Martin Creed Plays Chicago

Ethan Schleeter on Balloon Wrangling

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Posted October 17, 2012

Martin Creed. Work No. 204, Half the air in a given space, 1999. Red balloons. Multiple parts, each balloon 16 in. diameter; overall dimensions variable. Installation view, City Gallery, Historic Water Tower, Chicago, 2012. Collection of Amy Hokin and Thomas Hokin. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

One of the best aspects of being a “balloon wrangler” at each of the MCA’s four installations of Martin Creed’s Half the air in a given space in different locations around Chicago has been the interaction I’ve had with the public.

As an artist and former employee of various art-exhibiting organizations, I’ve certainly had occasion to experience participatory artworks and to interact with the public in an art context. However, there’s something about this project that sets it apart from those past experiences and brings the level of interactivity to a much higher place.

Maybe it’s the absurd amount of balloons in one room, lending a party atmosphere to the piece. Maybe it’s the fact that you can be completely submerged in and surrounded by them yourself, as if fulfilling some childhood fantasy. Or maybe it’s simply that we balloon wranglers must necessarily be so hands-on—constantly encouraging participation, providing information, and running around chasing loose balloons like circus clowns.

Whatever the reasons, intentional visitors and curious bystanders alike are disarmed into having fun, asking questions, and giving feedback. Nearly everyone who experiences the artwork by entering the balloon-filled space ultimately steps out with a large grin, and the most common response upon exiting is “That was awesome!”

When I worked at galleries, I used to love getting the occasional “big” art questions from visitors: What does this mean? How is this art? Why did the artist do this? Unfortunately, even though these questions usually led to a rewarding discussion for everyone involved, they were somewhat rare. When I’m wrangling balloons for the MCA, however, I get to answer these questions every day I go to work.