The Mini-golf is the Message: Eco-friendly putt-putt at the Experimental Station

A miniature golf course always creates an aura of playful carelessness. Who can take anything seriously in an environment of vibrant colors, outlandish displays and people posing in funny positions every twenty seconds? The inherent silliness of mini-golf is obvious, but its artistic potential is not, which is what makes the current production at the Experimental Station so interesting. A group called Material Exchange has organized nine holes of mini-golf to raise awareness of waste without sacrificing a playful atmosphere.

The Experimental Station–occupying both office and exhibition space in a nondescript building on 61st and Woodlawn–makes a good space for a course. An airy room with a two-story ceiling and hardwood floors houses most of the links; a smaller balcony area overlooking the exhibition room contains the remaining holes. At the entrance (entrepreneurially stocked with soda, beer, and other attractively-priced refreshments), a five-dollar donation merits a scorecard, a golf ball which may or may not have an LED inside of it which lights up when hit, and a choice of two styles of putter: an ordinary style available at any reputable mini-golf course, and a homemade welded monster of steel tubing and metal grates.

The latter putter represents the overarching intent of the production. Like each individual hole, it is made out of recycled materials–mainly the discarded refuse of industry–which may still be put to some use. Material Exchange has produced work along these lines for several years. By creatively re-applying materials that had been deemed trash, the group explores what imbues material things with worth. “There tends to be a politics embedded in this,” explains Sara Black, a founding member of Material Exchange. “We’re not interested in saying you should stop throwing these things away, but it’s interesting to see how these materials acquire value.”

The end result of this exploration is a crazy-fun mini-golf course. All the holes are fairly difficult; each provides some sort of comment by the group that made it. The first hole provides a typical example of how the structure of the hole is integral to its message: two players hit their balls concurrently into a network of ramps which feed into an old file cabinet made to look like a school. Only one ramp leads to the hole; the others are dead ends, and there is no way to tell which is which. The effect of dramatizing the competitive, anarchic nature of schooling is somewhat overshadowed by the players’ frustration at watching their scores mount trying to find the right ramp. But maybe that’s part of the point. Other holes trumpet unrelated but serious issues. A group of foam flamingos and palm trees, which get knocked over in the wake of the ball’s path, highlights the damage caused to the Hawaiian ecosystem by real golf courses. At another hole, the player uses a pool cue to push the ball into a series of holes spelling out “hole in one” in Braille. The most outlandish hole, featuring an eight-foot spinning tornado with flashing lights, illustrates the environmental effects of urbanization.

The hole designs were chosen from proposals submitted by artists and designers all over the city. “We selected hole designs based on the parameters we set: that they be recycled, designed for some future use, and difficult but interesting,” says Black. The individual causes highlighted by the holes don’t coalesce around a common theme, but the overall production does. The name of the hole design competition–”green design competition”–emphasizes the fact that all the materials are recycled, and have found further use since the time they once faced the dumpster. Even the Astroturf used as the putting green was recycled; originally, it had been used in the production “The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s America” at the Renaissance Society.

Ignoring all the environmental and social concerns, actually playing the course is a blast. Several holes feature twenty-odd foot tubes, Rube Goldberg-esque systems of funnels and ramps, and a twenty-foot putter which swung from the second floor to hit a ball on the first. After its run at the Experimental Station, the course will be transferred to the University of Chicago quads April 16th to the 22nd, providing a more public way of exploring the use of discarded materials.