Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs
Artist in Residence

Artist in Residence at the Chicago Cultural Center
Gapers Block

"Homeless bodybuilders, high school students, heroin addicts, newlyweds: Since May 1, artist Michael Genovese has given all of them, and many others, opportunities to participate in his artistic process through his in-studio project, a program of the Chicago Cultural Center. (And you, dear reader, can also participate by stopping by Genovese's studio today for a special Gapers Block happy hour from 5-7 p.m.; 78 E. Washington St.) By working seven-to-nine-hour days, six days a week -- and accepting help and contributions from the public -- Genovese has nearly completed four projects:

• Black, red and white aluminum panels coated with enamel, upon which he has engraved his own designs, then invited others to contribute their own drawings and messages.

• Elotes carts that he fills with fruit, candy and snacks, then offers to a random street vendor in an intimate negotiation process that he documents through photographs.

• A giant sign featuring the Zora Neale Hurston quote, "All My Kin Folk, Ain't All My Kinfolk," done up in Mexican black lettering (created at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the piece will be installed on the South Side as public art).

• And, to advertise his in-studio, green "showcards" designed to look like the city's bright "no parking/street cleaning" signs. Genovese asked the Department of Streets and Sanitation's vendor to print up the signs, which he then tied to poles across the city using the same type of twine and knotting style used by city workers.

And that's not all: Mindful of the public's needs and wants, Genovese has also installed a computer station where people can check their email, hosted ESL courses, listened to a lot of people's problems, shared his wit and observations with myriad strangers, and -- with the help of iTunes -- given the people of the pedway a free education in 1970s salsa music.

The green signs are, at least for now, probably the most controversial of the four projects. Recently, DSS complained to Genovese that people might mistake them for actual parking signs and become confused. "Well, too bad," he says. "So something isn't what you think it is." His point is not to be surly, he says, but to point out that the signs are meant to force people to look at what is in front of them, and to pay more attention to their surroundings. (One of Genovese's influences is the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, whose style combines intervention and prank).

The centerpiece of Genovese's in-studio are the panels covered in people's private thoughts. Expressed in 40 different languages (and counting), the messages, lyrics, and illustrations etched onto these pieces offer a psychological profile of pedestrian way/downtown/Chicago/American culture, presented in collage format. Some messages are fairly context-free: "New word order." Some become part of larger conversations, as subsequent visitors respond to what's already been stated. Some messages are quirky: "Gnochetti loves gnochi." Many contain misspellings and linguistic quirks. More than a few are political -- oil rigs and references to the struggles of various oppressed groups are scattered throughout the pieces. One commenter opined,"The artist is hot!"

While most people who visit Genovese's studio chat with the artist for a few minutes, fill a few inches of panel with their spilled beans, and leave quietly, other contributors leave a bolder mark. A homeless man named Tyrone used an entire panel to express his belief that, while "his time is being wasted ... God must have a plan in store for me." At the MCA, where Genovese presented some of the panels a few months ago, a woman took a nail file out of her purse and drew a sloppy, corner-to-corner X on an ornately etched piece that featured the Hebrew saying, "This is where your friends are." The woman told Genovese that she was Serbian, then added, "You don't know where my friends are. What do you think about that?" Instead of becoming irate with the woman for "ruining" his work, Genovese complimented her for expressing such raw human emotion: "It's better than 'HUNGRY,' or something like that," he says.

As the etching project comes to a close, it's time for Genovese to rein in some of the free expression left behind by his audience, take stock of the results, and try to turn each panel into a unified piece of art.- Lauri Apple

Public Participation

Chicagoans in Transit
We Came, We Saw, We Interacted, We Collaborated & Contemplated
Mikkalo, Erika. “Chicagoans in Transit, Proximity Magazine, Imaginary Cities. p. 12-13, Chicago, IL, Fall 2008


A wedding party strides through the pedway beneath the Cultural Center to my, and as chauffer, I’m kicking myself that I failed to decorate it with the shaving cream of humiliation, pink crepe, cans on strings, and then we’re held up waiting again, so I’m engaged in a raging internal debate on whether or not to walk ahead and feed the parking machine or wait for everyone to catch up, when a neon rectangle registers in my peripheral vision. The others arrive. Mike Genovese- Pedway project, the sign announces. I march on and admire the art. “So how did you get this gig?” I ask. The Artiste proceeds to tell me. Apparently the city has been finding projects like this since 2003. Previous participants have wielded chainsaws, displayed paintings and found object collage, and built wishing trees to to donate to hospitals. (I did see a wishing shrub on the periphery of a museum of small wooden wooden churches in Moscow. There were two bushes of hopes and dreams, actually one for males and one for females. The one for men was conveniently path side. The one for women was amp a steep incline littered with jagged boulders. If you tied a rag or ribbon to a branch, you were permitted to wish. I did not have any bows one at the time.) Genovese’s installation included a large word painting- Zora Neale Hurston’s “All my skin folk ain’t all my kin folk’ in black script on a field of mint green. I am green with envy. I commend him on the communitarian aspects of his work and consider incorporating the frame “Bakhtinian polyphony” next time I apply for a grant. I once saw an Italian group perform at the MCA, and one participant painted on the the side of a horse that they’d brought out on stage. “How can I get that work?” I thought “Standing on stage in a pretty dress painting cryptic things on the side of a horse?” Actually, I have five words of Lating, so for all I know, the performer was whitewashing “Whoa, Wilbur!” On the side of the stallion, but I have no doubt she had sound theoretical and semiotic reasons for doing so: this was on the stage at the MCA. Last semester, a student, “K,” wrote in her journal that artists are just “people who want to get out having real jobs.” Even if this is the case, perhaps they render a public service by demonstrating that such a thing can be done. In addition to several enamel panels and an Internet station, the space houses an elotes cart. I suggest the groom accept it as a wedding gift. The public is invited to participate in the manufacture of pieces by engraving on one of the enamel panels on display, red or black, all silver beneath. Perpetual optimist, I engrave “Who gets the privilege of disappointing me next?” In a heart in the lower left of the largest red one. “For Lovers” is emblazoned on the colder block above. Actually at this rate. I’ve been so consistently disappointed that I’m ll talk. I am fully cognizant of the fact that my appearance may be a profound let down to others. If K were were present, she’d doubtlessly accuse the artist of getting others to his work for him and then attempting to profit from it instead of sweating and being tormented in a dank and lonely garret like artists are supposed to, I recently discussed the Pedway Project with a coworker, Martin Reyes, when I noted everyone had doodled and graffitied all over the white table plastic cloth that had spruced up the break room for twenty-four hours before vandalism kicked in. Re-contextualize: perhaps I could mount it and display it as a collaborative process-oriented commentary on the proletarian aesthetic of this particular subgroup of the city population. The hot sauce  stains represent the irrelevance of individual interests in the face of organizational structure, the perpetual struggle to maintain identity under the symbolic violence of any institutional hierarchy. I feel  a grant application coming on. Don’t get me wrong: the ideas are good, the work is good, and Mike showed us a good time - the bride had two glasses of wine and whittled away at one of the panels, putting down her bouquet of fresh mint sprigs, daughter balanced on hip. I forgot to ask her what she carved, “Power tot he People,” perhaps. And awls for all. 

Installation view of studio entrance

Installation view of studio entrance