Urban encounters: Linda Hesh’s “Directional Doorknob Hangers”

For her performance-intervention at RP14, artist Linda Hesh installed 1000 doorknob hangers in an approximate half-mile radius around Defibrillator, in the surrounding West Town, Noble Square and Wicker Park neighborhoods. Reflecting the urban mix and diversity of the local area, the doorknob hangers were placed in sites ranging from commercial buildings, to residential homes, to uninhabited spaces such as alleyways and empty buildings. They were inscribed with a series of texts inviting viewers to take note of their surroundings, and calling upon us to be mindful of our immediate place in the urban environment. Hesh also asked viewers to take photos of the hangers, in-situ or in a place of their choosing, and to post them to Twitter and Instagram using the tag #HeshRapidPulse. This is the fourth iteration of the Alexandria, VA based artist’s work with doorknob hangers. Hesh mobilizes the hangers to create temporary interventions that speak to members of the public, addressing statements and instructions directly at viewers, while leaving room for individual responses and reactions. Previous doorknob hanger projects in New York City, Washington DC, and Alexandria VA also used instructions and declarative statements to explore the function of art, notions of longing, and chance encounters in the urban environment.

Linda Hesh photo by Nabeela VegaOver the course of two days, I would have three very different types of encounters with the Directional Doorknob Hangers: a chance series of discoveries; a guided tour; and a deliberate quest for doorknob hangers in an area where I’d seen them previously.

Knowing only that Hesh would be installing the doorknob hangers in the area around DFB, I set off on my own on June 6th, the second day of the project, in the hopes of trying to find as many of them as possible. Within a few yards of the gallery, I spotted a doorknob hanger on a storefront close to the Lovely Bakery, a stark white object with black text that read: “Behind You”. A parking meter, some cars, the Noble Square Co-op. I continue on, exploring the streets close to DFB. Nothing. I head onto nearby Thomas Street and spot just two of the doorknob hangers. Around the corner on Haddon Street, I encounter four or five of them, installed on apartment and commercial buildings, as well as one lying upside down on the sidewalk. “To the Left”. “Behind You”. “Next Door”. I take note of my immediate surroundings.

Linda Hesh photo by Nabeela VegaAt 4pm I head to the gallery for a guided tour. I meet Charlene, a knowledgeable docent who tells me more about the project. Hesh gave her a map of the areas where she installed the doorknob hangers over two consecutive days. Joined by our photographer Nabeela, we set off on the hunt for more doorknob hangers. We call out to each other when one of us discovers a hanger. We read the messages out loud, and look around us to see what’s going on in the immediate vicinity of that particular hanger. We spot them mostly on homes, apartment buildings, and fences. We see one in a planter sprouting herbs. We occasionally see one lying on the street or sidewalk, in which case, one of us stops to pick it up and re-place it on a doorknob close by. We wonder how they got onto the ground: Did they blow off? Did someone discard them?

We begin to notice small and intricate details about the buildings and the neighborhood: a building painted an unusual shade of green; odd storefront spaces on residential streets; hidden gardens and courtyards; objects in peoples’ windows; the large number of homes for sale; a bright red door; tripping hazards such as bumps and gaps in the sidewalk; a metal sculpture of a torso in a storefront window.

Linda Hesh photo by Nabeela VegaThere are eight different messages printed on the various doorknob hangers. We try to spot all eight different texts. Sometimes the same few messages repeat in a given area. Seeing a new message provokes a sense of excitement. “Look Right”. “Very Close”. We reflect on why Hesh chose to put specific doorknob hangers in particular locations, and we talk about how their various messages connect to their specific installation sites. Did she want us to look at the house next door, or the one across the street? What attracted her to this particular building? Did she put the “Not Here” hanger next to the “Beware of Dog” sign on purpose? Was this hanger put here by Hesh, or by a viewer? “Over There”. That’s all eight of them. And then: “Be Quick”. A ninth message. An unexpected discovery.

We wonder about how viewers might encounter the doorknob hangers coming home from work: will they take them inside, move them around, photograph them, upload them to social media as requested? A woman with red hair approaches an apartment building. There’s a doorknob hanger on the front gate. We wait in anticipation. She unlocks the gate and continues on inside. I wanted to witness an act of viewer interaction, and feel a bit disappointed. But the hanger is still there, waiting for another resident, another viewer to come along

We talk about the idea of place-based art. We wonder what Hesh was thinking when she installed the project, what she thought about the neighborhood, about Chicago, about how it compared to the other cities where she installed her doorknob hanger projects.

I notice that I’m paying close attention to tiny details, but not noticing which direction I’m walking in, what street I’m on, where I’m going — details that I’m always mindful of. I’m not used to not paying attention to where I’m going, and yet, it doesn’t matter now. “Right Now”.

Linda Hesh photo by Nabeela VegaI reflect on the project’s potential to spur new types of situated and intersubjective encounters. My quest for doorknob hangers provided a catalyst for new ways of experiencing a relatively familiar urban environment — I live in the neighborhood — and for new types of social interaction

Our collective search for doorknob hangers served to foster dialog, creating an interpersonal connection and linking us in a temporary social bond. The tour also connected us, as viewers, to the artist herself, as we reflected both individually and collectively on her motivations, inspirations, and expectations.

Writing about the role of art in public spaces, critic Lucy Lippard asserts that we need artists “to bring out multiple readings of places that mean different things to different people and at different times” (1). The neighborhood around DFB is spatially and culturally diverse. Commercial and residential, derelict and new buildings bump up against each other, as do social and cooperative housing, luxury condos, and Chicago workmen’s cottages and apartments. Parts of the area are heavily gentrified; parts of it are in need of much greater economic investment. The area is home to Polonia Triangle, to Polish, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and African-American communities, hipsters, yuppies, artists, working people. While many parts of Chicago are highly segregated racially and economically, others, like this one, maintain a degree of diversity. What does the neighborhood mean to those who live here? And what does it mean to those just passing through? Writing about the community engaged practices of the artist project Touchable Stories, performance studies scholar Shannon Jackson observes that the extension of the art object into the viewer’s space provokes “reflection upon the spectators’ own infrastructural location in a longer urban history, a history on which that location ‘depends’” (2). Hesh’ doorknob hangers may guide us through the neighborhood, make us take note of our surroundings, and perhaps lead us to reflect more deeply on how public space and the urban environment can simultaneously create shared spaces where different people and places come into contact with each other, while more often maintaining very separate spheres of activity.

Two days later, I set out to check back on the doorknob hangers. I set out to explore an area I’d walked around previously. I recognized some of the things I noticed the previous day: the “Beware of Dog” sign; the urban garden built under a first floor balcony; the torso sculpture. All landmarks for where I’d seen individual doorknob hangers. I traced and retraced my steps, but this time, I saw nothing. Not one single doorknob hanger, not one, not even on the ground. Heading back to Division along Hermitage Street, I caught a glimpse of something white hanging from the doorknob of a black steel door. There, on the back door of Wicker Park Fitness, I spotted my last hanger. “To The Left”. A black wall, an alley, a long stretch of apartment buildings.

1. Lucy Lippard, “Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be”, in Suzanne Lacy ed. Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle, Bay Press, 1995, p.129.

2. Shannon Jackson, Social Works: performing art, supporting publics, New York and London, Routledge, 2011, p.66.

Documentation photos by Nabeela Vega.
Lisa Vinebaum is an interdisciplinary artist, critical writer, and educator. Her work explores identity, labor, collectivity, and artistic production in the larger context of globalization and late capitalism. Her performances have been presented at festivals and conferences across North America. Her scholarly work has been published by Bloomsbury, Telos Art Publishing, YYZ Books, Ugly Duckling Press, and the Journal of Modern Craft Online, as well as at numerous international conferences. Lisa Vinebaum holds a PhD in Art from Goldsmiths. She is an Assistant Professor in the department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

One thought on “Urban encounters: Linda Hesh’s “Directional Doorknob Hangers””

  1. Linda

    Lisa, thank you for writing about my piece in a detailed and considered manner. We didn’t meet at the festival, but I enjoyed exploring your work online.