Notes from The Chicago Underground Library

September 30, 2008

posted by Caroline Picard and written by Nell Taylor.

This article was originally published in the first Phonebook, (2007-2008)

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Collecting ephemera is an act of city beautification. Cities look their best in detail. I could describe Chicago as a large Midwestern area on Lake Michigan populated by sports fans and colorful politicians and composed of a series of communities linked together by common streets and not much else. There are some tall buildings that have become relatively less tall in the last couple of years. You would know this is Chicago.

Creative people seem obsessed with the lack of attention their work receives in this overcrowded stadium-in-a-cornfield; having bought into the myths promulgated by this “big picture” vision of the city, they despair at their own artistic marginalization. They look out over the horizon (–is that Naperville, getting even bigger? And is it coming this way?) for an audience or even just a sounding board, another artist with whom to compare notes and ideas. On the off-chance that they find one another, they immediately set about building a bunker, stocking it full of their pooled resources, and disseminating exhibitions and publications of each other’s work to the outside world. They defend their fort, tooth and nail, from interlopers. They spread out. They divide and conquer. They hide themselves so well in these small spaces that the new arrivals seeking out community can’t see the bunkers for the shiny new residential developments and overstuffed shopping carts rising higher and higher into the air.

The new crop finds the old myths justified and begin the cycle again.

Now say you took the output from all of these art-shelters and lined them up on a shelf; the project documentation, the journals, the handmade books, the zines, catalogs, manifestos, newsletters, magazines, chapbooks, programs. For the sake of argument, include works by those sports fans and news on those colorful politicians, particularly if it was written anonymously in all block-caps and shoved into your hand by a guy with a bullhorn as you walked to work. And force yourself to look at them as if it was your first moment to discover each object; it might not be to your taste, it might seem shoddily assembled; you find it pretentious or simplistic, you don’t agree with the point of view, it’s covered in mold from someone’s basement, the author declares that their dog peed on the very object you hold in your hand (edition 3/50). But there are individuals behind each one and at some point, they have witnessed things you haven’t. And you’ve never lived in their heads (of course not, you’ve been holed up in your bunker). Despite your initial (and often better) judgment, you learn something. And another city starts to emerge.

In the course of running the CUL, I have found myself fascinated by the passions ignited in a ten-year old Museum of Science and Industry controversy; moved by a 16 year old stoner’s alternate party documentation and musings on 9/11; reading an entire zine on home-schooling cover to cover that doubles as a critique of the CPS; lost in a series of 25 year old newspapers that are nothing but gorgeous advertisements; and discovering political actions that literally took place outside my door. These ephemeral objects cause me to reconsider my own ideas of the city’s history as all of these details begin to fill in the rich tapestry subsumed by the “Hog Butcher for the World” view of Chicago.

Beyond that impersonal historicism, though, I appreciate that these works make me question where I was at that particular time. What I was doing and what I was contributing to that tapestry at that moment.

Documenting the creativity of the city is an excellent weapon to use against apathy. To those who complain that the city isn’t what it used to be and that there is nothing to do here anymore, I like the idea of sitting them down in front of a pile of works from our collection and saying: Here are your tools, figure out what you’re going to do about it. It’s not only about documenting the past; it is meant to inspire and to incite people to create new work and to be more active– in the present and for the future.

Ephemera presents a holistic view of Chicago’s creative communities by using tiny little details found in the cracks and crevices of our bunkers to help break them down and encourage the kind of collaboration necessary to, as your local street corner waste basket would say, keep Chicago beautiful.

One Response to “Notes from The Chicago Underground Library”

  1. Fantastic information in your blogpost, I watched this report on television the other day about this same thing and since I am going to be married in two weeks and the timing could not have been better! thanks for the ideas!

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