Chicagoist Interview: Chicago Aldermen Project - 50 Aldermen/50 Artists

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 25, 2010 7:40PM

2010_03_25_Aldermen.jpg Jeremy Schuech and (former Chicagoista) Lauri Apple thought up a neat combination of politics and art. On a first-come-first-serve basis (along with a $20 entrance fee), they called for artists from around the city to do portraits of our 50 aldermen. The result is “The Alderman Project,” a show ongoing at the Johalla Projects that has received serious attention from all around the country. Part of what makes the Project so compelling is that, without sugar coating anything, its portraits avoid the embittered, frustrated, and pessimistic tone that engulfs so much of our local political dialogue. Artists were out there doing stuff, learning stuff, so that we can too.

The show opened last week and Johalla are having gallery hours from noon-5 PM this Saturday, March 27, with a screening of the movie Vito (about old Ward 25 alderman Vito Marzullo) by Media Burn.

We sat down with Jeremy and Lauri to talk about the opening, the response of the aldermen, and how this project could, perhaps, change our relationship with local politics.

: How many aldermen came to the opening on Friday night?

Jeremy: We had 17 come, plus staff from three other aldermen's offices, a state representative, and an Illinois Commerce Commissioner. Toni Preckwinkle couldn’t make it because she’s obviously really busy, but her chief of staff came. Scott Waguespack came with three or four members of his staff.

: Waguespack gave a talk at Johalla on Saturday afternoon about what it's like to be an alderman, and about city politics in general. This upcoming Saturday from 2 to 5 PM, the new alderman for Ward One, Joe Moreno, will sit for his portrait, which artist Layne Jackson will paint.

: It was basically a chance for the Alderman to come in and not campaign, people can come in and ask what it’s like to be an alderman, what do you guys actually do?

C: And there are so many different mediums covered.

J: It is a pretty good mix, there are silk screens and paintings and a piece made out of Legos and collage work—

L: We have an installation, a short film, drawings, you name it. And people really stepped up—many artists obviously put a lot of work and time into their pieces, which make it a quality show. It isn't a novelty act.

J: And most of them are neutral or positive. You have all these preconceived notions about aldermen. Go and research a little bit. Then if you find something it’s totally fine.

C: How many of the artists actually met with their alderman?

J: At least 27 or 28 talked to the alderman. I did Roberto Maldonado in the 26th ward. I talked to him a while ago. He was great. Really really nice. Up until a few days ago he was the newest alderman in Chicago because he just got appointed in July. He’s still trying to figure out what he’s going to do. He’s just a nice guy trying to do good in his community but he just started. Most of my canvas is pretty blank because he hasn’t made his mark yet.

When I met with Roberto I called on a Monday and they said they had some open time for constituents.

C: Like office hours.

J: Yeah a couple of the artists went on the open days and you sit there for a while because there are others there too. But some talked with the alderman for a good 45 minutes because the aldermen are that interested in what’s going on.

L: We combined testimonials from artists who met their aldermen-subjects and put the stories in a binder for people to read. It seemed that many artists in that group really had a connection with their alderfolks. That’s what we wanted—an artist and an elected official, just talking in the same room about whatever, exchanging stories and perspectives. Some artists really tried to reach their alderpeople but couldn't; some told us they didn't try at all. The ones who tried and got through seemed to benefit the most.

: They’re just people, but some of them are hard to reach. A lot of them don’t have emails. Seven don’t even have voice mails! You can’t even leave a phone message.

L: Through this show, we've had a unique opportunity to learn where the obstacles lie when it comes to obtaining basic info about aldermen and city government. Aside from issues with the city's website and what's on it, or not, a really sad example of this problem is that we went to City Hall to drop off some flyers a few weeks ago, and the front desk attendant gave us a list of aldermen's phone numbers that had Carrothers and Flores still on it. The list hadn't been updated since September 2009! Why not at least put "empty," so people don't try to contact aldermen who aren't serving anymore?

: And eventually something will happen more serious than an art show. Maybe there are lights out at my intersection, then what?

C: Where’d the idea for this project come from?

L: It just kind of emerged, and then once we started working on it the idea seemed obvious, like "Of course an alderman show."

: At the end of last Summer, early Fall, we were just sitting around trying to figure out what we could do to use all our resources to do a fun show that would get people excited and be more than just another art show.

C: Is there some kind of message you’re trying to get across?

J: Not necessarily a message, more just to get people involved in local politics. No one knows what aldermen do really. Just that they’re powerful people. They raise my taxes and tell me I can’t smoke in bars and sell my parking meters for half price.

L: Our show was an awareness-raising effort. And it seemed to have worked. If you were at our opening you saw every kind of person imaginable—older people and skinny jeans people, for-real doctors and people who wear doctor's robes when they DJ in clubs. The show became very representative of Chicago, which was what we were going for.

C: Why didn't you hold it in some kind of public or political space?

J: We looked at city spaces but we were afraid they’d be tentative. Some spaces we talked to up north actually were a little tentative: “We don’t want to mess with this.” Because you hear young artists making political stuff and you immediately think Harold Washington paintings, which is not what this is about at all.

L: Nobody did anything like that. There are two pieces that I might say are “controversial,” in quotes, but you’d have to be the most humorless person ever not to find them funny.

: And there was some sort of basis for it. It’s not like the artist just made something up. We made sure that, “Hey, if you can’t meet them, then Google them, look at the Tribune, talk to people in the neighborhood who may have had contact with them, actually do some research about it.”

C: Were the aldermen accommodating?

J: For the most part they’ve been really great, more so than I was expecting

C: They also haven’t taken the opportunity to spin it?

L: I don't think so. They weren't asked to provide or invest anything except a bit of time with a constituent. Not much room to spin anything.

C: Did they actually pose?

L: Sure did.

J: One of the south side aldermen (Sharon Denise Dixon) picked a setting for her photograph. She picked a dilapidated house in her ward and was like, “This is the stuff that’s going on in my neighborhood. I want to be photographed here.”

L: Walter Burnett took his artist on a tour of his ward.

C: If you came up with the idea in the Fall it seems like this came together really fast.

: The artists really stepped up. Johalla projects helped out a lot. Some of the artists have won Guggenheim fellowships, some are Whitney Biennial artists, some have works in major collections all the way down to artists that maybe have only had one show or haven’t shown anywhere.

: Anna Cerniglia and Caitlin Arnold of Johalla brought us some of the really big names, like Melissa Ann Pinney.

C: Are there any amateurs?

L: Well, sort of—amateurs in the medium they used. Like James EwertBerny Stone was his first-ever glass mosaic. And people responded very favorably to it.

J: On one wall we have a really fine-tuned silk screen and then we have a piece that someone did on cardboard with Sharpies. They’re all really great in their own way. It's great to see everything all up together. There’s such a large range of mediums, talent levels, notoriety levels.

L: Which is great, because it’s not representative of a particular scene or stratum of artists in the city, but of the whole city.

C: Because you didn't curate the show in the strict sense of decided exactly what would be up, but rather let artists do their thing, were you worried about what would be submitted?

J: Not when we put the call out but when we started collecting the art (laughs).

: We pitched different groups in different ways, and Johalla pitched as well. We spread the message as far as we could.

J: And it was a first come first serve basis there was no, “Ok I recognize you, ok you’ve had this many shows,” we wanted to make it as democratic as possible. It would’ve been missing the point if we had handpicked artists.

C: What’s the most interesting subject?

J: We had The “Stroger Special” at Earwax Cafe. It was $1, but taxes were $10.25.

L: You can have your art with a side of fries, which is really American.

C: How has the project changed in your mind from two weeks ago?

L: I thought the art would be good and the opening crowded, but to see what artists produced and all of those alderpeople and 800-some other people at our opening was quite a scene. It felt like the place to be.

J: I’m not unhappy with any of the pieces at all. I think the aldermen are going to be really happy and impressed. And then hopefully we can continue this kind of thing with classes or other cities. Basically we want the alderman to talk to the people beyond campaigning.

C: You want it to spur a totally fresh interest in local politics.

L: That’s the hope. I’d like to take it to other cities and help artists in their cities do the same thing with their city councils and local elected officials.

J: We’re also working with the League of Women Voters to register people to vote because that’s a big thing. You can have all the knowledge you want about every alderman but if you’re not registered to vote it doesn’t really matter. I don’t care who you vote for, just learn about it and vote, that’s what this is really about. I would love to bring high school groups in and have aldermen talk to them like, “Hey you’re about to turn 18. Here’s your chance to get involved.” You know? Join a committee.

I’ve been in Chicago five years and I haven’t been involved that much with my alderman in the Humboldt Park area, but through this I signed up to sit on one of the art committees. You know? I got involved. I was so pissed about the primaries. I voted at noon and I was the 7th person to vote. Lowest voter turnout ever.

L: It can be intimidating to get involved, when you think of how vast and complex the local government is. Plus, it's got this reputation for corruption, and it's just hard to feel like you can do anything about any of it. But at least you can learn about it. For example, after this art show I am now familiar with who is serving in the city council, which wasn't true before.

C: Can you name all 50 aldermen?

L: I think I would miss about three or four because they have less unique names. I was a trivia nerd in school.

J: Quick: 5th ward Alderman.

L: Umm number five, wait…Leslie Hairston.

J: Yes!