Curtain Call: Chicago Artists Month’s not-so-grand finale

The annals of conceptual art are filled with daring acts that challenge our sensibilities. From Yves Klein’s famous leap to Andrea Fraser’s tryst in a hotel room, the elevation of idea above execution exposes a new depth in creative expression. Illuminating a certain intellectual shallowness is Chicago Calling, a defiantly uninspiring arts festival and the last event in Chicago Arts Month. The central conceit–collaboration between artists separated by geography–has much less potential than it did even twenty years ago, and the ways the theme is addressed are far from thought-provoking.

First, some notes on the scheduled content and its creators: There are improvised sounds using a generic palette of world music instruments, poetry read over a cell phone, poetry read over Google Talk, poetry read in the occasional smug café by flailing art-school dropouts with phonetically improbable names (“Hi Chelcie. I’m Mychal”), and moribund jazz fusion. There’s a predictable mention of works by Iraqi artists, whose names and media, being less important than their nationality, are not mentioned in the festival’s publicity material. In contrast, the top serious artists featured on Chicago Calling’s website get hilariously pompous and inarticulate biographies. A few random examples for the reader’s examination:

“Zane Ivy is the current manifestation of an entity launched into the recesses of creation in the pursuit of multidimensional growth.”

“Laura Evonne Steinman, Community Artist, has worked with people of all ages facilitating artmaking in schools, community centers, neighborhood backyards…”

“The artist is dismissive of a neat, conclusive narrative, and in some cases, a cartoon like one [sic] disturbs the white of the paper or canvas just as the charcoal interrupts the purity of the picture surface.”

Most importantly, there’s the aura of grasping irrelevance that hangs around artsy woulda-coulda-shoulda-beens. Their scrupulously wacky portraits recall the grim fate awaiting a generation of party photography subjects. The meandering text always focuses on everything but their art–past venues, past collaborators, and where they got their MFA (a festival of outsider art this is not). Plowing through dozens of biographies that feel more like sales pitches, you get the feeling you’ve stumbled into a minor-league art world circle jerk.

But beyond the fact that Chicago Calling doesn’t feature particularly interesting artists, there’s the weakness of the subject. In the age of JetBlue and Skype, exactly how much difference does a couple hundred miles make? Or for that matter, a couple thousand miles, when the half-dozen South Korean artists participating in the festival are all members of the same American expatriate clique? Although the organizers never state it explicitly, it would seem their goal is to invite a variety of perspectives. Of course, different perspectives aren’t simply a matter of geography, and Voice over Internet Protocol doesn’t change that.

That’s not to say that Chicago Calling promises to be a total wash. There’s an interesting short film or three, and even the most publicly accessible event, Jennifer Karmin’s “BEAST POEM,” is sure to elicit a base chuckle or two as she hassles innocent passers-by with writings relating to the subject of “beast” as expressed in Jean Dubuffet’s famous sculpture located near City Hall. But in the modern and interconnected megalopolis, Karmin et alii still can’t face up to the multitude of more interesting experiences available this weekend.

October 24-27. Wednesday-Saturday. Locations and times vary. (312)543-7027. www.chicagocalling.org