artist Dan Peterman, MFA'86, explores the fate of objects, the
nature of borders, and the trajectory of obsession.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
that door," Dan Peterman observes, "any level of obsession is
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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."
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.
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."