Exploring Version Territory: The Co-Prosperity Sphere hosts Bridgeport’s annual art festival

Version festival poster; courtesy of the Co-Prosperity Sphere

“Every year we have the same intention. We want to widen the networks and nodes of various groups so we can grow a multiplicity of milieus in the art world,” explains Ed “Edmar” Marszewski. He’s talking about the Version Festival, an annual eleven-day arts festival that he founded and co-curates, which celebrates social and activist art in Bridgeport and on Chicago’s South Side. The theme of this year’s festival, “Infrastructure and Territories,” is appropriate to the history of the festival and the community that has grown up around it.

First held nine years ago, Version is meant to carve out a territory for rising artists who are often lost in the city’s sprawling cultural landscape. “The art ecology is not too healthy,” says Edmar. He created Version to combat, if only for a few days, the perennial struggle of rising artists. “Version is the first exhibition for a lot of artists. It is the perfect way to introduce different facets of the Chicago art world to larger audiences.”

“The show is invested in artists of a whole variety,” says Dayton Castleman, the co-curator of this year’s festival. “What I’ve been most interested in is the idea that territories take on a wide variety of connotations. It could be everything from real property to intellectual property. It deals with ideas of space, and whether that’s physical space or cerebral space, the term is sufficiently broad.”

The relationship between art and space has become increasingly important in contemporary art practices, and Chicago was an especially important city for movements that took real environments as a space for cognitive experimentation. As artists moved away from the gallery and into alternative spaces, many began to incorporate the dynamics of their surrounding community into their practices, eventually leading to what Edmar calls “social art” and “art activism.” With its vast abandoned industrial spaces and its stigmatized, segregated neighborhoods, Chicago offered a cityscape with widely variant artistic opportunities. It continues to do so today. “When artists move into communities, it opens new horizons,” says Edmar. Among the many community-based artist groups in Chicago, Edmar cites two as model examples. The first is the Stockyard Institute, a Chicago-based artist collective that designs projects and sustainable programs for communities around the city. The second, the Experimental Station, is a Woodlawn-based organization that aims to create local infrastructures for artists and for social change by supporting artists and activists in its community in various ways–including cheap rent, meeting spaces, free technology, communal ovens, and gallery space. For Edmar, these two groups exemplify some of the most important moves in contemporary art, as each have established systems where individuals can engage a community through artistic mediums. “Art plays an everyday part of peoples’ lives, but encountering it in a structured form allows people to enjoy things that they don’t seek out or have forgotten about.”

This year, Version has reached out to new territories. Participants hail from as close as a few blocks away to as far the Netherlands. Among this year’s artists are Chris Larsen, a Minnesotan who’s built a machine-like wooden structure with a hollow interior space where he will sit as a way of manipulating his environment. Jeff Zimmerman, a Chicago local, will show two paintings titled “North Sider” and “South Sider” that will hang across from one another as a way to evoke the gap between Chicago’s latitudinal divide. Thomas Morena will create a large imagined continent from new and burnt matchsticks as a way to evoke the idea of scorched earth in territories of war. Alexa Loftis will do a performance piece where she buries herself in sand in front of a beachscape as she drinks “girly” cocktails. This latter installation is a literalizing of territory, as Loftis will both mark her territory and be subsumed by it.

The festival’s theme is important not only for artists, but for curators, as well. For the exhibition, Castleman marked the floor of the Co-Prosperity Sphere with a grid system that divides the space into fifteen-by-fifteen feet quadrants, and allocated each to an artist. “In a sense, the gallery space is divided into distinct territories,” explains Castleman. “You can move from one territory to another. They’re permeable.” Artists can often be territorial in their desire to have prime space within a gallery; Castleman created the grid in order to allow artists discrete, compartmentalized spaces while also avoiding conflict between individuals. However, Castleman also encouraged artists to imagine new kinds of work that responded to the gallery’s geography. “I asked artists to conceive new work that would emphasize the space. So in that sense, the whole exhibition became a site-specific installation.”

Among this year’s newcomers is the b(ART)er collective from Denver, Colorado. The collective is a group of six individuals who set up systems of exchange from their van. “We have a bunch of different modes of exchange,” explains Alex Erskine, one of the members of the collective. “Each one is adaptable given changes in demographics and culture. This is as much inquiry-based as it is performative and relational. The really important part is figuring out what questions should be asked and generating these questions for ourselves as well as for the community.” The b(ART)er collective is making their first cross-country trek to Version at the recommendation of the group’s leader, Nikki Pike, who first visited Version as a graduate student several years ago. “At Version, I was exposed to ideas I couldn’t have imagined. It really exposed me to outside-of-the-academy art making. Anyone I get to take to the festival would have a similar experience. Some of the best thinkers are there.”

The b(ART)er collective has been assigned the space right outside of the entrance of the festival. There, they will park their truck and let the process unfold. “In the spirit of inquiries, we can have fun and experiment and see how Chicago responds to us. We like to remain really fluid. A lot of the time, the space dictates how the performance unfolds. That’s the most exciting part,” explains Erskine.

Over the past nine years, as Version has grown in breadth and size, it has created a distinct place for itself in Chicago’s art scene. The significance of this positions is up for grabs. Chicago is not New York, and Version Festival is not the Whitney, and this is something that Edmar is only too aware of. “It’s not like we’re reaching a general audience of Cubs fans,” he reflects. “But if people didn’t care, we wouldn’t be doing this.”