universal lab

Universal Lab

Text excerpted from Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art, Curated by Stephanie Smith at the Smart Museum of Art, 2006 University of Chicago Catalog p.100-105

Simultaneously a utopian research model, a reservoir of scientific lab equipment, a waste handling/reuse/storage dilemma–and to varying degrees–an art project; the Universal Lab continues along its unique, hybrid trajectory. Since its inclusion in the Ecologies exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art in 2000, Excerpts from the Universal Lab has appeared in two museum exhibitions; spent a year trapped in a U.S. Customs storage facility, where it narrowly escaped destruction; been the subject of a threatened lawsuit by its former landlords; and spent two additional years in a semi-trailer. The art world has played gracious host to the sprawling, rambling collection of matter that is at the core of this project but has not yet entirely gotten its arms around it. It seems to fit in catalogs, and briefly in large exhibition spaces, but not the storage lockers of permanent art collections. The reluctance of art institutions and collectors to take that kind of plunge is understandable and speaks to the heart of the matter. It is the scale of the original collection that continues to energize Universal Lab. Within that enormity, a continual shift in polarities occurs between waste and resource, value and non-value, historical relevance and triviality, sublime attraction to the senses and grand–toxic–annoyance. 

The Universal Lab has always felt like something larger than life, something that never should have existed at all. Something utterly unregulated, that grew quietly in the shadow of extreme regulation. It is the unlikely convergence of three things: 1) the exaggerated, post–Manhattan Project, Cold War research budgets at the University of Chicago 2) human energy–measured in decades–dedicated to scavenging the remains of those research budgets–endlessly shuttling things from point A to point B; and 3) abundant, nearby, affordable, unsupervised warehouse space. The scale of each of these forces is what transformed the Universal Lab from a flawed, impoverished scientific research offshoot into something much more deeply compelling. But it is this scale that has also fed the urgency behind uprooting it, evicting it, and, in the end, regulating it. The Universal Lab, in its current state, has been brought down to size. 

Rather than the negligent, hazardous, wholesale disposal process launched by its landlords in 2000, intervention by the Resource Center (a Chicago-based nonprofit) and the help of a small pool of volunteers over subsequent years has allowed for large amounts of its contents to be recycled, reused, or resold. In 2002 the University of Chicago was coerced into handled all radioactive materials under the attentive supervision of the Illinois Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but after this brief period of cooperation it denied any obligation to address other hazardous materials. In 2003 the chemical inventory was at least partially identified and disposed of under professional supervision, at significant expense to the landlord. In early 2004, the 10,000 square feet of space that the lab had occupied since the 1960s was finally cleared, again at significant expense to the landlord. But this does not mark the end.A trailer load of materials selected from the Universal Lab for exhibition purposes had been drawn off from the main body. A rough estimate would place these excerpts at between one and two percent of the whole laboratory, and–other than the absent chemical stores–they are fairly representative of its contents. This roving, satellite collection, moving in and out of trucks, art museums, shipping containers, loading docks, and warehouses, has now become the mother ship. As it continues to drift, shrink, and adapt to its condition of permanent mobility, the excerpts may hopefully, once again find an anchor-point from which to grow. In the meantime, the logistics of travel and storage are increasingly influencing their scale and shape. In this return orbit through the Smart Museum (and other venues) as an excerpt of excerpts, the process of further compartmentalization and streamlining will be evident. Perhaps this is just a sign of fatigue. Hopefully, it’s a sign of something more. I’d like to think that a latent survival mechanism of the Universal Lab is kicking in. Maybe it’s here for good reason, once again knocking on museum door at the University of Chicago, seeking asylum, near the nurturing loading docks that first gave it life.

Dan Peterman–project statement, April 2005


Dan Peterman has intervened into the systems through which ideas and materials circulate in contemporary consumer culture. He often uses post-consumer reprocessed plastic or retooled

found materials in his sculptures and installations. For Beyond Green, Peterman has “recycled” an existing installation entitled Excerpts from the Universal Lab (plan b) This work originated as a site-specific commission for the Smart Museum’s 2000 exhibition Ecologies: Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Dan Peterman and has since been reconfigured into new projects for other exhibitions. All of these versions of the project use objects from an actual place, a now-defunct scientific laboratory formerly housed in a warehouse on the south side of Chicago. At the Universal Lab, a group of amateur scientific researchers gathered discarded items that they had scavenged from the University of Chicago’s laboratories and loading docks and used these materials for their own research. Eventually the space became clogged, the operation closed its doors, and in 2000 its contents were almost discarded by the building’s new owners. Peterman and others intervened and helped save and reuse many of these materials, some of which returned to the University of Chicago as artwork, went through the inventory process, and took on a new life as sculpture. In this latest iteration of the Universal Lab, created for Beyond Green, Peterman has sorted some of this detritus into new, much smaller groupings contained within a series of elegant, rolling vitrines that evoke laboratory carts, globe stands, museum display cases, and sci-fi machines. The mobility of these carts echoes the nomadic nature of the objects they contain, which have accrued new layers of meaning and value as they have traveled from an initial functional life through several cycles of use and reuse. In addition to reusing materials, this project calls into question the art world’s persistent demand for new work and the consumption of resources that this production requires.

Stephanie Smith, intro to Universal Lab in Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art catalog.

Text excerpted from Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art, Curated by Stephanie Smith at the Smart Museum of Art, 2006 University of Chicago Catalog p.100-105