Henry Glover has rhythm from his head to his toes–literally. He lifts up his shoe to reveal a small electrical sensor that is wired to an audio jack in the sole. When the shoes are plugged into an output device, synthesized drum beats correspond to Glover’s tapping foot. Yet as Glover wanders through the fundraiser for the ninth annual Version Festival, a 10-day artistic extravaganza in Bridgeport, his cleverly designed shoes shuffle beneath the crowd’s radar. Ironically, the scene reads like a microcosm of one of Version’s goals: to bring Chicago’s diverse and expansive art scene, much of which slips by public recognition, to the attention of the global artistic community.
“We’re here to amplify the activity that’s going on here and show it to the rest of the world,” says Ed “Edmar” Marszewski, producer of the Version Festival and head of the Public Media Institute, a nonprofit arts organization. The boldness of his statement works well with the theme for this year’s festival, “Immodest Proposals.” Edmar explains that he and his co-organizers try to keep the theme “wide open, just to see what kind of submissions we’ll get.” The title is a play on Jonathan Swift’s satirical text, “A Modest Proposal,” which recommended that poor families sell their children as food to the rich in order to ease the economic hardships of 18th-century Ireland.
So what is an immodest proposal? Edmar is quick to elaborate: “Look, we’ve just reset America, we’ve reset the 21st century with getting Obama elected, getting rid of the Bush administration. And now…what kind of crazy, awesome, weirdo project or idea do you have? How do want to live your life? Regardless of the budget, regardless of any expenses.” Much of the Version Festival is achieved through generous donations of space, time, and money from artists and larger institutions. However, financial limitations are a reality, and so certain projects–like building a life-size model of an ancient colossus on the shores of Long Island, New York–must remain, at least for now, in their proposal form.
The realized proposals themselves are nothing short of extraordinary, including a vast assortment of musical performances, art installations, curatorial endeavors, walking tours, and category-defying artistic experiments. In addition to an exhibition of European artists, a group show entitled “The Audacity of Art,” and an information/artistic tradeshow called the NFO XPO (pronounced “info/expo”), Version will feature a series of 12 alternative forms of shelter, workshops, and classes provided by the Free University and an imaginary government-funded cultural program called the Bridgeport WPA. The festival culminates with the first-ever Chicago Art Parade in the West Loop. The variety of frameworks through which an artist can choose to submit work enhances the productive communication encouraged by the festival. “People might start out with only one idea,” says Edmar, “but they’ll see that there is such an array of platforms already engaged in making weird stuff that their original idea already fits in somewhere.” Such connections occur on the level of the art, but also on the level of the artist. Perhaps one of the most positive aspects of the Version Festival is its ability to create permanent relationships, despite lasting only 10 days out of the year. A stable community evolves from a temporary event.
Certain programs, like the Bridgeport WPA, hope to maintain their presence in the Bridgeport community after the festival ends. Inspired by the cultural programs under the Works Progress Administration of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Bridgeport WPA reflects on the extensive funding directed to the arts during the Great Depression. Founder Emily Clayton explains, “[The WPA] employed musicians and writers and visual artists and all kinds of people to document social welfare and what was going on at the time.” The Bridgeport WPA was created as a proposal for the upcoming Version Festival, and has since grown into a viable organizing and mobilizing force within the larger event. Clayton describes it as a “theoretical social experiment that asks, ‘What if funding for the arts had been part of the stimulus package that just passed? What if they did what they did for artists in the ‘30s, and what if they did that now?’” Clayton smiles. “It would be incredible.”
On Thursday night, the Bridgeport WPA kicks off the Version Festival with a poster show inspired by the posters from the ‘30s that supported everything from education to sanitation. Clayton hopes that the posters will increase people’s awareness of the continued importance of art, but also of more general issues. “In a time where everyone’s struggling, we can still focus on positive things. What can you do within your community and in your lives to better yourself and better your neighbor?” The show features 20 to 25 artists who have been commissioned to print a series of 40 posters, one of which will be displayed at the show while the rest are placed throughout the neighborhood. The poster campaign is complemented by several public sculptures and murals installed throughout Bridgeport.
While Version is primarily an arts festival, it becomes clear, especially when considering programs like the Bridgeport WPA, that many of the people involved see art as a means towards a greater end. Change, communication, and progress are recurring themes that buzz in the artistic atmosphere even if they are not directly expressed in the works themselves. The dizzying range of artistic media at play in the festival is overwhelming: from performance artists to puppeteers, every species of musician and visual artist is represented.
The NFO XPO, which takes place on Saturday and Sunday at the Benton House (3052 S. Gratten Ave.), is described on Version’s website as a “trade show for experimental art, emerging spaces, and radical exchange.” It will provide a unique opportunity to see such artistic variety in a single location. Outside of the House, one can witness the temporary structures of the Shelter Corps in the 100-year-old lot next door. Over 24 artists have come together in this collective to create 12 conceptions of “shelter” in a show that is sure to expand one’s notion of the word, while maintaining a very practical relevance, in light of the ever-present need to generate ideas for alternative, sustainable living structures.
One often forgets that curating a show can be an artistic process as well. One category of “Immodest Proposals” strives to bring this to mind, allowing individuals and groups to administer full creative control in their conceptions of various exhibitions. Material Exchange, a group that is concerned with updating the value of used objects, has organized a carnival on the Midway Plaisance to take place during both weekends of the Version festival. King Ludd’s Midway Arcade will feature games reminiscent of those found in the World’s Fair of 1893. The Eastern Expansion gallery is hosting “Unbescheidene Angebote!!” (German for “Immodest Proposals”), which will display the work of artists from Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as the United States.
A third curatorial project, entitled “That’s What She Said,” is being organized by Chicago artist Jeriah Hildwine. It features the work of female artists exploring issues of sexuality and violence. Hildwine will also have a booth at the NFO XPO that displays his artwork, while “That’s What She Said” will show at the Benton House. He initially became involved in the festival through his wife, photographer Stephanie Burke, who encouraged him to look into Version’s numerous platforms for creative projects. Hildwine is one artist who seems to see art as serving multiple purposes within Version’s larger context. His booth at the NFO XPO is not primarily for selling his artwork, but rather for making others aware of it. “I mean, I guess it’s always for sale,” Hildwine explains. “But it’s more about just getting it out there.” Hildwine’s goal echoes Version’s intention of bring local Chicago artists to the forefront of the international community of artists and art enthusiasts alike.
Elise Goldstein, a performance artist in “That’s What She Said,” shared her theory of how the entirety of the immense variety of work presented at Version relates to the festival’s aggressive, if intentionally ambiguous, theme. “We’re in a recession, so no one is going to buy art,” she states matter-of-factly. Strangely, that’s no cause for alarm. “When art isn’t about selling and commodification,” she continues, “you can say whatever you want.” Whether this is an (im)modest proposal or a call to arms, the Version Festival has challenged its artists to think outside the box, and the result will challenge all who attend to rethink art’s potential in society.