Art et (Cottage) Industrie

Christine Hill Leads Tours of the Everyday

It was art, but you'd never know it. Christine Hill had barely opened her tour-guide office at the front of Deitch Projects before someone came in wanting tickets to Denver. "An effective installation," she concluded, though she expects to keep hearing lines like "Why is this art?"

Hill's work really blurs the art/life line because it's about creating something that is life. She has worked in the past as a masseuse, waitress, shopkeeper, and lead singer in a rock band—activities she designated as art while they also provided her income. Now, with Tourguide?, sponsored by the Public Art Fund, she will act as a real guide, leading tourists (and the rest of us) to unconventional local attractions. The trips promise to be both more mundane and more cosmic than any vacation in Colorado.

On June 19, the day of the inaugural tour, a couple of people sat filling out forms in Hill's tiny storefront. Someone had told her the place looked like an office in East Germany. "Which is completely what I'm going for," the artist announced happily. She'd been living in East Berlin for most of the decade, having moved there right after art school because "it seemed as close to uncharted territory as I could get." She knew one other American there and did not speak the language.

If anything in this storefront created a not-too-post-Soviet ambience, it was the '50s wallpaper Hill had found, a brown snowflake pattern—hideous but homey. She'd also posted a THINK sign behind her desk, covered the chairs for clients with American flag bunting, filled shelves with phonebooks and Michelinguides, and hung Ziploc bags on the wall, each one holding a Manhattan "souvenir" like Pepcid AC or Chap Stick. All were for sale at about list price, though she thought of them as "artsy multiples."

The souvenirs bring up just one of the questions inherent in Hill's work: does an ordinary object become more valuable if it's designated as art? That's usually how it works. As if the artist were an alchemist. Hill thinks of drawing and painting as "apprentice skills," and she is out to create situations, not objects. But then a walk down the street becomes art. And Tourguide? reminds me of that classic Situationist activity theycalled the dérive—the drift, the journey with no goal. This tiny avant-garde movement so important in '60s Paris, the Situationist International, regarded the dérive as a way of introducing disorientation and discovery into everyday life. But this is the '90s, and Hill talks more about improvisational theater and "my fascination with Conan O'Brien." He's someone who can think on his feet, she says. And she wants her tour to instigate some kind of group interaction, to become a sort of moving improv.

Hill's piece is going to evolve over the course of the summer, and she hopes eventually to include sites unimaginable on other tours, like sweatshops and private residences. But on day one, there are only three of us, and we set off to look at the Rachel Whiteread sculpture high above Grand and West Broadway.As we walk past the Soho Grand, Hill says she'll start going in there once the group is bigger. She'd been dissed at the Grand, which refused to display her brochures. ("We do not have the sort of clientele that goes on walking tours.")

Hill has taken every tour in town. Thirteen of them, anyway. She also applied for a job at "one of those double-decker places" and went through the initiation process. Soon she'll take a test at the Department of Consumer Affairs to get certified as a guide. "I don't intend to start telling people how many miles of subway there are, but I like the idea of getting certified.

"I can cloak it as art. Or I can say, I'm a tour guide. I'm opening a business." It's a practical approach to the usual alienation surrounding every artist with a day job. "I'm just trying to promote some kind of meshing so that you feel that whatever you're doing is worth it. So you're not just killing time until you get to something else."Hill's best-known project in Berlin was Volksboutique, a secondhand clothing store she ran out of her studio for a year. The art in her cottage industries comes in setting up, determining what persona will make it all work, and interacting with customers or fans. Her band, Bindemittel, broke up after touring and making a record—after achieving success, in other words—because at that point it became institutionalized and just a job.

While artists have been framing everyday activities or objects as art for decades, it's another thing to run a business as an art form, and it has profound implications. In 1995, Hill created a piece called "Vendible" for a group show in London. She filled a vending machine that usually held candy and chips with ordinary objects relevant to her work in Berlin. She had had a job shining shoes, so she included shoe cream along with airmail envelopes, maps of Berlin—everything in plastic bags with a document that "souvenired it," as she puts it. Other artists in the show included Gilbert & George and Douglas Gordon. Each had received £300 "to realize the work" and she'd used her money to buy the contents of the machine.

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