7:52 AM PST, December 7, 2012
There are days when you wake up and think that there is no wonder left in this world, no mountains left to conquer, no oceans left to explore, no frontiers left to discover. That, of course, is exactly the day you find yourself in an apartment in Logan Square surrounded by 2,700 VHS copies of "Jerry Maguire," stacked from floor to ceiling, stacked so high and in so many teetering rows that you are reminded of layers of the Earth's crust, only instead we're talking layers of Jerrys.
Which is what their owners, members of the Chicago video collective Everything Is Terrible, call the thousands of VHS copies of "Jerry Maguire" they've gathered.
They have 4,667 Jerrys.
The remaining 1,900 or so Jerrys live in Los Angeles, with Dimitri Simakis, a freelance illustrator and editor and Everything Is Terrible member. He spearheaded the Jerry Project, which began in 2009 when the group started asking fans at its live events to bring them VHS Jerrys. Three years later, they have Jerrys from Australia and Jerrys from Japan and Jerrys from England; they have received Academy Award screeners of Jerrys and Jerrys stolen from libraries and Jerrys with price tags affixed and Jerrys in original shrink-wrap, which, 16 years after Cameron Crowe's blockbuster was released (to the week, in fact), is always a shock.
I mean, look at this picture.
Look at these people! Dear God, right? Check out all of those VHS copies of "Jerry Maguire." I know, I know. I hear you. Wow.
Look at this woman.
She's the ringleader. Her name is Katie Rife ("As in 'rife with corruption,'" she says). She is a freelance writer and founding member of Everything Is Terrible, which started in 2007 as a kind of online repository of obscure video footage and developed into a stage show. Rife is official Keeper of the Jerrys. There is an "Official Jerry Drop-Off Box" at the Odd Obsession video store in Bucktown, and fans bring car trunks full of Jerrys to EIT appearances — incidentally, the Everything Is Terrible holiday show plays Lincoln Hall on Dec. 21.
But it's Rife who has the post office box where most Jerrys are mailed. It's Rife who trudges down to Roberto Clemente Post Office in Logan Square each week and schleps home a new box of VHS Jerrys to add to the collection, which, in her home, fills 22 Home Depot boxes and milk crates on her back porch.
I told Crowe.
He sounded charmed, flabbergasted. "This is so hilariously great," he said, as I explained the Jerry project. "It's seriously fantastic. I mean, I have four copies. I am honored. Bravo. It's somewhere between the highest possible praise and an archaeological dig, I suppose. It could have been 'The English Patient,' but it's not."
He asked the group's name
"Everything Is Terrible," I said.
"Huh," he said.
"But they're not doing this to make fun of the film," I backpedaled: The origins of the Jerry Project were more practical. EIT are thrift-store trawlers of videotapes. When the group began, they were constantly running into VHS copies of "Jerry Maguire." They were also running into a lot of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," but "Jerry Maguire" far outstripped it.
I told Crowe they have a theory of why "Jerry Maguire" became the focus of the Jerry Project: "Jerry Maguire" was released on VHS in 1997 just as DVD players were being released, which, until Apple introduced its iProducts, was the fastest-selling consumer technology in history. People wanted to replace their old VHS tapes of "Jerry Maguire" with new DVD copies, and besides, as Simakis said, "'Jerry Maguire' is the one movie every white person in American has owned a copy of at some point."
As far as unverifiable theories go, I sort of like it.
I instructed Crowe to check the group's website, at everythingisterrible.com, where a regularly updated "Maguire Watch" and leader board are maintained — send more than 10 copies, your name goes on the leader board. (A Denver-based art group named Team Doom, inspired by EIT, is in first place with 250 copies.) "Wow," Crowe said, keyboard clicks coming over the phone. "This is pop culture perfection is what this is! This is just … wow. I love the minutiae of this. I love that, hey, 'Tony Northside' was good for 101 copies!"
OK, OK, I hear you: Why?
Why … this exactly?
The answer is: Just because.
You could also argue the subtext here is consumer culture or disposable media or the transition of old technologies. But Rife said, "I guess I see it as a Dadaesque prank." And Simakis said: "I have tried to come up with so many excuses over the years. I have told people we're building a ladder to heaven, and I have told people we were going to leave them at Cameron Crowe's front door one day, but the truth is, we are doing it because it's taken on a life of its own. That's why. But I don't even hear 'Why?' much anymore."
Which, intentionally or not, sounds perfectly in line with the mainstreaming of performance art and participatory art happenings. Faced with a baffling act of art-making, people simply don't ask "Why?" as much as they once did, curators told me.
Performance artist Joseph Ravens, who opened the Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery in Noble Square two years ago, told me "time-based, ephemeral art events are on trend," and that "an audience raised on YouTube clips of absurd acts that frankly don't always look all that different to them from traditional performance art has pushed the boundaries of what the average person is willing to think of as art." He said the popularity of Marina Abramovic, whose hit show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year invited each audience member to stare into her eyes for a few minutes, has been a watershed moment. But he could have also mentioned the Blue Man Group, the Whitney in New York recently naming its first curator of performance art, the way many museums have put increasing emphasis on performance spaces or the success of Chicago performance collective Lucky Pierre, which for a decade has been preparing the final meals of Texas death row inmates, then inviting volunteers to eat.
"We are seeing a very elastic sense developing of what performance means at the moment," said Peter Taub, longtime director of performance programming at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. (Starting in late January, the museum will host its biennial performance art series.) "We live in an age where people accept the concept of shopping as a form of entertainment and fine dining as theater. So this 'Jerry Maguire' project you're telling me about, it sounds like an example of the way arts groups are trying to create encounters and forge the connections between people that we take for granted."
EIT says the Jerry Project is not really a work of performance art, but they don't dismiss the idea either. I fact, they have plans for the Jerrys that would undeniably transform this whole thing into a performance art piece. EIT member Aaron Maier said if they make it to 8,000 Jerrys, their dream is to open a pop-up store.
That only sells Jerrys.
As Maier and Rife and EIT member Scott Whiteman stacked all of the Jerrys you see in this picture — they brought 15 garbage bags full of Jerrys to Rife's apartment, then dumped the contents out on her living room floor until the landfill of Jerrys grew and flowed outward and made it impossible to walk around — they discussed the possibility of hitting up Crowe to make a PSA imploring people to send their Jerrys.
Told about these plans later, Crowe said he would beg off a PSA ("a little too self-regarding"), but he did promise: "When the time is right, when they're approaching a landmark number, let me know. I will donate my four Jerrys and put them over the top. I'd love to be the one who spikes the ball for these guys."
During the Great Jerry Stacking, however, they did not know this, and yet they worked tirelessly. "What do you think Crowe would actually say about this?" Maier asked, stacking and stacking and stacking. "At some point he'll find out," Whiteman said, stacking and stacking.
They stacked so much that dust clung to the air. I said they might contract Jerry Lung. They did not care. They stacked. When the Jerrys rocked precariously, Whiteman shouted, "Stabilize the Jerrys!" They stabilized. They talked about how rural thrift stores don't get it when they bring five copies of "Jerry Maguire" to the register. They discussed building a throne of Jerrys. Then they built a throne of Jerrys. Rife is sitting on it in this photo.
On her dining room table, which was now in the TV room to make space for the Jerrys, I found a letter that someone had recently sent. It was written in purple marker and said: "I am very proud to donate 17 Jerrys. I found one still in shrink-wrap — what I call a Prime Jerry." The letter was signed "I love you!" Just because.
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