Courtesy of Erica Mott

A quartet of male performers walks solemnly onto dirt and rock, holding steel sheets above their heads. An aerial view of a flock of birds flying over the Calumet industrial corridor is projected onto two jagged concrete pillars with a break of open space at its center. The performers break away from formation and scrape the metal sheets in feverish circular motions, creating clouds of dust. Already the performers embody the spirit of steel mill workers and mimic the machines surrounding them.

Here at 87th Street and Lake Shore Drive, men used to work at a U.S. Steel South Works site. Now it’s a vast wilderness of unkempt grasses and shrubs. It was here that performance artist Erica Mott staged “Trials and Trails,” the final part of her “Cowboys and Vikings” trilogy of performances, on a cool Saturday evening two weeks ago. Under the bright glow of the harvest moon, the grounds have an undeniable ghostliness.

The allegorical theater of “Trials and Trails” fuses movement, object, image, and sound to wrestle with the city’s industrial and manufacturing past. It is rich with allusion and illusion, playing with the shadows and silhouettes of the four athletic performers.

Amidst the maelstrom of physical activity, it is hard to not inhale the dirt and debris swirling about, a discomfort that reflects that of the performance’s real-life corollary. Working in such conditions every day, steel mill workers risked chronic health problems and other safety concerns. It’s an effective exercise—walking a mile in shoes that so many Chicago workers have worn. It’s also art that hits at the ideas of injustice rather than its emotional fallout.

The structure of the piece is more or less a chronological montage as “Trials and Trails” navigates critical moments of the city’s industrial past. Not until midway through the performance do the dancers confront the audience to deliver a speech based on the writings of Milton Friedman. It’s not a surprise that the show’s critique takes a shot at globalization, but the criticism hews a bit too far toward the abstract; this kind of moment begs for a more personal story. Still, the switch to speech does not disrupt the momentum of the performance. At one point, one of the performers points west, exclaiming, “Hyde Park!”—a not-so-subtle jab at Chicago’s contemporary problems, like gentrification.

The climax of this historical dreamscape is an interpretative reenactment of the Memorial Day massacre of 1937 at Republic Steel, the third largest steel manufacturer of its day. The head of the company refused to sign a labor contract, leading to a strike, and police officers ended up killing ten unarmed men. The gaze of the audience is meant to fixate here, as a setpiece for Mott’s confrontation with the historical roles of masculinity in Western civilization. Mott eulogizes these men, but it is also a provocation. A wave of cynicism washes over me as I watch: why is the companion of progress always violence? Why is masculinity so often defined by violent instincts—and can these instincts be transformed into a desire for beauty?

Inspired by the struggles of these steelworkers, Mott reached out to a local retired steelworker group to help develop the choreography.

“They would talk about how they would communicate in the mills because there was so much noise around them,” she said. “They had to use gestural languages around them to form a communal language. This is quite a fascinating thing, that men across cultures and generations have a common language through the body. So often for men there are not many publicly sanctioned ways for which they can use their bodies to express themselves.”

Carlos Lopez, one of the performers in “Trials and Trails,” says he was drawn to Mott’s deluge of artistic and political motifs.

“Everything I was doing [in the show] had a reference point,” he said. “There are points that refer to mechanics and repeated motions. There are other points that referred to accidents of those who lost their lives. It was about living the experience in order to pay tribute.”

The movements of the dancers, juxtaposed with the images of the workers, conveyed the most explicit message of “Trials and Trails”: that we must see these men as soulful artisans, not just cogs in the machine. Making steel, railroads, and bridges has just as much artistic currency as making sculpture. Art is their salvation, their opportunity to define masculinity on their own terms.

Mott is well-suited to recognize this; her artistic process recognizes the meaning objects can take on when given a creative context.

“They’re not just directly what they are,” she says. “I’m much more interested in the transformation of materials and sites and stories. There are multiple possibilities in it and there is a space that they are ‘both and’ instead of an either/or.”

But “Trials and Trails” ends on one optimistic note: an underlying faith in the resilience of these working men to live and be free. Video footage of a children’s choir is the final image shown. Layered over a recording of a field of grass on a sunny day—a renewed commitment to nature—the children sing, “hard times will overcome.”

Historical records, video footage, and newspapers of the past continue to teach us, Mott reflects, but art gives the opportunity to feel and experience something completely new.

“Art provides a site of true potential,” Mott said. “It’s not just fact, although there’s a lot of historical information in it; it’s not just emotion, but hopefully you feel something in your body and in your mind and heart as well. Art allows a space where you can feel all that and not have to define it. It can be this and this and this and this. Art encourages us to find disparate bits of information and find how they fit together.”

“Trials and Trails” rewards the viewer’s vigilance and curiosity, but can be inaccessible to those with less factual knowledge of the city’s history. The burden of discovery falls on the viewer to extract meaning; thus, the piece’s marriage of the artistic and the political is both exhilarating and over-stimulating.

Still, a persistent conflict emerges: how can we reconcile our dependence on labor and industry with the havoc the steel industry brought to the lives of these men, and on the land itself? There is no reconciliation in South Chicago on the night of the performance; “Trials and Trails” is a history lesson that’s as much a reckoning as it is an homage.

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