For Mathew Wilson, art is whatever he says it is. Or it’s not. It all depends on your perception of things. Or it doesn’t. “It’s art because I call it art,” he says. “It’s up to you whether you like it or not.”

Wilson, a performance artist and a teacher at the School of the Art Institute, will be moving into the Blue Rider Theater, 1822 S. Halsted, at midnight on Monday, September 5. He and a student of his, Eduardo Martinez-Almaral, will stay there for an entire week. The public is invited to come in anytime to watch them. They may witness art. Or maybe not. It depends.

To add to the working kitchen and bathroom that are already part of the theater, Wilson and Martinez-Almaral are importing a futon (to share), a record player and records, an organ (which neither knows how to play), and a crow’s nest from which to address the audience. They have prepared approximately six hours of scripted material involving cooking, bathing, and other everyday tasks for their piece, which they call Tragedy. Wilson says the planned action will run out pretty fast. “Most of the period is going to be taken up by how we overcome the practical problems of being in the space,” he says. “The six hours that we’ve scripted may become pretty irrelevant by the second day, and that’s why we’re doing this, to see what’s going to happen in an extended performance that the audience cannot take in as a whole. Unless, that is, they live in the space like we do.”

Everybody who witnesses the performance, Wilson says, will see something different. “The audience will interact with the piece,” he says. “If they walk into the kitchen and share breakfast with us, that’s obviously going to change what we do. But if you come in and have breakfast, that is going to be part of the performance, and we’re going to deal with it as part of the performance.”

But even if the theater is empty, which it probably often will be, the performers will not take a break. “As far as we’re concerned, if there’s nobody in the space, we’re going to maintain our concentration on performing,” Wilson says. “We’re not going to go, ‘Right, there’s nobody here, let’s get a cigarette and have a chat.'”

Martinez-Almaral is Cuban born and came to Chicago after living in Miami; Wilson grew up in London and came to Chicago to study photography at the Art Institute. They are both 26. Wilson, for the most part, has performed his previous works in public. He and Los Angeles-based performance artist Mark Alice Durant have done site-specific pieces in several cities under the name Men of the World, examining the power relationships and behavior of men in public places.

In 1991 Wilson and Durant did several pieces on the street in Chicago. In Men Exchanging Fluids the performers, dressed as businessmen, took 12 glasses of water from their briefcases and fed them to each other. This was performed on three consecutive weeks, at Daley Plaza, the Art Institute, and the Damen el station. Then there was Is Father Dirty? in which Wilson and Durant went around to various downtown Chicago public statues depicting “war heroes, patriarchs, and founding fathers” and scrubbed them down using soapy water, brushes, and cloths. In other pieces, Wilson and Durant, dressed as businessmen, shook hands for half an hour at ten different downtown sites, placed price tags on various public monuments, and, on the day before Thanksgiving, lay down as if dead under statues of Native American warriors at Michigan and Congress.

In April of this year, on Earth Day, Wilson arranged for 100 people to drop dead in Daley Plaza for about half an hour. When the time was up, the people, all dressed in business attire, rose, brushed themselves off, and walked away. “The thing in Daley Plaza reminded people of something,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t the thing itself, but it was some kind of shadowy echo or memory. But in all the stuff I do, I try not to feign or simulate an action.

“As much as possible, I don’t want to do any acting. I want this act,” he says, picking up a pen, “to be what it is, and I don’t want to give it any flourish.”

It’s going to be difficult to perform Tragedy without any of the conventions of performance art, Wilson says. It is in a theater, and, sometimes, there will be an audience. “We came up with some idea, but then we said, ‘Well, that idea will last an hour, but what will happen when that particular scripted part runs out?’ Well, nothing, we’re just going to carry on.”

Wilson gets up to make some tea. What if you two don’t get along? I ask.

“This could be hell, it really could,” he says. “You might come in on Sunday and we’d be ready to kill each other. We have promised each other that neither of us will walk out of the space, unless it’s part of a planned trip to Jewel or something. So if we get involved in a real humdinger of an argument, we’ve got to deal with that somehow. We’ve already been fighting.”

About what?

“I accused him of not being specific enough with language, and he said that language is not specific at all, and it just escalated.”

I usually just fight with my roommates about doing the dishes, I say.

“Actually, it’s more likely that those are the sorts of arguments that are going to start happening,” he says. “It’s not like we’re going to spontaneously start to argue about the relative benefits of some kind of writer.”

Wilson says they’re going to lock the theater’s door after midnight for security reasons, but will put up a sign asking audience members to knock and wake them up. “One of us will get up and let you in,” Wilson says, “but we’ll probably go back to bed again. On the other hand, we might decide, let’s do a little something here that might be shaped by the fact that we can hardly keep our eyes open. We’ll do a little performance on the edge of sleep.”

Wilson is stirring milk into our tea. “I’m curious to know,” he says to me from his kitchen, “now that it’s all over. How did you react to the piece?”

Um, the piece? What piece?

“You know, the piece,” he says, “the piece we just did.”

What, you mean the interview?

“Yeah, that’s it,” he says, bringing my cup over.

Um, I don’t know. How do you feel about it?

He puts the tea in front of me. “Pretty good,” he says.

So, I guess this is a cup of actual British tea.

“Well, yeah,” Wilson says. “What else would it be?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.