Interview with Carter Lashley
Carter Lashley was a founding member of the Plaines Project where he lived from 2006-2011. He currently lives in New Orleans where is a full time adventurer and explorer. I got to live with Carter at the Plaines Project this past summer when I first moved into the house. Through e-mail, I asked him some questions about the history of the space and his role in organizing here.
Why did you decide to start the space? Did you have a “mission” or anything like that?
There were a number of reasons that I was interested in starting a space like the Plaines Project. From 2004-2005, when I was a sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I collaborated with two other people that I lived with at the time to start an apartment gallery in Logan Square called “Alterspace”. In the duration of the time we had the gallery, I became extremely fascinated with the possibilities of experimenting with and re-appropriating spaces by turning them into unconventional sites of art activity and exhibition.
As far as a “mission” goes, I had a couple of driving ideas that motivated me to create the Plaines Project. I wanted to create a space where radical art and creative practices could flourish, without everything being mediated by money. I think that without the worries of having to sell art or attract art collectors, there is much more room for artists to experiment with ideas and practices. Experimentation is something I value a whole lot, and I think that it is extremely important to create space for experimentation where process is celebrated as much, and sometimes more than, the product and failure is welcomed.
Initially, I conceived of the Plaines Project as an experiment in social space. At the time I was thinking a lot about the ideologies of social space that we consider to be inherent qualities of space itself (a living room is only a living room, a basement is only a place for storage, domestic space cannot be public space). I wanted to play around with expectations of what an old house like the Plaines Project could be, and push the limits of the different functions that the rooms inside of the Plaines Project could shelter. By turning the first floor gallery and basement into an empty and neutral zone, I hoped that I would be able to create a space that was extremely flexible and could accommodate many different activities and practices.
Another thing that interested me in a place like the PP was the aspect of trying to create a collective living situation where everyone in the household worked cooperatively with each other to facilitate the project. I think that it’s extremely important to find new ways of living together cooperatively and creating strong, sustainable, mutually supportive networks where people not only share a domestic space with each other, but also share labor or household projects and chores. When we initially moved into the PP, the goal was to have every decision made as a consensus, and it was required that each roommate dedicate a specific amount of time and labor towards the house to keep it functional.
How did you get involved in the world of DIY spaces as just a sophomore at SAIC? What was it like to balance going to school and organizing at the Plaines Project at the same time?
In high school I used to book shows at local DIY spots in Ithaca NY, and I was also in a band that would exclusively play DIY venues because we were all underage, so by the time I moved to Chicago in 2003 I was already fairly familiar with aspects of the Punk/Hardcore music network of touring bands. My old roommate also had been in a band that toured around a lot, so between the two of us we would hunt down cool shows. This brought me into all sorts of cool DIY venues in Chicago. When we started our apartment gallery in Logan Square, it was all pretty organic and sort of naive. We wanted to show the work of talented people we knew. We had no idea that apartment galleries were a tradition in Chicago, and that what we were doing was part of a greater cultural trend of alternative spaces.
In 2006, I managed to integrate the work I was doing with the Plaines Project with my degree in Visual and Critical Studies from SAIC. I made the Plaines Project my thesis project, where half of my thesis was the actual work involved in rehabbing the space and organizing events, and the other half was a written document about the philosophies and histories that make up alternative and unconventional spaces. I was real lucky to have open-minded people in the program who were supportive and enthusiastic about how interdisciplinary my thesis was.
Who were the other people who were initially involved space with you? How did you know them? Do/did you see them as collaborators in this “experiment”?
I started out living with Ben Blumberg, Wyatt Khan, Andre Laraquente, and Tana Forrester. Andres moved out after 6 months and Ashley Gallegos Moved in. Then Wyatt moved out and Ben Waite Moved in. Ben and Tana moved out, and Johnny One Time moved in. Then Taylor moved in, then Johnny left, then Taylor left, then Miles Kampf-Lassin moved in, then Ruby Thorkelson moved in, then Clara Lagral moved in, then Ben and Clara moved out, then Michele Finkelstein moved in, then Ruby and Miles moved out, then Michelle Krivanek moved in, then you moved in!
That’s it in a nutshell…well actually sometimes the shifts in roommates happened very dramatically, but thats a different story. Everyone collaborated at different levels, and depending on the people in the house, the way collectivity and collaborations would work out would be totally different. Ben Blumberg played a vital role in renovating the space and organizing our early events. Ashley, Ruby, and Andres all organized some really exciting art shows and happenings. Ben W, Miles, Johnny, and Michele were able to put together some classic basement shows.
Could you speak a little bit about collective living and collaboration? Do you think people need to have the same goals/intentions to be living and organizing together?
I don’t think that people need to have the same goals to collaborate or organize stuff. I think its great to have people interested in different things because then the events at the house wind up being more diverse. I think all that is needed is a willingness to work together, and an openness to have conversations and critical dialogue about the events that are being put on in the space.
A lot of art shows felt like collaborations between people in the house and the artists in the shows. For most of the shows I would spend a lot of time working with the artists and helping them install their work (sometimes help them make their work). There have been some instances where artists practically move into the gallery for two weeks to build their installations, so inevitably they become quite close with people living in the house. I like that aspect of art shows.
How have things changed over the years? What’s different now from when you first moved in?
I think a lot of things have changed. The five years that I was living in the PP were definitely transformative for me and shaped me in some pretty profound ways. As far as the space goes though, I think it took about two years before the PP finally hit its stride. When we initially moved in, I think I was overly idealist and ambitious about everything we did. Because nobody really knew who or what the Plaines Project was, it was always like pulling teeth to get people to come out to Pilsen (remember that in 2006 the neighborhood was a lot less gentrified) to any of our art events. It’s a really awful and discouraging feeling to put a ton of work and enthusiasm into an event and only have like five people show up and I think that the repeated feeling of failure often took its toll on the overall morale of everyone in the house at times in regards to how much work and effort they were willing to put into organizing stuff.
I think that a lot of art spaces and organizations often just burn out after a while because the work that needs to be done consumes so much time and money and energy. Rarely do you get anything all that tangible in return, except for maybe the feeling of pride that in some abstract sense you have done something of value….but that’s not really measurable. I think that at some point in like 2008 we were at the verge of totally burning out, but instead of calling it quits, we just relaxed and stopped putting so much gravity and importance on each event. Once I learned to just chill out and accept that not every show is going to be some epic night, a lot of stress went away. Ironically, I think that things started to really pick up with the music aspect of things at the same time. By April 2009 we had more proposals for events than we could accommodate which was when it really felt like the PP had graduated into the world of legit venues.
Another thing that changed over the years, in my perspective, was the way that house and roommates operated on a collective level. In the beginning, there was a ton of emphasis on procedures. Being a ‘collective’ seemed much more to be constantly creating and enforcing house rules than functioning as a productive household. The elephant in the room of every house meeting was how unpleasant, artificial and forced it felt to have to follow our own “rules” about how to function as a collective. Eventually, the whole collective thing loosened up and became more free form. Depending on who lives in the house at any given time, the way the house organizes itself will be different, and there’s no master doctrine about how things have to be done.
How did you find the house?
I had been searching for a good place to start an artspace in for pretty much a year. My boss/co-worker at the student gallery where I worked, James Barry, mentioned to me that his friends at the late Dogmatic Gallery were looking for people to give their space to. He got me in touch with Michael Thomas who was the director/leader of Dogmatic and he seemed real pumped to pass the torch. Dogmatic was an incredibly important alternative gallery, and though I had never been to an art show in the house, it had a sort of legendary status among a lot of older people that I was around in the art scene. It was a lot of luck that we found the house…. right place at the right time.
What was the house like when you first moved in?
When we moved into the house, it was in pretty rough shape. The house was trashed and everything was pretty much dilapidated. It took over a year of steady building and painting to get the house to pretty much the way it is now.
First thing we did was work on the first floor gallery: fixed up the walls, built the slop sink room, put drywall over the windows to increase wall space, painted the floors and installed track lighting. Then we went to the basement and re-drywalled the walls down there. When we moved in, the basement had like four rooms and no floor (it was literally all dirt). We tore down all of the walls that weren’t essential or load bearing, and built new ones (the hallway leading the backyard didn’t exist when we moved in). Later on, we built floors in the basement. Eventually I had to re-build the floor where bands play because it had been destroyed by dancing. Other than that, I think that every room in the house has been painted at least once, as well as most of the floors. Lots of work has been put into the backyard too. Oh yeah, there used to be a swing on the back porch that allowed people to swing from the top of the stairs out over the backyard. The landlord took that away when she found out about it.
Were you involved/connected with any other Do-It-Yourself spaces at the time you started Plaines Project?
I had lived in an alternative gallery space before called Alterspace, and had also spent time living in an artist residency in Oakland at a humongous warehouse art space called Lobot gallery. Since I was a teenager in a high school punk band, I have always been attracted to and excited by DIY music venues. When I moved to Chicago in 2003, my mind was completely blown by the flourishing DIY music and art scene that exists in Chicago. Even though I wasn’t directly part of the organization of such spaces, I was an active participant by attending and supporting all sorts of weird/exciting shows, and my experiences in these DIY venues completely inspired and shaped my vision the type of spirit I wanted the Plaines Project to embody. Such spaces that existed prior the PP and inspired me (some still exist) are The Texas Ballroom/Diamonds, Camp Gay, Buddy, Mr. City, Nihilist, The Junk Shop, Enemy, The Beauty Shop, The AV Aerie, The Fireside Bowl, Peoples Projects, The Shape Shop, The Flower Shop….the list goes on and on.
Despite being very interested and excited by visual art and art exhibitions, I was much more interested in the mutually supportive, fun and laid back atmosphere that I had encountered in my experiences with DIY music venues. I was looking to emulate the energy I encountered at these DIY music venues, while also incorporating visual arts. When I moved into the PP, I really had no intention for it to be as much of a music venue as it is now… but I guess in hindsight it all makes a lot of sense that that was our trajectory.
What role does the Plaines Project play in the DIY community?
Since I was a part of it, it’s hard for me to say at any objective level what role the PP has filled in the Chicago DIY scene. I think that there are a lot of people that have different relationships with the space, and that kind of excites me. We’ll have one show with a specific crowd of people, and two weeks later have a packed show with a totally different crowd.
One thing that has remained consistent is that the events at the Plaines Project, though they can sometimes get quite rowdy, have never been about partying for the sake of partying. At the PP we make sure to end the shows at a pretty early time and immediately kick people out once the event is over. Some people probably think that we’ve been a bunch of fascist squares for doing this, but to me it makes perfect sense. I would rather have a kick-ass show of 20 people who are super psyched about the performance or art that’s on the walls, than a show of 100 drunks who just sit in the backyard and don’t do anything to participate in the events.
What is the highest number of people to ever live here at a time?
For most of the time I lived at the PP there were five people. I think the largest amount of people that we had living in the house was eight people (six people distributed throughout the bedrooms, one person in the library, and one person living in the gallery…luckily that lasted for only for like three weeks). There was also a two week period where we hosted a 12 person drawing collective from Oakland CA, so that meant that there were 17 people staying in the house at that time. They slept in the basement and gallery and it was mostly crazy, but a lot of fun.
What’s your favorite event that has taken place at Plaines Project?
My favorite art show was Paul Erschen’s New Clear Winter show that was accompanied by music from his band Mayor Daley as well as Bad Drugs and Campfires. Another favorite show that always sticks out in my mind was Attic Ted, Dewayne Slightweight, Brett Gand is Dead, and Rollin Hunt. That show sticks out to me because each act incorporated some sort of performative and theatric elements to their set which made the night really exciting.
Thank you to Carter for all the photos.