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Art & Art History

Notions of Expenditure

Monday, August 01, 2005–Thursday, June 01, 2006

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In Notions of Expenditure, Laurie Palmer explores the links between daily routines and larger social and political events through a website and open call for proposals to redesign exercise equipment that would generate and store energy rather than expend it.

An enormous number of people in industrialized countries with sedentary jobs, health concerns, and/or obsessions about their physique voluntarily expend quantities of energy working out on cardiovascular machines, many of which plug into the wall. This is energy that we do not have to be paid in order to give up; in fact, we happily pay for the privilege of expending it. In addition to the ubiquitous private gyms and YMCA’s, with their banks of free laborers visible through plate glass windows overlooking a cafe, most universities, corporations, and hotels have their own hidden workout rooms, which contain fleets of potential power-generators. As an impetus for Notions of Expenditure, Palmer imagined what the possible effects would be if these machines generated (rather than consumed) energy that could be collectively pooled.

For the exhibition, Palmer requested proposals that represented – through diagram, image, conceptual text, story, or working model – the connections between bodily expenditure and energy consumption within the current context of global environmental devastation and the U.S. war in Iraq. She requested pragmatic designs as well as those less specifically pragmatic, including designs that were more speculative, symbolic, or even satirical in concept. In addition to seeking real solutions for supplying energy, the initiative intended to draw attention to everyday energy use, as well as the relationship between daily practices and larger social and political events and policies.

Laurie Palmer, an MFA graduate of School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has exhibited her work widely since 1989. Her interdisciplinary art practice includes sculpture, writing, public art, and collaborative projects, often with the artist collective, Haha. Some of her previous exhibitions include The Interventionists at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA (2004); Operation Human Intelligence at Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago (2003); Critical Mass at Smart Museum of Art, Chicago (2002); and Three Acres on the Lake: DuSable Park Proposal Project at Gallery 312, Chicago (2001). Palmer is an Associate Professor in sculpture at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2003–2004, Palmer had a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, MA.

Notions of Expenditure was commissioned as one of the projects in the 2005 At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago series.



Laurie Palmer Head ShotLaurie Palmer’s interdisciplinary practice includes sculptural and public art projects, writing, and collaboration with the artist collective Haha. Her current work aims to counter the pressures of privatization and other notions of exclusion and closure on small and large scales. She has exhibited both individual and collaborative work in the United States and in Europe. Some of her recent exhibitions include The Interventionists at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts (2004); Operation Human Intelligence at Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago (2003); and Critical Mass at Smart Museum of Art, Chicago (2002). Her book Three Acres on the Lake: DuSable Park Proposal Project was recently published by WhiteWalls, Inc. Palmer is an Associate Professor in the sculpture department at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She received an MFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Notions of Expenditure: Distribution

Laurie Palmer

One problem with putting work in the public realm is not knowing how it is received. In addition to installing the posters on the CTA blue line, where they were exposed to large numbers of people on a daily basis, I also took them around to gyms, coffee shops, book and record stores, and park district fieldhouses. There were very few public message boards; at most places, I asked people behind counters and desks if they wanted to put up any posters, and if so, would they like to choose which one or several they liked among the ten different designs? Almost everyone was surprised to be invited to choose and many who said their supervisor wasn ’t there or available were glad nonetheless to be able to choose for him or her, even though the supervisor would have the final say. Every person chose different posters—there were no obvious “favorites”— and there was nothing predictable about the relationship between the establishment, the person, and what they chose. For example, when I gave my pitch at one chain store coffee house (not Starbucks), the young Eastern European woman behind the counter (clearly not the owner) spent a long time looking at each poster. Then she chose definitively “Which Energy Army?”—a black and white anti-war image that features burly guys carrying a big bomb and some young women on step machines against a backdrop of power lines. There were no other posters up anywhere in the shop and she said I should put the image in the front window. At a record store, the clerk who deferred the yes or no decision to his absent supervisor without diminishing a whit his own authority, looked through the posters several times, taking much longer than I expected, given that I had interrupted a conversation he was having with his friends. He finally chose “Aid to an Inflatable Universe”—an image dominated by a big blow-up world attached to a tiny StairMaster stepper and text describing the theoretical possibility of creating, through pneumatics, a parallel world. At a park district field house in Uptown, a young man whose supervisor was on a long call and wasn ’t going to be off soon chose Anonymous ’s image linking Bellevue Prison with contemporary cardio treadmills, with stats showing how much energy an average U.S. household consumes in a day and how many exercisers would be needed on the hour every hour to provide that much electricity (five and a half exercisers). At another park district field house on the west side, I met with the actual supervisor who wanted to know all about me, what I was doing, who sponsored it, and what company I represented. He wanted me to describe what each poster was about as I went through them, and I expected that he had to be careful about anything at all smacking of politics. I didn ’t hold back, saying Arthur Johnson ’s was a political rant about the Bush administration, and Louise Lamb ’s an anti-war poster. He chose both Johnson ’s and Lamb ’s, as well as Anonymous ’s prison poster, along with most of the others for the Learning Center. He deleted Dunning ’s New Sun, which he thought would be too complicated for six to twelve year olds. He also deleted Lung ’s green sweatshop image, which had no text at all. At an independent coffee shop in Rogers Park, the woman behind the counter chose Dunning ’s deep red bloody sun image only. At an independent bookshop, the enthusiastic employee at the register chose Lung ’s green one only. A bartender at a biker bar carefully chose four: Lamb ’s bomber image, Boyle ’s tomato garden with a biker on it, Lung ’s green drawing, and Jacob ’s inflatable universe. At a gym on Halsted, the employee chose Pandian ’s image of the see-saw because she said “it looked scary.” Several of the gym employees said the same thing first, “is this going to hurt business?” and then went ahead and chose Anonymous ’s Bellevue Prison image. This was the only semi-consistent choice and only among gym employees based, I suppose, on the easily recognized link between their establishment and the picture. But of all images, to wonder if it would hurt business!

I realize that these decisions were made on all sorts of bases: some in terms of what they didn ’t want to be associated with and some in terms of what they did; some purely visual, based on color, shape, and design; others on what they thought would be accessible or acceptable to their clientele, and/or their supervisors. These encounters required a certain amount of analysis and reflection—but just a certain amount. These people were, after all, at work, and probably bored. And in some cases, these decisions were hasty and later with some reflection, they might change their minds. I don ’t expect many of these posters actually got put up. However, the process of these encounters ended up being more important and interesting to me than whether or not the images got posted. There is something instructive and wonderful about when you ask someone to exercise their autonomous aesthetic/political choice, especially in places where their own choices probably were not called upon often. Except for the park district supervisor, those choosing didn ’t own or have direct responsibility for the place they worked in, but nevertheless spent a lot of time there. I wasn’t just asking permission to put up an announcement—instead I was asking them to choose which one they preferred. What more could be done with this surprising kind of public encounter?


Notions of Expenditure was supported by a the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

Special thanks to the jury that selected the 2005 At the Edge projects: Tricia Van Eck (Associate Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), Marc Fischer (artist), Julia Fish (artist and University of Illinois at Chicago faculty member), and Lorelei Stewart (Director, Gallery 400), and Barb Wiesen (Director, Gahlberg Gallery at College of DuPage).


Laurie Palmer

Notions of Expenditure, 2005–
website and paper installations on public transportation