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The occasion of an art fair is, of course, a nakedly commercial one, an opportunity for galleries to congregate, make sales, build relationships with collectors, and garner awareness for their artists. But while their function seems clear, art fairs have also, both intentionally and unintentionally, produced a lively context for other events. Ancillary programming, when done thoughtfully and in moderation, can effectively support and strengthen core events, with the beneficial side effect of making them less alienating to local residents.
This strategy proved essential to the success of this year's EXPO CHICAGO, now in its sixth year. In showcasing art that was typically not for sale, the fair achieved an unusual depth and relevance. Here was an art fair like many others, but which had also extended outward from its primary venue to take in digital billboards around Chicago (OVERRIDE: A Billboard Project) and the DuSable Museum (Singing Stones by the Palais de Tokyo), as well as a room upstairs from the fair's main floor (VIP: Very Important Platforms), and an adjacent ballroom (Here Hear Chicago by Nick Cave and Jeanne Gang). And as did a series of booths on the floor's perimeters occupied by nonprofits such as Human Rights Watch and NRDC, these exhibitions and events articulated a range of environmental and sociopolitical concerns.
Taking place for a second year, OVERRIDE: A Billboard Project culled submissions for large-scale digital billboards from galleries participating in the fair. Out of hundreds of applications, EXPO directors curated a group of 12 international artists that included Barbara Bloom, Matthew Brandt, Paola Pivi, and David Shrigley. Displayed on 28 billboards throughout Chicago, OVERRIDE questions this widely-seen form of commercial real estate, and proposes how they might be occupied in other, perhaps more meaningful and potentially permanent ways. Though the artists who applied for the project were unable to achieve precise site-specificity, the extant works they selected all probe the billboard's incompletely fulfilled potential.
LA-based Genevieve Gaignard, for example, presented a nocturnal beach scene in the Windy City's always-bright concrete jungle. Selfie (2016) is a photograph of herself taking a selfie. " Selfie centers on being the opposite of an 'ideal beauty'," says Gaignard. "Here was this crazy opportunity to have it be seen on a grand scale, like an advertisement for a swimsuit company. It collapses this form of self-advertisement, the selfie, while also embracing and promoting a certain type of confidence. The billboard is a cool take on inclusive art making and public art practice. Bringing art into the street is a way to democratize this intimidating, often exclusive art fair format."
Gaignard's belief is OVERRIDE as a more inclusive counterpart to the main fair is shared by artist Mungo Thomson: "I think it's important to imagine audiences outside the fair," he says. Thomson chose to share a new photograph from his Negative Space series, which depicts inverted astronomical imagery sourced from the Hubble Space Telescope photo archive. " Negative Space includes a book and series of murals, but also public works, editions, a font, and a screensaver," says the artist. "The project is continually unfolding, since the Hubble is always shooting and releasing more images. When I was asked to think about a digital billboard for Chicago, it was an opportunity to deploy a new image." Negative Space has been displayed in public spaces before. "Whenever I do Negative Space as public billboards, I think of them as temporarily negating or erasing an advertisement that would otherwise be there," Thomson remarks, suggesting an erasure of the billboard itself. "The art puts a void or a hole in that landscape."
Taking this anti-commercial sentiment further, David Shrigley was asked to create a site-specific series for a billboard located at 515 West Congress Parkway. Inspired by newsstand sandwich boards in the UK, Shrigley's NEWS series features humorous headlines announcing absurd, false, or mundane occurrences. "The OVERRIDE program provides a unique opportunity for these artists' works to intercept our everyday landscape, at various intersections between time and place," says Stephanie Cristello, EXPO CHICAGO's Director of Programming. "We were also eager to use the format of the billboard itself as a conceptual 'site,' which is illustrated perfectly in David Shrigley's new commission."
Cristello understands the power of context, and lack thereof, within the OVERRIDE project. This includes not only a billboard's location, or whether the screen is even displaying "art," but also which ads show up before and after. "The potential of the program is that each of the works on view shift and change through what is, in many ways, an unpredictable circumstance," says Cristello. "For example, over the course of the last week, many of the artworks were viewed either just before or after a PSA for disaster relief from Hurricane Harvey. This was not initially intended as part of the context. In this way, the program is not only sensitive to subjectivity, but also current events."
In 2015, Itamar Gilboa's The Food Chain Project went viral. The Israeli-Dutch artist presented 8,000 white plaster sculptures of all of the food and drink he had consumed over the past year. Presented as a "pop-up supermarket," in which these sculptural groceries were (and still are) for sale, Food Chain Project donated a percentage of profits to NGOs fighting global hunger, creating a literal "food chain." "What I ate turned into art, which, when sold, can again become food," says Gilboa. Similar to OVERRIDE, The Food Chain Project offers a critique of passive consumption. Gilboa removed the items' oroginal branding to make his sculptures all-white; he also chose to present them here along with gold objects based on the original installation that are site-specific to the state of Illinois, birthplace of McDonald's.
Gilboa based Food Chain Project on Joseph Beuys's concept of social sculpture, a term Beuys coined in the '60s out of a belief in art's power to incite revolutionary change. "Almost 800 million people in the world do not have enough to eat," says Gilboa. "At the same time, more than 600 million people across the globe are obese. Food Chain Project is an artwork that attempts to explore issues of consumption and waste, and the imbalance of food distribution, and also aim to do something about it." Proceeds from Food Chain Project sales will be donated to Food Tank, a non-profit organization that supports environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty.
In a room above the fair's main hall, local arts organizations 3Arts and 6018|North presented VIP: Very Important Platforms, a multipart installation behind a door scattered with golden confetti. Described as a "democratic lounge" and "a communal art-making space in which to come together, speak up, and resist," it echoed the critiques of hypercapitalism in OVERRIDE and Food Chain Project. The entrance of the installation's first space was decked out in confrontational fabric banners by Aram Han Sifuentes, Ishita Dharap, Tabitha Anne Kunkes, and Veronica Casado Hernandez. It also allowed viewers to contribute to the making of two further such works. A second room, featured an performance-installation, described as an invitation to "co-create tools to create a more equitable world," in which dancers constructed a sprung wooden dancefloor.
In their booth, Human Rights Watch presented The Tea Project, 780 cast porcelain Styrofoam cups, one for each of the 780 Muslim men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, nearly all without charge, over the past 15 years. It was an overtly political work positioned steps away from the high finance of the art fair. Artists Aaron Hughes and Amber Ginsburg were inspired by the Styrofoam cups used at Guantanamo. Hughes and Ginsburg's cups, which each bear the name of one of a prisoner and his country of citizenship, were available for "tea ceremonies" throughout the fair, through which visitors could drink tea and learn more about Guantanamo Bay, the project, and international human rights.
"One thing I miss is the cups," said former Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp Guard, Chris Arendt, in a 2008 Esquire article. "They would cover the things with flowers. Then we would have to take them. It was a ridiculous process. We would take the cups—as if they were writing some kind of secret message that they were somehow going to throw into the ocean, that would get back to somebody—and send them to our military intelligence. They would just look at these things and then throw them away. I used to love those little cups."
Cedar Pasori is a US-based writer and editor.
EXPO CHICAGO 2017 took place in in Navy Pier's Festival Hall from September 13 to 17. EXPOS CHICAGO 2018 will take place at the same location from September 27 to 30, 2018.