CHAos Revisited

In 2005 a group of designers and activists convened a reading group under the name 3rd Rail to discuss the efficacy of political art. They decided to ground their conversation in an action related to housing because it linked past work that all of them had done.

At that time the Chicago Housing Authority had contracted the Leo Burnett advertising firm to re-brand their agency with the acronym-slogan CHAnge. The accompanying advertising campaign, which appeared on buses, trains, and real estate signs, and in official CHA literature, featured testimony from CHA residents describing their positive experience of the recent changes in public housing that made them feel empowered to leave high rise projects for scattered site housing developments or to rent on the private market throughout the city and suburbs using vouchers.

3rd Rail, its members remaining anonymous, decided the CHAnge campaign would be the target of their intervention, which they called CHAos: a counter-narrative about what had happened to public housing in Chicago through the lens of five power-brokers who had in some way benefited from the changes: Mayor Daley, Terry Peterson, Dan McLean, Alphonso Jackson, and Daniel Levin of the Habitat Company. The story of the intervention was reported in newspapers such as the Chicago Reader and the Brooklyn Rail, in Greg Sholette’s book Dark Matter, on Chicago Public Radio and numerous blogs including Continental Drift (brianholmes.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/gsa-security-days-in-vienna), and in the very first issue of AREA Chicago in 2005 (areachicago.org/chaos-creates-change). After seven years and 13 issues of AREA, the organizers of the CHAos project thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on this ambitious project by asking trusted allies familiar with the work to pose challenging questions related to the legacies of CHAos and CHAnge.

Brian Holmes: For those who knew about it, “This is CHAos” was audacious and inspiring: a great piece of invisible theater and tactical media activism. What’s more, it was pertinent and just, because it revealed the kinds of corruption and abuse that our elected officials have typically engaged in when selling off or destroying public property. It fit into the atmosphere of Seattle and brought those ideals down to earth here in the city. At the same time, it was too illegal to be art and too isolated to be politics. It reflected some of the desperation of the counter-globalization movement which never really succeeded in challenging the American mainstream. Were you able to build on that action during the dark years of Bush’s second mandate? Was it somehow a touchstone, or did it seem like a lost utopia? And how does it look now in the light of what at the time appeared impossible, namely a mass movement on the scale of Occupy?

Agent #1: The CHAos Campaign came and went, with the most lasting impact being amongst public housing activists and advocates who were engaged in a tiring and mostly losing legal and legislative battle. It was bold, audacious, and out of the norm for the tiny subsection of the population concerned with activism around housing. In some ways it exemplified an activist/designer division of labor where we took risks to do something that most people living in CHA or working on advocacy could never take. We heard that it was energizing and exciting. But inevitably that wore off and the biggest limit to the project was that we had no game plan for how it could serve their work on an ongoing basis. This was only exacerbated by our own internal disagreement on what we even thought should be done with public housing. We had agreed that the CHAnge campaign was egregious, but we didn’t put much work into vision beyond that. Perhaps the division of labor was not that effective after all. Everyone went back to being who they were after only a short time—reflecting the bursts of energy that seem to characterize so much of the energy we call “political engagement” and also “art.”

Agent #2: I agree. I think at the time we were all looking for something elemental to latch onto; we thought we might be able to orient those underspecified post-Seattle “ideals” toward something more concrete. Some of us went on to be involved with squats (in other parts of the world, where that was possible), and others with Occupy (which you could say engaged both “public space” and “housing,” particularly in those later anti-eviction campaigns). But none of us became public housing activists. So in the end it does have a bit of that “parachuting” quality.

Agent #3: I would say CHAos was too isolated to be art and too illegal to be political. I’m not sure any of us were invested in CHAos as art. The fact that our partners, long-established housing rights activists with much to lose (though it seems less so retrospectively), could not leverage the intervention for fear of legal reprisal was either a huge oversight on our part, or an inevitable outcome of this clandestine way of operating. I remember thinking at the time that it would be, in the words of Critical Art Ensemble, “a temporary reconfiguration of semiotic power relations,” but what this might precipitate, I did not know. It became a one-off. If we weren’t able to build on the project in the “dark years” that followed, it was largely because, as individuals with different lifestyles and (emerging) interests, we were busy with other stuff. I don’t ever remember thinking about CHAos in terms of mass social movements.

Rebecca Zorach: I thought this project was brilliant, but in retrospect I wonder how legible it was to a public largely (I suspect) disinclined to sympathize with CHA residents—whose answer to the question “Are Tourists More Important Than The Poor?” is, “well, yes, they are.” Was there a target audience? Were questions of legibility, of appeal to reason vs. emotions or both, something you explicitly discussed in the planning or execution of the project? And how do you think about them now?

Agent #1: At the time of producing CHAos we did something rare in tactical media—we had a focus group and showed drafts of the ads to various people who did and did not have direct ties to public housing. The feedback was really important in getting the tone of the messages right. We had originally conceived of something more ironic and then came up with this format of questions (Do Money and Politics Mix?; Should Housing Funds Be Used for Housing?; Do Developers Deserve a Tax Break More Than You Do?; Do You Like Forcing People Out of Their Homes?; and Are Tourists More Important Than The Poor?). This approach was intended to emphasize an open-endedness to the concept of social change that we felt was being closed down by the branding of the CHA under the name CHAnge. They were attempting to close the history books on the meaning of the Plan for Transformation as an inherently good moment of change and we wanted to open it back up.

Agent #2: It’s a good point, though. One thing I remember particularly vividly was a disagreement we had over that line about “the poor.” Like, what does it mean to appeal to these common-sense categories? It would have been easy to interpret the question as a statement that there will always be both poor people and (ostensibly privileged) tourists, and that we simply need to balance their interests more justly. There was always a tension between wanting to communicate clearly and wanting to open up the discussion at a really fundamental level. Your question also reminds me of the degree to which the audience encounter happened less with the posters themselves than with their dissemination in the (mainstream and alternative) media. I think we were prepared for this—we had people in place to photograph all the materials as soon as they went up—but I also think we were taken somewhat by surprise at how quickly it all disappeared. J.C. Decaux, the company that had recently privatized and rebuilt all of the bus shelters in the city, had crews out in a matter of hours. To me, that has become fairly emblematic of the whole effort: we were really outgunned. I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but I also think there was a kind of futility to it that would be easy to romanticize. I am glad that the story and images continue to circulate, but I wonder how to make its “isolation,” to use Brian’s word, a productive part of that story.

Agent #3: The target audience was a liberal-minded ethico-normative public that would ostensibly be incensed to learn that the management of public housing was a racket embedded in a bigger racket. I think the answer to the question “Are Tourists More Important Than The Poor?” is basically that it was a throwaway line, though we did argue about “the poor” as a faceless/voiceless signifier a fair amount. I don’t remember explicitly discussing reason vs. emotions. It was important that the text, couched in CHA garb, generate some kind of cognitive dissonance in passers-by, if only for a brief moment, in order to consider the implications of its reason or the fact that it was in that “public” space at all.

Cassie Fennel: Both the CHAnge campaign and the CHAos response mobilized a similar situation—the intense public visibility of ruined and redeveloping public housing in Chicago’s landscape. The CHAnge campaign especially made use of this visibility by concentrating posters and placards along the very public transit routes that ran by public housing developments. In the years since this campaign, our country has witnessed another serious housing crisis. Yet the drama of an underwater mortgage or a vacant single-family home seems far less visible, far more private. With the CHAos campaign in mind, how might artists communicate the scale and severity of this latest housing crisis, and prod Americans to think critically about it?

Agent #1: For all of its limitations, the project of having public housing was shared and socialized. In the end, not that many people cared about it besides those who live there, but it still has a deep bureaucracy, activist organizations, tenants groups, and scholars concerned with the health and history of the welfare state.  There are lots of interests bound up in the history and remnants of publicly subsidized housing. As you say, the private sector relegates people’s experiences to the privacy of their home and family. In order to socialize the impact of private sector housing, artists and activists would need to cultivate some solidarity that implicates renters and single-family homeowners in each other’s lives and livelihood. This is most likely to occur on the level of class-based affinity.

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon: Seven years after the CHAos project, the vast majority of public housing units in Chicago are gone. What role do you feel the city government should be playing in the housing sector today?

Agent #1: When the CHAos Campaign was completed I remember thinking that the most severe limitation of our analysis was that we critiqued the privatization of public housing and that implied that we actually wanted there to be public housing. But there were/are some serious problems with public housing. Did we want that to stay the same? Were we being conservative traditionalists bent on maintaining the liberal social welfare state? Did our analysis extend to critique that system and history as well? And did we have a vision for how the project of affordable housing for all could be realized outside of the market and outside of the State as we knew it?

Agent #2: I know that for many of us, this project was a turning point in the way we thought about radical politics and scale. At one point, as a sort of thought experiment, we tried to imagine what our alternative to all of this would be. One of the things we discussed was a particular housing project where the residents had successfully petitioned to stay and have the building turned into a co-op. This was a real-world, workable solution, and it appealed to the more or less anarchist politics we were familiar with. But this kind of solution also seemed very close to an individualist valuation of homeownership. For me personally, the years that followed compounded this dilemma: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina the next year were these immense disasters that required extremely organized, large-scale responses. I think that the failure of those responses (particularly in the case of Katrina) must have caused a lot of people on the Left to reconsider what large and centralized (though, of course, much more democratic) structures were capable of providing.

Agent #3: The “mixed-income housing” that was the centerpiece of the City’s housing policy under the Plan for Transformation has essentially failed to materialize. The people that lived in public housing have been scattered all over, decentering and displacing the “problem,” spatially, visually, morally. I think one of the biggest obstacles in city government, and the division of labor in society in general, is that we conceptualize something like housing as a separate sphere of necessity from education, employment, etc. and then technocratically tinker around its edges in the hope that whatever happens has to be better than what we have now. I’d advocate a much more ambitious role, especially in times of “austerity.”