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Feature Thu May 31 2007

Boundary Issues & the Art of Playing

What if I told you something kind of intriguing, sort of weird, about something brilliant? What if I told you I knew of a place where we could go and watch a bunch of bands and musical artists play inside a big box? "You mean like a club." No, inside a giant stereo speaker. A giant speaker built by hand that looks like a treehouse, a giant speaker that you can peek or even walk into and hang out inside of. And that this thing is in an art museum. "Oh, okay…an art thing. Something arty. Ah, I get it." And then I'd tell you that some of the musicians playing inside the thing were local avant-jazzers and noisemakers, you'd say: "Definitely an art thing, then." But if I told you that we could go see bands like Tirra Lirra and Spires That In The Sunset Rise, and Philadelphia "party rap" pranksters Plastic Little inside the thing, or—get this—an unknown number of people lugging guitars and amps converge on the thing to play an improvised group jam, you might raise an eyebrow and ask me: "Where is this and when are we going?" Or you'd tell me to stop goofing on you.

But it's no goof. If you've scrolled through the calendar on the Empty Bottle's website lately, then chances are you noticed that the club has added yet another venue to its network of bookings. Starting back in May and running through early July, the Bottle has booked a diverse roster of shows in conjunction with the Hyde Park Art Center. What's more, The Center is also inviting other acts to sign up and volunteer to play the space. The only stipulation: You'll be playing inside a sculpture.

Slings and Arrows at the HPAC

The sculpture in question is the Speaker Project, a work by Chicago artist Juan Angel Chávez. With a long history of creating public art works, the piece currently on display at the Art Center marks Chávez's first solo exhibition in an indoor space. As such, the idea for the Speaker (and its accompanying event schedule) evolved out of a work he created a couple of years ago. Back in 2005, he contributed an installation work for the group show Tragic Beauty, an "art environment" for Open End that included the work of Chávez and local "urban" artists Mike Genovese, Cody Hudson (aka Struggle Inc.), and Chris Silva. Juan's main contribution involved a full-scale boat built from scrap materials that he assembled inside the gallery space. With the help of the Empty Bottle's Pete Toalson, a number of bands were brought in to play on the deck of the boat for a scheduled series of events—including artists like Pit er Pat, Icy Demons, Babyteeth, and German electronic musician Ulrich Schnauss. "The bands really liked playing on the boat," Toalson tells me, "and the crowds really enjoyed it, too. It made for something quite different from the usual experience of seeing a band in a club setting."

With the success of the Tragic Beauty piece, Chávez soon began thinking of a follow-up project, another installation that would similarly integrate his artwork, live music, and an audience. The idea of the Speaker Project soon followed, and he pitched it to Allison Peters, the Director of Exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center. The proposed piece would, however, require a generous amount of exhibition space. As circumstances had it, the Art Center had just relocated to its roomy new digs at 5020 South Cornell Avenue during the summer of 2006. With an optimal venue available, Chávez and Peters began discussing the possibilities of making the Speaker Project a reality.

The Speaker itself is a freestanding assemblage constructed from disparate materials—lumber and jig-sawed paneling of various grains, textures, and colors. Interspersed throughout are scraps of metal, miscellaneous types of industrial tubing, fragmented signage, and whimsically-placed bric-a-brac—assembled from materials that Chávez had been gathering and hording. He tells me that as he drives around town, he's constantly eagle-eyeing for various discarded scrap materials that might be lying around. From that, he pilfers and scavenges, drawing from the bountiful potlatch of urban renewal. Some objects, such as the florescent orange traffic cones that make up the Speaker's entire east wall, are things that he's been saving for a couple of years. Scuffed by tire tread and streaked with asphalt, the cones protrude along the flank of the structure like a phalanx of porcupine quills. He says he favors elements that have accrued a certain weathered character—so that each facet of the work possesses "its own unique patina," as he describes it.

The Speaker's intricately varied and detailed construction invites investigation, scrutiny, even interactivity. "Kids really engage with the thing, checking it out in all sorts of ways. I've seen some come up and start yelling into the cones, trying different ones out, using them as megaphones to see how each one makes their voices sound different. Some I've seen put their mouths right on the things. I'm not so sure that's a great idea." I imagine. Like who knows where those things have been? He laughs. "Exactly!"

This appeal of playful exploration is an integral (and intentional) aspect of Chávez's Speaker, an allure prompted by the many gaps, elisions, and apertures that riddle the structure—all of the opportunities and allowances for peering and peeking into, to watch the musicians at play. In this respect, the Speaker is a prime example of what's been termed "relational aesthetics," that newer breed of art that aims to collapse the gap between artifice and shared experience, passive viewing and interactivity, spectatorship and participation. Or, less academically: To nudge the arms-length towards a hands-on, to bridge the difference between merely having seen or heard this or that and actually yielding to a genuine, direct experience.

(And that may seem simple enough. But no, some acculturated tendencies are too engrained, are too doggedly Pavlovian to be so easily overcome or disarmed. As I sit in the Speaker talking with Chávez and the HPAC's Director of Exhibitions Allison Peters, we note a few visitors who spy us through the open door of the piece and then back off with a demurring "pardon us" pantomime before scurrying out of sight. "I guess they think we're part of the ‘the art,'" Peters shrugs.)

While the Tragic Beauty platform had effectively served as a stage or platform, the Speaker's environment is more like a rehearsal space. Visitors are welcome to use the door to enter the space with the performers, to perhaps join the group and hang out, sitting in as one might do with a friend's garage band while they practiced. In this respect, the Speaker is as much an open piece as it is an enclosure.

This casual, cozy environment is also bound to affect the demeanor of the performers who occupy the space. "We just got into what we were doing, just played," Henry Brown admits to me. Brown is the guitarist for the Chicago outfit Slings and Arrows, who were playing inside the speaker when I recently dropped by the Center one Saturday afternoon. "Occasionally you'd look up and see someone's head or a pair of eyes peeking at you." If anything, this isolating effect results in a disconnect from performative theatrics, from the imperative of being "on" while directly engaging an audience. Facing each other, the members of Slings and Arrows were banging and riffing through a loose, lively set. From the sound of things, it was evident that the band felt free to have fun and indulge impulses—toying with tempo changes and scales, with someone tossing in a surf-garage take on Grieg's "March of the Mountain King" at one point. "There were some weird acoustical effects happening inside the thing, too," Brown explains. "You'd take a step in one direction and you'd hear nothing but reverb. And if you moved over slightly in another direction, all of the drums would drop out. So that was pretty strange."

Chávez tells me that when he was putting the Speaker together, he considered the acoustic properties of the structure, though not in any remotely scientific sense. He thought about how the opened-ended traffic cones and various apertures might funnel the sound into the surrounding space, how microphones might be placed in certain places for odd effects, and other such possibilities. He points out various objects in the structure's west wall, such as rows of embedded pint bottles that can be struck and played as percussive instruments. Likewise with the protruding lengths of fiberglass tubing nearby. Chávez also draws my attention to some suspended sheets of metal that he says were taken off of the chasse of a 16-wheeler cab. "I had hoped that some of the musicians would feel free to use these, to integrate parts of the structure into their performances. But, so far," he admits, "I don't believe anyone has."

"Most exciting stuff," says Blake Edwards, enthused about the opportunity of playing the Speaker. Edwards, who records and performs under the name Vertonen, is a Chicago-based sound artist and noisician who's scheduled to occupy the space and perform on the afternoon of June 10th. His slot will follow that of his associate and sometimes collaborator Mykel Boyd. Edwards says he plans on tailoring and tuning his performance specifically for the piece, testing it beforehand to find out what tones and frequencies work best in the space. It might be a drone-based work, or one involving pulses and oscillations. Or, he ventures, it might also involve layered, multidirectional vocal elements, as well. "I have 24 cassettes that someone recently gave to me. They're tapes of the narration for educational filmstrips, like from the 1970s," he explains, "So I might use some of those, too. We'll see."

As far as creating a droning din and interactivity are concerned, no event is more likely to push the limits of the two than the second installment of the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, which will be held this Saturday afternoon at 3pm. The event involves an open invitation for musicians to bring their axes and amps and take part in a mass exorcistic volunteer jam, a heavy drone piece conducted in the designated chord of E. The first Guitarkestra venture met with a solid turnout when it was held back at the Empty Bottle in February, so the Bottle soon approached Steve Krakow (aka, Plastic Crimewave himself) about repeating the endeavor. Another invitation recently went out for part two, and Krakow's been taking RSVPs for the outing. "I have no idea just how many people are going to show up just yet," he tells me, "but I've had some people say that they're bringing their kids to take part." With the x-factor of an unknown number of participants, Krakow doesn't know how the crowd will work with the Speaker and the exhibition space, but Director of Exhibitions Allison Peters ventures that the Center might be able to roll up the metal garage doors on the building's eastern face to accommodate the crowd, if need be. Whatever the case, the Center's concrete-and-steel acoustics should prove optimal for Krakow's ideal aim, which he says is to "create an environment where you can't escape from the sound, from the sheer physicality of it."

The scheduled musical events for the Speaker Project run through the Project's closing on July 8. Future appearances include a Friday night performance by the obnoxious Philly hip-hop trio Plastic Little on June 15. The local all-female goth-folk ensemble Spires That In The Sunset Rise play on the Sunday afternoon of June 17, and a three-way collaboration between downtempo break-charmer Eliot Lipp, Chicago bassist Josh Abrams, and DJ Ben Fasman on Saturday, July 7. As of this writing, there are still vacancies on the schedule for interested local artists (be they aspiring or accomplished) to volunteer for a slot via the Center's website.

Photos courtesy of the Hyde Park Art Center and the author.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
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Congress Theater
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Double Door
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Empty Bottle
Green Mill
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Honky Tonk BBQ
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Kingston Mines
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Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
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Drag City
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Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
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Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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