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Temporary Allegiance

Friday, May 27, 2005–Saturday, December 31, 2011

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Please Note: Temporary Allegiance is an ongoing project at Gallery 400. The dates above are inaccurate due to web form error. We appreciate your patience as we continue to improve our website.

Temporary Allegiance, a project initiated by Philip von Zweck, is a 25-foot flagpole on the campus of UIC located at 404 S. Peoria, between CUPPA Hall and the Eisenhower Expressway/Blue Line train. The flagpole is open for the use of people in the greater-Chicago area on a first-come-first-served basis for the period of one week. Temporaryallegiance.org (the initial project web page) explained that the initiative “seeks to provide the community with a democratized space that fosters expression free of the veil of anonymity.” In an effort to encourage the flag makers to take responsibility for their creations, their contact information is given to people interested in responding to their flags.

As Mike Wolf wrote in the exhibition essay:

A changing flag is more appealing than an honorary street or more advertising because it could open up more space for disenfranchised voices. Certainly there are limitations, it ’s only a flag, for one thing. Can you overcome the social and economic blockages that exclude some people? This question is important because I want to think of this changing flag as an experiment in democracy, or more accurately, an experiment in micro-democracy. ‘Micro-democracy ’ is a term for a commitment to realizing democratic decision-making principles in small communities, households, or work places, despite those localities possibly being subjugated to greater systems that may not be democratic ones. Micro-democracy might be a way of making a little social equality where there is none, or where there just isn ’t enough. Micro-democracy puts the onus on all of us to understand the needs of the people we are in contact with to negotiate our survival.

To submit your own flag to Temporary Allegiance read the submission instructions in our interact section.

Philip Von Zweck Head ShotPhilip von Zweck has exhibited most recently in Chicago at 65GRAND; Harold Washington College; Three Walls; maxmultiple Devening Projects + Editions; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. He has received the Individual Artist Award in the Emerging Artist category from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation (2007), Larson Fellowship for Graduate Study, University of Illinois at Chicago (2002), and Community Artists Assistance Grant, City of Chicago (2001). Furthermore, he has completed artist residencies at Roger Brown House and George Veranda Pavilion, New Buffalo, Michigan (2002) and Experiment Sound Study, Chicago (2001). Philip von Zweck received a BFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA in Studio Arts from University of Illinois at Chicago.

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Postcard: Temporary Allegiance

EXHIBITION ESSAY

Marking Boundaries and Littoral Zones

Mike Wolf and the network of cumulative art

In the labyrinth of boundaries

In a common but questionable fantasy, there once was a wilderness without boundaries, until anxious and powerful life-forms saw a need to mark their territories and categorize their places. Many artists to this day conspire in this carving of space. These artists made marking territories of power theirs¹. In the world we know, it is not unreasonable to say that all territory is defined, occupied, marked, and over-determined. More often than not this process is undertaken by the anxious and powerful. One approach an artist could take in a world like this is to draw demarcated zones into question, perhaps laying a groundwork from which to contest boundaries. This is a messy business in a world where most boundaries of consequence, the ones worth fighting for, define power and spheres of influence, and are preserved by being highly mutable, hidden from obvious attack, and in constant flux. That ’s by design; it makes any challenge difficult. You ’d be a clever artist to manage that terrain.

Of course, flags are understood as highly visible markers of territories. “Territory” in this essay functions as a good generic term that can describe both physical places, like the green on a golf course or a suburban lawn, and ideological constructs like a corporation, a state, or a social milieu. Flying over these territories, flags help people in power define territories of influence from the top down.

Orwellian furniture

Flags are not the only way to mark territory. A much more ubiquitous form of marking the urban landscape is advertising. Beginning in 2002, Chicagoans joined several other major cities around the world (mostly the northern hemisphere, but the push is on in the southern hemisphere) in entering a 20 year contract with the French-based company JCDecaux, which makes “street furniture” that first and foremost provides comfortable places for advertisement. Bus shelters and newspaper boxes were first to appear, with other elements slowly added. If you depend on public transportation to move about the city, you may have quickly discovered that the new shelters—while arguably better looking and less scarce than the old ones—are less adequate in sheltering against harsh Chicago weather. The design leaves openings on all sides of the structure as well as the bottom. Considering, also, that the benches in the bus shelters incorporate uncomfortable ridges to prevent people from reclining, it is clear that human comfort was not a priority. (I have found, though, that it is possible to hang a hammock very nicely on a diagonal between corner posts.) These structures are shelters for advertisements before they are shelters for people with their thick etch-resistant glass boxes to keep ad copy dry and tidy. Indeed, JCDecaux is an advertising company, not a public servant (one can ’t help but wonder if the designer has ever ridden a bus or been to Chicago). Most recently, JCDecaux installed 75 advertising panels downtown. Not only do they have the negative aesthetic function of intensifying commercial pollution, they also block the goddamn sidewalk! Adding insult to injury these advertising panels are labeled “City Information.” What a miserable idea. The structures ’ presence along the walkways of the city define the street as a commercial space. Like television, the shelters, newspaper boxes, and “information panels” are technologies designed and used to reinforce a consumer culture. Also, like television, as an expressive vehicle, these structures are only readily available to the few who can pay. (Local concerns left unannounced: lost cats, public meetings, better produce, the dirty beat cop, Timmy is dealing drugs, free roof shingles up for grabs, the cooling center opens at 6 am.)

Ad panel blocking sidewalk, downtown Chicago.

JCDecaux staff maintains the shelters and panels and the company has exclusive rights to sell the advertising space in the structures. They outsource the fabrication of the shelters to a local company, Chicago Scenic Studio (who in turn outsources the fabrication of different components to many others), which designs and makes theater scenery, television studio sets, trade show props and so on. Indeed, the street is a theater. Chicago Scenic Studio is located on Goose Island, an island in the near north side of Chicago formed on its west side by the north branch of the Chicago River and on its east side by a canal dredged out in 1800s for clay used in a nearby brick yard. This same period also saw the establishment of a squatter community of immigrants who worked in the brickyard and other industrial facilities on Goose Island². You can walk—or roll—there and see stacked pieces of the bus shelters outside the Chicago Scenic building, like boats stored for the winter, except for every season, for twenty years. Take a few steps south from Chicago Scenic on North Branch Street and you ’ll see a warning sign on a building, “This property is protected by closed circuit TV.” That ’s a misleading sign: cameras can ’t protect, they can only watch. A little further south you ’ll see familiar green street signs marking the intersection of North Branch and Eastman streets (they sing!), and you ’ll notice a third sign. It ’s brown. It reads “Honorary Chicago Scenic Studio Way.” This indicates a friendly relationship between Chicago Scenic Studio and the local alderman. Here we have another example of how power demarcates territories. A recent effort to give a brown honorary street sign to a stretch of Monroe Street near Western Avenue on the west side of Chicago wasn ’t nearly as friendly.

JC Decaux bus shelter tops stored in the Chicago Scenic Studios yard on Goose Island.

It ’s an honor to meet you, Alderman.

In 1969, Chicago Police murdered Fred Hampton at the age of 21 while sleeping in an apartment on West Monroe Street. Some evidence suggests he may have been drugged, which made it easier for the cops to blast him full of bullets. At the time, Hampton was the state chairman of the Black Panther Party in Illinois. He was instrumental in brokering peace agreements between rival gangs (coining the phrase “rainbow coalition” still used to this day by Jesse Jackson), organizing better recreational facilities for young people, establishing a free medical clinic, and a free breakfast program in a number of public schools. He worked to answer the needs of a disenfranchised and abandoned community. In early 2006, Alderwoman Madeline Haithcock brought a proposal before the City Council in response to a request from Fred Hampton Jr. to recognize the importance of his father by giving the stretch of Monroe Street where his father was slain the honorary name of “Chairman Fred Hampton Way.” Police and others protested the proposal on the basis that Hampton and the Black Panthers advocated the killing of police. Maybe that is a reasonable response to the abandonment and abuse they knew. The brutality Hampton and his community experienced still exists in parts of Chicago³. Eventually, Alderwoman Haithcock backed down. Apparently neither Hampton Jr. nor the many people passionately backing the proposal had enough friends. Part of me wishes there was an Honorary Chairman Fred Hampton Way, but another part of me asks why? There are better ways of honoring Hampton ’s work out on the streets and in schools. For starters, I suggest reading about him. I know firsthand that reading about Fred Hampton is much more rewarding and interesting than reading about Chicago Scenic Studios, or JCDecaux for that matter4.

Hampton was a charismatic leader who acted from a ground of a thousand conversations, a thousand acts of generosity, and a thousand hours of work. It is by this kind of process that we negotiate our survival with each other. He was someone, among many more around him, who took matters into his own hands, working to answer the common needs he saw in his community.

What can artists possibly do in the theater of the street that begins to echo the tenacious social responsibility Fred Hampton felt, or the vast global reach of JCDecaux? Is this even needed? Yes, or at the least, some notion of social responsibility.

Emergent Publics5

It is gratifying to see people question what is public. The drive to begin to answer this question is a decentralized effort, with complex and nuanced possibilities sprouting up as far away as the most remote farmlands and the deepest caverns, and as nearby as the roof of my apartment and the molecules in my body. Nobody owns this question. Laurie Palmer writes, for example, “public is an action, not a place6.” She describes a shore, not a boundary but a zone of interaction. The meeting of the water and the soil bears a complex and dynamic ecosystem. But, she points out that in Chicago, soil often ends abruptly at a retaining wall and water laps hopelessly against a steel barrier—an arrangement that reflects an obsolete, anachronistic approach to dealing with the flux of a shore. Somehow engineers and architects are continually unable to make room for a shore in their vision of Chicago.

Still, there are some places where you can find some semblance of a littoral, or shore, zone in the city. Finding them can be a pleasure, or it can be disturbing to witness the beleaguered life forms you encounter there. I think it ’s a matter of socialization, when confronted with a space whose defining features are flexible and shifting, what do we do? The answer isn ’t obvious. Do we shop? Pay an admission fee? No, we should find others there and remember how to talk to them without the structure of workplace protocol or commerce to tell us how. We improvise. Of course, there is a danger that our creativity will fail us and we will merely reproduce the familiar. Hey, you gotta start somewhere! Need to shop? Try a farmers ’ market, get some fresh local produce, but also act as a connoisseur of social activity. What details make this place unique? After the market has closed up, go back to the plaza and take another close look at the place. What else is possible here? What other acts are possible? What confrontations? What desires fulfilled? What could be shared? How can it be like a shore?

Back to flags

There is undeniable pleasure to be had in flag-waving. Find a long, sturdy pole that you can easily lift and affix a large piece of fabric to one end, then find yourself a good, wide-open space (a roof, a ball field, or a major intersection around 3 am) and give the thing a good flail. It is akin to bouncing a ball, so basic a pleasure, watch the fabric ripple and feel the air drag against your muscles. The pleasure, the emotional effect of this act changes character as you consider the possible symbols or imagery to affix to the fabric.

Earlier I said, “flags help people in power delineate territories of influence from the top down.” This isn ’t the only way to use a flag. After all, all flags start at the bottom. Forgive my provocative stance. Maybe a flag can be used to mark a littoral zone, a particular time of life, an ecosystem that sustains dynamic and varied activities. Maybe in such a zone the flag isn ’t always the same, it changes from day to day or week to week, depending on mood or need. In the way a tide moves in and out depositing life and material along the shore, these flags could bring different meanings to place and people. Here, some flags will provoke, some confront, others will be humorous, or confusing. The zones these flags mark will extend varied distances and the flags will activate multiple social circles.

I ’m thinking someone could come up with a way to easily convert a light or utility pole into a flagpole using commonly available materials. Think of the flags we could fly. Would anonymous acts of this sort, committed under hiding be part of a democratic system? Now I consider Temporary Allegiance.

Temporary Allegiance is a project initiated by Philip von Zweck. It is a 25-foot flagpole that is open for the use of people in the greater-Chicago area on a first-come-first-served basis for the period of one week. Temporaryallegiance.org (the project’s web page) explains that the initiative “seeks to provide the community with a democratized space that fosters expression free of the veil of anonymity.” People wishing to respond to flags are given contact information for the flag makers7.

A changing flag is more appealing than an honorary street sign or more advertising because it could open up more space for disenfranchised voices. Certainly there are limitations, it ’s only a flag, for one thing. Can you overcome the social and economic blockages that exclude some people? This question is important because I want to think of this changing flag as an experiment in democracy, or more accurately, an experiment in micro-democracy. “Micro-democracy” is a term for a commitment to realizing democratic decision-making principles in small communities, households, or work places, despite those localities possibly being subjugated to greater systems that may not be democratic ones. Micro-democracy might be a way of making a little social equality where there is none, or where there just isn ’t enough. Micro-democracy puts the onus on all of us to understand the needs of the people we are in contact with to negotiate our survival.

1. I ’m afraid I may have stolen some of this idea from A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuse and Guattari.
2. Historical information about Goose Island comes from the Encyclopedia of Chicago online. (http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/300045.html)
3. Jamie Kalven ’s Kicking the Pigeon is one place where you can read about police brutality in Chicago today. It ’s free at www.viewfromtheground.com.
4. Historical info about Fred Hampton is from The Black Commentator, issue 67 (http://www.blackcommentator.com/67/67_hampton.html). Info about the effort to give him an honorary street name is from a Chicago Sun-Times article, “Street Name Sparks Outrage” February 28, 2006 (http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-panther28.html).
5. This is the title of a short book by Ian Angus that I read while trying to write this thing. The book emphasizes the importance of social movements and grassroots participation as the basis for healthy democracy.
6. This is from the catalogue essay for State and Lake, a group show that included my artwork.
7. Philip sites the following passage as an important reference for the project: “All space is already occupied by the enemy, which has even reshaped its elementary laws, its geometry, to its own purposes. Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics. Materializing freedom means beginning by appropriating a few patches of the surface of a domesticated planet.” From “Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism” by Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem, 1961. The full text can be read for free at the Situationist International Online – http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/bureau.html

Exhibition Support

Temporary Allegiance is supported by the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.