It would be easy to assume the two figures hanging out in a vacant North Avenue lot on a recent rainy evening are up to something nefarious–possibly illegal. He’s holding a plastic stencil in one hand and a can of silver spray paint in the other, while she consults from a few feet away.

“No, the other side, to the left.” She peers back at traffic to see if anyone’s noticed them, then looks back.

“Yeah, there. Perfect.”

The man quickly stencils a slanty drawing of a cassette and an arrow onto the side of a tall tree stump and slips a cassette tape, in a plastic case, into the hollow of the stump.

Aay Preston-Myint, a student and tour guide at the Art Institute, and Ilana Percher, an applications engineer, are the founders of the Chicago Tapes Project, a participatory art endeavor launched in April as part of Version>05. Part secret Santa, part public-space reclamation, the project has so far planted at least 30 anonymous mix tapes around the city.

The pair start by creating tapes around varying themes–Preston-Myint’s recent batch of 90-minute dubs is organized around “Songs about the sea or sky”; Percher is halfway through a showcase of “male singers with high voices,” though she’s stalled out temporarily because she can’t find a copy of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.”

Once completed, the mixes are installed in one of 20-odd public “tape stations,” which range from a spot just inside the doorway of Quimby’s to a stone wall in Bridgeport to the ceiling of the Rogers Park art space Mess Hall, where a Chicago Tapes Project display was part of the recent Open Source/Open Ear exhibition. Each is just big enough to shelter the tape from the elements and is flagged by a small arrow-and-cassette sticker or stencil. Inside every cassette case are brief instructions and a stencil and sticker–to help finders set up their own stations. Information and downloadable stencils can also be found at

The project got off to a rocky start. “The first tape and tape station I made,” says Percher, “I went back two days later, and found that the place had been demolished with a bulldozer. That one did not work out so well.”

But tonight, as they make the rounds of the three stations just west of Wicker Park, they’re giddy with excitement. “Aay found a tape today. Our first one back,” Percher says. “I’m not sure if this is the first time it’s happened, like, if some people have found other people’s tapes in the stations, but today was a triumph–it was the first time either of us found one placed by someone else.”

The tape, says Preston-Myint, was found under the Bloomingdale viaduct at Western, in a hole in one of the supports, about a foot off the ground. “I haven’t listened to the whole thing,” he says, “but it’s kind of experimental, a guy talking or reading over sounds. Or maybe people having a meeting. I’m not sure.”

“My fantasy is that I one day discover a tape station that I had nothing to do with,” says Percher. “I would love to see people taking tapes and putting tapes in, people making friends or secret, anonymous pen-pal-ships. For the station to be something people are using; for it to become part of the neighborhood it’s in.”

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