Chicago Art Series: Article #2 on Groups and Spaces

Series Description: This series of five articles published in <H>Art Magazine in Belgium will be an introduction to Chicago, Illinois USA and it’s local critical cultural experimentation, written from the perspective of a magazine editor and curator committed to navigating the city. Look for three more articles in 2009 dealing with cultural institutions, art media and individual artists.


Critical Culture in Chicago – Article #2: Groups and Spaces

by Daniel Tucker

Hey Obamacrats! Lets learn about Chicago!

Since the time of my first article in this series on social/political art in Chicago, the whole world has had an introduction to this city through the lens of Barack Obama – who adopted the city as his hometown 20 years ago. What this event means for the world is yet to be seen. What this event means for Chicago is that the local culture and politics are going to come under greater scrutiny and more people are going to be trying to learn about and be introduced to this city.

The extraordinary amount of cultural production in Chicago wasn’t missed by Obama in his time in the city – he was actually on a foundation board (the Woods Fund) that gave out grants to community organizers and socially engaged art.

Visitors observations of artistic practice in Chicago consistently cite an extreme commitment and openness to collaboration. It could be that this derrives from some lack of pretention or commitment to egalitarian living. It could also be a pragmatic response to scarity of resources for cultural work. Regardless of the root cause, the city is undoubtedly ripe with art collectives and small collaborative initiatives. Interestingly, a number of those groups actually run cultural spaces or venues. Both the groups and the spaces will be discussed here, in an attemp to give an international audience a sense of the range of practices coexisting in this newly founded Obamaland.

One key art group HAHA began in 1988, initiated by Wendy Jacob, John Ploof and Laurie Palmer. Their twenty year long practice shifted focus regularly from the highly local and public to whimsical works made for galleries and museums throughout Europe and the U.S. Their forms ranged from Flood – a storefront community center on the north side of the city where vegetables for AIDS patients were grown and distributed, to a rooftop advertising unit on a taxi cab which could be programmed with site-specific text messages controlled by a GPS unit. Their approach to community, participation and pedagogy has had a strong influence on the local art scene, not least of which on the group Temporary Services (TS) directed by Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin and Marc Fischer. TS has strongly defined the field of collaborative art in the city, with over ten years of public work, self-publishing and the facilitation of at least three different venues for presenting the work of other artists. TS’s work about ecology and economy has had a clear influence on collectives like Material Exchange, JAM, People Powered and InCUBATE. Their approach has made the nature and style of collaboration their material and subject matter with a number of projects literally dealing with how groups work together – most notably in their recent book simply entitled “Group Work.” As a group they have collaborated closely with other artists like Brendan McGaffey, Melinda Fries of and the couple duo Rob Kelly and Zena Sakowski aka The Biggest Fags Ever – sometimes leading to the renaming of a super-group known as the Biggest Temporary Gang Ever!

TS maintains, a virtual platform for documenting collaborative art practice and has initiated a venue for forming new collaborative relationships known as Mess Hall – another storefront on the north side of the city just blocks away from where HAHA produced Flood in the mid 1990s. Five years later Mess Hall has minimal involvement from the original TS members and is run by a group of “keyholders” who are responsible for maintaining and coordinating the space’s weekly free events ranging from yoga to sewing workshops to reading groups and lectures by traveling activists and thinkers.

Other groups running venues in the city include the artist-run bookstores Golden Age and No Coast, both in the southern Pilsen neighborhood. Just down the street is Antena, the project space of Miguel Cortez and the Polvo collective who have also run magazines and galleries together for ten years.

Publishing and the administration of venues seem to go hand in hand. Three other important spaces – the Green Lantern Gallery, ThreeWalls residency and gallery, and the Co-Prosperity Sphere all publish their own magazines and pamphlets. All three venues are committed to educational festivals, seminars and workshops. They have also been committed individually and collaboratively to cataloging the proliferation of “alternative spaces”, non-commercial galleries and the ubiqutous apartment galleries that Chicago is known for. One important apartment gallery to collaborate with nearly everyone mentioned in this series is Vonzwek, founded by Philip Vonzwek in 2005.

Fortunately the city boasts several theoretically oriented group learning projects, including ARC109, Finding Our Roots, Freedom School Communiversity, Chicago Political Workshop/49th st. Underground, the Midwest Radical Cultural Cooridor, Platypus and FeelTank. The latter three have strong commitments to considering the intersections of art and politics. All of the projects have significant, though unofficial, connections through their membership to local universities – leaving the significant challenge of making rigerous educational projects trancend the academy partially unresolved. Their contribution to the intellectual and theoretical development of the city’s self-identified political artists is hugely important.

The city has a rich theater tradition exemplified in the 200 producing neighborhood based theaters, forming an impressive constallation of hyper-local live entertainment within walking distance of peoples homes. David Issacson of Theater Oobleck has said “it is a point of pride that Chicago does political theater.” The theater scene is divided from the visual arts community, which is unfortunate because their physical infrastructure of venues could easily facilitate collaboration with other disciplines, serving as a home to multi-use activities of other artists and activists operating without a stable home.

There are a number of performance troupes blurring the lines between visual and performing arts with their art actions including Lucky Pierre, Chicago County Fair, the Neofuturists, and the now defunct Goat Island. Groups like the Drag Kings and Teatro Luna put gender politics on the stage, while the FeFees, Young Women’s Action Team and the now defunct Pink Bloque took them to the streets.

Public art groups like CAFF Collective, You Are Beautiful and Anti Gravity Surprise ask people to participate in the production of their own public space. Similarly, the youth-centered art groups Cooperative Image Group, University of Hip Hop and Kuumba Lynx all blend street art and graffiti in public space with Pedagogy of the Oppressed inspired educational and political work.

This city is indeed ripe with collaborative and social art and venues that faciliate its presentation and evolution. Without being able to pinpoint the source or motives for this, it is undoubtedly a virtue and a feature which makes working here easier and more sustainable for those interested in cultivating an artistic practice which can hope to transcend the logic of the commodity.

My previous article in this series dealt with the local history which preceeded these examples of groups and spaces. The next article will deal with the institutions both large and small, which hold the city’s culture together, or in some cases which keep it from evolving.

Daniel Tucker is the editor of AREAChicago ( For more information see

Published by Tucker

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