Gray Lab series serves up artistic dialogue to UChicago, local communities

Tucked across the courtyard from the Logan Center for the Arts is Midway Studios, home of the Gray Center Lab. Part classroom, part studio, part exhibition and performance space–now, on certain nights, the lab will become a salon for its newest series, Sidebar.

Designed to provide a public platform for scholars to explore current and potential fellowships with the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, Sidebar is meant to strip away the formal academic trappings of a public talk and create an intimate discussion over food and drink for UChicago faculty, students and Hyde Park community members.

“It’s like academic dinner theater,” said Zachary Cahill, curator of the Gray Center. “The aesthetics might not be so formal, but the discussion goes deep.”

On a recent night, author Malu Halasa and Omar Kholeif, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, discussed the current state of art, film and writing in Syria. Halasa discussed the growing interest in Syrian writing, in particular the short story, and shared a piece from Rasha Abbas, a journalist and writer.

“Art and culture is at the front line” of Syria in works like Abbas’ story, which described a harrowing car ride along with her brother, Halasa said. “Rasha worked for one of the official [news] channels before she fled the country.” 

In attendance at a recent gathering was Prof. W.J.T. Mitchell, who called the Sidebar series a “thoroughly wonderful development” in the arts at UChicago. The Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English, Art History and the College, Mitchell has attended several Sidebars and will be participating in a Dec. 7 discussion on art in the Middle East.

“I’ve been here 40 years, and one of the things that makes UChicago a special space are these interdisciplinary conversations where people from all disciplines find themselves in the same room,” Mitchell said. 

Sophia Rhee, a first-year anthropology PhD candidate, appreciates the Gray Center for not only bringing disciplines together, but also for bringing into dialogue the wide range of the art community.

“Part of this sensibility is owed to an understanding that the art world is diverse—there isn’t one world but many worlds, peoples and ways of thinking and doing art,” Rhee said. “This approach speaks to the Gray Center team who, in their own right, are artists, curators and art pedagogues.”

Since its inception last spring, Sidebar has hosted a talk with Gwen Allen on the history of artist magazines; and recently a conversation between artist Dan Peterman and Prof. Heinrich Jaeger of the Department of Physics about their collaborative sculpture installation, “Slipping and Jamming: Variable Installation of Z-Forms,” on view in the William Eckhardt Research Center.

Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Starling will speak today about arts and the nuclear age—part of the University’s 75th anniversary commemoration of the historic Chicago Pile-1 experiment.