Post-Its and Puppets: Hyde Park Art Center’s “Notes to Nonself” exhibit culminates in a multimedia show

As denizens of the neighborhood nurse their thirsty vehicles at the BP station on East Hyde Park Boulevard, just east of the Metra tracks, they can already hear it. Perhaps they are distracted by the hiss of the frothing pump or are inside buying a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos; but if you pause and look around, they all appear to be swaying to a subdued bass line and a chilling croon with no ostensible earthly source. Around the corner, the street is showered from above with dense light. Clouds and skulls dance before the sidewalk on a monolithic screen, accompanied by a tune that has already become to local residents disarmingly familiar.

This nightly apparition that haunts the corner of East Hyde Park and Cornell every night from 4 to 10pm is only a peripheral component of “Notes to Nonself,” an installation that has been hosted at the Hyde Park Art Center for the past 21 days and will remain until May 2. A long-distance collaboration between artist, musician, and psychotherapist Diane Christiansen and builder, puppeteer, and fellow artist Shoshanna Utchenik, “Notes to Nonself” is a totally immersive alternate world, complete with plywood trees, a dingy clubhouse, and a massive papier-mâché octopus, all framed by a canopy of wire-suspended clouds and the looming animation vaguely described above. The aural component, which is projected out to the street, is titled “Mastodons,” and was written and performed by Christiansen’s husband and usual bandmate, Steve Dawson.

Christiansen’s artistic repertoire is primarily restricted to the domain of, as she puts it, “iconography.” She found a partner in Utchenik back in 2006, while looking for someone to help her build a life-size cartoon character. Both graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, they naturally had mutual acquaintances and hit it off immediately. After their “cocoon girl character” was completed, however, Utchenik gave birth to her son, Oskar, and moved back to Slovenia.

Inspired by therapeutic notes that Christiansen and Utchenik sent to each other across the Atlantic for the past four years, “Notes to Nonself” features sentimental notes created both by the artists and visitors, which hang low from nearly invisible strands attached to the ceiling. “[Utchenik and I] decided to create an installation informed by and covered with our notes which we were exchanging weekly,” says Christiansen. “[We were] each drawing or writing on the other’s notes in this crazy Baroque pen pal fest, so that’s how it started.” The notes, which are largely comprised of whimsical imperatives (“Wear more blue!”) and truisms (“Leather is good in moderation”), add both a dynamic and distinctly intimate element to the installation, in that one can actually relive the experience of previous visitors.

The truly dynamic feature, however, will take place this Saturday, when Christiansen and Dawson team up with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly to perform songs off of Dawson’s new album, “I Will Miss the Trumpets and the Drums.” Dawson’s style–which can be sampled on–blends the unabashed exuberance of ’90s bands like Polaris and the Smashing Pumpkins with the twangy poignancy of Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Young. Actually located in the installation, the concert will be accompanied by Utchenik’s friend and fellow puppeteer, Mark Kinsella, who Christiansen says will be “riffing off of the content of the show.”

On Saturday night, the disembodied voice of Steve Dawson will no longer haunt the corner of East Hyde Park and Cornell. But inside HPAC, a fascinatingly contrived kitsch landscape will finally come alive with the only soundtrack it has ever known, plus some improvisational puppetry.
Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. March 6. Saturday, 7pm. (773)324-5520.