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Chicagoist Interview: Art On Track

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 5, 2010 8:20PM

Art on Track - hailed as the world's largest mobile art exhibit - is back for a third year. Founder Tristan Hummel came up with the idea while an undergrad at the School of the Art Institute at just 20 years old. “I wanted to start the show in my teen years," Tristan told us, "I thought it would sound so much cooler.” Aaron Strauss, who at that time was writing for F News, was so excited by the idea that he jumped on board immediately.

Their project has developed quite a bit since 2008, when most of the participants were students or friends of Tristan and Aaron. Now there's a full blown $5,000 competition with eminent judges - Paul Klein, Linda Warren, Abraham Ritchie, Neysa Page-Lieberman, and Lynn Basa - and some serious hype. In short, the exhibition consists of eight CTA cars one one train in the Loop, and visitors pay a $10 entrance fee (discounted student rate here) at Adams/Wabash to get in. Each train is curated by a different group of artists and there are four stops to run between each one. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to see it all.

We sat down with Hummel and Strauss this week to talk about the exhibition.

Chicagoist: First of all, how is it working with CTA? Are they accommodating?

Tristan Hummel: Super easy! The people inside the system are wonderful. The only restrictions they gave us were: no nudity, no graffiti, and no alcohol.

Aaron Strauss: And no overt political statements. We had some political art which was punching bags with politicians on them but they didn’t take them down - they let them go.

C: So does someone walk through the train and check everything out?

Both: Yeah.

C: Do people ever just roll on and do their own thing? Do you let them?

TH: I would not stop it as long as it didn’t interfere with the art that’s already planned because those people have worked really hard to set it up. But the first year the puppet bike showed up, put it on, and it worked really well.

AS: There’s a lot of interactive art that happens - a lot of interactive installations, and so people show up and participate.

To clarify, we certainly haven’t invited people to show up and make art or anything. Each car has been given to a different artist group to curate and those people are in charge - but in that system they can bring pretty much whoever they want.

C: So this year is different because of the application process, right? And the judges?

TH: There was an interesting application process this year, it was our first year offering a prize. We thought “let’s do a really official. There’s a $5,000 grand prize this year. One of the key parts of the show is picking people who would benefit from the publicity - people who have spaces where people come back and see their work, or more performative people, because they can drive their brand with the show. So many artists are starting to think of themselves as a brand and I think that’ their branding is a big part of the success of the show. It wouldn’t be good for someone with expensive paintings…the train moves!

C: This project obviously has a lot in common with Joe Baldwin's Mobile Garden (which we featured in May), are you guys in touch?

TH: Joe approached me because he didn’t have anyone to talk to at the CTA and he was curious about the cost and the train rental’s not horribly expensive but if you have the train rental overnight like he would do they keep the clock running. For us, for a 5 hour event, it’s $5,000 plus deposit, but he’s looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

C: What are some of the more memorable responses people have had?

AS: One of the negative responses we got to it was they felt the train didn’t look as professionally curated as they expected. But the artists only have between 4-8 hours to install their work. You have to get everything there, there’s no electricity, no drills or nails - it’s a difficult process to do. This year we’re emphasizing that it’s a contest and the artists have worked on it for a long time. Also at the end they have to take it all down in about a half an hour.

TH: It’s like Iron Chef - you get a set time to set up and the judge is the general public: if they don’t come onto your car you’ve failed!

It’s really great though because you see this hodgepodge of people and it’s not one section of Chicago, it's all of Chicago - students, artists, kids, parents, tourists, people off the street - it’s just a good feeling. I’m really interested in the Loop and how even though there are so many “boroughs” of Chicago we have this great center. It’s unique and so we’re not only bringing different artists and people together but we’re also bringing the city together. And it’s a lot of fun.