Event for Remembering

Mathew Wilson

at the Equitable Building plaza, August 28

By Justin Hayford

On an August day so beautiful it could almost restore your faith in Chicago summers, in the vast public plaza in front of the Equitable Building on Michigan Avenue, photographers and cameramen lug expensive equipment, tape down cable, check light meters, jockey for position. With the convention in town, such displays of technological wizardry and nonchalant self-importance are no more unusual than being offered a copy of StreetWise. However, a cluster of Secret Service agents in impossibly bland suits, muttering into their sleeves, lets even the idle passerby know that something big is up.

It’s just before noon. A few more tourists than usual peer into the glassed-in WGN radio studio adjacent to the Tribune Tower plaza. An electric message board above the studio-cum-fish-tank announces that Hillary Clinton will be there at 12:30, a lunchtime offering of First Lady Under Glass.

But something else is up. A man and woman in the plaza are almost making a point of being uninterested. In other ways they’re like the handful of young professional types on lunch break, dressed in casual office attire and intent on lingering. They sit on the stone planters flanking the Equitable Building’s entrance like the lions in front of the Art Institute and read their newspapers. Nothing seems terribly out of the ordinary until you look closely. Their papers are completely blank.

Well, not completely. The date appears on the upper right corner of the front page: August 28, 1996–28 years to the day since Chicago cops busted the heads of anybody within striking distance at the last Democratic convention, 33 years to the day since Martin Luther King Jr. announced on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that he had a dream for America. The woman fingers her pages casually, raising her head now and again to let the sun warm her face. The man stares intently at his paper, then leans in closer, brows furrowed, as though working through a particularly disagreeable story.

A few minutes later another woman walks into the plaza and sits in a far corner under a tree. She looks at the crowd outside WGN, watches the parade of lunch-hour suits on the Michigan Avenue sidewalk, stares into space. On her lap is her purse and a newspaper without print.

By noon five people are spread throughout the plaza reading blank pages, and then a few more head in, print-free papers tucked under their arms. No one except the ever-vigilant Secret Service seems to notice anything unusual. A cluster of agents moves to the center of the plaza, confers, and disbands. Silent people acting like idiots are apparently no threat to national security.

A man walks up to me: Mathew Wilson, the artist who dreamed up this intentionally empty spectacle about six months ago. A veteran of public performances, both as a solo artist and as half of the duo Men of the World, Wilson agreed to create a piece in conjunction with a show at the School of the Art Institute’s Gallery 2, “1968 Now?” which examines the legacy of one pivotal year in American history.

For the first time Wilson decided not to get a city permit for an event of his, perhaps imagining that he didn’t need one. “How can they say that anything is definitively happening?” he argued. “It may become visible for certain people, but only at a particular moment.” Besides, he felt no special compulsion to pursue an official, lottery-assigned demonstration permit, an invitation to obscurity and irrelevance. As usual, Wilson has not advertised the event ahead of time, but with the First Lady here he’s worried he might get too much attention–and with all the security, his performance might be stopped.

After a brief chat with Wilson I begin to notice people reading blank papers in several spots: next to the bus stop on the curb, atop the steps leading down to the river, across the street in front of the Wrigley Building. The image isn’t announcing itself yet, as the performers merely dot the landscape and are utterly self-effacing. But its very invisibility adds to the coy humor. As people stream by oblivious, many with dailies under their arms, you can imagine the performers whispering, “This is all you can do with that paper. There is no news today”–except perhaps the stories we make up and project on the blank screen closest at hand, whether it’s a welfare mother or a presidential candidate.

Earlier that morning Wilson’s brother Martin walked along Michigan Avenue hawking the papers. He sold two at 50 cents apiece. “Not much of a paper, is it?” concluded one customer. Someone else declined to buy, and as she walked away asked Mathew Wilson, “Is that man selling nothing on the street?”

At about 12:30, just as the First Lady makes her well-concealed entrance, the plaza is so full of empty newspapers that they cause a decisive shift in media attention. Photographers suddenly can’t get enough shots of people staring at blank pages. Television crews train their cameras on people who don’t move. A few feet away Hillary speaks in her own expediently spun blank verse, but the journalists, perhaps sick to death of trying to dress up nothing as something all week, seem delighted to stumble upon nothing that’s really something.

A man goes up to a performer and asks if he can borrow the sports section. The performer dutifully hands him the last two blank pages. The man heads back to his office, apparently satisfied. A woman walks past one of the performers, peers over his shoulder, and concludes, “Looks like a Tribune to me.” Later a Tribune employee demands of a performer, “Are you saying my paper doesn’t say anything?” Then his friend calmly points out, “They’re not saying anything.”

As the image achieves critical mass, passersby are no longer content to stare quizzically. As typically happens at one of Wilson’s public conundrums, people demand to be told what’s going on, why all these people are reading blank sheets. “I just came out to sit in the sun and read the paper,” one performer explains cheerfully again and again as pedestrians file over to her. “I don’t know what these other people are doing.” Usually the questioners then head off to try another performer.

If anything, since the performers are stationed beneath the Tribune’s gothic tower of truth holding blank pages cut to that newspaper’s dimensions, it’s all too clear what the gesture “means.” Of all Wilson’s public performances–100 people lying “dead” in Daley Plaza for an hour, 100 people standing motionless in Federal Plaza for an hour, 75 people at the end of Navy Pier waving white handkerchiefs at the lake for 15 minutes–this one is the most direct and unambiguous. While the others mystified, this one clarifies, makes a point where the others posed questions. Event for Remembering is Wilson’s least poetically resonant piece. But perhaps poetry is impossible in a city browbeaten within an inch of its life by a four-day national pep rally. After sitting through endless hours of unfocused, uncommitted, vertigo-inducing pandemonium disguised as political theater at the United Center, I realize that I can think again. Experiencing something so pure, still, and on point is rejuvenating.

Throughout the performance a man sits curbside on a dark blue moped. He wears an enormous golf ball on his head. No one asks him why he wears it, or what his performance means–we understand that he’s advertising something. Acting like an idiot in the name of commerce goes unquestioned. Doing the same in the name of art is cause for suspicion.

The performers occupy the plaza for an hour, and then–as is customary at the end of one of Wilson’s pieces–they trickle away without a word. The performance evaporates, the plaza returns to normal, and all that’s left behind is the distinct and melancholic impression that whatever happened is gone without a trace. It’s precisely the feeling that so often descends after reading the morning paper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bill Stamets.