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.”