In a Heartbeat | Our Town | Chicago Reader

In a Heartbeat 

The Sweet Sound of Matthew Wilson's Latest Public Performance Piece.

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While war veterans solicited donations for poppies on Loop street corners the Thursday before Memorial Day, another group was offering something less traditional. As throngs of workers with briefcases and gym bags hurried home from work, 14 solitary figures scattered up and down LaSalle Street between the Board of Trade and the Chicago River carried small digital recorders playing the sound of a heartbeat sampled off the Internet. The speakers were hidden under their clothes, close to their hearts, and from 5:00 to 5:32 PM the microphones they held to their chests amplified the sound through ten-watt battery-powered Radio Shack megaphones. These slightly mysterious citizens were participants in 32 Minutes on LaSalle, composed by performance artist Mathew Wilson and sponsored by Columbia College's Hokin Center as part of its annual May fest.

The performers were undemonstrative; they moved with the flow, creating fleeting eddies of embarrassment. People seemed puzzled. A few were perturbed, while more were curious but reluctant to ask what was going on or what it meant. Since Wilson stages his elusive performances in public spaces without permits or press releases, none of the passersby knew in advance what they were encountering. Wilson will often notify a critic or a reporter or two, but he'd rather have his artwork go unreviewed than risk having the presence of the media tip off potential viewers that a performance is in progress.

The Hokin Center commissioned two previous pieces by Wilson, timed to coincide with Earth Day. He deployed a corps of nearly 100 performers to fall down on Daley Plaza after the morning rush hour of April 18, 1994. They lay still as if asleep or slain for about a half hour, then got up and walked away. The following year his cast froze in various poses--holding a half-drunk Starbucks latte, tying a shoelace, admiring architecture, consulting a tourist map, holding a cell phone--for an hour. The piece was staged in Federal Plaza on April 19, 1995, the same day the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. That morning as security guards watched apprehensively, Wilson's art could be read as a prescient vigil, his performers stand-ins for the victims of Timothy McVeigh.

32 Minutes on LaSalle implied links to more recent events, occurring just before Memorial Day, when remembrances of September 11 would resonate with salutes to war dead. The rhythmic metallic clicks from Wilson's speakers echoed the chorus of electronic chirps emitted from the remote locators of fallen New York firefighters at Ground Zero. Ominous images of walking Geiger counters and human time bombs were also brought to mind. But Wilson never imagined his peaceable cast would be construed as harbingers of terror. In an E-mail to them he stated: "If asked to move by the authorities, the performers should be compliant and polite."

One participant was Wilson's wife, Gosia, who stood with a stroller containing their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. "People just looked at me strangely," she said afterward. "I can't describe the look. It was like, 'That poor baby, what is that mother doing?'"

Another performer, a computer engineer who works in the IBM building, picked a spot opposite the State of Illinois Building. "I had the notion that if anybody had a need to understand what heart was, that government workers did," said Steve. He liked the way his heartbeat recording echoed between buildings, and he listened for others blocks away. "I felt like a whale giving signals across great distances."

"I felt like I fit right in," said Molly, who dressed up in black pants, a long black blazer, and dress shoes for a "very professional" look. She walked from Jackson to Lake. "Everybody wanted to know what was going on," she said. "They wouldn't leave you alone without getting an answer. One woman kept walking along with me." Wilson instructed his cast to answer people's questions with the line "I am projecting my heartbeat into the street." When that wasn't enough, he suggested they add the clause "as a poetic gesture." Corey was joined by a man in dreadlocks who walked in time with him for a block and asked, "So you're trying to make all of us live at your rhythm?"

"I was very careful to make eye contact in a very neutral way," said Sara, another participant. "I worked retail for many years, so I knew how to put on the edge, and I very consciously avoided that." She was standing at an intersection when a packed bus pulled up and waited for the light. The traffic noise died down. "It was a very quiet moment, and my sound must have carried into one window that was slightly ajar. A few people looked out. Gradually everyone's head turned, and they opened all the windows. They all kept craning their necks. In this one quiet, very beautiful moment they all made eye contact with me. I stared back and made a point of making eye contact with everybody on that side of the bus, one after another." She thinks the bus passengers saw her differently than the stream of pedestrians did. "They were once removed from me and had a frame, the bus window, to take in the poetry."

Another spectator with a window view was a police officer who pulled up to the curb and gestured to Sara to come to the window of his squad car. "He was quite calm and was reading his screen," she said. She could read part of the report: "Young woman on LaSalle Street... complaint...protesting." She assured him that she was not protesting anything and relayed Wilson's line about projecting her heartbeat. "He was very nonchalant, as if he was trying to categorize what was going on. He was thinking very carefully about how to interpret what I was saying," she recalled later. "I had to interrupt his thinking to ask if it was all right" for her to return to her spot.

As Wilson's piece ended, an impromptu performance unfolded from behind a window at the Federal Express office at 203 N. LaSalle. As an officer ticketed an illegally parked truck outside, the driver slapped his outstretched palms on the window and pantomimed a face of comic panic. But the officer never saw the show at his back.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.

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