Leave the pearls and Lily Pulitzer at home: Thursday evening, the Version festival begins at Country Club, a gallery in Wicker Park. According to the festival’s website, “Version is an annual springtime convergence that brings in hundreds of artists, musicians and educators from around the world to present some of the most challenging ideas and progressive art initiatives of our day.” Space 1026, a Philadelphia-based artist collective named after the address of their building in Philly’s Chinatown, will host Version’s opening show on Thursday evening. On Friday night, Version moves to the South Side’s Co-Prosperity Sphere for “The Dark Matter Group Show.” This former warehouse in Bridgeport was gutted and restored to reveal beautiful high copper ceilings, hardwood floors, and a fairly vast and, once preparations are complete, appealing contemporary gallery space. Music and theater performances are held in the basement, and an apartment complex occupies the second floor.
Last Saturday, the site was bustling with preparation for the show. Co-organizer of the event, owner of the gallery and notorious Chicago art personality Ed “Edmar” Marszewski was easing a paint roller along a white freestanding display wall and in the midst of about three conversations. Chicago artist Ray Nolan, designer of the clever “Go Tell Mama I’m for Obama” posters, was the first to come up in our discussion of this year’s theme for the Version festival: “Dark Matter.” Nolan is one of the many artists participating in “The Dark Matter Group Show.” Edmar cites Nolan’s work as representative of the “massive amount of undocumented [art]work in Chicago.” Despite his work’s formal artistic qualities and its contribution to political awareness, it is systematically rejected as an artform by mainstream cultural mediators such as museums, curators, historians, and galleries. And this is precisely what makes it succulent Dark Matter.
Lumpen Media Group, the organization behind the Version festival and publisher of the magazine “Lumpen,” borrowed this metaphor for Version’s theme from artist Gregory Sholette. “Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture–the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators and arts administrators. It includes informal practices such as home-crafts, makeshift memorials, [and] amateur photography made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world. Yet, just as the physical universe is dependent on its dark matter and energy, so too is the art world dependent on its shadow creativity. It needs it in much the same way certain developing countries depend on their shadow or informal economies.” Real Dark Matter, briefly, is a form of matter that accounts for most of the mass in the observable universe. It cannot be directly observed because it is too dense for light to escape it. At once both deeply pervasive and inconspicuous, dark matter is an analytic device that seeks to represent what Edmar called the “98% of work not documented in art history.”
Among the artists coming in and out of the studio Saturday afternoon to drop off material or begin setting up for Friday’s show was photographer Cole Robertson. In the midst of arranging his display, Robertson explained that his project started with photographs selected from gay dating websites, which he then manipulates using techniques to enlarge, adjust colors, blur, crop, and paint the background, among other modifications. He prints them on watercolor paper, giving the images the appearance of a painting. Cole is among many artists who have tapped into web-art culture. They feel compelled to transform the intentionally “disposable” and “immortalize it,” as he said, into “the pinnacle of photographic objecthood.” He did a series from the reality TV show “The Bachelor” comprised of four stills on rice paper of just the Bachelor’s pectorals “bouncing.”
During a break from painting, Edmar pointed out a yet-to-be-installed sculpture installation called “Humboldt Pile.” The tall, bright yellow three-sided rectangle constructed from wood is funded by a grant from the Norton Family Foundation–“Norton” as in the anti-virus software. The structure will serve as a space for the artist to demonstrate how to compost one’s own body waste. The curtain, Edmar proudly announced, had yet to be installed.
Again, nudity inside wooden structures: this time brought by Eric, another artist in Friday’s show. He will show a series of small paintings inspired by sauna culture, originally intended to fit around the borders of a door back at the California Occidental Museum of Art on the North Side. In Finnish culture, saunas were a place to “rejuvenate the spirit” and “purify the soul.” Here, he explores how “internet sauna culture is degrading into American sauna culture.” Eric asks, when we get into a hobby, do we “get at something pure” or “deny how we degrade it?”
Edmar is the editor and publisher of Lumpen, a political art magazine that puts out six issues per year and circulates 35,000 copies nationwide and globally. This is just the beginning. Today, Lumpen Media Group produces two magazines, DVDs, CDs, festivals including Version, a TV show, weekly events and screenings, as well as what it calls “art action.” Additionally, according to the 15th anniversary issue of Lumpen, the collective is “engaged in street campaigns, freelance gigs, international festivals and curatorial projects all over the planet.” Their success contrasts with their much humbler beginnings as a zine, a form to which they still have close ideological ties.
In the early ‘90s, following its inception in Champaign, Illinois, writers gathered for Lumpen meetings (then the “Lumpen Times”) at Myopic Books in Chicago, a beloved groovy bookstore infamous for roaming cats. The group underwent a series of crazy adventures over the following years, founding organizations with names like the Federation of National Disenfranchised Lumpens (FONDL) and later hypothesizing in its magazine that “an FBI mole [was] living at Buddy,” the name of Lumpen’s headquarters in Wicker Park until 2005. By that time, Version was approaching its fourth year after not being invited back a third time by its former host, the Museum of Contemporary Art. At Version 2003, riot police showed up during a performance that was “accused of fomenting anti-war protests.” Lumpen has not ceased their anti-war campaign, dedicating about twenty pages of their most recent issue to articles both opinion and fact-based. But in 2005, escaping gentrification and ending an era obsessed with UFOs, Noam Chomsky, and the Internet, Lumpen migrated to Bridgeport, prompting a new, perhaps more serious chapter in its development.
The most interesting part about a visit to Bridgeport, besides meeting a few of the artists, is a tour of the apartment complex on the second-floor of the building. “It’s kind of like a dorm,” says resident Mariana Pos, who paused in painting the interior gallery entrance door to show me around. In fact, there are narrow dorm-like corridors, and while residents don’t share utilities, all agree to pitch in to whatever is going on downstairs, which at the moment means prepping for the Dark Matter Group Show. Aside from Pos, the show’s prepping team includes Edmar and his wife, Ringo the carpenter, two members of the band Mahjongg (which will perform at Version on Thursday night–a must see), and a few others.
When Brian Ulrich walked into the Co-Prosperity Sphere, Edmar introduced him as the best “Chicagopher” in the city. The photograph he will show on Friday, Ulrich explained, is from a series of pictures of people shopping at thrift stores. The series is part of his ongoing project, which documents people shopping all around the country. And, in keeping with the Dark Matter theme, he’s also curating a piece he commissioned from a man he met outside a thrift store who draws ornate war scenes. Ulrich, like Cole Robertson and many of those in and around Lumpen HQ, graduated from Columbia College Chicago.
Back upstairs, I was enchanted by the quaint two-bed pads and upper-level unofficial Lumpen residences. The fanciful Lumpen World had taken on living qualities. The residences’ allure may have come from the sense of a continuation of the gallery from which we’d just ascended. Aside from a huge graphic poster covering the farthest corridor, the aesthetic atmosphere was technically devoid of art in an official, documented capacity. It’s now clear why Dark Matter is so appropriate to Lumpen’s aims, which sees art in far beyond what lays behind ossified cases in museums. Parties are “Lumpenraves.” Summer is “The Summer of Bad Ideas” or “The Summer of Love.” Fascination with false identification akin to Country Club is not meant to deceive, but to explore how representation changes or offers meaning. On Friday, DeletÃ© Behavioral, a female performance duo, will create a combination performance/sculpture piece, wherein they will blow up black balloons (the long skinny ones clowns use), make random shapes and then essentially ask, “Is this meaningful or not?”
Lumpen is best understood alongside their evolutionary timeline spanning almost two decades. The magazine comes to life each year at Version, which loves “presenting the next waves of art activity and see[ing] how it percolates and expands elsewhere.” Check out this exciting festival on one or all ten days. For more information and a program of events, visit www.versionfest.org or www.lumpen.com. Version runs April 17-28, 2008.
Photo by Bobby Zacharias