The Heartland Machine and Other Concepts from the Future

Parked inside in a small gallery of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art is a Heartland Machine. Heartland Machine is a mobile sculpture that began as a speedboat.  Conceived by Detroit-based Design 99, over a period of ten days the boat was dragged around the mid-west and interacted with independent arts organizations based in Minneapolis, Detroit, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago.  The final sculpture included videos, printed materials, metal signs and other objects from the boat’s journey, assembled inside the Smart Museum.  In addition to the work’s title, cartoon-esque speeding lines affixed to the back of the vehicle evoke the animated trail left behind Doc Brown’s famed time machine as it disappears in Back to the Future.  The notable difference is, in place of a flux capacitor, Heartland Machine is fueled by artistic fusion across communities.

Design 99, Heartland Machine, 2009, mixed media installation including audiovisual equipment, fiberglass boat, found materials, silkscreened posters designed by Nina Bianchi and printed by Tim Eads; ephemera and video (color, sound) supplied by regional independent cultural infrastructures. Courtesy of the artists. Image from the Smart Museum.

Heartland Machine is part of the Smart Museum’s (whose Adaptation traveled to the Henry Art Gallery last year) group exhibition Heartland, a collaboration with the Van Abbemuseum that focuses on artists working from and responding to the center of the United States.  The simple concept behind Heartland is what makes it poignant. The “region” of this exhibition was based on the course of the Mississippi River as a geographical guiding force; in the exhibition catalog, the curatorial team describe the area as “…heart drawn on a map of the United States with its point in New Orleans, extending up to Minneapolis in the northwest and Detroit in the northeast” (Esche, Niemann and Smith 12). This selection, based on the curators’ series of road trips across America from 2007-2009  bypassed the traditional “Midwest”  or “Bible Belt” definitions of region, suggesting the arbitrariness of such boundaries in this context.

Regional exhibitions are commonplace, but in the field of contemporary art, rural America in particular can be something of a persona non grata. Although they may have migrated from elsewhere, many of this country’s well-known artists are based on the coasts, with limited exceptions for the larger (Chicago, Minneapolis) or particularly arts-friendly (Santa Fe) cities. The middle of the country is more often seen as a place to escape rather than a focal point for creative inquiry.

In the Chicago Reader’s recommendation of Heartland, Noah Berlatsky writes,

“I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the installation by Carnal Torpor, a KC art collective that makes klutzy, burpy grindcore music when they’re not creating collages indebted equally to Pushead and Day of the Dead ofrendas. The group…has an aesthetic I appreciate not so much because it’s weird as because it seems familiar and right. But then, I live here.” (Chicago Reader, “Fall Arts Guide 2009“)

Carnal Torpor’s installation Purifications of the CalmDome is comprised of a white, plastic pod approximately ten feet high, similar in shape to a deformed soccer ball with overlapping circular patterns inscribed in its surface.  Viewers can remove their shoes and enter the structure through a small hole in the back.  Once inside, the space becomes isolating, the smallest of sounds shut out, the only light coming from the entry hole and a small, silent television near the top of the dome.

Left: Cody Critcheloe, BOY, 2009. Right: Carnal Topor, Purifications of the CalmDome, 2009. Courtesy of the artists. Installation view at the Smart Museum of Art. Image from the Smart Museum

I did not want to like Purifications of the CalmDome.  Its proliferation of the desire to escape from one environment into another seemed too easy. Yet whenever I try to conceptualize Heartland, I keep coming back to the experience of climbing into the dome. As a former resident of the midwest, something about this piece articulated my determination to escape that part of the country at my first opportunity.  Stepping inside the installation feels like a direct connection to the mind of the artist, or maybe to anyone frustrated with the monotony and absence of personality in places like the suburb in which I grew up (Naperville, IL).  There is not much to be found inside Purifications of the CalmDome, but there is a sense that the interior is at least distinct from the exterior, if nothing else.  As Berlatsky suggested, Purifications of the CalmDome was highly familiar and exactly right.

Carnal Topor, Purifications of the CalmDome, 2009, Mixed media installation including architectural elements, electronics, paint, soundproofing materials, and video. Image from the Smart Museum.

The northernmost and southernmost boundaries of Heartland are Detroit and New Orleans.  The connections between these two damaged cities are readily seen within the photographs by two artists in the exhibition. Slovenian artist-architect Marjetica Potrc portrays scenes of the Lower 9th Ward against the backdrop of New Orleans’s vacant businesses; Scott Hocking documents series of pyramid structures within Detroit’s Fisher Body Plant building  as they crumble into their surroundings over time.  Seeing these works in the context of Heartland, an exhibition largely focused on the communities of their region, begged the question of why a relevant exhibition like this was not selected to be on view in place of the highly controversial Dreams Come True: Art of the Classic Fairy Tales from the Walt Disney Studio at NOMA.

Scott Hocking, Ziggurat—East, Summer, Fisher Body Plant #21, 2008, Archival digital print. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery, Ferndale, MI.

Questions of finances and ethics aside, one of the most unfortunate aspects of Dreams Come True is its irrelevance to a city struggling to rebuild itself. As a museum limited on staff and resources, the easy solution may appear to be the all-inclusive Disney exhibition that comes at no financial cost to the institution.  Yet it still comes at the expense of staff time, gallery space and marketing efforts, among other resources.  In place of Dreams Come True, NOMA could have found an alternative solution more similar to Heartland, smaller in scale but providing more content and ideas that are meaningful to the city rather than artifacts from Disney productions associated with with the false promises and imitations of life that led to the term “Disneyfication”; it is difficult to imagine the opportunities for dialogue princess movies bring to a city striving to create a sense of community.

The corporately-created exhibition is particularly disconcerting in a time when the focus should be on recognizing the importance of local culture and creativity to the city of New Orleans.  Although not everything in Heartland is equally provocative, the resonance of particular works suggest the show’s more community-based model is successful and something that should be considered more often in place of the impersonal (and often irrelevant) traveling blockbuster exhibitions so common in museum practice.  In this regard, Design 99’s Heartland Machine may be seen as a mode of thought, rather than a mere device, sent to us from the future.