The son of Norwegian Lutheran pastors going back 6 generations, John Preus spent his early years running barefoot under a cathedral of trees in Makumira, Tanzania, then grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and northern Wisconsin. Preus, currently works as an artist, builder, fabricator, amateur writer, musician, and collaborator.
Rafael Sucks. Rahm Blows: Two phrases found scrawled into materials salvaged from the 49 Chicago public schools closed in 2013.
By some humor of the gods, I find myself in possession of a warehouse full of public school furniture. Due to a conscientious facilities manager, I was granted access to the materials that were bound for the landfill. Six semi loads of wobbly chairs, marked-up desks, and gum-laden bookshelves were packed into a donated South Side storefront. Since then, this furniture has been the primary material source for my work as an artist and contractor.
Due in part to the volume of material, I invited fifty artists, designers, and architects to help broaden the scope of inquiry and exploration of possible adaptations. The participating artists have produced a rich assortment of objects, installations, instruments, utensils, and functional prototypes, to be exhibited at Open House Contemporary, an art venue and Airbnb in the River West neighborhood.
For every formal decision an artist might make in response to this body of material, there are social and political correlates that spin off in multiple directions. This is not easy material to work with—not technically and not politically. And so this exhibition proposes a series of conversations suggested by the materials and the transformations of those materials wrought by some of Chicago’s most exciting artists. Standing at the threshold of these conversations, we can only speculate about where they might take us.
There are questions about visibility, access, and voice. Sucking and blowing, Rafael and Rahm contend to determine whose story will be told. The existence of these materials provides a space for competing narratives. Who are we, the artists, speaking to? Who are we speaking for? Are there ways in which the material itself speaks? Ways the formal reconfigurations suggest the possibility of social and political ones?
We can ask, from both formal and political perspectives, about the nature of the markings on the furniture and the type of wear it has endured. What do those markings reveal? Art demands its independence as a space for absurdity and wild speculation. We can look at scrawls on the bottom of a desk and think about Cy Twombly and concrete poetry and the automatic maneuvers of the surrealists. We can also consider them in light of captivity, as the marks of hostages passing the time, or as an anonymous way to proclaim your existence to an imaginary audience in a future that does not include you.
In 2011 before the mass closings, I was granted access to Crispus Attucks elementary school at 38th and State, close to the public housing high rises that had been leveled not long before, scattering the population of kids who once attended Attucks. The building had become a warehouse for other public school furniture. The gymnasium was filled to capacity and the hallways lined with pianos, file cabinets, wardrobes, classroom and office furniture, gym equipment, boxes of old cheerleading and sports jerseys. The scrappers had been through, the copper torn out, and anything of value portable enough to be carried off had been extracted. It felt like an apocalyptic scene. There was evidence of squatters: a makeshift fire pit and toilet in the corner by the central staircase. My artist mind, thinking about Duchamp in relation to the toilet, buzzed with a thrilled sense of opportunity. No doubt a kind of greed—not unlike the mindset of looters and troublingly at odds with the history of these materials—rides shotgun with creativity. My ambivalence remains.
The questions swirl, as I watch artists stumble through the unlit storage space with flashlights trained on teetering stacks of desks and chairs. Furniture holds bodies. And this furniture held many bodies, mostly in parts of the city with limited opportunities for mobility. Now it will hold bodies in other parts of the city, bodies that wander through art fairs and galleries and think abstractly about form and color.
An infinite game, a term coined by James P. Carse, is one in which the primary objective is to keep playing the game, not to win or lose. It is conversational, an exchange in which the necessity of the opponent is implicit. Rafael and Rahm are in conversation through the medium of fifty Chicago artists. I doubt, though, that there is a public servant alive who would take the political risk of building a community center to house furniture and artwork made from the leftovers of closed public schools. The material is politically radioactive.
We can talk about foundness, and found material, as something like thrownness, of being adrift, landing in a space without a world, capsized and abandoned. As artists, we might call this “found material,” which describes an attitude of responsiveness to something given rather than pre-determined. The materials have elicited many “oohs” and “aahs,” as the artists have dug through the stacks of desks and chairs, much like we might expect from nature scenery or fireworks. It feels like jazz. It is profane wallpaper, uniform noise, concrete poetry, a wash of texture related and distinct, warring and responsive, transgressive and mundane.
For artists, materials such as these can return to being “raw” in a certain sense, surfaces upon which we can project and entangle our own web of associations and meanings, while aware that the materials themselves also have a voice. Adaptation in art is something like revisionist history, taking an object with a fixed function and exposing it to new possible forms, new processes and interpretations. The Renaissance, a movement most closely associated with Italian 14th-17th century painting, was classified and articulated by French historians, one of many historical eras recast with the benefit of hindsight. Likewise classical Greece and its values were revised by the Roman empire, and used as inspiration for the French revolution and German nationalism. But such is the nature of history—constant revisions, adaptations, and shifts in narrative thrust. And conversations about adaptation beget questions of identity and determinism which we artists enact through material transformation.
How fixed are things? Power dynamics? Identities? Functions? How much room is there to reimagine the present and recast the future? How locked into our past are we?
Nearly 12,000 students were displaced by the school closings. Some went on to better situations in better schools; some didn’t. The statistics on the effects of the closings are written up in studies by the University of Chicago and UIC, but many stories remain untold. And whether you believe the closings were necessary or another episode in the long history of displacement in Chicago, keeping the question open is one important function these materials can serve.
Isn’t the bottom of a school desk plastered with gum as inexorable a biological phenomenon as a rotting stump covered with fungus and lichen? Every piece of hardened gum represents a gesture of resistance to the given authority. Whether against the teacher, school in general, or the whole system, the vandal says, ‘This is not my world. These are not my things. I am a hostage and I resist.’ True, grievances fall along a spectrum of legitimacy, but Rafael is not evil, stupid, or unusual. He likely sucks in all the ways we all might have sucked given similar conditions. But if we acknowledge this, we also have to accept that we might blow in the same way Rahm blows under the given conditions.
We can talk about the long and fascinating history of transformation, of turning one thing into another, of things appearing to be other than what they are, of being able to recognize and read the truth beneath the surface. Historical eras—the iron age, the bronze age, the information age—are often named according to the development of a transformative technology. Science—or alchemy as it was called then—was consumed with the idea of turning one thing into another, base metals into gold for instance, and now how to transform data into ever smaller units, to store on material vehicles called batteries, to transform brute materials into moving parts.
In religion, things are never just what they seem. Water can be wine, wine can be blood, pigs can be gods and so on. Artists turn mud into faces, dirt and stone into pigments, pigment into scenes of forests and dancing elves. And eventually pigments are celebrated for their own existence, no longer burdened with having to turn into anything else. Paint can just be paint, and stone can be stone. The viewer has to transform the thing into something of value, with her thoughts and projections. And more recently, much like the priestly maneuver of turning wine into the blood of Christ, the pedestal within the magic halls of the museum can turn a toilet into an object of veneration. So what is possible with our humble modifications of cast-off school furniture, tattooed with the resistance of the students, as a chapter in this long and venerable line of transformative ambitions?
But should we be touching them at all? Are we in possession of something like a trove of elephant tusks confiscated from a poacher, or contraband confiscated by the law, then auctioned off to the highest bidder to pay the officers responsible for confiscating it? We, the artists may appreciate the materials as a kind of accidental aestheticism, embedded with a history of social tension, but is it perverse to do so since they represent a real and inescapable trauma for a good many people? Theodor Adorno, among the art world’s favorite authoritarians, snarls that it is barbaric to make poetry after Auschwitz. And we might be cooked in the same soup, charged with being pornographers of social trauma.
As philosopher Simon Critchley points out, the political reach of an art project, more often than not, remains in the realm of “mannered situationism,” meaning however strongly felt a collective trauma might be, our concern for the victims is largely symbolic, or worse, a means of gaining a certain social currency. So it is not without ambivalence that we reconfigure this material.
The danger is that such practice becomes a sleight-of hand, giving the appearance of progress. Or to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek’s critique of academicism: dialogue, the holy grail of the left, can serve to assure that nothing changes. Would it have been better to just let the materials be taken to the landfill, to be transformed instead by heavy equipment and microorganisms impartial to our social dilemmas? We might fairly wonder, if a surfeit of artwork about poverty, let’s say, washed up on the shores of EXPO this year, could we expect a corresponding drop in actual poverty, a trickle-down effect that resulted in policy change? Or do we need our poor and our wretched to maintain the established ethical hierarchy? Do we need Rafael to keep sucking so that we can feel less sucky?
Our ambition is to add a significant cultural landmark to the city of Chicago, filtered through the subjective apparatus of fifty artists creating a lenticular collection of forms that shifts depending upon the position of the viewer. It may be repatriated and celebrated as a mark of the city’s creativity, or rejected like a cancer, or ignored as folk art, low-tech transformations unworthy of critical attention. So why not invite as many revisionist histories into the mix as possible? Why not memorialize brokenness as foundational civic character? Why not an architecture of pathos and melancholy? Why not a practice of grief as a creative process?
Playing with a city’s garbage can be an act of collective psychoanalysis. In Freud’s language, the unconscious is a reservoir of repressed thoughts, desires, and emotions, and reveals itself symptomatically. Things happen to us—trauma, unrequited love, ecstasy, abandonment, abuse, joy, love, boredom—before our capacity to synthesize them. This is as true of groups as of individuals. The unconscious is the realm of oblique intersubjective activity in which psychic transformative processes take place below the radar. The fecundity of experience overruns its banks, and forms deposits in unexpected places. There are parts of our character, our wastefulness, our neglect, our blind spots, our prejudices, that we would ignore if not for the violence that erupts in their wake, operating like hydraulic pressures and activating behavioral valves and destructive social machinery.
The work of the therapist is something like the work of the historian, to disclose by way of the patient’s narrative apparatus the buried forces and motivational thrust of decisions and behaviors that may feel compulsory and deterministic to the patient, but which have their rationales, however obscure and opaque they may be to the subject. According to Jacques Lacan, the best a therapist can do is to restore the illusion of agency. It’s not simply a matter of remembering what happened, but of contextualizing memory within a story that supplies motivation, agency, and commitment to the subject. Among the ambitions of analysis is the redemptive fabrication of personal identity drawn from the circumstances of one’s inheritance, one’s thrownness, one’s failures and capacities, one’s “toxicity.” Psychoanalysis articulates identity as proclaimed rather than given, as performed rather than predestined, as composed rather than inherited.
Are there ways in which the visibility of this material, and a broad and collective response to it, can function something like collective psychoanalysis? Can we imagine public and civic spaces populated by the re-imagined detritus of such tectonic social shifts as these as something like compost, keeping our beautiful failures in front of us where we can see and continue to re-imagine them? Can we draw upon the hopeful stories that emerge in times of crisis, when humanity rises to meet disaster, man-made and otherwise? Can we imagine an art world and an art market that encourages more-than-symbolic responses to real life crises?
After all, broken things generally only have one thing wrong with them, which renders the whole thing useless. All of the carving and detail on a chair with a broken leg is like a fine suit on a corpse. In a world without nails or wood, a hammer is a pointless object. And projects such as these propose that there is some correlation between the energy it takes to unthink “chair” and the energy it might take to unthink the complex world of social power dynamics. Aesthetics is, after all, ethics in drag. As artists we make judgments about shapes and colors, materials and objects, in hopes of conjuring the worlds that can eventually accept and admire them. Duchamp conjured a world that admired toilets on pedestals. But art can only leaven existing dough, so to speak; it cannot make bread from scratch. We are always reverse-engineering our way out of an inherited problem. It uses the language of association, metaphor, and material to say generally fictive things that reframe the truth. They “work” or “don’t work” to some degree according to the legibility of their chosen associations, and to the degree to which we believe in them. Art objects that refer primarily to the theories of French intellectuals and designers, for instance, necessarily limit their audiences. But functionality—equipment—has as close to universal associative currency as we are likely to get in the material world. One doesn’t need faith or knowledge to sit in a chair, or put your glass on a table. Rafael and Rahm respond similarly to chairs, broken or otherwise. Can we speak across tribal and political boundaries through common and accessible metaphors and contexts?
Art has long concerned itself with surface, with what is seen and what is hidden. Surface obscures and reveals. “Truth to materials,” the modernist mantra in its quest for a transparent and revelatory encounter with reality, is in part a revolt against esotericism, but ends up strengthening the impulse toward it. It replaces the story of transformation with the radical assertion that maybe things are just what they are. Why burden everything with the necessity of being something other than what it is? But if what I see is what I get, why just toilets and black squares? Why not peacocks and unicorns? Or even better, why not multiple and diverse art worlds, all of which can support those who choose to play that game?
Some things cannot be hidden and others cannot be shown. Among David Hume’s contributions to philosophy was his observation that cause is never evident but always inferred. We see ice, we see sun, we see melting, but no matter how rigorously we observe, we will never see the sun causing the ice to melt, yet we talk about cause as if it were self-evident. Nor can we prove that we love our mothers. Cause is invisible. Assuming modernism did not achieve total transparency in the quest for the perfectly invisible object, or the purely honest material treatment, things hide their meanings. They can’t do otherwise. We read objects and signs, infer causes, make believe, chase ghosts, fall in love with images instead of people, and believe fervently in things we cannot and will never see. The art world is, after all, a faith community.
Can we talk about faith? I propose elsewhere that rather than attributing miraculous capacities to our saviors and religious leaders, what if The Messiah is the master communicator who manages to speak to anyone and everyone? Who opens the ears of the oppressor to the cries of his victims? What if she disarms all grievances and exaggerated or misdirected desires, desperate demands for stability, amped social antagonisms, ignorant prejudices, power plays and posturing, nationalistic pride and egotism, retributive justice, fears of mortality? In her presence, they all lose their urgency, and we walk deliberately, joyfully, gratefully, and gracefully toward our expiration date, content with the short and beautiful life that we have, satisfied with what is, even grateful for the transformative suffering that we have endured. Do we need a Messiah, or a charismatic visionary to help us with that? These are not necessarily religious ideas.
In my view, the great Christian insight, amplified by Duchamp, is that maybe we already have everything we need, and transubstantiation (turning wine into blood) is not a physical transformation requiring miraculous powers, but a subtle shift in perspective. You have to believe in a black square, or a urinal, or the transformative capacities of a broken chair to find it valuable and worthy of your time and energy, just like you have to believe the communal wine is blood for it to have any currency. The primary question remains: can we compose a story compelling and rugged enough to resist rendering a significant portion of humanity invisible, banished to the sidelines of our finite games?