Together Again

The third annual MDW Fair, a collection of 75 exhibitors from Chicago and beyond, took up the first and second floors of the Mana Contemporary Chicago space from Friday, November 9 to Sunday, November 11. The website for the fair declares it to be a “showcase for independent art initiatives, spaces, galleries, and artist groups.” Yet, unlike many art expositions–the recent Expo Chicago held at Navy Pier comes to mind–its goal is not to promote sales or artists’ profiles, but rather to foster community: artists, craftsmen, and publishers gather for a weekend to interact with one another and the public in a pressure-free environment of art lovers.

With hubs in Pilsen and Bridgeport, the South Side art community is quickly rising to prominence in the city. Galleries are springing up with surprising frequency, and the larger spirit is captured with events such as the Chicago Arts District’s Second Fridays in Pilsen or Bridgeport Art Center’s Third Fridays. It’s in this fashion that the MDW Fair is presented: one location hosting a plethora of galleries in order to provide the public the opportunity to “visit” galleries from all over Chicago and other Midwest cities without having to travel more than a few feet between them.

At 8 pm in the “Performance Programming” room, Mairead Case put on an act entitled “Dear Miss Lonely Hearts,” in which a handful of people she’d pre-selected stood up and read letters by famous literary and cultural figures. Before the Fair, she mailed out books and asked the participants to choose and read a passage that resonated with them. Down the hall in booth 212, Andrea Jablonski, curator at Elastic Arts, donned tall purple heels and a fuzzy blue hat complete with cat ears as she casually chatted with her artists and their visitors. She personally pulled together a mix of artists and their pieces, from John Herndon’s tattooed pig ear displayed in a cake dome to Ken Ellis’s large hand-quilted recreations of traditional Japanese imagery and Jeff Harms’s giant oblong wooden sculpture in the center of the room. “John and Ken already knew each other from the Rainbo Club, but these guys all have very different artistic styles and I think putting them together highlights that even more,” Andrea said of the strange combination. “When else would these guys ever be in a room together?”

Aron Gent, one of the co-founders of the MDW Fair, was stationed at a table in the center of the Co-Prosperity Sphere booth. His printing and scanning company, Document, along with three Chicago art bastions—Public Media Institute, Roots & Culture, and threewalls — make up the collaboration that started MDW in 2011. Ed Marszewski is the founder and director of Public Media Institute, a non-profit art organization that sponsors various festivals and spaces around Chicago, including the Bridgeport Co-Prosperity Sphere. He is also the instrumental force behind the annual South Side culture celebration Version Fest–an event whose twelfth iteration was this past spring with the theme “Bridgeport: Community of the Future.” Exhibitors for MDW Fair were chosen by Aron, Ed, and the other co-founders from a pool of artists’ and galleries’ proposals. “We kind of edited out the ones that were not feasible or relevant to the Fair; we were looking specifically for not-for-profit spaces because we didn’t want any commercial galleries coming in,” Aron says of the selection process. “A lot of the people that applied were local people that we already knew.” A booth at MDW Fair costs 400 dollars–a low price like this “allows participants to feel like they don’t have to sell a lot of work, and instead just appreciate the exposure,” Aron explains. “We find that the attitude by the end is much happier and people aren’t stressed out about losing, say, three grand because they didn’t sell.

In room 214, run by a group called “Schlong” and decorated with custom phallic-printed clothing and a giant sculpture on the wall called “Death Cock,” people were being asked to participate in a study. After I’d scarfed down a surprisingly delicious combination of cheesecake and habanero jelly distributed by Schlong, a man named Jonathan Ozik approached me and asked if I’d like to participate. He rattled off a quick spiel that I didn’t quite understand, pointing to a camera set up behind a curtain on a waist-high tripod and handing me a card whose headline read “Come into the world of Big Data!” The end of the paragraph on the card mentioned that the study hoped to “train machine learning algorithms to recognize your left and right tendencies.” Ozik reminded me with a small laugh that I’d “presumably” be a control subject. He handed me another card labeled “C,” positioned me in front of the camera with the card on my hip, and snapped a picture of my crotch — “smile!” he chided. He thanked me and shook my hand on my way out.