WHATEVER IT TAKES: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions

WHATEVER IT TAKES:
Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions

Curated by Jon Rubin + Astria Suparak
Organized by the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University
Aug. 27, 2010 – Jan. 30, 2011 (Steelers in Super Bowl! Exhibition extended through Feb. 6)
http://bit.ly/WIT-exhibit

If space aliens landed in Pittsburgh, what would they determine was the dominant culture that unified the populace? It could only be Steelers culture.

Steelers culture is Pittsburgh’s popular culture, and the fans are its primary producers. Often overlooked in discussions of pop culture, much less “high” culture, sports fans are portrayed as immature, uncritical, and passive consumers blindly following a branded product. Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions looks at the particular and ingenious methods Steelers fans use to construct their own personal and social identities in relation to the team, and in the process, create an active community of cultural producers. Through countless fan sites, gameday rituals, costumes, tattoos, videos, unlicensed merchandise, and more, Steelers fans brilliantly remix and meld the team’s identity with their own. Take Jim Shearer’s weekly, low-budget Web-show, Yinz Luv ‘Da Stillers, whose new season of episodes will be screened in the gallery. Shearer produces the entire show from his bedroom using homemade props and a remarkably clever remix of footage from the week’s game, popular movies, homemade puppets, hand-painted cutouts, and his own engaging persona. His show takes the basic conventions of a major network post-game telecast and reinvents it as a platform for his idiosyncratic creativity and earnest fandom. This do-it-yourself ethos of many Steelers fans reflects larger pop cultural trends in which enthusiasts of TV shows, bands, and movies build fan communities that create their own narratives and aesthetics out of the objects of their passion.

Of course not all Steelers fans produce a weekly Web show—many simply relate to the team by quietly performing gameday rituals in the privacy of home. Most are fairly common, but there is a more intricate and obsessive form of ritual, such as setting aside 62 minutes to kiss every Steelers item in the house prior to kick-off; following the offense on one TV set and the defense on another; watching the game alone with a painted face; wearing a Terrible Towel throughout the day, even in the shower; defeating that day’s opponent on PlayStation football right before the game; or reciting a customized Lord’s Prayer that cites the Steelers’ owner and the opposing team to be vanquished. And most of these examples are from Steelers fans living outside of Pennsylvania. The Steeler Nation is vast, existing in every American state and at least 27 countries, including over 2,000 self-proclaimed Steelers bars and fan clubs worldwide.

What could cause such intense obsession and devotion? In the 1970s, the fall of the steel industry coincided with the rise of the Steelers football team, generating a perfect storm for the development of a die-hard Steelers fan base. The team mirrored the values and desires of its working class fans: they were owned by a self-made local family, named after the local industry, and had a relentlessly hard-nosed playing style. As coach Chuck Noll used to say, the team would do “whatever it takes” to win. But most importantly, as the city struggled under mill closures and massive layoffs, forcing an exodus of residents in search of new jobs, the Steelers kept winning championships. The result is a demographically diverse community of fans that crosses lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, and even city and country. “We don’t just have fans,” offensive tackle Max Starks explains. “It’s bigger than that. It’s a devotion. Like a child with its parent.” Even in death, some choose to be remembered foremost as a Steelers fan. Rather than use a traditional casket at the wake, one family decided that their loved one would be last viewed as he would have been on game day: laid out on a recliner, dressed in black and gold, with a beer at his side and remote control in hand, watching a continuous loop of Steelers highlights on a TV set.

A common way fans bridge the gap between team and self is by collecting team-related merchandise and signed memorabilia. What’s interesting about many Steelers fans is that they often take collecting a step further: Shawn Spinda has over 100 signed footballs; the Pittsburgh Sports and Mini Ponies blog details “Great Moments in Unlicensed Pittsburgh Sports Merch”; Denny DeLuca transformed his basement into a Steelers Room (moved in its entirety into the gallery for this exhibition) crammed floor to ceiling with hundreds of handmade and altered objects, each with its own story that describes both the biography of the team and Denny’s autobiography. Other fans dedicate their bodies to expressing their allegiance. For instance, Ron Vergerio has spent the past eight years tattooing his entire torso with a stream-of-consciousness mural of players, plays, trophies, the cigar-smoking team owner, and a stadium full of fans, all intermingled with the Pittsburgh skyline and flowing hot metal.

Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions presents the participatory popular culture of Steelers fandom. The exhibition, a first of its kind, focuses not on fans as consumers, but on fans as producers—a creative force that modifies dominant culture into something much more personal, and collectively creates the Steeler Nation.


RELATED PROJECT

Map of the Steeler Nation


GET INVOLVED

Become the “Twelfth” on the field (in the gallery), by:


PUBLIC PROGRAMMING

Feb. 6, Sun.
6pm: Whatever It Takes Super Bowl Party & Closing Reception
Snacks & beverages provided. Sponsored by Iron City Brewing Company.

Sept. 10, Fri.
5pm: Tour of Steelers Room by Denny DeLuca
6-8pm: The Immaculate Reception 

Sept. 21, Tues.
6:30pm:  Panel on Sports & Ethics with former Steeler Franco Harris, artist and former Independent Women’s Football League player Ayanah Moor, and ethicist Jack Marshall
@ New Hazlett Theater


SELECTED PRESS

PITTSBURGH CITY PAPER

Voted BEST CROSSOVER ART EXHIBIT OF 2010, selected by City Paper Staff.
Excerpt:
Curated by Jon Rubin and Astria Suparak, Whatever It Takes features Steelers tattoos, fan garb, homemade football shrines … everything you can imagine and some things you can’t. Visitors are invited to consider Steelers fandom in light of working-class identity and the desire for stability during periods of economic upheaval. Or they can just think about how much ass Jack “Splat” Lambert used to kick.
– CP Staff, “Best of Pittsburgh 2010,” Dec. 9, 2010

Cover Story
Robert Isenberg, “Art of the Steel: A New CMU Exhibit Celebrates Steelers Fandom,” Sept. 9, 2010

NEW YORK TIMES

#1 Most-Read New York Times Sports article for two days

Excerpt:
An art gallery sent crews into the cramped basement of a die-hard Steelers fan to box up his vast and eccentric collection of black-and-gold paraphernalia.

Days later, on the second floor of the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, the fan’s man cave had been reassembled, down to the last hand-painted action figure, bobblehead and toilet seat.

Art Basel it is not. The man cave and nearly 1,500 unlicensed videos, T-shirts, sculptures and other objects make up “Whatever It Takes,” an exhibit that explores the culture of Steelers Nation and the personal relationship between the team and its fans. It is scheduled to run through Jan. 30 — or longer, gallery officials said, if the Steelers reach the Super Bowl.

“Steelers culture is Pittsburgh’s popular culture,” said Jon Rubin, a Carnegie Mellon fine arts professor who curated the exhibit with Astria Suparak, the gallery director. “The identity of the city is tied into the identity of the team.”

This is, after all, a town where football and cultural life are so intertwined that a life-size statue of running back Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception greets airport visitors; members of the Pittsburgh Symphony think nothing of waving bright yellow Terrible Towels onstage; and Wiz Khalifa, a local rap star, recently made an ode to “Black and Yellow” his first single to break onto the national scene. One of the hottest tickets at the public theater is “The Chief,” a play celebrating the life of the team’s founder, Art Rooney Sr.

Indeed, the Steelers’ heritage runs deep…

Rubin and Suparak spent several months scouring the Internet for collectibles for the exhibit. They tracked down a Kentucky man who owned 102 footballs autographed by Steelers and a dog groomer from a Pittsburgh suburb who turned her tiny poodle into “Big Ben” Roethlisberger, after the team’s suspended quarterback. (Her next project? Styling a Troy Poodle-Malu yarn dog with a long, lush mane like safety Troy Polamalu’s.)

On Facebook, the curators found the Black and Golden Calf, a homemade mascot that is said to be the divine offspring of the Heinz Heifer and Steel Steer. They even canvassed 60 tattoo parlors in the region, where they found Steeler Ron, whose body is inked from head to toe with images of local landmarks and his favorite players.

“We wanted anything that was not N.F.L.-branded or Steelers-created,” Rubin said. “It had to be fan-generated.”

Earlier this month, in one of the Miller Gallery’s largest openings, some 500 visitors wandered through the two-floor exhibit — a group more familiar with the work of Trai Essex (an obscure lineman) than Tracey Emin (a contemporary artist). Many came wearing jerseys as if they were headed to Heinz Field. And instead of wine and cheese, they nibbled on pretzels and nursed Iron City beer.

The show’s centerpiece is Denny DeLuca’s 252-square-foot man cave. On the bookshelves are 80 homemade Steelers action figures including an underwear-clad Roethlisberger tossing a beer and Santonio Holmes making his Super Bowl-winning tiptoe catch. Three Rivers Stadium, one of the Steelers’ former homes, is represented by a steel beam and turf from the south end of the field, and the toilet seat from DeLuca’s favorite stall.

“It went under my coat at the final game,” he said.

Many other objects were just as strange. By the entrance, a projector showed a montage of 70 YouTube clips and other videos highlighting fan rituals. One featured a parrot squawking, “Here we go, Steelers!” Others showed a woman applying gold eye-shadow on game day and a recitation of a Steelers version of the Lord’s Prayer.

Sitting nearby is a Jacuzzi-size model of Heinz Field built by a group of electric football league fans. It shows Rooney making the rounds in the press box and President Obama, who grew up a Steelers fan, waving a flag in the stands.

Rob Dalmasse, who spent two weeks constructing the model with his in-laws a few years ago, said he was proud to have it on display in a gallery setting and hoped to find it a permanent home in a Pittsburgh museum.

“The truth is, my mother-in-law has stored it in her spare bedroom,” he said. “She’d be happy it was gone.”

On the exhibit’s second level, a black-and-gold wall map outlines the reach of Steelers Nation: the 50 states and 27 countries. All told, the curators identified more than 1,800 bars where Steelers fans congregate, including Blozik’s Blitzburgh Cave in Serbia and Botticella Birreria in Rome.

“Sometimes, they will avoid going to the Colosseum and St. Peter’s and come right here,” said Giovanni Poggi, Botticella’s bartender, who can field questions from gallery visitors via Web cam. “Italians are not as passionate.”

Steelers fanaticism, the curators said, is perhaps rivaled only by the reverence of “Star Trek” followers.

“The one difference is that Steeler fans are more socially accepted,” Rubin said. “Parents of Pittsburgh Public School students are not getting called up with messages saying: ‘It’s Trekkie day. Live long and prosper.’ ”

Before Pittsburgh’s season opener, however, Rubin received an automated phone reminder about Steeler Day at his daughter’s elementary school. All students, it said, were encouraged to wear black and gold.
– Eric Dash, “The Steelers at the Intersection of Iron City Beer and Art Basel,” Sept. 18, 2010

ASSOCIATED PRESS

This article ran in over 200 news outlets internationally.

Excerpt:
A Pittsburgh hospital swaddles its newborns in “Terrible Towels.” A Wisconsin man dresses up like a bishop and calls himself “St. Vince,” as in Lombardi.

Fans of the Super Bowl-bound Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers live and die with their teams, taking their passion for football from cradle to grave as two of the most rabid, far-reaching bases in pro sports.

Forget Dallas and its self-proclaimed “America’s Team” label. That franchise is a baby compared to the Packers (established 1919) and the Steelers (1933), whose fans in two of the NFL’s smallest markets would beg to differ.

Steelers fans are in another realm, argues the co-curator of a Pittsburgh exhibit called “Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals and Obsessions.”

“It’s a unifying force that crosses all demographic boundaries,” said Astria Suparak, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery. “It crosses class, races; your bus drivers, your doctors, your anarchists, your artists are all Steelers fans and that’s very unusual. There are some very clear lines in other cities for sports fans that don’t get crossed – but not in Pittsburgh…

While there is no sure-fire census of Pittsburgh fans, Suparak and co-curator Jon Rubin catalogued nearly 2,000 fan clubs or Steelers bars in all 50 states, every Canadian province, and in 27 countries.

They include Blozik’s Blitzburgh Cave, a bar in Bosnia, and La Botticella, another bar, in Rome, which is linked to the CMU exhibit by Skype so gallery patrons can interact with its customers over a live feed.
– Colin Fly and Joe Mandak, “Packers, Steelers fans among NFL’s most rabid: From cradle to grave, fans of Packers, Steelers live and die supporting their beloved teams,” Feb. 2, 2011

Published in:
ABC News, Forbes, Fox News, Houston Chronicle, Huffington Post, Miami Herald, NBC Sports, NPR, Salon.com, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, USA Today, Washington Post

ART PAPERS

Excerpt:
Suparak and Rubin curate gingerly – with preservationist care – framing without straining to deconstruct the insular and heartfelt peculiarities of Steelers culture. The gallery mediates a sort of creative sublimation of fandom, with its inimitable rawness and verve

The effectiveness of the show, after all, hinges on the modification of conventional judgements, even by contemporary standards, and the re-assertion of things like passion, relevance, and solidarity. In the City of Champions, different rules apply.
– Curt Riegelnegg, “Whatever It Takes: Pittsburgh,” Jan/Feb 2011

PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

Excerpt:
The exhibit dips its toes into the downright madness of Steeler fandom and how Steelers fans express themselves organically via their own creations

The exhibit, which runs through the end of the NFL season, has already brought record crowds to the gallery and drawn national attention for its unique focus runs through the end of the NFL season. If you haven’t stopped by, put it on the holiday to-do list.
– Dan Gigler, “Black (and Gold) Friday,” Blog ‘n’ Gold Sports Blog, Nov. 26, 2010

Magazine cover story.
“In creating this amusing, endearing portrait of Pittsburgh sports fans, the curators aimed to examine how fans become producers of culture by constructing their personal and social identities in relation to the team. The result is that the gallery feels like a fun house where Steelers Nation is reflected through a thousand mirrors.”
– Marylynne Pitz, “The Culture of Steeler Nation: CMU exhibit examines the soul of the team’s fans,” Sept. 8, 2010

Excerpt:
“Quite possibly is the first art exhibit in the known universe dedicated to Steelers fans. Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals and Obsessions explores the passion of Steelers fans, and the mania, creativity and ritualistic behavior it inspires.
– Dan Gigler, “The Art of Steeler Fandom,”Sports Blog, Aug. 27, 2010

Steve Mellon, “Steelers shrine, Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University,” Pittsburgh Revolution: Interactive view, Sept. 8, 2010

THE PATRIOT-NEWS

Excerpt:
Rubin and co-curator Astria Suparak assembled an eclectic exhibit of fan memorabilia that doesn’t just blur the line between fan and team, it obliterates it entirely.
– John Luciew, “Pittsburgh Steelers fans make themselves part of the team,” Jan. 23, 2011

PITTSBURGH MAGAZINE

Excerpt:
Whatever It Takes is an amazing curatorial effort by Jon Rubin, an associate professor of fine art at CMU, and Astria Suparak, the Miller Gallery’s director.

Although larger, socio-economic types of questions arise here, basically this show, with its dash of OCD and affluenza, is a salute to the devotion and creative energy of the fans constituting Steelers Nation – which is not just Pittsburgh, not just Western Pennsylvania but a global village comprising a highly diverse population with a tribal mentality. (Just take a look at the map in the gallery showing the Steelers bars and fan clubs around the planet.)”
– Mike May, “Exhibits: Zap the cold with the Black and Gold,” Jan. 2011

POP CITY

Excerpt:
The latest pop subculture to be tackled by the Miller Gallery is one that’s very close to home. With an unapologetic look at the “collections, rituals, and obsessions” of Steeler fans, co-curators Jon Rubin and Astria Suparak left no black and gold stone unturned, culling objects, artifacts and habits via social media sites and enthusiastic calls for submissions.

Delving into the heart and soul of Steeler Nation via the products, possessions and peculiarities of its most passionate fans, Whatever It Takes presents an intimate look at how Steeler supporters construct their own personal and social identities, relate to the team, and form active communities of cultural producers. Lifting its title from the words of famed coach Chuck Noll, Whatever It Takes also considers the context of the city’s economic climate during the 1970s, when a die-hard Steelers fan base emerged.

From the low-fi home-taped web show, Yinz Luv ‘Da Stillers, to countless costumes, tattoos, videos, and unlicensed merchandise, the ambitious display embraces the Steeler diaspora, which spans some 2,000 self-proclaimed Steelers bars and fan clubs worldwide.

Reflecting a DIY aesthetic seen in current music and craft subcultures, Whatever It Takes gives voice to an authentic community of producers not typically considered with the gallery setting
– “Art Score: The Immaculate Reception,” Sept. 10, 2010

Elaine Labalme, “The Women of Steeler Nation,” Sept. 14, 2010

PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Top Story on the Front Page
Excerpt:
“It’s a shrine to Steeler mania and a testament to the fans’ intensely personal relationship with the team”
– William Loeffler, “CMU art gallery catches passion of Steeler Nation,” Sept. 11, 2010

BLOGS

Excerpt:
It was an almost unthinkable mix of contemporary-art types and Stillers fans, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than this event that would actually get them in the same room… a very clever and innovative idea.
– Rebecca Rollett, “Whatever It Takes – A Look at Steeler Nation,” Behind the Steel Curtain, Sept. 10, 2010

Chris, “Steeler Nation Exhibits Awesomeness,” NicePickCowher.com Blog, Aug. 2010

ESPN Radio 1250: “Stillers 365: Interview”

ABC-AFFILIATE WTAE ACTION NEWS: Steeler Nation On Display At CMU Exhibit,” Sept. 9, 2010

BEAVER COUNTY TIMES: Patti Conley, “Steelers fans go all-out to ensure win,” Jan. 22, 2011

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