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A Conversation with Pocket Guide to Hell

On Sunday, July 15, 2012 at noon, Pocket Guide to Hell will perform their latest historical reenactment Like a Second Hand Sea in Chicago's own Streeterville neighborhood (the event starts on the corner of Division Street and Michigan Avenue). Earlier this year, while Pocket Guide to Hell presented the exhibition and performance The World Finder at Gallery 400, Gallery Assistant Chaz Evans got a chance to sit down with Paul Durica, founder of Pocket Guide, to talk about Chicago, what makes for a good reenactment, theater, The World Finder, and the importance of embodied history. Here is a look into the PGHT's background before you experience Chicago history in action this Sunday.

Chaz Evans: How long has Pocket Guide to Hell been active?

Paul Durica: I started in 2008, and originally it was just me doing performative lectures and walking tours that were sort of interactive and trying to sort of play around with the form. And then I got into the idea of playing around with other ways in which histories get narrated, and so the re-enactment is a popular form. So I needed to involve more people. And so I started reaching out, primarily to people who had been on the walking tours and been to the talks and expressed interest or enjoyed themselves. And I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of friends with really great skills. And so that led to me meeting people and… my first re-enactment was actually one of the sillier ones, which was the mystery of Al Capone’s vault, which we did on the 24th anniversary of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault. We did a re-enactment of that broadcast. But then I also explained why it was significant as a live TV event, and it was great though! I got all these people to come and play the demolition workers, and I had a friend whose father was an actual demolition worker, and he got us a genuine dynamite plunger and all these great props. And from there I just continued to work with various people, and they just kind of got behind the projects and helped out. There’s a core group, like Kenneth Morrison who builds a lot of the stuff, and Nat Ward, Michelle Faust, who help with a lot of the costumes, and my friend Sayward Schoonmaker and Megan McGrath, and they’ve helped on a lot of the different projects, but then each project I also try to bring in new people and new communities. So with the Haymarket, the way that we were able to get 200 cops was that I approached 30 different arts, community, and neighborhood groups and was like, “if you come and you bring five other people from the group with you, we’ll put what you do in the city in our program” and it worked, and people came! So there were all sorts of groups from the Hideout, to Quimby’s, to people from AREA, I mean a whole sort of range of communities.

CE: So making this network of collaborators is very conversational, very sort of person to person, word-of-mouth?

PD: Basically, yeah. And I also try to find people who kind of fit the roles or seem appropriate.

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Pocket Guide to Hell, The World Finder, an Epic Tragedy in Four Acts. Performed at Gallery 400 on February 29, 2012.

CE: What are the elements of that story that are of interest to any sort of Pocket Guide to Hell history that you’ve done? What do you seek out in these historical narratives to start making a project on?

PD: With a lot of the narratives that I look at, I am interested in moments of Chicago history that seem in some way significant or informative, but have for some reason or another become obscured or occluded. So, I mean, that’s not always the case, obviously, right? With the Haymarket reenactment, a lot of people know what that is, but the difference being a lot of people have heard the word “Haymarket” or “Haymarket Affair” but don’t really know the particulars or why it’s significant today. But with other things like the 1915 Parade of the Unemployed, or the Battle of the Halsted Viaduct… at the time, these were very significant events in Chicago’s history and actually shaped a lot of the way in which the city exists today and functions today, but have just kind of receded into the past. I think in some ways this historical and cultural amnesia is important to look at, and I feel like, one of two things: first off, by looking at these past narratives we can understand the current moment that we’re in, and how we got here, and strategies for dealing with some of the problems that we still have today that maybe people in the past employed, and why some of those strategies are still viable, and why others clearly don’t work. So it’s interesting that, you know, in the 1880’s you could get thousands of people taking to the street and trying to push for some sort of social change like the eight hour work day. You don’t really see that anymore. You’ll still see maybe, like, what happened in Wisconsin, several thousand, you know, but not at the same scale as what once occurred. So that’s interesting. Secondly I’m interested in how cities themselves preserve and neglect their past, particularly in relation to public spaces. I definitely feel that public spaces are kind of being diminished or reduced or closed off in some way. And so one nice thing about doing these large-scale re-enactments on specific sites throughout the city is that it makes those spaces feel active again. Like, the history and the past gets connected with the present in that moment, and people actually populate those spaces again, and remember that they are public spaces that they can inhabit, and congregate in, and form temporary communities within. And so MacKaye is interesting in the fact his narrative is connected to what is considered one of the premiere civic events in Chicago’s history, so important it’s one of the stars on the flag of Chicago. And then he kind of represents everything that could go wrong with that sort of vision or that sort of attempt, and how even with the best of intentions, you can get caught up in these systems that are beyond your control. So he had nothing to do with the way in which the US economy collapsed, or the fact that all of these men like George Pullman and Lyman Gage had sunk all of this money into the project, and then when they lost interest in it, they just pulled it all out and the thing fell apart. In some ways it’s an interesting reflection upon the ways in which particularly the arts are often dependent upon the generosity of particular sources and how economic fluctuation can affect that. And we still see that played out today in our contemporary environment, and just looking at what’s going on with arts programming in the midst of this current downturn.

CE: So you’d say that the reason for doing history and historiography through this sort of performance practice and through the tours is to stress the importance of physical embodiment of these spaces?

PD: Yeah.

Pocket Guide to Hell, The World Finder, 2012 (installation view). Left to right: Steele MacKaye/Pocket Guide to Hell, Scrapbook of The Spectatorium, 1893/2012, newspaper clippings, photographs, paper, twine, paste; Maquette of Apparatus for Producing Scenic Effects, or Wave Machine, 1893/2012, wood, iron, copper, water; Costume of Sailor from the Santa Maria, 1893/2012, cotton, canvas, leather, iron.

CE: Then it would be interesting to know about the difference between a piece like the Haymarket reenactment that you did and what you’re doing with The World Finder at Gallery 400. The Spectatorium was not at Gallery 400, and you’re doing the performance that they were going to do at the Spectatorium here, with all the artifacts. Can you contrast those two ways of working? Like, in the large public space as opposed to working in a white-cube gallery setting?

PD: One thing I think is consistent across the events is that I always try to keep them free and accessible, if possible, to a diverse audience, and I try to make them interactive in some way, so that people get the sense that the historical narratives that we’re telling actually belong to them and to the city at large. So that’s something that connects the projects. But what’s really different is the sense of scale. So the Haymarket had over 1,000 participants. There were like 200 actors and then 800-some people who just showed up as the audience. And so that’s very, very different, right? And so it felt much more like a historical tableaux, or like a Civil War re-enactment, basically. Because we went through the motions of the event and we provided some sort of framing narration, but you couldn’t tell the story in the same way, or with the same amount of detail or intimacy. It was more about just educating people about the bare outlines of the story if they weren’t familiar with it, or if they were familiar with it, letting them take a sort of possession of it. And so this is very different, because it’s going to be much smaller, much more scripted than the Haymarket thing. Like, there’s actual text that we’re going to be working on. But I think that’s appropriate too, because this, in a weird way, is a much more personal narrative, because it’s really about MacKaye and his vision and what happened to him, so the smaller scale fits. And in some ways… I like playing around with scale too, so since his vision was so large and so epic, having a sort of contained gallery space, and a sort of chamber piece, is a good way of reflecting upon what he attempted to do and what actually occurred.

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Pocket Guide to Hell, The World Finder, an Epic Tragedy in Four Acts. Performed at Gallery 400 on February 29, 2012.

CE: So was it hard to find a protagonist for something as large as the Haymarket piece? Is that why you can grab onto this one character for the purposes of making theater?

PD: Yeah, I think so. I mean, there were the eight anarchists. And you could script it in such a way that someone like Albert Parsons, who was one of the principal labor leaders in Chicago at the time and was later executed, you could have turned him into a protagonist, but I was less interested in doing that than just trying to kind of re-create the event as it unfolded. Because I do really feel that it was a narrative that didn’t have a kind of center. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out today, 120, 130 years later, what actually happened. We don’t know who threw the bomb. Even the speakers who were there at that time basically showed up at the last minute; they weren’t really scheduled to show up. They just happened to be in the neighborhood. So there’s this whole sense of, like, people kind of stumbling upon this event and this narrative that became significant, but none of them really intended it. Whereas with MacKaye, it’s easier for him to be a central character or protagonist because it is really all about his individual will and his vision. And the way he came so close to bringing this thing into being, and in the last moments to have it fall apart. And also the way in which he becomes inextricably linked to the project, and there’s also kind of… I mean, the project doesn’t simply fail, he fails. He dies in that classic Victorian fashion mere months after the thing collapses. And I also liked the way in which he set out to tell the story of Columbus, and Columbus ended his life as a failure as well. And that’s how the play MacKaye was scripting was going to end, and then, you know, get redeemed over time. And it’s weird how MacKaye goes through all the trials, basically all the same trials that Columbus went through! [laughs] Initially having to convince people to support his project and get their funding, and trying to make people believe that this thing is possible and it can happen, and then also going through his period of exile and decline. But without the glorious ending!

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Remnants of Pocket Guide to Hell, The World Finder, an Epic Tragedy in Four Acts. Performed at Gallery 400 on February 29, 2012.

CE: I’m interested in if the histories that you want to make work are exclusive to Chicago… in other words, how big is Hell? How wide could these projects go, geographically speaking? How much Hell is there to guide?

PD: Right now, Chicago. Yeah, I mean I have a couple future projects in mind, and they’re all kind of building to a certain thing, and those will kind of happen over the next couple of years, including one this summer that’s going to attempt to be on the scale of the Haymarket reenactment, so within the foreseeable future, in Chicago. But it would be interesting, I’ve kind of toyed around with the idea…. it might be fun to take it on the road and see if there’s other like-minded communities, and people in different cities, or even towns, across the country. And show up and be like, “this is a story from your past that people seem really interested in, we’ll show you guys how to create this public event around it, and maybe you could tie it in to something going on in your community today to produce awareness about it.”

Paul Durica is a writer and graduate student who founded Pocket Guide to Hell tours in Hyde Park in 2008.
Chaz Evans is an artist, writer, recent UIC MFA alumnus, and Gallery Assistant at Gallery 400.