General 6-11-2007

The Alternate Version: Chicago

Sean Smuda went to Chicago to participate in Version Fest, an alternative arts festival that is in part a response to the big Art Chicago art fair. Read on for an account of the Fest; think about participating next year.

you can

The smart, friendly Chicagoans who had the Soft Shop at the Art Shanty Projects on the ice of Medicine Lake this past winter, encouraged me to submit an application to Version Fest 07. The Fest draws national/international artists in every medium, some fine artists, some bands, some political artists. It is a massive, many-pronged two-and-a-half-week event.

To get an idea of its range: one of its group shows invoked Dungeons and Dragons punning itself: “We Rollin’, They Hatin’”; while the overall theme of VF referenced the anthem of international socialism* theming itself “the Insurrection Internationale”. Its goal: …“a point of confluence between various networks and subcultures that believe in the solidarity of our multitudes. Together we are waging a revolt against established systems and authority to create new worlds to inhabit. We are creating alternate realities, independent economies, developing alliances and infrastructures to support our beliefs. We are engaging in a culture war against the establishments in all their guises”.

As per the statement, part of it was a mock Art War against Art Chicago, complete with guillotine and catapult. Another was a bicycled history tour of radical Chicago. Much, much more may be seen on the site: suffice to write that the attitude is viral-mimetic, transformative, and post-punk. Does it yield results? Yes indeed.

I submitted experimental films and a proposal for a photographic dream research workshop (more on, both were accepted, and with my cohort I found my way to NFO EXPO in the Zhou B. center on the near south side in late April for a long weekend.

Having already spoken with chipper, can-do, NFO XPO go-to girl Melanie Johnson on the phone, there were no worries as we searched for our space amid the 30 or so booths. The center, run by Chinese artist brothers, the Zhous, is a huge multi-storied building with gallery space on the first floor, studios above and some temporary gallery space that served for the Version Photography Invitational. The XPO, however, was in the basement; something everyone who’d been involved with it in the past said was to its detriment. With the cig smoking and booth painting the first day, I agreed.

Our immediate neighbor Randy Cober, it turns out, was responsible for designing the guest houses at Franconia Sculpture Park and runs a youth and alternative architecture program in Chicago. We spoke to him for a bit and then he disappeared for the rest of the weekend–perhaps because he was busy, or perhaps to avoid the twenty-something partyish atmosphere.

I had no problem with this, thanking my lucky stars that Max Rheinhardt had chosen to make a full-on Spaghetti Western bar installation, which included house bands, projected Westerns, white plaster rifles and take-away white plaster bullets. His cheap-to-free beer and whiskey cut the claustrophobia and fumes and tempered the band sounds. It also packed Westward Expansionism back into Aristotle’s a-priori suitcase, white plaster in itself having a calming, spiritual effect.

Continuing with the redemption of violence, on the other side of our given wall were hundreds of small cheery watercolors of mushroom clouds by Elise Blue of the Chicago Artists Coalition.
More redemption followed from our other neighbors with 3066 Lab’s set-up of gas pump sticker giveaways with the purpose of “…expos[ing]… connective qualities found in a American demographic that is assuming about its religious values, drives fuel wanton vehicles, and supports a worldwide military campaign to ensure the continued situational privilege to do so.” Party or not, this was serious, playful, and awkward: everything culture jamming should be.

After a crazy Saturday night, the second day brought on the sobriety of extensive lectures: nomadic housing and ice formation were reprised from this winter by the Soft Shoppers along with a truly extensive veggie oil/diesel conversion demo. No less than five presenters demonstrated the ways: from self-converting an old Trailways Bus (bought on Ebay), to putting an available converter into an old Mercedes. Fortunately Chicago has a support system for the latter ( ) and they don’t seem to have to worry about some Governor Schwarzenegger outlawing acquiring used oil from restaurants to power one’s ride.

Taking a breather from the basement, I went up to see the Photography Invitational, which was all about role-playing, from backyard wrestling to computer gaming. It featured Minneapolis local Todd Deutsch’s enigmatic photographs of gamers. There was also a section devoted to contemporary German photography, cool, wry, social; and other landscapes. Both shows, I was told, had been curated (in part) from Myspace sites.

Back in the basement I was hitting stride with my dreaming project and used it as an excuse to visit some of the other presenters. Chicago’s Reversible Eye Gallery, like Version Fest itself “brought together artists that reach beyond the ordinary and into the realms of an absurd and unconscionable existence” [their copy] and featured some space-bending photographs from former Minneapolitan Jayme Kalal. The Green Lantern Press and gallery was a typical Chicago immigrant project featuring work from Canada and Pittsburg, and is run by a young woman from San Francisco. Finally a visit to the Norae Shanty (thawed-out from the Ice Shanty project, and driven down from Medicine Lake) to do a group version of You Can Go Your Own Way. When I walked out the door more than half of the participants were gone. Like the intense ideal that it is, Version Fest had vanished like a dream.

The next day at Art Chicago, I ran into not a few of the Version Fest participants, including Ms. Blue who was working the front door at the Bridge Fair. Not only is there insurrection and subversion, it seems there’s also cross-over potential.**

** I have since booked her mushroom clouds for the Shoebox Gallery.

*The Internationale
Arise, the damned of the earth,
Arise, prisoners of hunger,
Reason thunders in its crater,
It is the eruption of the end!
Let’s make a blank slate of the past,
Crowds, slaves, arise, arise!
The world is going to change from its base,
We are nothing, let’s be everything!
This is the final struggle
Let us gather, and tomorrow
The Internationale will be mankind!

The Marseilleise (which it is meant to supplant)
Arise, children of the fatherland
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny
Has raised its bloody banner (repeat)

Do you hear in the fields
The howling of these savage soldiers?
They are coming into your midst
To cut the throats of your sons, your wives!