On Saturday and Sunday, June 4 and 5, USA Network set up portable screening rooms in the plaza outside the Hancock Center during the last stop of its four-city tour. The two screening rooms were industrial shipping containers transformed by large flat screens monitors, two rows of bleachers, and much-needed air conditioning that made the containers a refuge from the 95-degree weather and mid-afternoon thunderstorms that weekend.
This may have been the first time two shipping containers were parked outside the Hancock Center as portable viewing stations, but it’s not the first time shipping containers have been re-purposed as creative spaces for art, design, and living. In 2008, the School of Art at George Mason University in D.C. acquired The Container Space, a recycled shipping container used as an exhibition space. During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Calgary-based performance organization Springboard created Containr, a public art installation including film screenings and performances all housed inside a shipping container. Just last week, the NRW-Forum, a contemporary art space in Dusseldorf, Germany, opened an “Container Architecture,” an exhibition curated solely around the concept and materiality of shipping containers.
More recently, the shipping container has been appropriated as an outreach strategy by companies looking to market products and collaborate with artists. In early 2011, Chanel sponsored a “mobile art exhibition pavilion,” or more specifically, a re-purposed shipping container designed by architect Zaha Hadid and installed in the Arab World Institute in Paris. The mobile art exhibition pavilion features works by Yoko Ono, David Levinthal, and Sophie Calle, among more than a dozen others.
In Chicago, the shipping container was appropriated as a strategy to invite the public to view eight new short films commissioned by USA Network and RSA Films. “The Dude,” “Fish,” and “Wyckoff Place,” are all short documentaries focusing on phenomenons in American popular culture.
“The Dude,” directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, who is best known for his music doc The Devil and Daniel Johnston, reveals the adventures of real-life dude Jeff Dowd, the man for whom Jeff Bridges’ character is based on in the cult classic The Big Lebowksi. Dowd, once charged for conspiring to incite a riot with the the anti-Vietnam War group The Seattle Seven, of which he was a member, now makes his living appearing as himself at Lebowski Fests around the country.
In “Fish,” director R.J. Cutler highlights another cultural phenomenon: Animal, the LA restaurant that boasts a two-week waiting list just to get a reservation. After briefly telling the story of chef and Animal owner Jon Shook, “Fish” follows the opening of Shook’s second restaurant, Son of A Gun.
“Wyckoff Place,” directed by Lauri Faggioni, is the story of six kids who all live in the same apartment building in Brooklyn. Born in places such as Sudan, Yemen, and Puerto Rico, the kids are filmed playing tag and pogo-stick in the street, gossiping in the stairwell, and fighting in the halls. Perhaps the most pertinent moment comes towards the end of the film, when Faggioni asks, “What do you think it will be like when all the kids grow up and move away to different places?”
Whereas “The Dude” and “Wyckoff Place” presented charming and idiosyncratic snapshots of unique American lifestyles, “Fish” felt more like a 20-minute commercial for Shook’s new restaurant. Other films screened at the Character Project included “Duck,” “The Fickle,” “Monster Slayer,” and “Perfect.” All films are available to watch in their entirety at characterproject.usanetwork.com
Although the Character Project installation was only open for a weekend, shipping containers as alternative art spaces will continue to pop up around Chicago this summer. At Built Festival on July 8 and 9, artists and designers will present cities fashioned inside of and built from shipping containers. The festival, which will include live music, fashion shows, and interactive art, will test how far the shipping container can really be transformed. More importantly, amidst Chicago’s outdoor summer festival craze, will attendees really be inclined to step inside a 40-foot metal box?