FLAT’s EC Brown on Chicago’s Domestic/Apartment Gallery Spaces

December 8, 2009 · Print This Article

Editors’ Note: This week we’ll be running some of the essays written for Floor Length and Tux’s “Untitled Circus” event this past weekend. A number of essays on Chicago’s thriving domestic/apartment gallery art space scene were solicited from local writers/artists/curators involved in the running of such spaces, and we’re posting some of them here on Bad at Sports as a way to extend the discussion. Please feel free to email us with your comments at mail@badatsports.com, or if you’d like to contact the folks at FLAT directly, you can email Erik at erik@floorlengthandtux.com.

Guest Post by EC Brown

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As pleased as punch as I am with the latest uptick in domestic artspaces – especially in contrast to my experiences in Chicago through the 90′s and early 2000′s – I prefer to perceive these activities as formative stages, collectively inching toward something that hasn’t already waxed and waned in the past. What has been unique about these events is not so much a change in the way that artists operate, but in the comfort level of the guests. Folks seem willing to allow homegrown spaces to fulfill their needs for viewing (or confronting) art, rather than only appreciating these events in deference to commercial and institutional spaces. Nevertheless, the author vs. spectator dynamic remains intact, and the imprint of the commercial gallery template has proved sometimes indelible, sometimes  unproductively.

Potentially, artists and aficionados alike could cultivate a crowded and long-lasting game that wrangles space, atmosphere, scheduling, social relations, archives and marketing schemes as a holistic medium. I do prefer the word game over discourse. Not to suggest zero sum games under strict protocols, but rather the heated intensity of competitive engagement –  a fervent clash between dissonant  operational models, temperaments and philosophies. At present, there are too few players on the field for a city this size, and the general social atmosphere is congenial and a bit measured – not quite a passionate crucible to compensate for the absent pressures of a lively commercial system.

The current domestic artspace phenomenon is not a solution to a problem, but rather a roughhewn design problem in itself. Anyone with a stake in how art is practiced in Chicago – as an intelligent maker or and intelligent beholder – owns this problem. There are many more untried models for intersecting people, aesthetics and strategy, and it’s important to get more heads and hands together to accelerate this air of experimentation. Why the urgency? So that a local style of practice can have truly resound through the entire Midwest. Mind you, I’m really not interested in a provincial aesthetic, nor the ascendancy of a “Chicago art community” (clusters of inharmonious art scenes are fine by me), but in the external outcomes  of the  reverberations. Chicago can argue itself to be the very best blend of cosmopolitan access and provincial tactics, and if surrounding cities like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis and Kansas City keep getting the word that our low-overhead operations are bearing sweeter fruit (justified or otherwise) – via the same means and opportunities available on their own turf –  then this could be the thrown gauntlet. Artists at several hours driving-distance in all directions may tear open their shirts and beat us spectacularly at own game. Ultimately, there could exist a rich, competitive tension between Midwestern cities in which all camps are equally on alert.

A model I’ve been thinking about is the football hooligan (in the cinematic sense), and I’ll take a moment to compare Green Street (Lexi Alexander, 2005) to the far more nuanced The Firm (Alan Clarke, 1988). Green Street, starring Eljah Wood, is a standard dramatic arc where a young man discovers his inner beast, strays from the life expected of him, and eventually finds a redemptive repose. The Firm, starring Gary Oldman, skips the initiation sequences as the protagonist pushes for rival clubs to band together and recalibrate for bigger matches beyond their familiar scope. This is realized when Oldman’s character become the martyred rallying point for these alliances, and the film ends. It reminds me a bit of the original Wicker Man where the fiery finale, a “tragic” end in the conventional sense, is likewise celebratory pagan vengeance.

Granted, I’m blatantly skirting both directors’ critique of public violence (as well as the fascist and masculinist tendencies that these clubs are known for), but my point is this: one officially-structured form of battle, thriving on aggressive spectatorship, is threatened by a parallel and irregular form which demands aggressive participation (or keeping a safe distance). This threat only flows in one direction: hooligan firms certainly draw inspiration from what happens in the arena, but the sports industry does not supplant the drive for streetfighting, and the firms can thrive even as arenas are on the defensive and keeping themselves in check. As a character in The Firm put it, “If they stop us at football, we’ll just go to boxing or snooker.”

In short, I believe what I am endorsing is a mass game of chicken.

EC Brown, From the Pet Fixation series, 2009 Ink, acrylic and latex on wood

EC Brown, From the Pet Fixation series, 2009 Ink, acrylic and latex on wood

EC Brown is the co-director of Floor Length and Tux. Visit his website for more information on FLAT, his artwork, and his curatorial projects.


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