When I heard that Martin Creed’s Half the air in a given space would be installed at the Garfield Park Conservatory, I jumped at the chance to work as a “balloon wrangler.” The Conservatory has long been one of my favorite places in Chicago, and the prospect of slingin’ some art while in the midst of flowers exotic and local . . . no brainer, right? The audience response at the Conservatory was varied. Many people seemed to think the piece, a room half-filled with balloons, was only for children, or even a children’s playroom. This was partially due to the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike that went on for two of the weeks that the installation was up, but nonetheless waves of children with parents on impromptu field trips made a happy discovery. There were times, after successive trammelings, when the balloons got very low, drastically changing the dynamic of the space.
One day, an avuncular old man sat across from us and began to pepper us with factoids about plants and the Conservatory: “Before the Chihuly exhibit [there was a lot of Chihuly chatter] almost nobody came to the Conservatory,” “Did you know that poinsettia were named for the US’s first ambassador to Mexico? They grow wild down there,” “Did you know that a woman has all of the eggs that she will ever have in her life, by the age of 13?” Ok, that was a weird one, but it was said. He kept repeating “check the Internet, you can find it on the Internet, I didn’t find it on the Internet, but it’s there.” He was a joy to be around.
On another day a young man came in with a DV camera and asked to film the balloons. I said, “Of course.” After a long time in the work, he talked with me excitedly about it, called his friends to come check it out, and, before leaving, went up to the security guard and asked, “Hey I know this neighborhood’s reputation, and I was wondering what might be a good area to go check out, to film like wasteland type areas and urban blight, you know? Like Detroit.”
Hoosh! I guess at some point it’s in the culture, this eavesdropping, snooping-out of meaning, or simply the exoticism of the abstracted landscape, the “danger zone.” I sensed a familiar naïveté about the city from this young man and this is what I like about the Creed project: its messy engagement with other spaces in the metropolis and the variant responses that are forced from this reach. Who knows, maybe this John Waters, Jr. captured some insightful, groundbreaking new footage on his voyage. Or maybe he catalogued one more undergraduate’s pixelpoem to “heaviness,” “realness,” and himself. The room could be half-empty or half-full.