Last fall choreographer and multimedia artist Ann Carlson started sifting through thousands of archival images from the Chicago Historical Society and other sources for her new site-specific project, Night Light. Eventually, Carlson and two local researchers settled on nine photos “where the place can be identified,” she says. “Sometimes it’s ridiculously obvious, like the lions at the Art Institute.” The piece, in which dancers will re-create the series of photographs shot at various sites around downtown between 1890 and 1990, will be viewed in the context of a walking tour, with the dancers wearing period costumes–all in gray scale–and standing stock-still on the spots where the photographs were originally snapped.

One “living photograph” will re-create a postcard sold at the Art Institute: a group of female students–all of whom are white–working on sculptures of a Native American man in full headdress. “There are embedded issues in the photographs that I want to leave to the viewer to deconstruct and be curious about,” Carlson says. A mid-70s photo booth snapshot of self-taught artist Lee Godie, which was stitched to one of the paintings Godie used to hawk outside the Art Institute, will be staged on State Street, complete with photo booth.

Night Light was commissioned by Performing Arts Chicago and the School of the Art Institute. The former is located in the Fine Arts Building, where Carlson–a native of Park Ridge–studied ballet over 30 years ago. “It was weird,” she says. “The same elevator operator, Tommy, still works there. He is like a living representation of the project.” Indeed, she adds, “this one has more personal layers” than the variations she created last year in Boston and New York City.

Carlson, who’s based in New York and has received fellowships from the NEA and the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Art, says, “I’m trying to make history visible as a present-day experience. People will be on the street and able to see this historical moment re-created back into three dimensions. They’ll also be able to reference the original photograph and see what’s different–it’s a little bit like ‘find the hidden mistake,’ because you can’t get every single fold of cloth right….I hope all of these things converge to expose this whole kind of fluid notion of history and truth and reality.”

She admits she’s cheated on some of the photos: “We can’t verify where they were taken, so we restaged them at a place where they could have been staged because of the background.” They’ve also moved a couple of the locations closer to the others, so “people don’t have to walk so far to see them.”

Carlson’s dancers have to stand “projecting stillness” for 12-minute stretches. “Some were cast because they look like the photograph,” she says. “Sometimes it comes down to can we find a one-legged man,” as in the instance of a photo of a man on crutches taken in front of Marshall Field’s around 1920.

Previous performances have drawn passersby who stopped and stared–which Carlson welcomes. “Sometimes there would be people who really know the photograph or landmark history and would get on their cell phones and say, ‘You have to get down here,'” she says. “They also told me things about the photographs that I didn’t know.” In New York, one viewer even knew a relative of someone in a photo.

Last week, on her way to the Fine Arts Building, Carlson passed a saxophone player who bore a close resemblance to one in a 1990 photograph that she’s restaging to be viewed from the el platform at Madison and Wabash. “I should see if it’s the same person,” she says.

Night Light will be staged between 6 and 8 PM Thursday, July 12, through Saturday, July 14. Walking tours depart from the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan. Tickets are $20, and include a map and a program featuring copies of the original photographs; there will also be local guides to tell stories about the neighborhood and direct people to the tableaux. Call 773-722-5463 for more information.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago/courtesy the Chicago Historical Society.