Sunday, October 11, 2009

Art on Track

Yesterday, my friend Heather and I went to a traveling* art exhibit, Art on Track. This was the second year for the exhibit, and when I say traveling, I want to make it clear that I mean traveling. As in, we went places while in the exhibit. Just around the Loop, mind you, but I think we ended up making the circuit three times total.

This year's exhibit was free, though I understand you had to pay to enter last year. And by free I mean that there was a $10 suggested donation (oops. I had $4 on me, so that's what they got), and a sponsor, Fiji Water, who made the whole thing accessible for more people.

Here's how it works: You enter the L at the "Art on Track" marked stairs at Adams and Wabash. The lovely people at the exhibit table give you a program, a magazine and a stylish bracelet. Then they let you in the gate. You don't have to pay to get on the system. Then you stand on the platform and wait for the train. We weren't sure how we would know which train it was, but it ended up being easy. It was the train with all of the indicators set to "Not in Service."

I remarked to Heather that it might be kind of fun being the engineer on this train, and it did seem like he was having a good time. The "Doors Closing" chime wasn't operating, so HE was doing it for us. It was really relaxed and fun.

There are eight total stops on the Loop itself, but the Art on Track train only stops at every other one. Since there are eight cars total in the exhibit, you go around the Loop (at least) twice to see everything. We ended up going around three times because we hung out for more than one stop in a couple of the cars to be sure we got the full experience.

It was so much fun to be on that train, to see the art and then to scurry out and to another car at the stops. There was a really festive air among the attendees, and people on the various platforms were curious about the giggling, grinning people who would simply get off one car to rush to the next.

We also got our share of idiots, though. Heather and I boarded the car you see above, where everything was wrapped in bubble wrap. As the train was waiting at the platform, another woman got on. The conductor walked through at that moment, and she stopped him to ask whether this particular train went to Midway. No joke. He said, "No. This is a chartered train for the Art on Track exhibit. It only does a ciruit of the Loop. You need to take the Orange Line to Midway." "So it doesn't go to Midway Airport?" she asked again.

I got the sense that the entire crowd in the car wanted to yell "NO!" at her. I mean, not only did every indicator on the exterior of the train say, "Not in Service," with white on black lettering, as opposed to white on orange declaring "Midway Airport," they announced over the PA at every stop that it was the Art on Track train, AND she stepped onto a car full of bubble wrap. Yet even when the conductor told her no, she still didn't believe him. Honestly. How stupid can some people be?

The bubble wrap car itself was awesome, by the way. I'm only sorry we didn't go earlier (the train ran 11am-8pm, we got on about 4pm), so that we could have experienced the floor before dozens of feet popped all the bubbles.

The train was a mix of galleries and installations. I have to say, I preferred the installations, they were just more provoking and fun and had been created to play with the whole idea of the exhibit and participation. That's my favorite kind of art anyway.

The installation pictured to the right was called, "Meat Meet Train," and was filled with fabric forms that looked like hung meat in a locker, along with banners and slings in reddish-toned fabrics. Also, all over the car in various places were stickers with "Chance Encounters" personal ads printed on them, all of them having to do with the L system. We stayed on that car for more than one stop, to be sure we read all of the stickers.

The installation pictured below was a train car filled with money bags. They were all sizes and shapes, made from all kinds of different materials, with dollar signs stamped, painted, drawn and sewn on. According to the kids who were a part of it (and I can call them kids, none of them were over 20), each bag held mostly junk--recycled paper, garbage bags, newspaper, etc.--but also a single valuable item. Which is a lovely metaphor for the lives these trains carry around. How much of my own life, for instance, is about junk, stuff I don't need to lug about with me, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually, and what does it contain that is of real worth?

So kudos to them for coming up with such a great idea and figuring out how to implement it. Because it was awesome. The moneybags pictured below are less than a tenth of the entire installation, by the way. It was HUGE.

There were also two installations I didn't photograph, just because it felt weird. I hate posting pictures of people I don't know on the blog. It feels like an invasion of privacy, which is also why I didn't pursue a career as a videographer, though I could have. I hate sticking cameras in people's faces. So Heather is in one pic and the back of a random person is in another, and in the two installations where things were more open, I didn't take any pictures at all. But I'd like to try to describe them here.

At one point, we stepped onto a car that was fairly empty. It may even have come right after the car full of the money bags or it may have come after the Meet Meat Train. I don't recall. I know that it felt spacious and clean after whichever full car we'd just come from. Anyway, the installation was really simple. There was a curtain of red netting across the center of the train, dividing it into halves. You could pass through if you chose, and you could also see what was at the other end of the car. All of the advertising signage had been removed and replaced with two words--bright red letters, all caps--which were also affixed to the windows so people outside could read them. Depending on which side of the net you stood on, you were labelled either "US," or "THEM." And that was it.

I love art that makes you think.

The other installation was a car that only Heather and I ended up on, along with one of the artists, who explained in a bit of a hurry, what his car was all about. I wish that hadn't been the very last car we visited, or that we'd been on it for more than one stop, because I would have liked to hear more about it.

Three artists, who call themselves the NFA Project, noted the worry they see on everyone's faces right now, as we deal with the pressures and scariness of the economy and financial insecurity/instability. They wanted to address that. So they made 50 lifejackets out of blue plastic tarp stuffed with newspaper, and they painted silver waves of anxiety on each. They paid 10 cents apiece for the buckles on the vests. Everything else was found. Each seat on the car had a life vest, the idea being to provide a sense of comfort to each person who came onto the car. It was heartwarming and wonderful. I actually felt comforted by the time we got off, though, as I said, I would have liked to have stayed on that car through maybe one more stop, just to chat with the artist and learn a bit more about the installation.

As it was, though, I'm very glad that was the last car we rode on. It was the perfect set of images to take away with me.

I really enjoyed the experience. It was a great afternoon of art, and a tremendously fun way to both present and see it. I was a bit sorry to not see any live music or performance based art of any kind in the exhibit. I feel that's lacking. I wonder whether it would be possible to do something workable. I should talk to one of my newest acquaintances about what we could do in a CTA car that would be live performance in the spirit of the exhibit. He's working on a Ph.D in Living Art at Kings College, Belfast. It might be something right up his alley, and it might also be something someone here would consider working on. Hmmmm...

*As I said to Dave over the phone the night before, "You can't do this in Moscow." The main reason being that Moscow barely has public transit at all, let alone a light rail system. Though their ArtWalk every June is sort of like this project in reverse.


  1. What a great public art exhibit and way for CTA to promote their service as well as art.... from the iconic cows to garbage trucks to rail cars....Chicago knows how to insert art into unsuspected places!

  2. I would work on that project!

    I too liked the installations better than the gallery cars, although the Pilsen gallery car makes me even more sure we should have a field trip Wednesday to Pilsen for food (they are rumored to have fabulous Mexican food, like the non-Bayless good Mex is all in Pilsen) and some art and the Mexican-American Art Museum, oooh too bad Dia de los Meurtos isnt on a Wednesday.

    Also I want to propose that we alternate simple, easy Wednesday get togethers (aka movie or brunch or hang out at someone or the others house) with more adventureous Wednesday ones like field trip to Pilsen, or Oak Park for the Frank Lloyd Wright house tours, or Chinatown or something that takes more time and planning then hey lets go see whip it!

  3. I'm glad you guys liked it. :) I probably gave you your wrist band! :D

  4. Sounds very cool. I think I would especially like the Us/Them car and the life vest one.

    I am surprised to hear there is no music or performance art. I'll be interested to see if you and your new pals can remedy that next year.

  5. am surprised to hear there is no music or performance art. I'll be interested to see if you and your new pals can remedy that next year. car wrap advertising Chicago