I have only considered entering the Chicago River once–when, shortly after I moved here, I was fired on the first day of my job. “You had better have intestinal fortitude,” my fat, homicidal boss had gassed, and I replied that what I had was closer to intestinal flu. A half hour later I was standing on the LaSalle bridge, flat broke and staring numbly into the opaque water, feeling appropriately melodramatic. Oddly, my spirits lifted as I contemplated not floating about in that acidic spit.
There is something about the river that compels one not to lulling reverie but rather to curiosity about its contents. Just what the hell is in there?
The answer is not pleasant. Sewage. Methane gas, organic coagulants, waterborne diseases. A decomposing sediment partially composed of pork parts left over from the days when Chicago was hailed as the hog-butchering capital of the world. The Army Corps of Engineers recently upgraded the status of the river from toxic to polluted, but it has a long way to go before the sight of something floating in it doesn’t induce the heebie-jeebies.
As if to encourage the advent of that new day, three Chicagoans have been planning a festival of floating sculpture for the river. Luke Dohner, the father of the event, initially imagined a single sculpture floating on the river, because “it was such an empty, open space, begging for something in it.” (This reasoning reminds me of a small child who drew with a pen on his buttocks because they were “so plain.”) He told his friend Dennis Callahan, who coincidentally had just moved into a studio space overlooking the river at Cortland Avenue. The two of them drummed up the idea of gathering self-propelled or towable sculptures to form a procession on the river. They brought in former scientist Henry Friedman to handle the organizational aspects, and amazingly the thing has come together as Flo Tilla, a collaboration of 23 (“Confirmed?” I asked. “Well . . . 23,” replied Callahan noncommittally) participants and their temporary contributions to the river.
The show is intentionally nonjuried, a determined effort on the part of the organizers to avoid imposing a viewpoint on the entries and to encourage a more pluralistic display. There are no entry fees; operating costs are funded by what Callahan refers to as their “lunch money.” As a final snub to institutions that would confine expression, the entry form contains a notation at the bottom admitting that Flo Tilla is in no way funded by the Illinois Arts Council, any state agency, the Chicago Office of Fine Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, or the North Northwest Arts Council–a notation that has irritated art promoters/real estate developers in the area.
As a result of their hands-off approach, the three have almost no idea what will actually show up. The initial proposals span a wide range, including a fair share of potential fiascoes. “One girl wanted to bring a plaster figure,” says Callahan. “We had to remind her that it needed to float. Supposedly she’s working on the flotation part now.” Someone else is threatening to bring an Edmund Fitzgerald. Other possible entries: sculptured Masonite waves, floating pools and mirrors, origami swans, a Vaseline sculpture, an enormous vomiting head, robotic fish, a performance in a kayak, a giant bubbling tank, incense-burning “percussive forms,” and hopefully a few latex corpses.
A “maintenance crew” charged with mop-up and retrieval duties has been enlisted in the persons of scuba diver Jim Warden, who’ll pursue any unplanned sinkage, and “Captain” Dierk Yochim, who’ll survey the surface by boat. According to Callahan, Warden is “really scared,” refusing to dive in if a person goes under but saying he might if a float does. “He thinks,” says Callahan, “that people will sink faster and he doesn’t want to get in too deep.” Yochim, who has worked on the river in different capacities for years, won’t go in at all. He told Callahan that he has seen leeches, “pink,” Callahan repeats, “not even black, throbbing, boiling near the surface, so thick that they were afraid to put their hands in the water.” It’s an anecdote he might like to keep from Jim Warden.
Visitors, confined to the river’s edge, can witness both man-made and natural wonders. The Flo Tilla procession runs south from the bridge at Cortland Avenue to the North Avenue Turning Basin, and maps will be available indicating different viewing points, some of them worth a visit themselves. The bridge at Cortland is one of the world’s earliest perfected bascule trunnion (from the French term for teeter-totter) bridges, an engineering marvel raised and lowered by a motor the size of a Volkswagen Beetle’s and a delicately balanced weight so sensitive that if the bridge is painted it may need to be reweighted; this should be a good place to view the first sink-or-swim moments. Along the west bank of the river you may also see the ten-foot metal cubes stamped out by one of the recycling plants there. There are also rumors circulating that life other than human is returning to the river; Callahan says workers along the river claim to have sighted beaver, heron, and “actual fish swimming under their own power.” In fact, 24 species of fish are currently foraging for oxygen in the river (remarkable considering 12 years ago there were none).
The extravaganza begins at 1 on Sunday, with maps available at Joe’s Fisheries, 1438 W. Cortland. Admission is, of course, free. Call 278-1111.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.