The words 'For Rent' headed the press release for Beret International's collaborative exhibition 'Same Place/New Space' by Mike Slattery and Jno Cook, turning the gallery announcement into a classified ad. For this show, Slattery and Cook devoted their artistic energies to dividing Beret's formerly open, second-floor loft into three smaller spaces: 'two 1,000 sq. ft studios (for rent, $575/mo. each, plus utilities)', and a greatly reduced, windowless, semi-triangular gallery located behind them. (Slattery designed the new floor plan and constructed the walls and Cook did the electrical work.) This renovation shrunk available exhibition space by 2,000 feet, the liberated square footage being devoted to the purpose of acquiring revenue to support the gallery.
The much-talked-about devastation of Chicago's art world by the disappearance of its publicly supported alternative spaces has left a gap that galleries like Beret (and other semi-commercial, artist-run operations) have felt a pressure to fill. But without public money, a trust fund, or reliable large-figure sales, this mission requires more than the efforts of a single director with a nine-to-five job elsewhere. 'Same Place/New Space' was a response to, and framing of, economic pressures, as well as a demonstration of support and creative thinking by artists with a vested interest in maintaining flexible and responsive exhibition venues.
In addition to his design and construction work, Slattery photographed the process of de- and re-construction, offering blown-up scans of these images for sale. The gallery director's personal record collection from the 60s and 70s unearthed during rehab was also presented for sale (asking price $3,000 initially, but this began to rise as Ned Schwartz became less inclined to give up his records). An artist who often collaborates with Slattery, DJ LeDeuce, spun music from Schwartz's vinyl collection during the opening and visitors stepped in and around Jno Cook's lit-up scale model of the solar system that had been installed on the floor, with Pluto off somewhere in the kitchen near the back door.
The beauty of Cook's solar installation, rough hewn with tape, cardboard, and small electric lights, lay in how its radial structure and implied cyclical rhythms intersected physically and metaphorically with Slattery's new interior architecture and LeDeuce's spinning discs. The former Beret space had been a huge, open rectangle, with wooden columns and big eastern windows. But these airy, sunlit qualities had always complicated exhibition design, offering only minimal wall-space and leaving many sculptural pieces floating mid-river on the creaky wooden floor. The windowless walls of the new plasterboard gallery are seamless and white, and they converge at a dramatic angle, changing the character of the space from an anything-goes 70s look, to a ship-shape 90s design - a space-is-precious-and-expensive wedge, a piece of the pie.
In the new Beret, space seems to be more focused, more intense, and with more at stake. But does the look of the new space imply a different kind of art? The hook of this exhibition was its ambitious conceptual and project-oriented nature, and its integration of economic issues of collective cultural survival with creative production. Now that the space is small and precious, will this kind of work continue to revolve around and within it, or will the nature of the space invite small, wall-mounted images and objects with an economic incentive? A potential spin-off could be the allocation of one of the studio spaces for an artist-in-residence programme, in which short-term studio rental might be co-ordinated with an exhibition. However it is not just space that is expensive, but time too, and the administration of such a programme might result in eating up the remaining wedge of exhibition space to pay for itself.