The day has a chill in the air, unusual for the month of June in Chicago. With the sky’s threat to rain, Miller & Shellabarger set up in the windows of Rapid Pulse’s Hub. The 2 bearded men place 2 wooden chairs at opposite ends of the raised storefront window where they will engage in 4 hours of collaborative crocheting.
They reveal a pink tube that they have been crocheting together since 2003. The variances of the color pink woven into the tube over the past 10 years show the object’s age, simultaneously referencing the phases that relationships endure. The men sit, wearing clothing I imagine they wear every day, the pink tube gathered between them. They nonchalantly begin to crochet at the same time. It is a mundane image, requiring little analysis on behalf of the audience. The sincerity of their demeanor and commitment to this action is easily understood and profoundly moving. So much in fact, I find myself backing away from the piece within the first 15 minutes of the performance because of my emotional response. 1 day after a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage failed to come to a vote in Illinois, I find myself witnessing a ceremonial union unfolding through this durational symbolic action.
Within the first hour, something strange happens. Miller begins to speak to me. He begins engaging me in small talk, asking where I ate dinner the previous evening and how my day is going. The action between Miller and Shellabarger felt so intimate that I was surprised by this casual audience interaction, yet relieved that I was invited to participate in the ease and calm that the artists were projecting. On a practical level, this offered the opportunity to ask questions. I discover that the piece is always activated in public spaces. I am told that they learned to crochet from a friend and that this learning process also happened in public spaces such as parks and coffee shops. Crochet is a single instrumented process that consists of pulling loops through other loops. Only one stitch is active at a time. Miller and Shellabarger had to take turns crocheting the first line of the tube. The last time they measured the tube, it was about 70 feet in length. The strangest place (to date) they have crocheted the tube was in a water taxi. I learn that the piece will continue until one of the men can no longer crochet. Most likely, this will occur at death. When this happens, the other has agreed to unravel the tube.
“What if you both die at the same time?” another audience member asks. Shellabarger lifts his fist to the air and exclaims “Alright!” This is an ideal situation that I myself have hoped for when contemplating the inevitable earthly separation from my own partner. Everyone in the room laughs a bit before we collectively acknowledge the unlikelihood of this scenario. “I guess it will remain as it is” Miller answers matter-of-factly.
This straightforwardness around mortality is present in Miller and Shellabarger’s other collaborative work. They have dug their own graves in various landscapes, creating a tunnel in between so that they can hold hands. They hugged in a space filled with UV lights, the imprints of their embrace burned into one another’s skin. They have embroidered pillows with their initials (S and M) using their beard hair. The notion of the physical traces that the corporeal body leaves is also explored through the direct action of tracing. The couple has created a prolific body of work of silhouettes that capture various amalgamations of their shared form. The work oscillates between tenderness and addressing the impossibility of “forever.”
Like much of their work, the pink tube creates a visualization of Miller and Shellabarger’s personal relationship. The color and form also evokes a visceral sense of intimacy, referencing an umbilical cord or intestines. As they crochet, the internal/private becomes external/public. Throughout the performance, strangers and friends of the artists come in and out of the space. The artists engage us in conversations about the day’s events and updates on family and mutual friends. I appreciate Miller and Shellabarger’s relaxed candor. In a culture that sensationalizes, sanitizes, and excessively fears death, their choice to present work that accepts and embraces death and the loss of a partner with such openness, is refreshing.
Photo by Alyssa Chappe
Sandrine Schaefer is a Boston-based Artist, Educator, and Independent Curator. Sandrine has exhibited her work extensively, nationally and internationally. Sandrine is a Co-Founder and Director of The Present Tense, an art initiative that produces and archives live art events, festivals, exhibitions, and exchanges. Through her curatorial endeavors, Sandrine has exhibited over 300 artists from around the globe. Her writing on contemporary experiential art practices has been published in several international online and print publications and she is a Contributing Writer for Big Red & Shiny. She teaches performance art practices through the Interdisciplinary Department at Montserrat College of Art and through the SIM Department at Massachusetts College of Art.