There’s a wreck of a vacant lot on the south side of North Avenue just west of the Kennedy Expressway. The pavement is broken, but this summer drivers were parking their cars there anyway. Sitting on the lot’s eastern edge was a small booth with a sliding door and the word “PARK” in big black letters. If drivers had opened the door and pulled out a booklet from a dispenser, they would have realized they were in a work of art.

Deborah Stratman’s Park includes not only the booth and booklets but maps, photos, and other documentation at Temporary Services gallery and on the gallery’s Web site. Park is now on South Archer, its eighth locale in six months, and it will continue to move around until April. “I like the idea of work that people can engage in in an accidental way,” Stratman says. “They don’t have to go to this elitist gallery scene, which a lot of people are just intimidated by.”

The booth was initially placed between two planters in front of the gallery’s State Street building. Though it was obviously out of place on the sidewalk, passersby didn’t seem to notice. “The booth has its own air of authority–no one questions it,” Stratman says. “People assume it’s an official structure.” It did attract graffiti in Bridgeport, and then it moved to Pilsen, where someone painted over the graffiti. Stratman thinks this was done by a city graffiti blaster who also assumed the booth was some sort of official structure.

“For a while it was in the Aronson Furniture parking lot at Grand and California, and there it had a different sort of function because that’s already a parking lot. People became nervous about whether to pay or not. At a vacant lot at Van Buren and Sangamon, I was riding my bicycle by and saw a person pull up to the booth, drive out, circle around again, drive back, and walk up to the booth trying to figure out whether or not to pay.”

That lot even had towing-company signs, but as far as Stratman knows no one has ever been towed because of her booth. “I’m shocked that the booth hasn’t been towed itself,” she says. “I put it up with the understanding that it might disappear. Other times I’ve put the booth in a place where there’s no room for anyone to park. In Pilsen it was by an alley.”

An instructor at the School of the Art Institute, Stratman was scouting locations for a film a couple of years ago when she began to notice parking-lot booths. She started photographing them and finally built her own “to explore the architectural, historical, economic, and political uses of the land that these booths watch over.” Stratman paid for most of the project, including building materials for the booth, with a $1,003 public-art grant from the New York-based Gunk Foundation.

As a student she’d been interested in science, but eventually she “got turned off by how sure of itself science seemed to be. Park is a way of answering questions through an actual experiment, but I wanted there to be a lot more room for accident or failure.” The work also provided parking spaces. “I hate parking,” she says. “I hate looking for parking. I hate paying for parking. I think it’s outrageous that people can charge $11 for two hours. There are a lot of interesting questions about the costs of land downtown and the economics of parking companies.

A lot of the pieces of property are in transition, waiting for an investor to buy the land and build a huge skyscraper. Meanwhile they’re making money while they can.”

Stratman’s booklet contains photos of functioning parking booths in a variety of architectural styles. “Seventy or eighty percent of all the booths are prefab, but the rest are custom-made. Those have just a little bit of personality to them. Some are sinking on their foundations. Others include different types of materials; someone started with brick, added concrete blocks, and finished with wood. Some have their own toilet inside; some are heated. They’re funky little buildings, and I thought it would be interesting to try to build one.

“Parking lots are the great empty spaces of our urban landscape. These booths still inform the space and have as much authority as those huge downtown buildings do.”

Stratman was also attracted by the notion of single-person architecture. “America is obsessed with private space. I don’t know if there is land anywhere in this country that doesn’t have some idea of ownership behind it. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a truly public space in the city. If I came to this city without a place to stay, is there anyplace, even a public park, where I would feel I had a right to sleep? I want people to start thinking about how cars determine city planning–and about what constitutes authority over space, how ownership is made physical, how ownership is perceived, and about what is public and private and how people are convinced of which is which.”

Most of the time Stratman can’t monitor her booth. She wonders if a homeless person has ever occupied it, perhaps collecting parking fees from unsuspecting drivers, and she suspects restaurants used one of the lots for valet parking. “There are a lot of things unexplained about who put the booth there and why. I never wanted to claim the piece; I wanted it to have its own authority. That’s part of the reason that I don’t have my name anywhere in the booklet. I’m not trying to moralize, or if so, only in a very subtle way. I’m not a ballsy outspoken anarchist. I like to think of the booth more as a catalyst than as a political statement, if not for change then perhaps for thought.”

For more information on Park, call Temporary Services at 312-360-9171, or check out the gallery’s Web site at Coincidentally, this Friday night Temporary Services will open an exhibit of artist Laurie Palmer’s alternate designs for utilizing three acres of landfill south of Navy Pier, which the Park District plans to lease for a parking lot.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.