Stephen Urchick

Walking the Line

The Distance Between exhibited at The Incubator

Stephen Urchick
Stephen Urchick

The crowd at the Washington Park Arts Incubator stood quietly and attentively. They were even a little drunkenly reverent from the host’s generous booze offerings that afternoon. They had slogged through a cool September evening’s rain and gale for the flagship gallery event in “The Distance Between,” a joint exhibition simultaneously installed on and beyond the Midway. It aimed to celebrate Washington Park, the titular distance the dual venues straddle: Logan to the east and the Incubator to the west. Tomeka Reid—jazz cellist, and one of five featured artists—played at the center of the crowd’s loose constellation. Her increasingly busy, brooding melodies merged gradually with recorded audio captured from the 55th and 63rd Street L stations. Reid’s bowing grew violent, anticipating an oncoming train’s wind-whipping horsepower. The cello’s tense buzzing produced a chest-constricting overpressure that approximated the engine’s rumble. It seemed something truly had jumped the tracks at Garfield. The composition dove, churned, and plunged until the speakers shivered with the train’s arrival, nearly drowning out Reid’s climax. Her cello railed indignantly, demanding to be heard. Spectral brakes squealed on. A mellower, more skeptical line rapidly dampened the piece’s velocity. Distant passengers disembarked as we exited from our respective reveries and noticed that Reid had altogether stopped playing. Her bow was at rest.

That soothing song came from little over a mile away, at the Logan Center. For five movements, Tomeka and her partner Fred Lonberg-Holm had been blindly improvising from across a live-stream. Beyond the other’s vision, Reid’s Washington Park Suite hinged as much on each musician’s keen hearing as it did a lag-free Internet connection. Reid was working from a wild sketch of a graphic score. The Suite couldn’t survive the momentary displeasure of unnamable computer gods, deities to which Reid jokingly admitted praying.

In composing the Suite, Reid summoned inspiration from local sources. She found music in the Green Line. She incorporated twitters from birdlife in abandoned lots. She composed a ballad for Jesse Binga—King Drive banker and Great Depression martyr—using only notation suggested by the five letters of his surname. These efforts brought her work into communication with one of the exhibition’s more compelling subtexts: radically re-conceptualizing Washington Park as a location and a boundary. Many University of Chicago students and not a few Hyde Park residents perceive Washington Park and the outlying neighborhood as a forbidden space and a dangerous place. Locals on either side of Cottage Grove tend to let their projected discomfort or extant disinterest render the street impermeable. Even Reid herself admitted to spending much of her time at Logan.

Most simply, “The Distance Between” was a showcase for the five artists in the University-sponsored Arts and Public Life residency program. The residency’s intent was to speak largely about the artists’ “expanded social practice” treating issues of “race, politics, and culture.” Its summative exhibition accordingly seemed to spotlight the art’s context more brightly than the objets themselves. Couching the art as an exploration of the region’s underappreciated aesthetic potential was intended as a novel, more specific, and more sympathetic vehicle for paradigmatic change.

Lassoing the two park-bracketing venues by Wi-Fi, Reid’s Suite existed as part of the exhibition’s vaunted “park crossing” program—an afternoon-long attempt to replicate amongst gallery-goers the five artists’ commute between their twin galleries and two workshops. The crowd at the Incubator was enticed to hear the same performance again at Logan, baited with ample food and drink, guided by bus, bike, and walking tour. Even though the day’s wet weather scrubbed the latter two options, attendees still made the effort and a showing—persistently sustaining audiences 20 to 30 large in both galleries. Bright, warbling milieus of grad students, professional staff, worldly people from around Hyde and Washington Park shared headphones and floor space around the walls, swapped thoughts and ideas. Yet you couldn’t shake the sinking doubt that the people who came were the people who already cared: socially-minded scholars, an aesthetically keen camera club, folks that routinely walk the park under discussion.

Stephen Urchick
“Monk-Raven Space Station,” by Cauleen Smith. Smith was one of five artists exhibited at “The Distance Between.” Photo by Stephen Urchick

Were these attendees the people who needed convincing they wouldn’t be jumped an hour before sundown walking west past Cottage Grove? They certainly weren’t the sort who had trouble feeling they belonged before musical performances and installation art, thick sculptural canvasses and painterly photography. Those folks slipped past the Incubator’s windowed walls that afternoon, gliding through the drizzle, tracing Tomeka’s bowstrokes with their eyes. Resident artist LeRoy Bach admitted to loving those windows. “It’s like a fishbowl,” he said. But Bach quickly qualified his love for the Incubator’s street-side gallery, its literally invisible barrier. “There’s so much foot traffic going by here,” he mused. “I hope people feel welcome coming in.” “The Distance Between” seemed to ride on the same hopes; if it couldn’t convince pedestrians to risk walking behind inch-thick sheet glass, it could hardly propel them into another neighborhood.

Bach—composer, musician, and organizer of unpredictably sized n-tets—represented the residency program’s only white artist. He signed onto the residency well aware he would be asked to grapple with the question posed most plainly by fellow resident Cecil McDonald: “How did LeRoy end up with all these black people?” Bach needed to inject himself into problems of racial and social justice. “How can you sneak into another person’s reality and have them be glad for it?” he asked. Tapping white vocalist Tim Kinsella to record CD tracks arranged by black composer and jazz artist Marvin Tate seemingly landed him far from the mark. Kinsella’s throaty, contentedly apathetic croonings smack of plaid, cuffed jeans, and privilege. Substituting vocals in a guitar-strumming, half-whispering, unmistakably bougie vein for religiously soulful voices or abused blues most jarringly chilled Devonte’s in a Coma. An instance of gang violence, and the ensuing grief simply sounded like a linear progression of rubber stamps, stages of another week-long news cycle. A mother’s eulogy, a teacher’s poem, a mayor’s speech turned steel-cold under Kinsella’s eerily affectless voice. His smooth, untroubled easiness borders on callousness. Devonte reads as a reflection on how unsympathetic reporting has rendered shootings, their collateral body counts horrendously mundane.

During the crossing, whilst traveling Washington Park by bus, passengers demonstrated that they were anything but unsympathetic. They knowledgably detailed a recent early-evening playlot drive-by, and had plenty of offended grumblings on the attack’s execution (“…why can’t they do their banging when everybody’s in bed?”). Vocally sick to their stomachs, they articulated deep-seated desires to go out and do something (“…I don’t know how I’m going to make a difference, be an active participant!”). Their mindfulness and sense of injustice sounded hard-baked, and brought to question the exhibition’s efficacy as an educational instrument. Their teeth weren’t too sharply set on edge by Devonte. When they hung up their headphones and stepped back from the wall-mounted iPods looping Kinsella, it remained hard to believe that their spines contracted with new insight and a twinge of righteous furor. They had committed themselves to the problem long ago. Kinsella’s limp, degraded imploration to “put your guns on the table and come serve the Lord” was very much preaching to the choir.

In addition to the crossing itself, the curators of Distance programmed five artists’ talks to further solicit sojourns to either gallery and sustain engagement beyond the first gaze. But some nights garnered distressingly sparse audiences. And on the evening of the final talk, although the room was packed, whole flocks of first-year undergraduates were whisked away to Logan’s deeper recesses for “Chicago Life Meetings.” They didn’t only miss out on the complementary fish dinner. They also skipped a stirring and hilarious conversation with resident Avery R. Young—an hour and a half that might have added more color to their understanding of the South Side than the sum total of their orientation experiences.

There’s a fruitful comparison between these students and the good-looking white twenty-somethings featured in Cecil McDonald and Young’s de melon eaters, on display at Logan. The latter quizzically consume watermelon wedges, seemingly comparing experiences and overthinking texture, flavor, and finish. Several of the party pore weightily over books on black culture, despite signs tacked to the bookshelves asking that they request assistance first. Vigorous chiaroscuro gives the piece dangerous suggestions of blackface. The leftmost melon-eater broods, his beard dissolving into blackness and his chin and cheek suggestively shadowed. Both the subjects and the real-to-life students have approached their tasks with candor and the best of intentions. They try, too hard and without proper guidance, and therein begin to risk offending.

Young spoke at length about the gallery experience—how he didn’t compose art with an audience in mind, how he expected the beholder to “do the work” needed to access his pieces. “I’m not where a lot of motherfuckers are, and I’m not going back to them.” Yet, “The Distance Between” had other ideas. Its discourse about crossing very physical spaces, about reconstituting their perception, mirrored a hope to span less literal ones. “The Distance Between” strove to “go back” and ferry over those lingering on either side of Washington Park. Though technically competent and artistically impressive, it seemed to speak most often to those already up to navigating these spaces. Whether by guided steps or crash course, “The Distance Between” seemed to fall flat in teaching attendees to walk its namesake. Much of its audience already strolled along.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 4, 2013

The print version of this story did not fully identify the artwork photographed in its accompanying image. The photograph of the disco balls was a shot of “Monk-Raven Space Station,” a piece by Cauleen Smith. Smith was one of five artists whose work was exhibited as part of “The Distance Between.”

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