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An Interview with Mike Nourse

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 20, 2009 10:50PM

mike nourse.jpg Chicago by-way-of Montreal artist Mike Nourse is known to some as a co-founder of the Chicago Art Department, one of Pilsen's most intriguing art spaces. He also manages the the studio programs at Marwen, overseeing close to 90 visual arts programs for Chicago's under-served youth while curating about 10 exhibitions per calendar year. His latest show, City of Found Children, features 15 large, gel-transferred images on windows and mirrors found in Chicago alleys. The images are of extras/non-star/forgotten children of old cinema -- "found materials providing a home for found children." By combining old materials and aesthetics with new tools and techniques, Nourse aims to speak to the past while pointing to contemporary art explorations. The show opens tonight at 7 p.m. at Salvage One, 1840 W. Hubbard St.

Chicagoist: Can you remember the moment of inspiration for this project? How did you settle on windows and mirrors? Were you finding a lot of them around the time you developed the idea for this project?

Mike Nourse: In Truffaut's 400 Blows, there's a great scene featuring a bunch of kids watching a puppet show. The scene is amazingly authentic, and when I saw it for the first time a few years ago I was like, "those kids are amazing actors!" But then I realized they weren't actors. They were extras: basically, real kids watching a real puppet show. When I didn't see their names in the credits, I stopped and pictured a world of forgotten children -- in a sense, abandoned kids -- and that picture stuck with me for a few reasons. Around the same time I'd been collecting windows from streets and alleys and putting them in my attic, not really knowing for sure how or when I would use them, just knowing that one day I would. Eventually, the idea of transferring these found children onto found windows just clicked, and here we are. My art has often involved making something new out of old media, so this was a logical extension of that.

C: How did you transport the windows and mirrors? Did you just walk the alleys, come across them and then carry them home? Or did you have to do a bit of driving around and pick-up a la our city's scrappers?

MN: It's been a somewhat random gathering process -- some by foot, some by car -- and I have developed a pretty good trash radar. I've found lots in Pilsen, where I've lived for years. Sometimes I'll see a window or mirror or something in an alley while riding my bike, then go back for it later. Friends contact me when they spot things around their neighborhoods. This guy Gary from Craigslist had a bunch of windows that he'd collected from streets and wanted to give to a good cause. It's kind of amazing how many I've been able to collect, and I should say my landlord is very generous with attic space.

C: Were the dinner guests who hung this show friends and familiars, or random strangers? If the latter, how did you recruit them?

MN: I wanted a mixed but creative crowd for the install party -- basically, people who would enjoy the idea and have fun with it. So, I reached out to some artists, collectors, and gallerists, Salvage One reached out to others, and we ended up with an amazing group of about 40 people, roughly 10 of whom were strangers to me. Everyone brought nice food and drinks, and we started the night with a candlelit dinner where people got to know each other. After a brief talk by me, everyone broke up into groups, each one getting a piece of my art to install anywhere -- 15 in all. The installation itself was like some sort of circus, with everyone running around having a ball, finding cool places, orientations, and lights for the art. Lots of funny moments. Afterwards, we all went around and talked about each piece while admiring the group work; I really enjoyed that.

C: How do you think this approach differs from having you or the gallery hang the work?

MN: When I look back on other shows, I don't have vivid memories of the installations, but I don't see how I'll forget this one. It was a social installation, interactive and meaningful, so it's not surprising that we've already talked about doing it again down the road.

C: Have you done any research on the child "non-stars" featured in the show, to find out what became of them?

MN: No. Although I'm intrigued, not knowing makes me want to find more children, and I like the fact that I don't know anything about them. Part of me was raised with the idea that it's not really vital to get noticed or celebrated. Screwed up, eh? But maybe that's one reason I identify with the images of these kids, because as extras it's not really important to notice any one child. They remind me of old National Film Board of Canada vignettes in that they're meaningful yet unassuming. I do a similar thing with my videos where I re-edit found footage - focusing on content that networks, studios, and politicians would rather you not think about.

C: You've mentioned your upbringing in Montreal and exposure to French culture as influencing this project. What aspects of those cultures resonate with you, and how precisely do they influence your work?

MN: If you've ever had poutine, you know it sticks with you for life. My family moved to Montreal when I was around six years old, and some of the children in this series are around that age. I'm sure on some level I spotted them because they reminded me of my childhood in French elementary schools. Some images of girls made me think of my of my first kiss. Some images of boys reminded me of old friends. Some of the group images of children made me think of my old schoolyard and the challenges of developing a French identity. Although I was generally a pretty happy kid, I wasn't a very loud child. I spent most of my younger years quietly absorbing French Canadian culture and trying to fit in. So in some ways I was faceless, and the children in this series make me think of that history.

C: How did the relationship with Salvage One come about?

MN: I've always loved what they do. Last summer I was in there buying some chairs and struck up a conversation with a staff member. They were looking to do something new with art. They really liked my work, and thought it would be a good fit with what they do, so I brought them a piece called "Pope and Change." They took the piece and built this crazy installation made with old church items, like organ pipes and metal railings. It was totally unexpected, but I loved it! I liked their vision and mission, and that kind of sold me on the idea of showing this series there.

C: You've got other projects lined up after this one -- tell us about the Melissa Auf der Maur show, and how you came to curate that.

MN: I've known Melissa since we were teenagers, when she used to dress me up in girly clothes (and I still need to get those pictures back). She has a new album coming out this year, and a film called "Out of Our Minds" that goes with it, which she made with filmmaker Tony Stone. I'm working with them both to produce an exhibition featuring photography and art linked to the album and film. The show will happen later this year at the Chicago Art Department. Separate from that, I'll be continuing to develop my found children series, working on an installation for Miguel Cortez's gallery Antena in the fall. For the end of the year I'm working on an art exchange program with a gallery in Paris, to happen at the beginning of 2010. I've been told that the French would like my art, but I'll believe it when I see it!

Salvage One's hours are Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5 p.m., and by appointment Wednesday-Thursday.