Contemporary Contexts: Glass Houses, Glass City

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Zac Thriffiley looks at what divides us as Chicagoans and what art can do to bridge these divides in the latest installment of his One Book, One Chicago coverage.


Glass Houses, Glass City: Slag Glass City and the State of Art in Chicago

The plot of Chi Jang Yin’s short film “Glass House” – if it can be called a plot rather than a serene stream of suspended, tranquil moments – follows the construction and inhabitation of a home in the Chicago suburbs. Thomas Roszak, one of the city’s most highly regarded contemporary architects, designed his two-story house to be composed nearly entirely of glass walls so that he and his family could regard the external, natural world just as easily as any outside observer could regard Roszak’s internal, domestic one. Yin expertly uses the transparent lens of her own camera to trace the rise of the building’s steel and concrete beams, the careful installation of layer after layer of glass, and the ultimate appearance of designer furniture within the home as seasons change and the weather shifts from gentle rain showers to blistering sunshine. By the end of the film, Roszak and his family move through their home with pride. They can live in seeming isolation among the grove of trees that surround their home, suggesting that the Natural and the Modern are not mutually exclusive concepts in art and design.

In one key scene, blinds descend over the glass walls, obscuring what the viewer previously had access to see. The shot is unsettling. This glass – which had provided a visual connection between the interior and the exterior – now becomes a spatial barrier and a reminder that walls are still, after all, walls. How can a work of art that seems to blend human constructions with the ever-present reality of nature connect viewers to the subject matter while simultaneously making the distance between the two grow even wider?

This question was tackled by an all-female panel of artists and writers at the DePaul Art Museum on February 22. The panel, titled “Making in Chicago,” was a collaborative effort between the DePaul English department, Slag Glass City, and One Book, One Chicago. Moderated by Barrie Jean Borich, the assembled artists discussed several questions facing the artistic community in a city as diverse as Chicago but also divided along lines of geography, class, race, and sexuality. Is Chicago a fundamental part of an artist’s identity, mission, and traditions? Or merely an accident of time and place? How much does Chicago truly affect the art created within its borders? And is this art inclusive of the city as a community? Or just as divisive as the lines of separation that have plagued the Third Coast for generations

Borich, the award-winning authoress of My Lesbian Husband and a creative writing instructor at DePaul, seeks to answer these questions in her own writing, and her reading of her upcoming essay “Story of July” struck the audience as being particularly relevant to Chicago in the early decades of the 21st century. In her essay, Borich finds it interesting that the city’s LGBTQ pride weekend is typically just one week before the 4th of July, equating the massive celebration of everything queer with the democratizing patriotism of the birth of American independence. And yet, the parallels between the two events are not so easily drawn. Borich and her spouse enjoy the raucous celebrations from the roof of their home in Boystown, watching from above as those below embrace amid a shower of confetti and glitter. Friends and families gather near Lake Michigan and surreptitiously sip mimosas on this warm summer day, at least until gunshots shatter the serenity. Police rush in to apprehend suspects, restoring urban bliss with aggression; black and brown bodies begin to pile up alongside the picnic baskets. The Pride parade rolls mere blocks away, and Rahm Emanuel remains in office for another term. Borich’s tone is unmistakable; she is critical of the blindness that seems to pervade a community that is intimately familiar with violence at the hands of law enforcement. There is an inherent irony in the fact that so many can celebrate equality when an even greater number live in poverty and a constant fear of assault and violence. Certainly, “Story of July” seeks to raise awareness of the gap that exists between the relatively wealthy gay community of the North Side with the much poorer nonwhite communities just across the river, but answers to the question of how best to bridge this chasm evade Borich as much as they evade the rest of the. The glass wall has offered a vision, yet the separation remains.

Pride Parade marching through the heart of Chicago's Boystown neighborhood
Pride Parade marching through the heart of Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood

Professor Francesca Royster, chair of the English department at DePaul, is more familiar with navigating the spaces on either side of – and perhaps even within – Chicago’s metaphorical glass walls. Reading a selection from her own forthcoming collection of essays, Royster recounts growing up in Bronzeville at a boarding-house run by her great-godmother during the 1980’s. A firm believer in the notion that “the homes we were raised in cannot contain us,” she continually sought to make a “queer home” out of Chicago. Many weekends as a teenager were spent rummaging through thrift stores in the search of the perfect outfit for the queer dance clubs just west of Boystown. After bargaining with the bouncer for what felt like all night, Royster and her friends would enter “a sea of white” dancers, feeling both completely alien and entirely at home within the pulsing embrace of David Bowie and Grace Jones. Music acted as a mask that Royster could try on, allowing her to be herself and someone completely unfamiliar at the same time, only if for a night. To hear her recall her experiences, it is difficult to feel anything other than excitement at the prospect of this breathtaking freedom of expression of identity. However, returning home in the early hours of the morning stripped the night of its fantastic elements and brought back the crushing reality of the present. There was the inescapable feeling that the worlds this young girl inhabited – Bronzeville and Boystown – could not be reconciled. When Royster’s Uncle David died later in the decade from complications related to AIDS, her family did not speak of his illness except in abstract terms.

Borich, Royster, and Yin were not the only artists to share their art and feelings about working in Chicago. Dolores Wilber and Coya Paz spoke of their efforts to transcend their own glass walls through theatre and film, and their message rang with the same sense of hesitancy as the others while still providing a glimmer of hope for the their home city. Paz understands that a play – or a book, film, or painting for that matter – in and of itself cannot bring about change. However, experience of a work of art as a community acts as a catalyst for the kind of change that can bring about solidarity. It is through essays such as the ones read by Borich and Royster that marginalized communities might better understand and support one another. Racially integrated theatrical performances allow audiences to see how diverse and dynamic their world really is. The One Book, One Chicago program attempts to bring together an entire city around a single message or theme. The glass walls of Yin’s film may exist for the present whether we like them or not, but artists and residents of Chicago can to prevent blinds from coming down across our view of the other side.

-Zac Thriffiley, MAE

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