All's fair | Version>08
Version>08 promises an Art War cease-fire.
HEAD’S UP Artists decapitated Merchandise Mart CEO Chris Kennedy in effigy at Version Fest’s Art War in 2007.
A phalanx of Roman legionnaires attacks the Merchandise Mart, accompanied by catapults, bike chariots and a flotilla of allies on the Chicago River. The soldiers besiege Artropolis, the conglomeration of art fairs taking place within the Mart, but Artropolis’s organizers ignore the invading forces’ surrender demand.
So members of the pseudo-army—recruited by the leaders of alternative art fair Version Fest—start cutting off heads. That is, they use a 13-foot-high guillotine to decapitate effigies of Christopher Kennedy, CEO of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc.; Michael Workman, founder of Bridge Art Fair; and Maggie Daley, chosen for her involvement in Chicago’s cultural affairs. Then the attackers lob stuffed animals, water balloons and the effigies’ heads at the Mart and retreat, accompanied by exit music from hipster marching band Mucca Pazza. Cyclists from Critical Mass swoop in to distract the police, who have finally realized the so-called Art War isn’t on the Merchandise Mart’s agenda.
Version Fest founder and organizer Ed “Edmar” Marszewski says he and his supporters declared that memorable war on Artropolis on April 27, 2007, because the megafair excluded too much of the Chicago art world. The Merchandise Mart entered the contemporary art-fair business in 2006, when it acquired the venerable expo Art Chicago from bankrupt founder Thomas Blackman Associates. Art Chicago remains Artropolis’s flagship event, but the annual extravaganza also encompasses four smaller fairs at the Mart, as well as lectures, performances and other events throughout the city. Yet according to Marszewski, “legions of Chicago’s artists and cultural producers” whose work isn’t easy to package and sell were barred from the show.
But this year, the Version Fest team is crossing enemy lines: It secured a booth at the new Artropolis fair, NEXT: The Invitational Exhibition of Emerging Art, from April 25 to 28, where it will show work by the Montreal graphic-design collective Seripop, L.A. photographer and filmmaker J.J. Stratford and other artists, in addition to launching a new art magazine, Proximity. Marszewski’s wife, Rachael, says the couple believes NEXT signals a new direction for Artropolis. “At first, we weren’t really that sold on collaborating with [Artropolis] because we have Version [Fest], and it’s really separate from what they do,” she explains. But Kavi Gupta—the Chicago gallery owner who cofounded NEXT—impressed the Marszewskis with his high standards for admission. Art fairs are often criticized for their “pay-to-play” structure—galleries participate because they can afford to buy booths, not necessarily because they carry high-quality art. Although NEXT charged fees as well, the Marszewskis liked the way Gupta has treated it as a “curatorial project,” seeking out respected dealers of innovative contemporary art instead of letting in anyone with the requisite cash.
Noncommercial art always has been the focus of Version Fest, which Marszewski says will feature outsider, performance and graffiti artists, DIY and craft-based work, and even costumes for role-playing games this year. But can Version>08, held at various Chicago locations from Thursday 17 to April 27, maintain its subversive stance even as it fraternizes with the enemy?
History suggests Marszewski still will find a way to piss people off: In 2001, he was among the protesters who tried to disrupt MTV’s The Real World: Chicago by weekly advertising free Smashing Pumpkins concerts at the show’s Wicker Park loft. That year, Marszewski cofounded Buddy, the notorious Wicker Park apartment/gallery/performance space, which lost its lease in 2005 due to the landlord’s lack of appreciation for nonstop parties, concerts and anarchist film festivals.
The Museum of Contemporary Art hosted Version>02 but declined to invite the festival back after 2003, when artists’ antiwar projects attracted the attention of police in riot gear. “We could not control our artists,” Marszewski acknowledges. During the next few years, the myriad events comprising Version Fest bounced from one neighborhood to another, with stints at the Chicago Cultural Center, Buddy, Iron Studios, the Zhou B Art Center and a plethora of other venues.
Today, Version Fest is produced by the Marszewskis’ Bridgeport-based nonprofit Public Media Institute, which also runs Lumpen, a bimonthly magazine about politics and culture, and houses the galleries Co-Prosperity Sphere and Reuben Kincaid Artist Management. The Marszewskis are overseeing Version>08 with several other artists, musicians and activists. Such an eclectic team is crucial to Version Fest’s multidisciplinary nature: “We like to combine visual art with performance art and live music to make it a larger happening, and then try to have these groups or communities commingle,” Marszewski explains.
This year’s Version Fest does not deliberately overlap with Artropolis’s dates as a means of protest, as Version>07 did. “We know a number of people who were approached to work with [Artropolis] who had their ideas used without any consideration for their participation,” Marszewski says. “In retrospect, you could say the administrators of Artropolis—it was their first time doing it; maybe they didn’t have enough awareness of what it meant to collaborate. Or they had too many exterior pressures. We had no idea what was going on inside. But most people look at fairs as barometers of where the arts are, so we thought, ‘[Since Artropolis doesn’t] represent the art world in Chicago, let’s have [Version Fest] going on around the same time. I think the [Artropolis] administrators were really freaked out [by the Art War], and I can understand that. But they should understand it was also a collaboration—without them being involved.”
According to Christopher Kennedy, administrators were more dismissive of the Art War than freaked out. “It was a nonissue,” he says. “We weren’t aware of the incident until after the fact and aren’t even sure what [the protesters] meant by it. Our focus was on cleaning up their mess and producing a world-class event.” Michael Workman—whose Bridge fair was part of Artropolis in 2007, but not this year—says he realizes his effigy’s decapitation “was all in good fun. [The Art War] brought a sense of conviviality to the atmosphere, which was great and should be applauded.” Marszewski characterizes the Art War as a piece of performance art that “wasn’t meant to be malicious at all. We actually just wanted something cool to happen. And we were saying that…probably 98 percent of the art [in Chicago] was going on outside this beautiful fortress of the Merchandise Mart. [It was] a statement saying, Look, there are other art worlds here.”
This concept of alternative, noncommercial art worlds inspired the theme of Version>08: “Dark Matter.” The fair’s title comes from the 2003 essay “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere” written by Gregory Sholette, the former chair of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s graduate program in arts administration and policy. Sholette, who will be speaking at Version>08’s NFO XPO (see “Unconventional,” this page), contends that the tiny number of artists who achieve significant fame and material success—the type represented by Artropolis’s blue-chip galleries—depend on art worlds that are largely unrecognized, much like the invisible “dark matter” that astronomers believe makes up most of the universe: Version Fest’s art worlds.
Though his last encounter with the Mart involved mock violence and real resentment, Marszewski says he’s excited about this year’s Artropolis and sees the increased number of galleries involved as cause for optimism. “All this is happening in this climate of recession and financial chaos, and there’s a political change in the air as well. It’s an important time to expose the different…projects that we’re doing here.… People are very competitive in [Chicago], but there’s a lot of room for cooperation. Especially when it comes to presenting our city to an international audience.”
But it’s not like the Marszewskis have been brainwashed. “We did want to build a Trojan horse in our [booth],” Rachael admits. “A really impotent Trojan horse.” Marszewski chimes in, “A person was going to be inside it getting drunk and beer cans were going to be pooped out the butt of the horse!” Perhaps realizing he may have said too much, he says firmly, “We can’t do that now. We’re supposed to be good.”
Version>08 invades the Viaduct Theater, Co-Prosperity Sphere and other Chicago venues Thursday 17–April 27. Some events are free; others $5–$10. A $40 Version Pass includes admission to all events, publications, posters and a T-shirt. For more information, visit lumpen.com and versionfest.org.
For more on Version>08 events, click here.