Art & Culture in Chicago

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Dormant Art: an Interview with Rob Ray of Deadtech (3321 W. Fullerton)

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Rob Ray

Rob Ray

Rob Ray was the proprietor and curator of Deadtech, a defunct Logan Square artspace that existed from 1998-2008.  Deadtech was a venue for unconventional, electromechanical art and a community for artists interested in exploring the dichotomy between man and machine.   Ray is currently working on his MFA at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.

Kelly Reaves: What was Deadtech’s mission?

Rob Ray: To be a center for art and technology and an assistant to technology-centric artists in the best way we knew how. This tended to manifest itself in the putting on shows, providing technical assistance, and loaning equipment. We also hosted various regular meetings such as the Chicago Dorkbot and the chicago_pd group.  Our mission changed in the mid 2000s as new-media became a term very similar to “alternative” in that while it might have been new at the time, it became quite common.  So, I had to think about how Deadtech could differentiate itself from more established, better funded, and more highly recognized commercial and institutional places.  It used to be common for somebody to look at you totally sideways when you said you wanted to hang a projector in their space. It is now a common thing to see.  We took a fresh look at our assets and realized the biggest one we had was time.  A commercial space or somewhere like the Cultural Center never has time, and tech-based art is a PAIN to suss-out and painful to install. So we could work with artists that really wanted to do almost a residency-type install, or try something new in the actual space.

KR: How many people were involved with Deadtech?

RR: We were a very informal collective of volunteers. I was the only full-time volunteer but over the years MANY people have helped.  We were no-profit; we had no official status- sort of like Mess Hall (an “experimental cultural center” in Chicago).  Deadtech never had a commercial concern. We sold a few pieces, but we were adamant in our finances.

KR: Did you take a commission?

RR: We never charged a door charge and we never let artists hang a price tag on their work. In exchange we asked for no money. If a piece sold we only asked the artist to donate back to the space what they thought was fitting.  Deadtech was founded on this naive idea that amazing work doesn’t get created in the commercial sphere. It’s a naive idea I still hold today.

KR: What made a show successful?

RR: There are two types of shows I would consider “unusual successes.”

There are shows where I feel like the artist(s) just slayed it- what they wanted to do and what they were working on and the space and my assistance all came together and just totally gelled. Then there are shows that a bunch of people come out to, which is awesome too.  There were 500 people at our first show.

KR: That must have been encouraging.

RR: Yeah! Totally. That was pretty great.

KR: any catastrophes?

RR: sure! Not many…

KR: probably a few technical glitches…

RR: There have been a few shows where what the artist was trying to do just didn’t come together.  Failure is not just a threat in tech-based art; it is an un-removable component of the art.  ‘What will fail and when’ is the appropriate question, not ‘how can I prevent failure?’  And also some nights just don’t come together. There was a show where two really awesome out of town artists had their opening and it just POURED rain in buckets all night.  Things like that will nuke attendance. I felt bad, as they had been in residency for 2 weeks installing. 

KR: I imagine in 1998 the location was a little off the beaten path.  Was it hard to get people to come out?

RR: Yes and no.  Deadtech showed art that a kind of hardcore audience goes to so they will travel.  Plus Logan Square has always been home to a LOT of artists, just not a lot of art spaces. So we would intentionally have our openings from 8pm to midnight to catch people on the way home from West Loop or whatever.  It seemed to work quite well.

KR: There is still a nice metal Deadtech sign on the building.  Why didn’t you take it down?

RR: The sign is a funny story. When I had the sign made, I was influenced by all the old signs you see on warehouses all over Chicago, tombstones of the industrial-era in a way.  When I was moving out I told my landlord I was going to have the sign taken down, and he goes “Oh man! That sign is so beautiful, I’ll happily pay to take down the sign for you later if you could leave it up for a while. I can’t bear to not see it on the front of the building.”  As the removal was about $200 I obliged him and also thought it fitting that, like the rest of signs like it, it would stay up as a reminder of what was.

KR: Are you planning on coming back to Chicago?

RR: This is a good question… it is high on my list.  Chicago and LA have a number of artists I work closely with and am good friends with, so I think it will be one of those two.

KR: LA doesn’t seem too souless for you?

RR: Not at all!  That’s what’s crazy about LA.  I was in LA for 10 days and never once even thought about Hollywood or even “art-hollywood” bullshit.

CLUI, The Institute for Figuring, Machine Project, the Jurassic, etc., are all out there saying “fuck you” to all that stuff.

KR: What are you currently working on?

RR: Right now I’m moonlighting one day a week at my old job. The money is good so I force myself to squeeze it in. It has been REALLY nice to be making art after showing it for SO long and not really having enough time to make some myself. I want to spend a few years, selfishly, just making it.  But I think I’ll get back on the horse again. There are a lot of really inspiring places kicking ass: Mess Hall and InCUBATE in Chicago, Machine Project in LA, etc…  Right now I’m focusing on “living creatively,” bringing art practice into everyday living.  That doesn’t mean I don’t like art shows, it’s that I like them so much, I am thinking about how to apply that pleasure to other things like going to the dentist or buying dishes for my kitchen.  The creative challenge is something I only pursued within the confines of a 4 walled warehouse I called Deadtech. I’m now looking to figure out how I can take that thinking and apply it to doing other things.

KR: big job

RR: indeed!

KR: but fun

RR: but hella fun

Jeremy Boyle's guitar, photo courtesy of Deadtech's website

Jeremy Boyle's guitar, photo courtesy of Deadtech's website



2 Responses

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  1. NICE!


    April 12, 2009 at 5:50 am

  2. good topic. thanks for sharing knowledge

    Michael Jump

    January 30, 2010 at 4:13 am

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