labor paste

a secondary landscape by JB Daniel

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/the gift of anachronisms/

“Labor paste” is JB Daniel’s community-wide installation of life-sized, black-and-white images of labor activists and Pullman workers. Daniel has pasted the images on boarded-up windows, garage doors, exterior walls, iron fences, and other surprising locations. When we encounter them by chance while walking and driving through the neighborhood, we look twice and stop to examine the images, asking ourselves who these people are and why they are there, and are, at times, tempted to question the images directly. What might we ask Mother Jones or Eugene Debs? Would we stoop down to pet Debs’ dog, Babe? We are jarred by the black and white images at first — they do not blend into the raw and painted surfaces they are adhered to, as colored images might do. They are inherently anachronistic, both in their monochromatic presentation and in the commitments of the pasted individuals themselves, whose progressive ideas seem out of place in our era of hyper-, all-encompassing capitalism. Yet encountering them in the neighborhood feels like encountering a neighbor or a friend — they become members of the contemporary community in their casual presentation and unobtrusiveness.

Appropriately, there is no ‘map’ of Daniel’s interventions. You cannot download a list of installations or a guide to their histories or placements. One must be in the neighborhood to encounter Harriet Tubman on Cottage Grove, or see a fiery Eugene Debs behind bars on St. Lawrence Avenue, or spot Lucy Parsons on the boarded up window of a former fire house. Of course, the activists themselves also had no map — they were charting new territory with every strike or demand, going against the written and unwritten rules of the systems they were living under. We are asked to examine the histories and stories of the activists and workers when we come upon them, and this often involves doing some amount of research since the stories and histories of many of our most iconic and important labor and civil rights leaders are hidden, suppressed, and obscured.

/class and hierarchy/

The town of Pullman was created by the Gilded Age industrialist George Pullman in 1880 to manufacture his world-renowned Pullman train cars. Imagined as a utopian company town, Pullman surrounded the factory with markets, schools, state-of-the-art row houses, a hotel, a library, an arcade building with theater, and a multi-denominational church that accommodated the varied traditions of the immigrants who made up much of his workforce. Pullman residents worked for Pullman, rented from Pullman, attended Pullman’s schools and shopped at Pullman’s stores. Anchored in the idea that if workers’ needs were met they would not strike, Pullman hired architects and town planners who filled small apartments with light and the neighborhood with parks, creating a neighborhood plan that is still viable today. When the economy fell into recession in 1893, however, Pullman reduced wages but not rents (he insisted on making 6% profit on the town) and by May 1894, the community erupted in a massive strike, one that was ultimately supported by workers across the country, led in part by the founder of the American Railway Union, Eugene Debs. Workers were killed in the maelstrom, and within months, President Cleveland sent national guard troops to Pullman to protect the company’s interests and to squelch the strike. By 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the corporation had to sell all of its non-industrial property to the community’s residents, ending the company’s ownership of the town.

In 2015, the Pullman neighborhood became a designated national monument through executive order of President Barack Obama, and like all monuments, operates as both a celebration of history and a relic of the past. JB Daniel placed his first “Labor paste” image soon after this official designation, beginning a dialogue with the designation and its ramifications and hidden meanings. Would the neighborhood-turned-monument be an homage to the Gilded Age and paternalistic capitalism? Or would it reflect the community’s layered and complicated history, one that includes some of our nation’s most vital and influential labor activism, activism that led to the 8-hour work day and other labor protections?


Ideologies, concepts, images, and buildings (not to mention our own bodies), are all subject to disintegration and decay, even in the face of our deep desire to hold on and make permanent everything we’ve deemed important or necessary or pleasing. In Pullman the man, we see a deep desire for permanency — permanent profit, permanent class structure, permanent legacy. In the women and men who fought against inequality and injustice, we see an embrace of impermanence, a deep understanding that all things change and therefore even oppression has the potential to be lifted.

Wheat paste is inherently unstable. Made from the staples of nutriment — wheat flour and water — it creates a powerful paste that can adhere paper to any surface, but one that is guaranteed to disintegrate and fall apart, ultimately leaving no trace. This is, perhaps, the dream of any true activist — to help create the conditions where one’s own history does not need to be told because the conditions that created the need for your activism no longer exist. Wheat paste has been used by activists and artists for centuries, holding up posters and announcements and declarations from religious tracts to event announcements.

Daniel’s use of wheat paste is both practical and symbolic: practical because he has adhered his images to the facades of public and private buildings and wheat paste is not at all destructive, and symbolic because of wheat paste’s inherent properties and its history of use in activist movements for hundreds of years. With every rain storm and sunny day, Daniel’s images purposely peel away, collapse, dissolve. The process of this disintegration is beautiful and evocative, reflecting the impermanent nature of Pullman’s original utopian project, the activists who fought against him, and the ideas and theories that underpinned both. Through Daniel’s intervention, the palimpsest nature of the Pullman neighborhood is revealed for what it is: a living and vibrant community layered in history and meaning.


Essay: Kate Ingold

Photos/Documentation: S. Flynn

Design: Carrie Iverson


This project is partially supported by an Individual Artist Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, as well as a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, a state agency through federal funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.