By Martha Bayne

According to the program notes, Karen Kimmel’s Cluster, a performance piece for 11 women executed last Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was supposed to be a “pointed satire on the role of women in the service and hospitality industries.” It turned out to be a lame joke about the intersection of art and commerce.

As the performance was part of the MCA’s “First Fridays” series–a monthly cocktail party designed to lure the young and upwardly mobile to the museum–I probably never would have known about it if it weren’t for the voice mail message I got Wednesday night: “Hi, Martha? My name is Karen Kimmel and I got your number from…and I’m doing a performance at the MCA here in Chicago and…” She didn’t say what it was about, only that she needed extra performers, but I was already interested. Though I hadn’t performed in years, I still liked to think I was an arty sort of chick. Problem was, my mother was flying in the next day for a whirlwind visit, and I wasn’t sure she’d understand if I put her on hold to answer the call of art. Then came the clincher: “It’s a paid piece–somewhere between $175 and $200.” I was broke. I was game.

Kimmel called again early Thursday morning to fill me in on the details. She said Cluster was an exploration of the dynamic of giving and receiving and a statement on personal space and female strength. To make this statement, she required five women, identically dressed except for the constellations screened across their clingy white T-shirts, to circulate through the crowd carrying huge plastic umbrellas, from which would dangle gray paper cones filled with popcorn. She wanted me to be one of the umbrella women, based not on any experience I might’ve had in the service industry or even in performance, but on the size of my butt: of the dozen potential performers Kimmel had lined up in Chicago through friends of friends, four were “amazons with no butt” and couldn’t wear the yellow-and-white-striped canvas shorts she’d brought along from New York. The rest were too petite for the shorts, but had signed on as runners, which involved reloading the umbrellas with corn while wearing more forgiving canvas wraparound miniskirts. I assured Kimmel that I was an unremarkable five-foot-six, with an ample backside. She seemed relieved.

This should have been my first red flag. I’ve since learned that my friend Andrea was one of the rejected amazons. Now, Andrea is a rad woman, an accomplished artist, and a fox to boot, but buttless she is not. When I asked her about this later she said it was pretty hilarious watching all those zaftig Cinderellas trying to squeeze into the shorts in order to be part of a performance about empowerment.

I stopped by the MCA Thursday afternoon to meet Kimmel and try on the problematic shorts. Kimmel showed me her portfolio and explained more about the piece, which she framed as part of a bigger multimedia event. It would be accompanied by a fashion show and a video installation; there would be a band. She mentioned that GQ was a sponsor. Then I put on the shorts. They were snug, but they fit. Kimmel also had me try on a miniskirt, just in case, and said she would call me later. She complimented me on my “strong female presence” and offered to put my mother on the guest list. As I hopped the train to O’Hare, visions of hundred-dollar bills danced in my head. Later that night Kimmel’s assistant called to say that they had enough women to wear the shorts without me, thanks, but that I could still be a runner if I were interested. It paid a little less, she added. I went to sleep wondering how much my demotion had to do with my derriere.

I reported to the MCA on Friday afternoon at four for hair and makeup. Kimmel had instructed me to clean my nails, shave my legs, choose a plain white bra, and wear thong underwear. Not owning anything resembling a thong, I blew off this last request and hoped no one would notice. I was betting a little panty line wouldn’t compromise the artistic integrity of Cluster too severely. I was right.

The first thing I noticed about the program for the show was that it said camel in blue letters, bigger than anything else. The museum’s logo was on the back cover, not the front, sandwiched between the cryptic line “11 mg. ‘tar’, 0.9 mg. nicotine av. per cigarette by FTC method” and an even larger Camel logo. As it turned out, Kimmel and most of the other artists participating in the evening’s festivities were booked and paid by R.J. Reynolds, Camel’s parent company, which then turned the planning over to KBA, a Chicago-based marketing firm that targets “Generation X.”

One of KBA’s recent successes has been the creation of a network of “Camel clubs.” These bars and clubs–youth-oriented velvet-rope hangouts like Crobar and Liquid Kitty–agree to promote and sell Camel cigarettes exclusively in return for free Camel paraphernalia and free advertising in papers like this one. The clubs are visited on a regular basis by hired hipsters who dispense free cigarettes to bartenders and patrons. It’s the new frontier in direct marketing, in which the aim is not to push a specific product by touting its particular real or imagined virtues, but to simply link the brand with fashion-forward people, edgy culture, and possible sex.

“First Fridays” appears to be the next link in this strategic chain. According to Lori Kleinerman, the MCA’s marketing and PR director, the last three have all been sponsored by something called the Camel Work in Progress initiative, a program charged with promoting contemporary artists. Art consultants are hired by RJR to scout out the talent and serve as liaison between the company and the artists. The only part of last Friday’s event curated by the MCA was the funk-rock band Swimmer.

The MCA’s assistant director of marketing, Phillip Bahar, says Camel sometimes pays for artists the series couldn’t otherwise afford, and that it brings “a lot of energy to ‘First Fridays.'” But Camel also brings a lot of merchandise, and that’s a frequent bone of contention. One local technician who has worked on several Camel events (and asked me not to use his name) told me he’s witnessed standoffs between RJR art consultants and KBA reps over how omnipresent the advertising can be before it actually infringes on the integrity of an artist’s work. The consultants, he said, seemed genuinely sincere in their advocacy for the rights of the artists, while the KBA people seemed most concerned with pushing the boundaries as far as possible, arguing for more aggressive product and logo placement.

Last Friday the KBA people must have won, because as the afternoon progressed, the Camel presence grew thicker and thicker. Around five o’clock a phalanx of young women showed up in identical black cocktail dresses, each with a Camel logo embroidered in silver thread between her breasts. They set up camp in the hallway outside our dressing area and started to load up trays with complimentary packs of premium Camel cigarettes–Camel Special Lights, Red Kamels, Camel Menthols. Just before six, our faces shimmering and our hair slicked back, we donned our costumes and headed downstairs, where we runners loaded up cones with popcorn and several of the umbrella carriers (three of whom, I later discovered, were hired at the last minute by Kimmel through a temp agency recommended by KBA) assumed their positions just inside the doors of the museum cafe. The other two stationed themselves on the upper terrace, where over their heads three video monitors blinked to life and began pulsing with psychedelic animated Camel logos.

I looked around for the video installation Kimmel had told me about. Evidently there were a total of 20 monitors, 17 of them displaying the “real” art. But I spotted only a few of those, and they were in grainy black and white. One showed a woman nibbling on a rice cake. The Camel loops were magenta, green, chartreuse. They were sophisticated, slick, hypnotic.

As the doors opened and partygoers in “casual Friday” wear streamed in, the umbrella carriers greeted new arrivals with blandly scripted graciousness: “Hello. Welcome to constellation 804. Would you care for a cluster of corn?” We runners hustled between our curtained-off popcorn prep nook and the main entrance, bearing wide Plexiglass trays. It had been raining for several hours and the terrace, though tented, was slick with condensation. Our plastic Birkenstock clogs were uniformly too big, and I slipped and stumbled through the crowd. My girly Gap T-shirt was extremely tight, and I caught more than one guy staring at my boobs. (I later heard that another runner actually got groped.) My skirt hiked up high on my hips each time I hooked a new cone onto an umbrella, and I was glad I had ignored the thong directive.

I spotted a local musician and performer named Julie, the only originally scheduled umbrella carrier who fit into the shorts. Julie hadn’t known in advance that this was a Camel event either; in fact, last year she’d crashed a Christmas party Camel threw for Camel club bartenders at the Congress Theater, wearing a giant papier-mache Joe Camel head while her cohorts took pictures. The Camel reps, who initially mistook her subversiveness for a display of enthusiasm, ended up asking her to leave. When I crossed the room to bring her more corn, Julie waved a fistful of napkins at me. Each napkin was printed with a big black camel. A woman had just handed her a stack of them and ordered her to pass them out along with the popcorn. Julie balked, saying she didn’t think Kimmel would appreciate having the Camel logo slapped directly onto her work. The woman snapped back, “Who do you think is paying the artist to be here?”

In the prep area a small mutiny was brewing. A fellow runner (who did not want her name used either) had also been accosted by a napkin pusher and had argued with her heatedly. Others were bitching more generally about being part of a glorified commercial. I blurted out, “I feel like such a whore,” and several heads bobbed in agreement. Kimmel’s assistant said she realized the situation was awkward, but that Kimmel had known what she was getting into and felt her work could transcend any commercial context. Kimmel herself appeared shortly thereafter, looking shell-shocked. She said that the napkins were a total surprise, that she had told all the umbrella bearers to toss or at least fold up their napkins so the Camel logo wouldn’t show, and that she would never, ever have agreed to include the logo in her piece, which was being extensively videotaped and photographed.

But Lynne Sowder, one of RJR’s art consultants, later told me that before the performance Kimmel met with representatives from RJR and KBA. She not only agreed to pass out Camel napkins with the popcorn, Sowder said, but proposed that she design the napkins herself, so that they were aesthetically harmonious with the costumes. Sowder maintained that RJR goes to great lengths to make the relationship between artist and sponsor a comfortable one, and that when Kimmel changed her mind about the napkins at the last minute, they were “OK with that.”

Back in the prep area, Kimmel was looking for a replacement umbrella carrier because one of the women from the temp agency was complaining that she felt stupid. She asked me if I’d mind going out and holding the temp’s umbrella for a few minutes while another runner switched costumes with her. I thought of my mother waiting back at my apartment–she wasn’t on the guest list after all–and I said no. When Kimmel asked if I was all right, I decided that I wasn’t, and after mumbling a confused apology, I left.

When I got back up to the dressing area I found three Camel reps smoking and chatting with their feet up on the table. One of them said to me, “That was a short shift.”

“Well, yeah. I quit.”

“Ha! Cool,” said the Camel rep admiringly. He gestured at the cartons spilling their contents over the table. “You want some cigarettes?” o