Evidence on Display | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Evidence on Display 

When WorldCom screwed Derek Monroe, he didn't get mad--he got inspired.

When WorldCom went broke over the summer, it was the biggest bankruptcy in the history of money. WorldCom isn't just any company. It's a phone company. It owns MCI, the second largest long-distance carrier. But now it's so poor it owes $300 million to SBC Communications, $183 million to Verizon Communications, and $20,000 to its janitorial service.

WorldCom also wrote a bad check to Derek Monroe of Round Lake Beach, stiffing him for $627.76.

Most of WorldCom's creditors are taking the company to bankruptcy court, hoping to get back a penny on the dollar. But Monroe is an artist. He's not interested in money. He wants everyone to see that WorldCom ran a bunco game on him. So he's making the hot check the centerpiece of a multimedia exhibit he'll be taking to an art show in Poland next month.

Monroe's spat with WorldCom began last year, two days before Christmas. He was changing his son's diaper when his telephone rang. It was MCI, inviting him to change his long-distance service.

"My son was very sick," Monroe says. "The TV was on, I had the diaper in my hand, and I got a call. I quit MCI last November, because they were overcharging me for service. Even when I turned away from them, they were still charging me six or seven dollars a month. I finally told my credit card company to stop paying. Since then, they called me two times a month. Something broke inside me. I thought, 'There has to be some kind of law to protect us from this type of marketing.'"

There is. A lawyer friend told Monroe about the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits telemarketers from calling customers who've asked to be removed from their lists. The next time MCI called, Monroe asked them to stop. They called again. Monroe filed a lawsuit in Lake County Circuit Court, asking for $500 in damages.

"Why do I always have to defend myself in my home from people who want to sell me something?" Monroe asks. He grew up in communist Poland and moved to the U.S. when he was a teenager. That was in the 1980s. Back then, AT&T had a monopoly on long-distance service. They didn't need to sell it over the phone.

In his 20s, Monroe lived in Japan, where the home is considered a sacred refuge. "I studied in Japan for six years, and I got to relish the inviolability of space," he says. "Telemarketing is unheard-of there. Here, everything's based on transactional purposes. Even personal [relationships] are based more on need than human interaction."

A month after he sued WorldCom, Monroe received a letter from the company's executive offices in Maryland. WorldCom agreed to pay him $500 plus costs just as soon as he signed a formal settlement agreement. Monroe signed on June 30, then waited by his mailbox. Three weeks later WorldCom went bankrupt.

"I thought, 'I probably won't be getting a check,'" Monroe says.

But a check arrived the next day, by Airborne Express. Bank of America, which holds WorldCom's money, assured him the company's account was still open. Monroe cashed the check. It came back marked "Refer to maker," which is a bank's euphemism for "bounced."

Monroe's next letter to WorldCom was an invitation to the fifth annual International Art Meet in Siedlce, Poland, running from November 29 to December 9, where he'll be premiering his installation To Bank and to Worldcon, "featuring the check issued by WorldCom and drawn on Bank of America, Northbrook, IL."

Monroe's work, which ranges from paintings to photography to collage, has been shown locally at Burkhart Studios and Thirteenth Floor Gallery. He was recommended to the Art Meet by a Lithuanian artist he'd met when he exhibited his first multimedia installation--Industrial Zen Glass Garden, an outdoor shrine made of glass, mosquito netting, and magnetic tape--at a show in Japan. The bounced check, he decided, would be a terrific commentary on America's corporate scandals. For To Bank and to Worldcon, he plans to laminate it and suspend it by chains from four pillars. A television will display an image of the check changing colors, while a tape recorder will play the "press one" voice prompts you hear when you call the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Monroe really wanted the voice of a telemarketer, but the law won't allow him to tape one. The IDES recording is just as intrusive, he says. It "addresses very personal questions. It conveys the message of someone trying to get your personal information." The pillars will be wrapped in magnetic tape, which reflects a "glistering image" visible for hundreds of yards.

He also invited Bank of America to the Art Meet. After Monroe faxed the invitation, he says, a Bank of America lawyer called back to tell him "I was exposing myself to the danger of litigation." He hopes they sue him. Lawsuits are great publicity for artists.

(Bank of America spokesman Diane Wagner says the bank would never take Monroe to court: "It's his check. It's his freedom of speech." WorldCom did not respond to an interview request.)

"This is not really a revenge," Monroe says. "It's something to use my personal experience to show what's happening in American culture, the economic cataclysm that's descending on our heads. I don't care about the money anymore. This is personal. I wouldn't even accept the money now."

He's probably not going to be offered it, either.

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

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