Gearing up for change
People Powered mixes art and environmentalism
Eight blue bicycles. Not what you expect to encounter in an art museum? Shift gears and coast along the sloping and myriad paths of the creative process. “Artists are always making work about things that are important to them and using their means and skill to communicate that,” says Kevin Kaempf, the artist known as People Powered. His latest project—“Shared: Chicago Blue Bikes”—is the focus of his show at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “12 x 12: New Artists/New Work” series. The show opens the evening of Friday 1 in conjunction with MCA’s First Fridays series, wisely programmed to coincide with the exhibition “Massive Change: The Future of Global Design,” which opens mid-month.
Kaempf was inspired by the White Bikes program in Amsterdam of the 1960s (which was scrapped after a few years when all the bikes were stolen). For him, it’s about taking an idea beyond the proposal stage. “It’s all intended to be used,” he says of his work. He’d like to make his bikes available for public use, though he still has to figure out a way to do that.
The bicycles here were salvaged from Dumpsters or given to him, and most of them were in bad shape—in some cases, stripped down to the frame. Kaempf taught himself how to repair the bikes, then had them repainted an electric blue “to match the Blue Line.”
He has been incorporating environmental concerns into his art practice for several years, beginning with his Soil Starter kit (to encourage home composting) and Loop project (recycling leftover household paint)—both of which are part of the national traveling exhibition “Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art.” But Kaempf didn’t start out to make a better world with his art. His work evolved from postcollege explorations of minimalism that involved ever-so-slight alterations to architecture to his latest far-ranging idea of providing free, nonpolluting transportation. So how did he get from there to here? “My work was always about visual perception,” he says.
In time he began to look closely at how society is organized—specifically, power structures. Chicago’s lack of an infrastructure for recycling got Kaempf thinking about how to do an end run around a lumbering bureaucracy to make change. “I was interested in what could happen on an individual level,” he says. Kaempf, who grew up in the Western Suburbs, went to Northern Illinois University before taking the proverbial road trip that turned into a couple of years of living in the Pacific Northwest. He came back to go to art school at U. of I. and afterward briefly hooked up with the art collective Temporary Services. The name “People Powered” was part of that sensibility. “I was after a certain level of anonymity,” he says. “I wanted to take the focus off the individual artist.”He took what seems like the perfect job for an ecologically minded artist—fabricating environments at the Shedd Aquarium—for four years. But he found it hard to make his own work after spending all day in a studio.
Because Kaempf’s projects address real needs, they have taken on a life of their own and have become somewhat taxing. So he is ready to wrap up the popular Loop project and focus on generating interest in the bikes with his eight prototypes; he will make one last paint collection in October. After all, he didn’t set out to create a paint company but to raise awareness about waste. “If it were suppose to be a business, I would be doing it differently,” he says, “like not considering aesthetics and metaphor.”
“People Powered” at the Museum of Contemporary Art opens Friday 1, 6 to 10pm.