Chicago artist and educator Mara Baker doesn’t consider herself an activist, but her life’s work is activation. Acrylic glass from a construction site, a potato sack from a CSA, detritus collected from walks in Garfield Park, over the years become the bones and sometimes the garments of a newborn artwork.
In February, Baker opened the Uptown iteration of “Chameleon Blind,” a public art project integrating those gleaned materials, metal and LED light to assemble structures she calls “light paintings.” The installation is illuminating the corner of the temporarily vacant Gerber Building across from the Wilson CTA station until the summer opening of the Chicago Market co-op, and will continue on to venues across the city, from Wicker to Humboldt Park, at times simultaneously. In April, the project will be on display at the 4032 North Milwaukee Avenue storefront and Ignition project space.
In “Chameleon Blind,” Chicago’s grid system serves as a blueprint to the structure and to the channels of viewer access to the work. Displayed in windows at street level, the grid undergirds the Uptown installation’s twenty-six panels, some of which appear like large bright looms woven with strings of LED lights and found materials (purple fiber from CSA potato sacks is a “staple”); others frame colorful geometric patterns. “Being a painter and a fiber artist, in both of those practices the grid is significant on the formal level,” Baker says.
Although Baker reuses materials and panels from previous installations, each reincarnation is built in response to the environment, growing from the ground up—sometimes literally (some “Chameleon” panels are woven with fiber dyed with wildflowers from walks on the West Side and other parts of the city). Since some of her earliest work, her ethos of thrift has driven her relationship to exhibition space. In “Internal Weather Project,” from more than a decade ago, Baker rigged a system of tubes to hang from the ceiling and pump water mixed with rust (scraped from old metal containers at the venue) to write on the wall. The place becomes a participant in the making.
“I don’t think I could work any other way,” she says. “It’s just built into the DNA of who I am as an artist.”
The “Chameleon Blind” project began in 2018 as a response to Chicago artist Lynn Basa’s The Corner Project in Avondale, a few blocks from where Baker lived. Corner started as an art space on Milwaukee Avenue and expanded beyond its walls, becoming a community collaboration to make sure the neighborhood’s interests are maintained as forces of gentrification hover over Avondale. Baker noticed the work of The Corner Project and, walking in the neighborhood, observed the schedule of life and lights in mom-and-pop shops. The end result was circadian. At dusk, “Chameleon” metamorphoses. Black lights turn on, and the work must be seen in a new light.
In turn, Baker looked to the community of artists in Chicago and the system containing most of them. “There’s less space for artists to show than all of the amazing artists who live in the city,” Baker tells me in her studio, where she shows me a note she wrote last spring: “HOW MANY WAYS / TEST DRIVE MAKING LARGER WORK / SKIPPING THE GALLERY / HACKING GALLERY SYSTEM OR STRUCTURE OF ART FUNCTIONING IN CHICAGO.”
This is the loophole—to make space for art and for viewers where it has not been thought to exist or has been forgotten, such as the city’s vacant buildings. Vacant spaces in communities can have an insidious effect on a neighborhood’s property values, crime rates and mental health. In Chicago, the city requires owners of buildings that are vacant for more than thirty days to register with the city, and relies on residents to report the rest. Since December 2018, over 6,900 unique vacant properties have been reported to the city, and the others remain uncounted.
A building with visible artwork may have less of a risk of being vandalized and may increase foot traffic to a property that’s struggling to sell. In determining where “Chameleon Blind” can travel, Baker first builds symbiotic relationships with local government, chambers of commerce and business owners. Partnering with community members and development efforts to reinvigorate public and private spaces and local business is a practice that has been termed “creative placemaking.” In the 2019 West Town iteration of the project, Baker demonstrated what could be possible with this placemaking model for other artists and neighborhoods—the work drew people to those windows, that building rented, then the installation came down.
“I think, philosophically, because I’ve worked site-specifically for so long, it’s just built into my practice: things don’t last forever,” she says. “And in reality, life is like that.”
Displaying in these private-public ways also brings visibility of the work to new heights. Thousands of people can walk by these spaces every day. It’s pedestrian: artwork meant to be taken in transit. The viewing experience may shift with the rotation from day to night as the installation lights turn on, but it can be seen during any commute. It’s free. It’s currently located across from a CTA station and will continue moving, increasing access by bringing it to different areas of the city. As a community college teacher, access to contemporary art “without watering it down” and while “maintaining its rigor” have come to mean a lot to Baker’s own practice. For her, “the pure joy” of “Chameleon” is watching strangers walk by, look in the space, activate it.
The pure joy at the Uptown opening on a cold night in February, for me, was the light. As we walked from panel to panel animated in glowing purple, green and pink, there was a flicker of something in the audience, a potential energy. In the conceptualization of “Chameleon,” Baker was living through a gray Chicago winter and thinking about color, specifically from David Batchelor’s color theory book, “The Luminous and the Grey,” in which the sensation of light on the street is compared to that of light on the ocean. At night, streets and architecture may remain physically the same, yet everything appears to have changed. Flying into the city or seeing it from a high rise, the grid system glowing, there is a change, I feel it. The feeling won’t last, but for a moment, I see everything differently. I wonder what could happen if I acted on it. (Amanda Dee)
“Chameleon Blind,” Ignition project space, through April 28, and at 4032 North Milwaukee starting March 30.