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The Scarlet & Black

Reimagining paper bags

Last weekend, Sabina Ott, Artist in Residence and Professor at Columbia College in Chicago, came to Grinnell to act as a judge for the 2009 Student Art Salon.

Chris Farstad ’09 and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 9:30 last Saturday to assist her as she selected pieces for the salon, which opens this Friday at 4:15.

She burst in through the door at ten, full of energy and enthusiasm, bearing a rather peculiar set of brown paper bags. It was quite a surprise, especially considering that we were bleary-eyed and in desperate need of coffee.

Shortly after introducing herself, and glancing around at the gallery space, she set the bags down on the table and motioned us over to her. “You gotta take a look at these,” she said.

They were pretty much ordinary paper bags—the kind that you would find at a grocery store. But instead of a store name or logo, the words “I want to be ordinary” were printed on the outside.

Perhaps noticing the confused look on my face, Sabina explained that the bags came from Industry of the Ordinary (IOTO), a Chicago artist’s collective, and asked me to look up the website immediately.

Industry of the Ordinary formed in 2003. Their first performance took place in Daley Plaza in Chicago, where 75 participants dropped exactly 163 pounds (the average weight of the American adult) of white clothing into the plaza from above

If you haven’t guessed it from the name of the collective, Industry of the Ordinary is dedicated to highlighting the interest to be had in everyday, ordinary items. In their online manifesto, they’ve written that they seek to explore and celebrate “the customary, the everyday, and the usual. Their emphasis is on challenging pejorative notions of the ordinary and, in doing so, moving beyond the quotidian”. There is beauty in banality and that is the message that IOTO seeks to spread.

Sabina has some sort of connection to members of IOTO and was able to provide Chris and I with ten bags, asking that we take pictures of people interacting with them. For people who are less well-connected like you and me, IOTO will send one to you if you agree to send a picture of someone interacting with the bags in any way they see fit. You can photograph yourself staring at them, wearing them, putting them over your head. Anything goes, really.

Other projects are less straightforward. IOTO once used craigslist to find a couple engaging in an extramarital affair. They offered to pay for a romantic night at a hotel in exchange for taking a portrait of the couple sitting together.

In an earlier project, they collected signatures for a petition against performance art—essentially doing a performance piece to protest performance art. In yet another they sheared a fur coat at the Hyde Park Art Center’s opening while a crowd of people looked on.
Their work is not strictly visual, however. Their website,, has audio recordings of interviews conducted with random people on the streets of Chicago. They ask the interviewees to state what they believe in. Some of the answers include: “God,” “George W. Bush,” “myself,” “not the government” and “sometimes my bike”.

Industry of the Ordinary wants to celebrate the mundane and find interest not in the things they celebrate, but in the way that they celebrate it. Or, rather, in the creativity that can be inspired from ordinary things. This is another one of those deals where the process is much more important than the end product.

I’m planning on spreading these bags around a bit. Kind of a last hurrah. A final interactive community art project before (gasp) graduation. So if you see a paper bag that wants to be ordinary lying around campus . . . pick it up, put it over your head. Take a photograph and send it to Industry of the Ordinary. Most people just put groceries in the bags . . . so it’s up to you to find a way to be extraordinarily creative with an ordinary old paper bag.

It’s been real nice writing for you all this year. Keep it real, Grinnell. No limits to how exciting the ordinary can be here.

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