On Exhibit: big boys' toys | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: big boys' toys 

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"I've been sneaking into abandoned buildings ever since I've been a photographer," says M.Y.S. Smith, a founding member of the guerrilla art group Environmental Encroachment. Smith, who's also a ceramist, and cohort Dave Christensen, a welder, have been taking their artistic inspirations--not to mention free materials--from Chicago's burned-out, boarded-up, and barbed-wired industrial sites. For the past two years, the duo have led a group constructing mammoth playground equipment in these forbidden environs. To them the potential dangers of falling through collapsing floors, or chance encounters with hostile elements like gangbangers or the police, hold a strange fascination. They've stumbled across innumerable shanties and illegal dumps during their forays into these vacant spaces, but they've also discovered an irony: it was here in the zone of life-threatening peril that they finally felt freedom, as adults, to cut loose and play.

The group's first effort, a giant swing, was fashioned from a large fiberglass hemisphere resembling a satellite dish; they suspended it from a railroad tower with rock-climbing cables. Smith recalls the police hotfooting it in their direction when he and former member Kevin Cooney were 65 feet up, but both managed to get down and escape arrest. They've yet to get in trouble for trespassing, and Smith believes that the good vibes given off by people at play generally keep would-be malefactors at bay. On occasion strangers have even joined in their revelry, he says.

After the swing came a huge, gyrating seesaw that rolls on wheels and can hold more than 500 pounds on each side; a flotilla consisting of two rafts joined together by a swing set; and a five-passenger bicycle without steering ("It's about people being forced to share control," says Christensen). Great America it's not, but then you don't have to pay or wait in line for your adrenaline jollies at these makeshift play lots. Christensen says there are few conventional outlets for adults to experience the same sense of freedom they enjoyed as children. "Playgrounds shouldn't just be about physical playing, but playing with the mind. People go out for entertainment, but this is about entertaining yourself."

This week the group will bring their toys indoors for a one-day interactive installation in a warehouse loft. "The show is a tame version of what we're doing," says Smith, but it will still provide a showcase for Environmental Encroachment's creativity and spirit. They promise "giant seesaws and swings, suspended cargo nets, and monster cycle rides," as well as music, dancing, and an exhibit of photographs showing past project sites. Visitors are invited to try out all the rides. It's held this Saturday from noon to 10 at Fat Louie's Ballroom, 167 N. Racine. Admission is free. Call 850-1784 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.

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