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Reclamation Project

Dan PetermanConceptual artist Dan Peterman, MFA'86, explores the fate of objects, the nature of borders, and the trajectory of obsession.

Dan Peterman is, in a phrase the Polish poet Milosz once used to describe himself, "a man of a few streets." Those few streets come together at the space the conceptual artist has cleared in the world in order to do his work, the space that contains his studio and much else besides, a space simply called "61st Street."

Located at the corner of 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue, the structure was originally a parking facility, then an industrial site, and, beginning in the 1970s, the base of operations for a pioneering recycling venture. Under Peterman's stewardship, it has evolved into a rich, intricate weave of neighboring enterprises, initiatives, and projects. In addition to his studio, it contains an auto mechanic's shop, a wood-working shop, a bike shop, and the offices of a magazine and of a community organization. There is also extensive common space, including a courtyard, a kitchen, a rough-hewn gallery area, and, most important, a community garden embracing some 50 individual plots.

Reclamation Project61st Street is at once a place where serious work gets done in private spaces behind closed doors and a convivial setting, open to the world, where one intersects with one's friends and neighbors. 61st Street is also the border between worlds. To the north, beyond the Midway, is Hyde Park and its central institution-the University of Chicago. To the south is Woodlawn, until recently among the poorest neighborhoods in the city. There are a number of University outposts south of the Midway-including the studio art program Peterman came to Chicago to attend-but generally members of the University community use the phrase "the other side of the Midway" to refer to the edge of their world.

Peterman has lived along that edge since he first came to Chicago in 1983. As interest in his work has grown in recent years, he has traveled a great deal. Over the last 18 months, he has participated in exhibitions in Berlin, Munich, Gothenberg, Edinburgh, New York, Grenoble, and Basel. This summer he exhibited closer to home as part of a group show at the Smart Museum titled "Ecologies." The particular ecology that nourishes his work is, despite the claims of an international art career, intensely local.

Together with his wife Connie Spreen, PhD'87, a Harper instructor in the College, and their two children, Axel (6) and Sander (4), he lives in an apartment three blocks away from the singular border institution that houses his studio. For weeks at a time, the family's maroon 1984 Volvo station wagon stands, unused, at the curb outside 61st Street. Nothing in Peterman's past experience-he grew up and attended school in rural Wisconsin, earning his B.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire-prepared him for the world he found when he arrived on the South Side to begin his graduate studies at Midway Studios. He immediately set about exploring his new environment. To use one of his favorite verbs, he "rummaged around" in the studio provided by the University, in the curriculum, in the neighborhood. His search for materials for his art-making eventually brought him to a facility operated by an organization called the Resource Center located at 61st and Blackstone. He has been rummaging around there ever since.

Founded in 1969 by Ken Dunn, AM'70, the Resource Center is the city's oldest and largest non-profit recycling operation. A pioneer in developing urban recycling strategies, Dunn fashioned a model for resource recovery that has been widely adopted ("Trash Action," April/91). The essence of this model is a design that pairs poor and affluent neighborhoods. By basing its operations in poor neighborhoods, the Resource Center generates local employment and puts vacant land to productive use. From these bases, trucks go forth to collect recyclables in affluent neighborhoods and to serve the recycling needs of large institutions. Materials are then brought back and processed. The Resource Center also provides buy-back centers for the scavengers who collect bottles and cans in the streets and alleys of the city.

The facility at 61st Street that Peterman wandered into as a graduate student had at one time been the primary Resource Center processing site, but the processing operation had recently been shifted to a larger site further south. The building still served as the base for some Resource Center activities, but it had largely fallen into disuse. It was, Peterman recalls, like an archeological site. There were strata upon strata of materials-discarded objects that had been recovered but not found reuse, materials that had fallen out of the recycling loop and been left behind, the residue of various ventures (a library, a clothes exchange, a bakery, etc.) that had been started then abandoned. The structure was so dense with materials that it had ceased to be usable for much else besides storage.

After earning his M.F.A. in 1986, Peterman went to Ken Dunn and asked him two questions. Could he work for the Resource Center? Yes, replied Dunn, he could have a job, but the Resource Center couldn't afford to pay him minimum wage. Was there any space available that he could use as a studio? Yes, he could use a grossly overstuffed room at the 61st Street facility.

"The Resource Center was unique," Peterman recalls. "It was one of the only entities operating across the border. Nothing else was moving across 61st Street other than the postal service."

Peterman worked as a driver on a collection route. And for a time he manned a buy-back facility to which scavengers-urban hunter-gatherers bearing bottles, cans, and other recyclables-came to exchange the materials they had gathered for cash. He found in the Resource Center more than a job, studio space, and a source of materials. He found a vehicle for exploring the South Side and for pursuing his intuitions as an artist wherever they might lead him.

His work with the Resource Center exposed him to the sheer scale and momentum of the so-called "waste stream," a delicate term for the flood of materials that consumer society has loosed upon the world. Dunn has observed that "waste is a resource in the wrong place." That is an elegant formulation-and a daunting relationship to the material world. When your principles bar you from throwing away anything that could conceivably be reused, the world of recycling can become oppressive, an unending avalanche of stuff.

Peterman's studio is located on the banks of the waste stream that flows through the Resource Center. Working over the years at 61st Street, he has struggled to create and maintain a clearing for work and reflection amid the crush of waste/resources.

He says of the door to his studio, "That gateway is incredibly important-what it means to cross that boundary, what is in and what is out."

On one side of the door is the world of the Resource Center; on the other is his private domain: the sovereign imaginative realm of an artist. To take some object or material that interests him out of the waste stream and bring it across the threshold of his studio is to place it in a setting where he can isolate it from the flood, live with it and brood about it, make himself available to the questions it presents and the artistic possibilities it contains.

"Behind that door," Dan Peterman observes, "any level of obsession is possible."

In his recent exhibition at the Smart Museum, Peterman explored these themes-the fate of objects, the nature of border institutions, the trajectory of obsession-through an unusual exercise in resource recovery. On a circular stage he arranged an eclectic set of objects. Among them: handheld Geiger counters, metal rods, stacked chairs, squares of paraffin wax, a pulley, assorted canisters and containers, a Ted Williams Sears & Roebuck fishing reel, a stack of yellowing magazines (Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated, etc.), electric wire of various gauges, the wheels from a cart, glass tubes, a portable Underwood typewriter, jars of Arrowroot, a fire extinguisher, and a book titled New Formulas For Profit: Shortcuts to Fortune.

The objects on display at the Smart were, as Peterman puts it, "an excerpt" from "The Universal Lab," the name he gave to an eccentric private research facility created and sustained for a quarter of a century by a small group of lab technicians and others loosely affiliated with the University. The lab was at once a setting for independent research and a recycling operation. As objects and materials were discarded by research labs on campus, they found their way to the Universal Lab. In a statement he prepared for the exhibition, Peterman writes of the lab in its early years as a "free space…a domain for science that was modest, local, accessible, and connected to immediate human needs and goals." It was the setting out of which Midway Labs, an innovative solar-energy company, emerged ("A Shining Example," June/94).

Eventually, however, "for reasons explicable only by the idiosyncrasies of the individuals involved, the endless project of diverting materials from landfills overran the aspirations of scientific research." The lab was inundated with materials collected obsessively and indiscriminately. Over time, the participants in the lab lost their lease. The building in which it was housed was sold, and the new owners were faced with the need to remove the accumulated mass of materials.

At this point, the Resource Center and Peterman intervened to dismantle the lab and recycle its contents, a complicated process in view of the quantity and variety of chemicals that have surfaced. Peterman's exhibition at the Smart Museum is a by-product of this effort. He describes the exhibition as "a point of reflection"-a moment of arrested attention-in a process that originates outside the art museum, flows through it, then returns to the wider world.

When Peterman characterizes the "utopic vision" of the Universal Lab as a "free space," an autonomous domain of inquiry and collaboration, he could be describing his vision of 61st Street. In 1995, a convergence of circumstances enabled him to acquire ownership of the site. He then embarked on a process of reclaiming it from the weight of materials that had accumulated there over the years and then of reconceiving and redesigning it. The path he has pursued-haphazardly direct, as a poet once described a dog's course of movement-reflects strong preferences and underlying principles of design.

The common approach when an artist acquires a building is to rent studio space to other artists. Peterman regards that sort of monoculture as "an impoverishment, a diminishing of possibilities." He was clear from the start that, while he would make some space available to artists, he wanted to do something different to weave together a variety of enterprises and in so doing to explore the possibility of a different basis for supporting the arts.

As he has developed 61st Street, Peterman has shown respect for the given, for the traditional usages of the place. This is perhaps clearest in the case of Mr. Wong, the auto mechanic who has worked at 61st Street since the earliest days of the Resource Center. Peterman has reconfigured a garage space for Wong. And he is now ruminating about the possibility of developing some form of light manufacturing process around Wong, in light of changes in the auto repair trade that have reduced his clientele.

The most intriguing reinvention of Resource Center traditions is the Blackstone Bicycle Works. Peterman was centrally involved in establishing the BBW in 1994. At once a novel venture in recycling and an educational initiative, the bike shop is staffed by skilled mechanics who work with local Woodlawn youths to restore and sell recycled bikes and provide repair services. By investing their labor, the youths earn bike parts, helmets, and complete bicycles. Next door to the bike shop is Big Fish Furniture, a quality woodworking shop, created by two Resource Center board members. Among the most popular of Big Fish's products are a line of tables fashioned from richly textured planks of wood salvaged from a demolished warehouse by Ken Dunn.

61st Street houses the office of the Neighborhood Conservation Corps, an organization composed of inner-city residents working to create a model of "grassroots public works." It is also home to The Baffler, a magazine staffed largely by former University of Chicago graduate students and known for its sharp, witty critiques of consumer culture.

"61st Street," observes Peterman, "has evolved through an organic process of design and now has a life of its own. This is the sort of design process I am comfortable with: paying close attention to the particulars, while trusting the general to emerge."

His style of stewardship involves both exercising authority and relinquishing control. "My participation at this point is substructural. It doesn't have to be overt. Basically, it's a matter of maintaining the building and intersecting with people in the course of the day. I don't need to call meetings."

It is clear that the form of 61st Street issues from his needs and impulses as an artist. Yet he resists any tendency to characterize the site as a work of art in itself. When one suggests that his work generally is an instance of art as a form of recycling, he gently resists the notion. The formulation is too confining. It denies him the flexibility and agility, the mobility across borders that is essential to his practice.

"What I value about the art world is its inclusiveness, the way it allows for multiple frameworks, perspectives, discourses," Peterman observes, as he sets out to do some weeding in the garden. "To call 61st Street an art project would just muddle things."

  OCTOBER 2000
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