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Center Field | Visons for Chicago: Public Art with Organizer Daniel Tucker

Photo by Daniel Tucker

I’ve known Daniel Tucker for about five years now and I’ve always thought of him as a true Chicago artist, somewhere in between artist, organizer, writer, and administrator and always interested in collaboration and bringing in multiple perspectives to any given situation. For anyone that’s worked with him, they know that Daniel’s candor can be both disarming and challenging. When one gets involved in Daniel’s projects, like I have in the past, he’s straightforward and conscientious in his process. Is that a Chicago thing? I’ve come to think of it that way, probably because of him.

He’s done a lot of amazing work, like founding AREA Chicago six years ago and then, when he wanted to move on, gracefully stepping back from the project to be taken on by new energetic group of organizers. What I love about AREA (which stands for Art Research Education Activism and is a publication about culture and politics in Chicago) is that it gives voice to what people are actually doing to transform their city, not a theoretical discourse about what might be possible. And there’s big changes happening on the ground here, with Rahm Emanuel handily winning the mayoral election after Daley decided he was done. I’m new to Chicago but I know that this is a really, really big deal.

And so Daniel is using this opportunity to create a platforming project called “Visions for Chicago” for Chicagoans to articulate what they want to happen next. Starting in November 2010 and lasting through the beginning of the mayoral term in May 2011, Daniel is giving out hundreds of handmade election-style yard signs to politically-engaged Chicagoans throughout the city to tell their own vision for the future. Photographs of the signs and their makers will be published in a book by Green Lantern Press to be released May 16, 2011 at 6pm at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. We talked about how the project started for him and where it’s going.

Abigail Satinsky: Let’s start out with a bit of a background question. You have a lot of experience making work in public space and an interest in graffiti. How does this all fit together for you?

Daniel Tucker: Since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in the political conflicts surrounding people’s access to and definition of public space. That drew me to be a graffiti writer, which was really my introduction to art making and all of the considerations of concept, audience, context, and formal design that come along with art making. And that stuff is really particular and important when you think about graffiti, street art, or more antagonistic forms of public art. Pretty soon after my initial interest in graffiti and its sub-cultural (think hip-hop and punk rock youth culture) as well as aesthetic traditions (bubble letters, characters, and “wild styles” as well as the more recent “artschool” graffiti that involves putting lots of objects and forms not traditionally associated with hip-hop graffiti into public space), I began to get bored with the general questions associated with making work in public and wanted to deal more with content.

I was at that juncture when I moved to Chicago in January of 2001 and hooked up with folks like Emily Forman, Josh MacPhee, and Nato Thompson, who were organizing the Department of Space and Land Reclamation (April 2001). DSLR was much more about taking socially engaged artists from more academic backgrounds and bringing them together with community activists and graffiti writers and challenging them all to connect with one another and to take seriously the disappearance of public spaces and the qualities that make public spaces that do exist work well (or not well). This was a perfect challenge to my young graffiti-writing mind and a great way to start thinking more about the implications of what I put into the public sphere, how that resonated with work other people were doing and how to make more meaningful messages in strategic places and contexts.

After 10 years of both making site-specific public art that is engaged in local politics and community-building and also writing about it, it is nice to do a project like Visions, which is back to marking public spaces with hand-written messages. That gesture still really interests me: people’s handmade messages in public space. Now the commercialization of graffiti culture and its connection to trends in graphic design and online social networking has certainly changed what graffiti is all about — the sheer volume of graffiti books and blogs and the direct correlation between public street art and commercial galleries or fashion/design production has changed a lot about how people do graffiti. But that makes me that much more committed to making public art that involves that handwritten messages that are actually about something that matters.

Another reference for me in this project was a dumpster that I encountered when I first moved to Chicago down on the old Maxwell Street (before University Village existed). It was a dialogue about local politics scrawled out on a big metal dumpster that was being used in the demolition of that area and upon close examination, I saw that it was the same handwriting on both sides of the written conversation. I later came to realize that it was by Tyner White, an eccentric inventor-artist who was squatting in one of the buildings where he had set up “Maxwood Industries,” which made small recycled wood and metal toys. White had literally developed a conversation with himself on the wall of this dumpster and it was one of the most beautiful and intriguing things I had ever seen. I thought about that a lot while working on this project, about quickly scrawled ideas that accumulate and make a message. That is my favorite kind of graffiti. That is why for my signs, I just produced them in a really stream-of-consciousness kind of manner. I would go to my studio and just pump out signs related to my experience of living in Chicago, the elections, my vision, my lack of vision and then go put them up.

Marcus and Carolyn Thomas, photo by Lauren Cumbia

AS: How do you see “Visions for Chicago” interacting specifically with this Mayoral election and how has this changed your thinking about elections in general?

DT: For this project, I kept the same schedule as many of the election workers. While I was out installing my signs and coordinating this project, I would run into election workers knocking on doors and carving up streets with their crews. This project started with me giving out blankyard signs on the 2nd of November, the night of the Illinois Gubernatorial and US House of Representative elections. As I went out delivering signs, I got to talk to people about their impressions of the election and it became clear that this project was going to offer me on a personal level a great opportunity to talk to really amazing people I have met over the years about their impressions of this moment in electoral politics, the economy, and the city itself. That has been a real treat and kept me engaged in Visions over many months. After I got most of the blankyard signs distributed to people, I realized that the outcome of the Mayoral election didn’t really have any bearing on this project but that I would keep it going until whomever won took office on May 16th and that would be the day that the documentation, a book, would be released and that would be the context in which all of the individual yard signs would get to be in dialogue with one another.

But it is certainly inspired by the resignation of Mayor Daley (the longest running mayor in the city’s history at 22 years and son of the 2nd longest mayor, Richard M. Daley, at 21 years from 1955-76) and the subsequent election that took place on February 22, 2011. The end of the Daley Regime (and I don’t use that term “regime” casually) is a huge opening that needed to
be taken advantage of by residents of the city — in terms of our collective and individual political imaginations — about what is possible and where this city can go. In my ten years in Chicago, I have seen how stifling that political domination has been on folks who are both disengaged from politics as well as the people who commit their lives to making this city better and more livable as community organizers and activists.

Elections also produce a unique disruption in the visual landscape of urban areas — people, in particular home owners, expressing their political affiliations and endorsements through yard-signs and then election goons going out and tearing up each others signs and filling empty lots, parks, and grassy areas near polling places with their boss’s signs. It is one of the few examples of political speech being expressed in public space. But it is so limited a form of speech.

There were many people who put their energy into participating in the elections. But many people did not. That is both a reflection of a level of cynicism as well as lack of imagination. I don’t think either are “bad” just as I don’t think that engaging in an election is “good,” but I do think that Chicagoans need to find a constructive way to engage our cynicism as well as a strategic way to engage in elections. Mayor Daley’s resignation caught a lot of people off guard and despite some really enthusiastic energy put behind the campaign of progressive candidate Miguel Del Valle, there was really no one who was in a position to out-spend former Congressman and Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who entered the race and raised $10 million and basically bought all the radio/TV ad time.

Obviously a project on this small of a scale is not intended to interfere with that election. So given the scale of resources and what I saw as the questions that were not being addressed, I decided to focus this project on the question of generating political vision. I focused this project on using the election-style yard signs that are so prominent in these competitions as the form that Visions would be structured around. And the challenge was to articulate your vision for the city that was not about the elections but was about long-term visions, both specific and very general that you were committed to. So many of the people I was asking to participate did not identify as art makers and so they had to think really hard about how to “represent” their ideas. Having conversations with them about how they could represent their ideas through a slogan or an image was really educational for me. It is a huge challenge to have vision, but it is a necessity. And then to communicate that challenge is also a necessity, but one that is quite difficult and the narrow-mindedness of most elections doesn’t really allow us to express our complex points of view. I think the process was frustrating for some people, perhaps the challenge of putting your real vision onto a sign is absurd — but that is the absurdity that structures how politics work inthis country — sound bytes, personalities, color-schemes on yard signs and billboards. Engaging in that absurdity became a way for me to interact with others about what they did or didn’t find compelling about this election season and knowing how these incredible people saw themselves fitting in helped me to think through those challenges myself.

AS: How would you define political vision?

DT: I think political vision is the commitment that guides your decision-making, priorities, and your work over time. For some people it is a question they never get asked or ask of themselves. For others it is a really generic question that you are asked in a workshop to try to get you engaged. For others it is a not a question, but something which is handed down to them from others. But I think our lack of engagement or the poverty of how we engage this question is central to the cynicism, confusion, and disengagement that exist so prominently within politics in this country. The way elections run is certainly part of the problem, and the deep compromise involved in electing representatives from the ambiguously defined two political parties does not
promote great clarity of one’s ideas or the sense that having your own vision is possible or really matters.

In a way, asking about Vision is asking about Ideology. But while a project called “Ideologies for Chicago” might be interesting, it would find much more limited engagement than I have gotten with “vision” as the concept. And that is also because the question of having a personal vision really does resonate with people at this moment. But personal vision, while informed consciously or unconsciously by ideology, is not the same as what we often associate with “ideology.” This project asks people to express their own vision, and in doing so they are bringing all sorts of histories, ideologies, and references to influence what they present as being personal or even private.

Something that struck me as I saw people’s signs for the first time and then started to look at them all at once was how many people’s visions were about such basic day-to-day things. As if vision could just mean slight improvements on daily life along the lines of “better schools” or “less people getting shot.” I myself struggled with this as I thought about the challenge I was giving other people — what did I want that was different from a negative request of “Less competition” or repression or displacement or incarceration? One contributor, Vinay Ravi, remarked, “there are places with less shooting, garbage, and better schools…the suburbs.” And its true, so much of what comes to mind is a marginal improvement on everyday life, which is something that is much needed in cities but is not a foreign concept all together — it is something which lots of people have and, like most things, is distributed unevenly.

But what about long-term visions that move beyond the edges of our present reality and look, feel, and exist as a much better reality? I want to have those visions and I want the ability to generate such visions to be distributed as equally as I want good schools to be distribute equally. The Commercial Club of Chicago had a vision when they launched their plans to transform Chicago’s schools — I want to live in a city where the generating a vision and implementing it is a cornerstone of what democracy looks like.

Ana J. Katsenios, photo by Daniel Tucker

AS: Have you heard back from participants about any reactions or conversations that resulted from the signs?

DT: Little anecdotes have trickled in. Some people have watched out their windows as people walk by and look at them and clearly read them, and discuss them. Others look out their windows and see people pay no attention to them. Some people have decided to put them out only on certain occasions. Others have had them stolen or destroyed almost immediately. And some people have left them out through a harsh winter and found them to deteriorate over time. It is a dimension of this project that becomes really personal and intimate — people actually thinking about making a sign for their homes that will represent them to their neighbors, their landlord, their friends.

The thing I also heard a lot from people was that the project was either really hard or really fun to produce. For a lot of adults who don’t consider themselves artists, it was either a chance to collaborate with creative kids in their lives or to think back to their own childhood when they sat around drawing or making class projects. For others it was akin to making a placard for a protest, and that was certainly a timely aesthetic reference since there were so many protests going on from Egypt to nearby Wisconsin during the time-frame of this project (November-April 2011). And for many people, it sparked all sorts of discussion with their families and friends about not only what “vision” means, but also what they really had for a vision and then more specifically, how they could represent that through some words or images.

AS: What are your hopes for the future with Mayor Rahm Emanuel?

DT: I hope that Rahm can implement policies that encourage those slight improvements on daily life that people everywhere deserve: better jobs, schools, etc and less violence from residents or police. But I also hope that his presence allows Chicago to get out from under the heel of the Daley regime and see itself as a place and a people capable and deserving of more control over the city that we all work to create through our labor and leisure activities every day. I hope that there are term-limits imposed so nobody can dominate the political reality for that long again, and that he leaves the city better than when he found it. But I think that it is up to us to see his first term as a continuation of that political opening that occurred when Daley announced his retirement – an opening to develop a social movement with real demands about what kind of city we really want to be and for future generations to live in.


Visions for Chicago: A highly politicized public art project organized by Daniel Tucker, featuring photography by Lauren Cumbia and Hillary Strack. Writing by Micah Maidenberg and Abigail Satinsky. Produced with support from Lantern Projects and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Published by Green Lantern Press, 2011.

For more information about the book, May 16th Chicago release event, and all of the written vision statements and portraits of the sign-makers, see