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By Raillan Brooks
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 islife. She has worked in the past as a masseuse, waitress, shopkeeper, and lead singer in a rock bandactivities 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 patternhideous 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 dérivethe drift, the journey with no goal. This tiny avant-garde movement so important in '60s Paris, the Situationist International, regarded the dériveas 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 recordafter achieving success, in other wordsbecause 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 Berlineverything 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.
She had, of course, priced everything so she'd make a profit. But when the Serpentine Gallery sent her the money, they first deducted their £300, "saying that it wasn't the idea to be commercial." But Hill's work is less "commercial" than radical. In the post-Duchampian tradition, she challenges the whole idea of the unique object. Gilbert & George, for example, will not be returning their £300 if they sell their painting. This goes to the very foundation of art-world economics. Artists are supposed to take ordinary materialswood, canvas, stoneand transform them into something valuable by their touch.
Just so the walking tour. One usually visits the oldest, the tallest, the battlements, the boyhood homes. Instead, we walked into the New York City Rescue Mission on lower Lafayette. We'd already perused the Canal Street bins and Hill's favorite 99-cent store.
"What can I do for you folks?" asked an old man seated behind the desk at the Mission.
"We're just interested in the way your establishment runs and how it looks," said Hill. "It's beautiful."
"You've never been in a rescue mission?" The old man seemed incredulous. He explained that they'd been founded in 1872, the first rescue mission in the country. A man named Jerry McAuley discovered God while he was in prison and decided he had to help other men in trouble. The old man showed us McAuley's pardon hanging on the wall, dated 1864.
"We take care of 300 to 400 homeless men a day and feed everyone who comes to the door. Are you hungry?" he asked. We weren't, but he said he would give us a present, and pulled xeroxes of a prayer he'd written from a file folder.
That was a poignant moment, and just a block away was a surreal one. We entered the Manhattan Detention Center, passing what looked like mesh towers in front. Sculpture? Just inside was a door on the west side labeled "sandbox area only one officer at a time." Hmmm. Inside the north door, an officer sat inside a little cage. He came out and asked what we wanted.
"Is that art work out there?" Hill inquired.
"I have no idea," said the officer.
A quote from Dostoyevsky hung near the door: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
Apparently, we are a civilization that doesn't know art from a pile of mesh on the patio. Or an artist from an entrepreneur.
Tourguide? runs through September 30. For reservations, call 212-802-7383.