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How Art Chicago Helped Me Move

Copenhagen-based Swedish artist Olof Olsson waiting for his next advice booth customer (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

I didn’t realize this at first, but until the other day I needed a little advice. For some time I’ve been planning to return to my homeland in Canada. For one reason or another, this move has been considered, committed to, and abandoned more than once. In the past few weeks the opportunity presented itself again and so once again I packed all my things and prepared to move.

In the past I’d run into complications that prevented me from actually moving. The problem that has presented itself now is that there are no obstructions so I actually have to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty of uprooting my life from a place I’d come to love. I’d become the reluctant groom, dragging my feet and refusing to commit to a date. Clearly I needed outside intervention.

Thankfully this appeared in the form of The Suburban’s booth at the NEXT art fair in Chicago. The Suburban is a fascinating artist run exhibition space that has emerged from Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam’s garage in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. For the NEXT fair they brought Olof Olsson a Swedish artist who currently lives and works in Copenhagen. For several years, Olsson has been doing performative works, giving advice and lecturing on a number of things. In Chicago, he had a simple booth devoted to “Advice.” For a small fee you could purchase five, ten or thirty minutes of his time. Presumably some problems are more intractable than others.

I figured I had a medium size dilemma and asked for the ten-minute package. He asked for the $5.00 in advance, explaining that he forgets to ask for payment if he waits until the end. I was reassured that if he failed to satisfy me he would be happy to refund my money. He asked me to time the session so he could focus all his attention on me and my problem.

I then proceeded to stare at him intently waiting for my advice. He had to remind me that I needed to actually tell him what the problem was, that he wasn’t a psychic. After an explanation of the situation he informed me that the biggest problem I had was that I just needed to decide on a date and then I could relax and enjoy saying my goodbyes. He was very encouraging, telling me that people would be extra nice to me for the next two weeks. After a little more discussion we settled on the 18th of May and I promised I would book a ticket.

Zach Houston of the Poemstore in Oakland churning them out (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

Now that the abstract notion of leaving the place I have called home for the past decade and a half had been made concrete with the establishment of a date I was presented with the problem of  finding a suitable way to say goodbye. Luckily Zach Houston of the Poemstore in Oakland was only a few booths away madly punching out free verse on an old portable typewriter. Your subject, your price he told me. So I dropped $10 in his typewriter case and told him I needed to say goodbye.  He said that sounded like a big responsibility. I told him it wasn’t that dramatic, I was just planning a move and I wanted a way to say goodbye to my friends.

We chatted as he punched the keys with his index fingers, which had become numb after five days of this. He was so excited by my prospects that he cranked out a relatively epic ode to my future. As he was concluding this inspired bit of verse another potential patron asked me what I had asked for. When I told her I wanted a goodbye poem, Houston realized the muse had taken him in another direction and he asked me to hold on a minute while he quickly banged out a poem more suitable to my purposes.

Armed with solid advice and not one, but two poems — one for the past and one for the future — I was feeling pretty good about things. The next day I booked a one-way ticket home.

Olof was right I have been enjoying spending time with old friends and I’m getting excited about moving on with things. I haven’t yet decided how I will share the poem with my friends, maybe I won’t. It feels a little personal still, and much of the value of the poem seems like it comes from the exchange with Houston.

Overall the experience became an interesting ritual to mark a significant turning point for me. It’s a little odd finding significance in the midst of the chaos and commerce of the art fair trading floor. I find it harder still to place the two events in a critical context. I suppose for now it simply stands as a reminder that the reason we constantly return to art is because of its ability to prompt surprising direct and highly personal experiences.

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