“We’ll be dressing up as a Roman phalanx, we have a navy, we have the Jeffrey ballet, we are going to have a bunch of tall white kids as our cavalry, there’ll be fifty people pillow fighting, if we can pull it off we’ll have an air force composed of blimps … We’ll be boating down the Chicago river …” says Ed Marszewski, as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary, stooped over a plastic imitation roman breastplate which he is spray painting bronze. Ed Marszewski, or Edmar as he is often known, is the head of the proletarian Bridgeport arts collective Lumpen, its eponymous magazine, and head curator of “Version,” a primarily South Side arts festival which runs from April 19 to May 6. Marszewski stood in an enormous warehouse converted to arts space in the middle of Bridgeport, there’s lumber and construction equipment everywhere, strewn beer cans and art supplies, and the room is teeming with artists and curators preparing for Version’s main show, “We’re Rollin’, They’re Hatin’,” which will take place in this space. The air is thick with the fumes of spray paint. “So this is the armor we are making for an event, it’s called ‘Art War,’” Edmar continued. “Art War” takes place April 27 on the Chicago River, and includes members of Lumpen and other related groups. It seems to be a fitting example of Mr. Marszewski’s, and Version’s philosophy in regards to art: art which is on the one hand aggressive and unabashedly political, but on the other is playful and doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Welcome to silliness!” Mr. Marszewski exclaims as he shows off the array of armor which he and his cohorts have assembled.
For Version, the hundreds of artists and musicians that are flying in from all over the world will mostly be staying in the apartments of Lumpen’s members and their friends. The festival will use spaces all over the city but have its center at 31st and S. Morgan, right around the corner from the Zhou Brothers art complex. The center, purchased several months ago for Lumpen’s other major fete, Select Media Festival, had been abandoned and was “filled to the ceiling with trash.” It had been infested with “hundreds of rats,” as described by one of the festival’s curators. The organizers of Version have been living together in this space and preparing it themselves. “There’s a real burgeoning alternative gallery space movement, it’s been happening all over the country but here in Chicago it’s really strong,” says Marszewski, and here at Lumpen’s headquarters this is particularly evident. The space itself is absolutely extraordinary: the enormous ground floor has a gorgeous antique ceiling, there’s scaffolding everywhere, some sort of enormous structure is in the process of being erected in the center of the room, and there are remnants of the building’s old interior next to a newly constructed level. The basement is strewn with paint cans, one of its brick walls has been painted and then a giant hole bored through the center, a huge fast food sign that originally read “fast food, just in time” has had some letters ripped out so it reads “fat food, just in me,” and adorns an otherwise nondescript wall. All of this is surely just a taste of what the main space will look like when it opens. Version itself will be comprised of visual art pieces, music, performance art, parades, demonstrations, and shows of video art. Its curators have organized everything from dance parties to free classes (“Free University”) on a variety of topics. All of this under the umbrella of the “counter-culture” of de-commercialized art.
Version definitely has some strong politics behind it. “We are living in some dark days,” Marszewski remarks, after a pull from his cigarette. “A lot of what we are trying to do is emphasize that there are lots of people trying to create different spaces and doing different kinds of work …We’re putting in a statement that there are insurrectionary movements about.” “We live in a kind of friendly fascist state, turning into a surveillance state. The Democrats and the Republicans are virtually the same party, there is no other option politically, so that’s why people should get involved politically, culturally, socially–to do what they can.” Lumpen has poised itself to stage what is, in their minds, a rejection of the “commercialization” of society and of life in general. This may seem a little overblown to some, but Marszewski approaches the topic in a tone that is refreshingly un-pretentious, speaking without too many of the high-handed mannerisms that dominate so many of these sorts of discussions. A genuine DIY sensibility pervades the entire project, as well as a clear refusal to pigeonhole the projects into too defined a political agenda, although notions of “counter culture’ and “art for art’s sake” are clearly crucial. “It’s really hard to get grants and it’s really hard for artists to support themselves, so a lot of this festival is about artists who aren’t in this commercial art realm … there are different ways of having an art career and we are just endorsing one way”.
It seems that Version’s group show, the aforementioned “Rollin’ and Hatin’,” will continue this trend of both the concrete and the playful alongside Lumpen’s politics. “Rollin’ and Hatin’” is centered around role-playing games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons. When asked why the topic was chosen, Marzewski replied: “Dungeons and Dragons is an amazing and awesome game, it really emphasizes your own creativity. You get to take over and become a character, this influences whole generations of gaming and play, so the theme of this kind of escapist fantasy dovetails with this notion of insurrection, a kind of flipside of the coin.”
One of the compelling things about Version is its relationship with its location. Lumpen’s move to Bridgeport is part of a trend–scores of artists have been moving into the traditionally blue-collar neighborhood, and with them comes inevitable gentrification. This gentrifying process is one that might perhaps seem antithetical to Lumpen’s agenda. When asked about how he felt about this and Bridgeport’s history, Marszewski responded, “Bridgeport is historically, I would say, a controversial neighborhood. It was a political center for running the Chicago machine, but recently it’s begun to change, it’s no longer a lily-white racist enclave where every black person is afraid to go, it’s almost a third Chinese, it’s almost a third Latino, and it’s a third mixed ethnic. So it’s the second most ethnic neighborhood, and it’s nice to be in that kind of neighborhood. But, the reason why we’re here is this is one of the last neighborhoods we can afford to be in, so sadly we are contributing to some change here, but at the same time we have nowhere else to go. We’re sick of moving. But yeah, there’s a million dollar subdivision four blocks from here, same bullshit townhouses over there …”
“Typically the programming has been of parallel kinds of cultures, not necessarily counter-culture, but these words lose their meaning. Counter-culture becomes culture at a certain point. We like to focus on sharing this with people not interested in living a branded and marketed life.” Asked about how people should fight that commercialization of society, Marszewski responds with “Well a lot of people resist that kind of commoditization of their daily life through not watching TV, or joining a food co-op, or supporting a local grocer … I mean, [commercialism] isn’t going to collapse until the apocalypse, but its worth it to make an effort to combat it.” Perhaps Mr. Marszewski could have added that exposure to this sort of festival is an integral part of the process. Maybe that’s what Version is about after all.