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Art Wed May 01 2013

Dreams of a City: Postcards Give Life to Chicago's Desires

Postcards from Dreams of a City, New York City

If you've been paying attention in Chicago lately, you've probably found white, pre-stamped and pre-addressed postcards scattered throughout the city--in bookshops, record stores and anywhere they can find a place to hide. The postcards have one prompt on them and a code in the bottom right corner. The prompt is always the same: "Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas." You've probably figured out is that this is part of something artsy. But what you may not have known is that the postcards are part of a huge, city-wide art exhibition by Jenny Lam, one of Chicago's most impressive independent curators and a self-described "troublemaker and all-around nerd."

For months now, Lam has been collecting the postcards you send in, reading your answers, and tracking where you obtained your postcard by the code in the bottom right corner. The evidence she compiles will be part of her project, Dreams of a City, which will include a book of the postcards, a large exhibition, and site-specific installations around Chicago. Collecting postcards from every Chicagoan who is willing to send one in might seem like a daunting amount of work, but Lam has actually done this before: in New York City in 2008. Lam's current Dreams of a City in Chicago, however, promises to be bigger in scale and better than ever. Lam, who's most recent exhibition I CAN DO THAT won audience choice for "Best Art Exhibit" in the 20th anniversary edition of NewCity's Best of Chicago issue, is a pioneer of art that is interactive, collaborative and as much fun for viewers as it is for artists. She sat down to talk with me about her exciting and mysterious Chicago postcard venture.

What inspired you to start Dreams of a City?

I started this project in 2008 in New York City, and I just referred to it as "the postcard project" or "Manhattan Map" then and didn't title it for years. I can't quite remember my exact thought process when I came up with it, but I do know I was thinking about interactive art. Audience participation was always on my mind; I was running an art gallery and the team and I kind of overhauled its mission, expanding it beyond standard exhibitions to include interactive art parties, public art events like draping an enormous blank canvas outdoors and letting anyone who passed by cathartically throw paint at it and at each other... Anyway, I know I wanted to do something that allowed for interaction, and I wanted it to be big.

For the specific format, I know I'd considered, for a second, leaving "suggestion boxes" everywhere, and then at a later point I'd go and pick up the boxes. But there was a chance they'd be stolen and I'd have no way of getting them back. Mail seemed much more certain. I also know I wanted something universal. We all have dreams.

What kind of feedback have you gotten so far for Dreams of a City?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive and positively overwhelming. There's a lot of excitement. I've even heard from people who've been inspired by the project to do something similar in their own cities. And I'm like, Yeah! A global movement!

For Dreams of a City in Chicago, you say you will publish a book, set up site-specific exhibitions, and a large-scale installation. When can fans expect this to all come out?

The earliest would be Fall. Realistically? Ehhh...

How does Dreams of a City compare to other exhibitions you have curated?

Other than being absurdly huge, I think it's not all that different from my other shows when you look at them as being part of a progression. The first exhibition I curated independently, Exquisite Corpse, revolved around collaboration. My second and most recent independently curated exhibition, I CAN DO THAT , took those themes of collaboration and interaction to the next level, allowing people to physically change and improve and destroy and perfect supposedly finished works of art. So with Dreams of a City, there will be a central exhibition, but because of the postcards all over the city and later the art installations in every neighborhood, it'll definitely be... bigger. Hopefully it'll be better. And it's not an exhibition of mine if you can't directly be a part of the art in some way!

How has the project differed so far in Chicago as compared to New York? Besides the scale being much larger, have you noticed any other differences? Maybe a trend of optimism, for example, that New Yorkers didn't have?

I'd actually say that the postcards in New York seemed "nicer," interestingly. There were more compliments on the cards, with their senders saying this was a great idea, thanking me, etc. Don't get me wrong; I'm getting a lot of those in Chicago too, and most of them are really amazing (among my favorites so far include cards from a bunch of schoolchildren on the South Side), but I've also gotten a few... less than amazing ones. One said, "This is arbitrary and stupid. Who the fuck are you? A homeless man is asking me for money right now. What about him? Go fuck yourself!" ...Dang, dude. (I have a lot more to say in response to his accusations but I won't say them here.) I also got one that was like, "Stop leaving these everywhere." Welp. I don't think that necessarily means one city is more negative or more optimistic than the other, though.

Were there one or two postcards from the NYC project that stand out & you will never forget? Can you describe them?

There was one from a woman who wanted to leave her baby daughter with opportunities to succeed in life, to have a great education, to have a great understanding of the world around her, to see that there is a world outside of the Bronx. She then thanked me for making her think about her daughter's future. Her exact words included "life without me."
And another one I especially loved was from a woman in her 60s who said she'd done everything she dreamt of doing, and now she dreams of "continuing to choose to be happy and free every day." There's so much power in that simple statement, choosing happiness and freedom. You can view all the NY postcards here.

Your website says you need assistants for Dreams of a City in Chicago. How many are you looking for? Any specifics that you want to share for people reading this who might be interested?

As many as possible! As long as someone is passionate about the project and not creepy, I'd be more than happy to take them on as an assistant.

Jenny, according to your blog, you have some pretty unusual life experiences, ranging from founding an English tutoring program for inner city youth, interning at Christie's, bleaching a jar of human teeth, and declining a job offer as a storyboard artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios at the age of 8. Behind all of your varied experiences, is there a common thread?

Maybe the common thread is that my life is just a continuous string of unusual experiences. Or that I'm insane. When I look at a lot of those experiences I listed on my bio, the pattern I see is people: bringing people together, connecting people, helping people, helping people have fun, helping people have their own unusual experiences... Giving people stories to tell.

Jenny Lam

Any other upcoming projects you are excited about?

I've been asked to write for the catalogue of a new organization called The Prospective Series, which cultivates the relationship between emerging artists and young collectors. They had their first pop-up art show a month ago and it was in a speakeasy. How cool is that? Their second show will be on May 15. Which also happens to be the day I fly out to Hong Kong, as I've received VIP invitations to the inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong and other international art fairs. I'll also be exploring the more underground side of Hong Kong's art scene. I'll be documenting it all on my blog. I've also been invited to sit with artists and conduct portfolio reviews at Sixty Inches From Center and WBEZ's "Get Archived!" event, happening at art centers and community bureaus in Bronzeville, Englewood, Rogers Park, and Little Village. That'll be in June. Artists, come and show me your work!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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