In 1988 four classmates from the School of the Art Institute joined forces to buck the gallery system. Instead of waiting to be discovered, Richard House, Wendy Jacob, Laurie Palmer, and John Ploof decided to create their own noncommercial exhibit space. They used an empty apartment in Bucktown for their canvas, each taking a room or section to work on, and set about their individual business. One filled a bedroom with sand, another soaked a mattress in honey. When they started kibitzing, Haha, the art team, was born.

“We started talking back and forth, borders started getting blurred, and that became something really exciting,” says Jacob. Before they knew it, they were hooked on the process. This egoless stew–four minds at play, communing and creating as one–was the antithesis of their training. “No ownership of ideas,” says Jacob. “No hierarchy,” says House. “No way to trace who came up with what,” says Palmer.

Since then, Haha has developed a life of its own. Two or three times a year the four-tongued, forty-fingered creature rises from its Rogers Park lair and sallies forth (traveling as far as Germany, Italy, and France) to make installation art that is temporary, site-inspired, and–like the collaborative process that conceives it–social. Two years ago, Haha created an uproar with a piece called “Murmur,” which had a mostly white gallery crowd sweating on the balcony of a west-side Park District swimming pool as they looked down upon on all-black water polo team treading water below. For the current Museum of Contemporary Art show at the Chicago Avenue National Guard Armory, Haha wired its space, formerly an apartment in the armory, for demolition and gave the detonator to the chairman of the MCA board of trustees. Its new project, a series of hydroponic herb and vegetable gardens sponsored by Sculpture Chicago, is designed to bring people who garden together with people who have AIDS.

The Sculpture Chicago piece will keep Haha together through ’93. After that, its fate is less certain. There’s the problem of independent careers, the need to make a living. The question of what would happen if one of them had to drop out throws the group into a quandary. “These commitment issues are huge for us,” Palmer says, speculating that, if necessary, a new person might be brought in. One or two heads nod in agreement; for an instant, this seems to be the answer. Then all four tongues fall silent. Haha reconsiders. “I wonder about another person,” one finally says. “For me, it is about the four of us in some way working together.”

Haha’s piece Rumor is on view in “Art at the Armory: Occupied Territory” through January 23 at the Chicago Avenue Armory, 234 E. Chicago. Hours are noon to 5 Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday; noon to 8 Thursday and Friday. Suggested donation $6, $3 for students, seniors, and children. Tuesdays free. Call 280-5161 for more information. Anyone interested in working on a hydroponic garden (you do not need to be a gardener or have AIDS) should call Haha at 761-7144.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.