Mona Lisa is reduced to a blob.
Eat your heart out Duchamp. Picasso’s Guernica followed. Soon the whole of western art had been reduced to a glorified series of colour: abstract expressionism gone mad.
What possessed us? Why did we, a bunch of art students from one of the most prestigious art college in the world, feel that our contribution to this virtual gallery was simply to destroy the past?
We committed art vandalism on the world’s most treasured cultural objects. Nobody objected. And we felt good about it. We wanted to see the future and somehow deep down in our subconscious we knew that those paintings are not the future. They belong to a different era.
I never thought I would be an art vandal or enjoy it so much.
Must say I did have some pangs of guilt: what was so disturbing was that our reaction was so cavalier and spontaneous. We had not set out to destroy conventional paintings but that is precisely in half an hour what we had done.
“Try this,” urged the technician when he saw we had played enough with destroying the world’s art treasures.
He flicked a few switches and we were immediately transported from the virtual gallery to the open countryside. Soon we are strolling through meadows filled with flowers, butterflies flying around and birds singing.
“ This is where you will be taking your holidays in the future,” he joked. “ Virtual holidays anywhere you fancy without having to leave your own home.”
“Take a walk. Pick some flowers, watch out for the attack by the bees.”
Soon we are strolling through an open field picking imaginary flowers and sure enough there comes an attack of bees flying around our heads.
We duck.
“They are not real.” says Julie.
“I know. I know but they look so real.”
After playing in the virtual reality environment of The Cave we enter one studio to watch some video-conferencing. Somebody in our group coughs and eight heads sitting around a virtual table from five different continents turn and look in our direction.

Crime and controversy

A seagull struts his stuff along Oak Beach.

Three weeks in Chicago and I’ve still not heard a gunshot. Plenty of sirens though, howling like demented dogs throughout the night.
So, how safe is the place? Yesterday in the college canteen I put the question to Blyth, a young woman in her early twenties.
“Lived in the city long?”
“Yep, all my life.”
“Ever had any... er...trouble?”
She nods.
“What happened?”
“ I was 14 at the time, standing at the bus-stop, 7.30. In the morning, waiting to go to school. Two men came up and grabbed me by the throat. One stuck a gun in my face and the other robbed me. They took my school bag. Only five dollars in it though.”
I struggle to find something to say.
“How did you feel?”
“Well,” a slow smile comes over her face.
“I feel I’ve been initiated.”
“A bit like loosing your virginity?”
She nods.

Chicago Gangster Tour

I take one of Chicago's most popular tourist attractions - a guided tour of the sites of notorious crimes from the city's colourful past.

Art or pornography?
There’s an undercurrent of controversy rippling through the college over a sacked feminist lecturer.
It all hinges on whether a lecture she gave on Body Art was art history, performance, or downright pornography.
She hired a performance artist, propped her up naked on a throne like chair, and invited students to peer up her vagina.
Some students were aghast. They complain to college officials. “This is not art!” they argue. “We are not paying good money to look up a woman’s vagina!.” Or words to that effect.
The lecturer is sacked. But the fall out still rumbles on around the college corridors.
So, is it art or is it pornography? In a gallery setting it becomes art, in a brothel it becomes pornography but a classroom?...

Oak beach, Chicago

Dealer, the bulldog that liked to bark at the waves.

I’ve just arrived and I spend my first
Sunday afternoon in late September on Oak beach, just ten minutes walk from The Three Arts Club on N.Dearborn where I am staying.( The student with whom I had exchanged had offered me his place to stay only the International Student Officer at the College had warned me that it was in the South Side and I would feel like I would be living in a movie what with all the sirens and shootings, so she had recommended the Three Arts instead). I am still reeling from the shock of discovering just how exciting a city Chicago is turning out to be.

Every hour brings fresh surprises. Take this afternoon’s exotic pet.
At first I think it’s a racoon attempting to scurry towards the water or some other long tailed animal accompanying two women.
“OOh my God! It’s a crocodile on a lead!”
But nobody takes any notice.
I go over to investigate. So do some children, not that there are many on this exclusive bit of the Gold Coast. .

“What is it?”
“It’s an iguana,” replies the taller of the two women.
And a very large specimen at that, all of three feet. No wonder I thought it was a crocodile.
It’s not the only mistake I’ve made. These are not friends taking an afternoon stroll with an exotic pet. The one is a middle-aged, tall, blonde, wafer thin white American wearing an expensive silk designer sarong, and a pair of Gucci dark glasses topped with a golfing hat. Her companion is younger, Hispanic and plump, wearing a t-shirt, shorts and carrying a gold Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag. Suddenly it clicks: rich woman with Hispanic maid.
Meanwhile they release the iguana and it rushes into the water, swims around then sits staring at the sun, cause that’s what iguanas do.

But this was not what the American woman had in mind. She wanted to stroll along the beach with her exotic accessory.
Instead the animal lies staring at the sun because that’s what iguanas like doing best. It refuses to walk. She pulls it along pretending it’s walking alongside her like a dog, ignoring the trauma of the iguana with its little feet planted rigid, like anchors, in the sand.
It’s an incongruous sight. Finally she scoops it up and tucks it under her arm like a toy dog.
The maid, meanwhile, slips into the water. She swims for a few minutes too before taking a beach towel out of her gold Sak Fifth Avenue shopping bag.

A few days later I mention this incident to an acquaintance, one of those casual friendships that strike up amongst people who have dogs. Somehow owning a dog makes social contact easy and people who would never normally speak to each other find themselves revealing all sorts of information about themselves to total strangers. Thus within a few days of arriving in Chicago I had met the owner of an English bulldog which every evening liked to stand on the shores of Lake Michigan and bark at the waves.
“I saw this woman yesterday with an iguana,” I tell her.
“Yes,” she says,” my dog nanny saw it too.”