A quick guide to Chicago arts media

Here is my 4th text in a series about Chicago art for the Belgian publication (H)Art due out later this month

Series Description:

This series of five articles 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. In the final article in this five part series I will focus on individual artists working alone or without a consistent group identity.

5/1/09

Critical Culture in Chicago – Article #4: Art Media and Publishing
by Daniel Tucker

Publication Pile from "How We Coordinate" Discussion at Version 07 Festival in Chicago
(Publication pile from "How We Coordinate" Discussion at Version 07 Festival in Chicago)

Documenting, Clarifying, Promoting, Projecting, Interpreting, Evaluating. These are some basic answers to the question: what is the function of writing about art? To consider the impact of that project on a local level, it will be necessary to survey the range of outlets for such work. This text will serve as a brief introduction to Chicagoan’s efforts to write and create space for writing about art. Additional, yet limited, attention will be given to the broader literary production occurring in the city, and infrastructures that support or nurture this work.

Chicago’s major daily newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, just laid off their only art critic Alan Artner last month. The Chicago Reader, the most widely available weekly newspaper, doesn’t publish regular reviews of art, music, theater or independent publishing – but serves as an active space for promoting events associated with the arts. The smaller weekly papers Newcity and Timeout both cover arts events with consistency, yet have limited resources to do so and also fall into the event promotional paradigm. The Chicago Sun Times, our other daily paper, doesn’t put enough resources into visual arts reviews despite being an important place to find out about neighborhood and city politics. And that is really the state of affairs – writing about art is completely absorbed within the logic of the market – it is promotion for the entertainment and culture industry. Writing that purports to do something different – to critique, to unearth lost histories, to address history, to experiment – is destined to remain at the margins.

Luckily, this city is home to a several print publications and websites that write from the margins about art and culture. Yet that means that very few people are getting paid to write about art or reflect on the local cultural production. Thankfully we are home to critics like Michelle Grabner, Brian Holmes, Hamza Walker, Lane Relyea, Jason Foumberg, Kathryn Hixon, and James Yood. But for everyone else, it has to remain a side project.

The city has also seen people with a great interest in producing publications that define this place or produce a sense of local culture. Ausgang.com is a web platform organized by local artist Melinda Fries that takes thematic approaches to examining everyday life. She publishes every season and is credited with being the longest running local art website. There are a few printed publications that really consider the social and political context of art production in the city, but a few of them include the Marxist paper Platypus Review that occasionally includes exhibition reviews, the irregular yet highly acclaimed Baffler Magazine, the School of the Art Institute’s F-News, and AREA Chicago which I am involved in editing. The Public Media Institute publishes two great projects, the long running and rather open-ended Lumpen Magazine and Proximity Magazine – the new effort at taking stock of local arts and culture and presenting it to people outside of the city. Proximity shows great promise and will hopefully fill the void left by the loss of locally focused art publications like New Art Examiner, MouthtoMouth, TenbyTen, Bridge, and the short-lived BAT journal and Prompt magazine initiative by the Chicago Artist Coalition.

Websites which try to document the local “art scene” in a broad sense are numerous and ever changing. Some of the most consistent efforts include: The Shark Forum, On the Make , Art Letter , the broad reaching View From Here, the Gapersblock A/C Blog, Houndstooth, Art or Idiocy, the mostly defunct but still useful spaces.org and Panel House, the gochgo list-serv for socially engaged art discussion and announcements, the ChicagoArt.net gallery announcement network and the Art and Culture in Chicago blog. Some of the more robust web initiatives include podcasted “Bad At Sports” weekly local art talk show and the impressive publicly funded Chicago Artist Resource.

Other publishing endeavors have the feel of curated collections including the publishing efforts of two galleries who are often in cahoots, ThreeWalls Press who publish the quarterly “Paper and Carriage” as well as Green Lantern Press. They have both opted for use of the term “slow media” adapted from the “slow food movement” as a counterbalance to the gradual disappearance of the printed art publication. Both of these presses have done significant work to make more connections between the visual arts and literary arts scenes locally and nationally, including publishing the annual “Phonebook ” of artist run spaces throughout the US. The art group Temporary Services has been one of the most consistent publishers of printed art projects and also shares a passion for compiling and archiving marginal culture and directories of collaborative art practice. The now defunct print-only Skeleton News served a similar role of bridging gaps with the strong community of comic artists, providing a free monthly paper in which their work could circulate to new audiences. It would be great to see more collaboration between the various local art scenes, especially in the realm of publishing since there is so much of the same labor that goes into producing a publication despite specific focuses.

Pooling resources between the local visual and public art communities and the local literary and creative writing projects like Poetry, Say What? the project of the teen writing initiative Young Chicago Authors, the 2nd Hand, Afterhours, Journal of Ordinary Thought, MAKE Mag, or the web platforms bookslut or Is Greater Than would not only expand audiences, it would also inspire more cross-disciplinary cooperation. For those interested in following efforts at documenting this kind of work, three online sources Chicagopoetry.com, Literago and Chicago Literary Scene Examiner keep up to date on big events like Nextbook and The Poetry Center as well as small readings like Sunday Salon , Quickies , Bookslut, the Green Lantern Gallery/Bad At Sports collaboration The Parlor , Red Rover, Reading Under the Influence , or the numerous weekly and monthly poetry “slams” that have been made so famous in this city.

Book publishing is a changing industry anywhere you go, and while it is certainly centralized in New York City, we have a handful of local publishers keeping things going including Third World Press (the largest independent African American press), the University of Chicago Press, the feminist Switchback Books, the brilliant pamphlet series Prickly Paradigm Press, Featherproof Books, and soon Stop Smiling Books (an example of a successful local magazine turning into a book imprint). For years the only consistent art book publisher has been the diligent Whitewalls headed by Anthony Elms, and now they are joined by the Half Letter Press – recently initiated by the folks from Temporary Services to publish their own fascinating and obsessive collections, interview projects as well as other people’s like-minded work.

One place where all of this comes together is the annual Printer’s Ball event organized by Poetry magazine. So the story goes, Poetry magazine had a commitment to writing thoughtful rejection letters to poems which were submitted but not accepted for publication. They rejected the writing of Ruth Lilly, who upon her death in 2003 decided to donate a substantial portion of her amassed wealth to the Modern Poetry Association who published Poetry. The organization was then renamed as the Poetry Foundation and is now one of the largest literary organizations in the world. One small use of this significant increase in resources is paying for the Printer’s Ball, a free event every year for the local publishing scene. Other efforts at networking initiatives involved in publishing include the publicly funded, Chicago Publishers Gallery, as well as other archives such as Chicago Underground Library, the eclectic Public Collectors , Lichen Lending Library, DePaul University’s zine collection , and the Alternative Press Centre who specialize in indexing leftist culture and politics periodicals from all over the world.

This overview of the local independent publishing landscape gives a sense of where things are at in this moment. Yet one of the most consistent features of arts-oriented publishing in Chicago has been the inconsistencies of publications and platforms for dissemination. Either they dissolve into thin air, they have inconsistent quality, or they slow down to such an irregular pace that its hard to rely on them. The same is equally true with printing as it is with the web, with online publishing often being less reliable because of over ambition and poor planning born out of the convenience of starting up. What this city, and most places, need are consistent outlets for evaluating culture and creating a sense of place through documentation, historicization and critique. We may need to imagine platforms for collaboration across artistic fields in order to remain resilient and to acknowledge the complexity and overlapping desires of contemporary cultural producers that cannot be satisfied in disciplinary confines. After all, most of these efforts are representing the margins of cultural production, so why not take advantage of being small and marginal and actually experiment a little!

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Bio: Daniel Tucker is an editor of AREA Chicago (areachicago.org). For more information see miscprojects.com

Places to buy local books and magazines: Qumby’s, Prairie Avenue, Heartland Cafe, Backstory Cafe, City Newsstand (Evanston), Museum of Contemporary Art bookstore, Women & Children First, Dusty Groove America, Seminary Co-op Bookstore, Barbara’s Bookstore, Sandmeyers, and Europa.
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