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Don’t Fear the Reaper: The Museum of Contemporary Phenomena confronts the angst of our age

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cabrera_bhbhbhbhBy Jason Foumberg

I’ve long romanticized the role of Old Man. Retired and happily pensioned, my time is my own. The long days return with childlike buoyancy, I drink bourbon for sport, and maybe write a memoir because, hell, I’ve seen it all. But old age is a destination, and like any long road trip there’s bound to be moments when the best mix tape gets monotonous. The journey is dotted with weird smells that creep in through the closed windows, rest-stop romances, cliché detours and midlife-crisis sports cars speeding fast toward metastasized tumor bumps in the road. If we reach the bald, wintry peak on all three legs (cane included), wise but weathered, we may find not keys to the kingdom but a death panel reaching for the plug.

Growing old is the topic of The Glue Factory, a new project initiated by the Museum of Contemporary Phenomena. When Helen Slade, Mike Newman and Rashmi Ramaswamy first collaborated under the banner of the Museum of Contemporary Phenomena they presented House of Fear. It was around Halloween, 2006, and they surveyed visitors at the Ravenswood Art Walk, asking, “What do you fear?” The national threat level was orange, unconvincing like a fake tan, and unreflected in the survey’s collected data, which was surprisingly terrorist-free. Respondents admitted fears of spiders, rats, strange dogs and heights. They expressed fears of rape and homelessness. Mostly, though, the majority feared growing old in America, with its attendant problems: obsolescence, loneliness, failure, loss of mental and physical health, “memories of youthful indiscretions,” poverty and, simply, the fear “that life is too short.” It’s a list long enough to prompt an existential binge.

The Glue Factory is the natural outgrowth of the House of Fear project, focusing solely on the frightening prospect of aging. “We had proof there was a widespread fear,” says Mike Newman with a statistician’s confidence. Knowing already how those fears express themselves, the MCP didn’t need to revisit the Halloween experiment. Instead, they established The Glue Factory to see if an antidote could be produced, a solution to so much despair.

Mike, Helen and Rashmi are architects by day. For them, an unwieldy problem calls for a concrete resolution. Clients approach their various architectural businesses—Mike and Rashmi operate Shed Studio, and Helen runs Low Impact Design—with difficult questions. The architects tend to take on commissions with sustainable social missions, such as a legal-aid clinic for low-income families, or a site where the homeless learn urban-farming techniques. Their clients are a community, not just a developer, so discussion forums and planning sessions precede the drafting table. Gone are the days of Frank Lloyd Wright designing a house to fit like a fascist’s shiny boot. With pragmatic aims but progressive methods, the architects coax creative responses from their client, the community whose livelihood depends on the design. Did the legal-aid clinic really need a bulletproof reception area as initially requested, or would such a design complicate the clinic’s mission? Alternative ways to promote safety were brainstormed and realized by the community, prompted by the architects. “I have to ask myself,” says Rashmi, coyly confused about her expanded role, “’Who are we again?’ Oh yeah, we’re architects!”

The team wanted to administer an architect’s approach to The Glue Factory. They crowd-sourced—to use a marketing term—the project to about one hundred peers, including architects, artists, graphic designers, an economist, a musician, sociologists and academics. The result is twenty-five broadsides, or printed posters, that answer the age-old question of growing old. Participants were asked not to dwell on their fear, but to work creatively toward a remedy.

Unlike an open-call design competition where entries pour in, the artists and designers involved in The Glue Factory did not effusively offer opinions and comments at first. Perhaps they did not know how. The fear of aging is such a personal and emotional topic, whispered only to spouses under the midnight covers. Surely people wanted to discuss it, for they agreed to participate, but fear being fear, throats remained tightly closed.

Helen, Mike and Rashmi decided to hold “instigating events” where the participants could open up. They viewed two documentaries, one about an assisted living facility in Milwaukee, and another produced by the HaHa group about seniors losing their housing in Santa Barbara. The content hit home, and discussions ensued about giving up control of one’s life and body to a caretaker. There was empathy but also personal reflection. The participants were now armed to whip up their antidote.

The MCP likes to think of the project’s name, The Glue Factory, as a pun. The proverbial glue factory is, of course, where horses who’ve outlived their usefulness get sent to be euthanized, their hoofs and bones rendered into glue. This has a few layers. The glue factory is, at heart, a recycling plant. This tongue-in-cheek association nods to green and sustainable design, although cruelty-free methods are favorable today. The glue factory sounds like a horrific place, but at the end of the production line comes a substance ready to bind together the most disparate elements.

The broadsides collected in the exhibition vary in content. Some are introspective, drawing on personal experiences and poetic ruminations to squelch the fear of aging. Others seem purposefully oblique, as if to say the search for the antidote is doomed from the start. “THE GUARANTEE OF MEANING HAS GONE” proclaims Jason Pickleman’s poster. Whether this phrase brings hope or hopelessness to your weary brain depends on your belief in the existence of “meaning” in the first place. Christine Tarkowski’s poster lists “things that go up & down,” including an escalator, a rainbow, a yo-yo and death. These seem to say that the fear of aging is bound to aging itself, the sum not divisible by its parts. Once you lose membership in the youth cult, you’ll have to wait until reincarnation to get back in.

A second group of participants emerged from the instigating events. The MCP engaged teenagers from the After School Matters program to produce broadsides. Their inclusion highlights the relativity of old age. How old is old? To a teenager, thirty may be old, and the older you get, the older “old” gets. Their responses to aging anxiety were no great shock—teenagers don’t worry about getting old. Prompted, they expressed impatience with the question, few had strong feelings on the subject and several said, “Get over it,” proving that youth is not wasted on the young, as the old folks like to quip. “Get over it” makes a great slogan, so it appears on one of their posters. Funnily, an 84-year-old man in one of the exhibition’s documentaries likewise expresses the same remark.

The goal of a project like The Glue Factory isn’t to produce autonomous fine-art masterpieces. “Creative responses are within everyone,” says Rashmi, and art-making is one inroad to activating creative potential. Creativity, like therapy, requires expression to succeed.

“Facilitating dialogue” is common art-speak, seen in press releases and artist statements the world over. It’s a buzz phrase that doesn’t convey much meaning because it’s rarely successfully experienced. Any painting show or open bar can supposedly “facilitate dialogue,” but few follow through. Anyway, it’s hard enough to know how to cut through all the small talk. When Rashmi told me she wished to “facilitate dialogue” through The Glue Factory, it didn’t sound like corporate jargon. Since starting the project months ago, “my own understanding [of the fear of aging] has not become more clear,” says Rashmi, but “I understand that it’s a much more complex thing.”

It turns out the posters themselves don’t necessarily provide the most effective antidote. Instead, it was the social experience, the group exchanges and new cohesions, that promised awareness, even change, about the fear of aging. Talking with Helen, who’s been curating public art projects since the late-eighties, I drew a parallel between public art and user-generated content on Web sites, such as comment sections on news sites. Participatory public art projects rely on serious engagement, whereas online commentaries evidence a public enthralled with its power to hate things. Both formats will be this generation’s legacy. “We help other people express their point of view,” replied Helen. Surely some users will respond with silliness and inanities to the idea of growing old, but others will gain access to a part of their head or heart that responds with sincerity and creativity. Who can have privileged access to these faculties? Everyone, just as their architectural projects permit. The exhibition’s posters will be distributed throughout the city in heavy traffic areas, and a contemplation chamber, or La-Z-Boy recliner, will be set up in the exhibition so users can record their own responses.

FeelTank-_broadsidesub“Everything’s going to hell in a hand basket,” reads the invitation to a game of cards fueled by kibitzing and grandma candy. The collaborative Feel Tank answered the MCP’s call for broadsides in the way they best know how, by producing a playful but poignant spin-off. The card game was held in mid-August at Mess Hall, with a version appearing in the current exhibition.

Feel Tank is composed of six academics—professors of English, sociology, art history and studio art—based in Chicago, though not all live here exclusively. The name Feel Tank was coined in contrast to the elite think tanks composed of political scientists that meet to decide the fate of wars, foreign policy and economic crises. Feelings are too often excluded from the political process, says Feel Tank, but emotions are valid, even productive of political action. In 2003, at the start of the Iraq war, many protests formed in angry response. Feel Tank, too, responded by organizing their first International Parade of the Politically Depressed. Even abject feelings need recognition. Moans replaced chants, and paraders wore pajamas.

The members of Feel Tank recognized The Glue Factory as an opportunity to continue their social experiment. They had recently been theorizing issues of “newness” versus “oldness” in our culture, so participation in the discussion seemed an obvious alignment of interests. The card game, called Not Fade Away, asks participants to play common games such as gin rummy, crazy eights and go fish using oversized, large print decks. The decks are stacked, though, with a joker card of sorts. The player who draws the card stained by a blood clot (unmistakable among hearts and diamonds) must then pull a card from the mystery deck provided by Feel Tank. The game is halted, a timer set and players are prompted to discuss the topic printed on the handmade mystery card. At the timer’s buzz the normal game resumes, the players silently reflecting on the heavy topic just discussed.

The cards’ talking points include “My Aching Infrastructure” and “The Old Age Home as Utopia.” Some prompts are open-ended, almost inviting free-association, yet several are shaped by economic, institutional and political concerns. Growing old is already an emotionally charged topic, so Feel Tank injected politics into the theme to see how they would mix. Could fears of aging inform how we feel about the current economic recession? Are health and beauty related? Could worry marry worry to produce a hybrid emotion somewhere between anticipation and hope? “Perhaps you’re feeling optimistic that the collapse of everything from the economy to your body is an opening to reinvent living,” suggests Feel Tank.

Card players at the Mess Hall event shared stories and personal reflections. Mike, from the MCP, connected deeply with a stranger about caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s disease. While such sharing helps to socialize our fears, the results seemed more in tune with the MCP’s goal than Feel Tank’s mission. Feel Tank, recall, seeks to alter political discourse with emotional energy. The stories “were beautifully expressed,” says Debbie Gould, a Feel Tank member, “but [there was nothing] unfamiliar. That may mostly indicate the difficulty of having conversations about growing old.” Mary Patten, a teaching artist and member, says she hoped the event would be “consciousness raising,” with members and participants “taken to a place we haven’t been before.” As a sociologist, Debbie is careful not to sway the outcome of an experiment by her intentions, but as an activist and artist in Feel Tank, desire is bound to make an entrance. She displaces it to the event she’s coordinating. “You never know what you’re going to get,” she says, and although it wasn’t “a bad thing” that the experiment didn’t produce a riot of tears, perhaps some participants were empowered to “re-imagine life.”

If the antidote is not found in a pill or a surgical process, if self-help books inspire doubt instead of wisdom, if a run on the treadmill gets you only five miles further from death, then you may have the fear. But if you don’t worry, then will you be prepared? And if you’re not prepared, into whose arms will you fall? Get your 401k and your spiritual affinities in order. 80 is the new 40. Denial is a wonderful thing. Create a new goal, a new metaphor, a new haircut. Make love, not war. And get over it.

The Glue Factory shows September 11-October 10 at I Space, 230 W. Superior, second floor.

For a list of September 11 openings, click here.

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