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Pablo Helguera – Art on the Road

This summer, SAIC alumnus Pablo Helguera took off by van on a project that covered two continents, 30 cities, and three expansive ideas. He named his endeavor “The School of Panamerican Unrest.” This mouthful of a title intimates Helguera’s three broad themes: education, internationalism, and discord in artistic communities all along the western hemisphere. His goal was to simultaneously recreate the journeys of Latin American leaders such as Simón Bólivar, as well as to create a new brand of artistic institution and communication. The project was ambitious in scope as well as in sheer miles covered, and while the project came together in some places, such as Portland, Oregon, and Mexico, it failed to do so in others. In Guatemala, Helguera mentions on his website, participants were perplexed about the project’s basic purpose, and during his Chicago stop this June, the project took on the look of an empty playground. For three days, Helguera parked his white Chevy van in front of the Hyde Park Art Center. He set up a bright yellow collapsible schoolhouse (complete with brass bell) a few steps away. He circulated in and out of the van, the schoolhouse and the Art Center, perhaps still propelled by inertia after driving for 100 hours and through two countries. Helguera claimed that, when finished, the project will be the longest ground-covering public art project ever completed. Though it had been in the making for three years, his personal history suggests it had been hibernating for over a decade. Helguera was born in Mexico and came to Chicago in 1989 to attend SAIC. “I came from Mexico City to become a muralist,” Helguera said, “but [in Chicago] I was exposed to political art.” He was influenced by two events in Chicago at the time: the controversy over and subsequent reduction of the National Endowment for the Arts, and attacks on an exhibition at the School of the Art Institute that supposedly desecrated the United States flag. As a result, Helguera abandoned his original plans to pursue performance art exclusively and expand. “Chicago nurtured my interest in theater, performance and political art,” Helguera said, “and I started thinking about integrating those.” Helguera spent nine years in Chicago. He later settled in New York, as the head of public programs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. This summer he transformed himself into an artistic itinerant and set out on a journey from Alaska to Argentina. In each city, as in Chicago, Helguera set up his portable schoolhouse and held public workshops, screenings and discussions that covered a wide range of subjects, from immigration to the crisis of liberalism, from political art to the ideas of landscape, and memory. “The idea behind it was a series of discussions to generate introspection among the art community regarding issues important to themselves, but also in a larger context,” Helguera said. “The point is interacting with very different communities, from the very sophisticated—like Chicago and L.A.—to places with no art museums.” In Chicago, Helguera hoped to find the events as lively as they had been in other cities, but things did not go as planned. First, he had trouble getting the city to settle on a location (the Hyde Park Art Center came through at the last minute). Helguera led a successful discussion with a panel of Chicago artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but things continued to go wrong that night when a series of screenings was interrupted by a storm that blew in, broke up the crowd and ruined a video projector. The next day, no one showed up for a writing workshop Helguera had planned, which forced him to cancel the closing ceremony: the performance of a “Chicago Address” that was supposed to have been collaboratively written during the workshop. Helguera expressed disappointment with the events in Chicago on the website in which he chronicles his project. “I have a very personal connection to Chicago,” Helguera said; the outcome of his visit suggested perhaps Chicago didn’t feel the same way. “Things here definitely did not go as planned,” he wrote. Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick, who served as a panelist for Helguera’s discussion at the MCA, acknowledged his complaint. “I think Chicago was a disappointment to Pablo in that [the event] wasn’t well attended,” Fitzpatrick said, “although I think the discussion was valuable.” The introspective and, as Helguera calls it, “eccentric nature” of Chicago artists became the focal point of the first discussion. “The point of departure became, ‘Why is the Chicago art community so segregated?’” Helguera said. “The Chicago art community doesn’t have a center, which makes it difficult to interact and have a dialogue.” The discussion was all too familiar to Fitzpatrick—he claims to have had it many times before with Chicago-based artists. “We all acknowledge the virtues and shortcomings of the city, then we repair back to our own world,” Fitzpatrick said. “I sometimes wonder if Chicago artists are not so good at following through and changing things.” His stop in Chicago didn’t turn out the way Helguera had planned, but inconsistent outcomes in each city is usually the only consistency in the “School of Panamerican Unrest” project. “This time [in Chicago] it has been really informal, whereas in Portland it was really formal,” Helguera said, “it’s been different in every place, and that’s what makes it interesting.” In fact, Helguera’s trip almost stalled at the very beginning, in Anchorage, one of the first cities on his itinerary. His intention was to start by meeting Mary Smith-Jones, the only remaining speaker of the Alaskan language Eyak. “I almost left Anchorage without having met her,” Helguera said. “She was very reclusive, and I had to deal with an army of linguists who were so protective. I tried and tried for weeks and weeks, and then an hour before I was scheduled to depart, finally a call came through that she’d see me.” Helguera was finally able to record Smith-Jones as she spoke in her native language, which he will include in a documentary chronicling his trip. The beginning of his trip will parallel its end, in Ushuaia, Argentina, with Cristina Calderón, the last speaker of the Argentinean language Yagan. Though the project is ambiguous, it is adaptable, which is perhaps its saving grace. On his website, Helguera ruminates over his adventures in a travelogue-style weblog, describing the settings he and his project have encountered: northern lights shining over Canadian prairies, political rallies in Mexico, and of course, the sparsely-populated sidewalks in front of Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center. Even that, as Helguera discovered, could be inspiring: on his last day in Chicago, Helguera stood in front of the schoolhouse at the Hyde Park Art Center, waiting for participants who would never appear. While he waited, an elderly couple walked by. The woman glanced over at the strange yellow structure. “I think it’s supposed to represent a church,” she said. Helguera smiled—a similar thing had happened in Canada, he said, when a troubled man stopped in front of the schoolhouse to pray. And Helguera appreciates even the misinterpretations of his project. “Is it really a school, or is it not?” he said. “I like that ambiguity.” fnews September 2006

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