SITE VISIT// Amelia Charter’s “People” at Comfort Station
By Michael Workman
On a recent cold Chicago night at the Comfort Station, a number of hooded figures appeared to have popped up in the windows. Lounging atop tables, faces wrapped in scarves, huddled together on benches, they seem at first glance too well-dressed for homeless people. On approach, they’re often engaged in perhaps even vaguely lascivious embraces, nearly all of them posed as familiars, or lovers, holding one-another, faces and bodies clenched together. As time passes, however, you realize they’re not actually people at all. Instead, they’re the sculptural installation of artist Amelia Charter, whose work bridges the seemingly disparate disciplines of sculpture and performance.
Hello, Amelia. Can you tell me a little bit about the background for this exhibit?
The piece is a response to the history of the Comfort Station as a warming station, its beginnings. They talk about this some on their website, but these warming stations were popping up in the early 1900’s along with public transportation. And the city built them all over. They were somewhat short-lived in their existence, the city tore them down and there are some surviving ones that are just places to get warm and go to the bathroom. And this one in-particular was left abandoned for an undocumented number of years, then later in the ’40s was documented as in use as a place for tool storage, and just basically cold storage, empty until the 21st century when the arts organization that runs it took it over 5 years ago. So this, the way that we know the Comfort Station now is a very recent phenomenon.
Why did you want to comment on that history? To some degree, it does seem a commentary on those in poverty; that’s who would use warming stations, correct?
Yes. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but right, people in poverty would use the public transportation. And public transportation was less frequent, probably going longer distances back then. You couldn’t just walk to the train and expect to get on it in 10 minutes, you needed a place like this more back then than you do now.
How does the performance you’re giving relate to this installation?
I’m actually working on it right now with my partner Adam Kerbel, we’re going to have some texts, we’ll be moving to an improvisational score that’s 23 minutes long, using the entire space and the audience will be with us. I think I can tell you this story that captures the heart of the performance for me: last year in winter, it got really, really bad. I remember having this moment of being awe-struck by people on the train. I was, at the time, going to school downtown, and taking the train home at the end of the day. And usually the train is hustle and bustle at this certain hour, everybody’s hopping around, people are bopping, kids are making sounds, and during that time when it was so cold, you’d get on the train and everybody was huddled. In every way they could be. And they were hardly visible, and they were so quiet and still and they were trying to touch each other.
They weren’t avoiding each other like they normally would, they were moving around for the barest hint of a snuggle, or to purposefully stand closer to you just for a little bit of heat. I just was caught by that sweetness, the tenderness that had come out of such extreme conditions, and they weren’t visible, no one knew who each other was.
It’s true about cities, that acceptance of anonymity you have to have to live in them. How does that theme of the kindness of strangers then inform the improvisation?
Well, it’s difficult because we’re not assigning narrative, not assigning characters. We’re really trying to be of their space. But there are moments when we’re going to recognize each other’s faces, and then we’ll acknowledge that you can recognize our faces. So I don’t think then we’ll be shrouded, or as anonymous as these people are.
Amelia Charter, “People” at the Comfort Station, 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647. Sculptural installation is meant for viewing from the exterior. Performance with Adam Kerbel: FRI JAN 8 7–10p. Closing Reception: Fri., Jan. 30, 7–10pm. comfortstationlogansquare.org; ameliacharter.com