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Can DIY music and art coexist with corporate money?

Young creative studio VAM wants to fund and promote Chicago’s underground artists—without sacrificing their distinctiveness to the mainstream.

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Singer and rapper Jenae Williams walks through an art installation at VAM’s Fantasty party in March 2016. - KATRINA JAYNE TARZIAN/DO312
  • Katrina Jayne Tarzian/Do312
  • Singer and rapper Jenae Williams walks through an art installation at VAM’s Fantasty party in March 2016.

On a Saturday in mid-March, nearly 800 people packed the cavernous near-west-side studio of painter Wesley Kimler for a party called Fantasty, billed as a celebration of Chicago's DIY art and music scenes—and of the creative studio, VAM, that organized the event.

Fantasty was a one-year anniversary party for VAM. It began as an online magazine and now promotes the underground scene more directly, mostly by shooting artist profiles and other video series and curating video content from local artists—though the studio also helps its partners realize their own work when it can. So far it's gotten by without charging for any of its services.

At Fantasty, partygoers were treated to a borderline overwhelming array of performances. Figures dressed in white and wearing faceted, geometric animal-like masks skulked through the crowd. Colorful birds on perches or in cages preened near an art installation—a sort of waterfall of sparkling strings hanging from the ceiling—that guests could walk through. Video projections and Kimler's huge paintings covered the walls, but the room was so full of people that it was sometimes hard to tell where the art was. Live music ran into the early morning hours, including sets by DJs Taye and Sirr Tmo of footwork-­music collective Teklife, producer Owen Bones, synth-pop group Glass Lux, self-parodic avant-garde rockers the Gnar Wave Rangers, and garage-­pop band Soddy Daisy.

All the music and art (except Kimler's) was by associates of VAM. But Fantasty had clearly gotten an assist from the corporate sector. According to VAM cofounders Vincent Martell and Jordan Phelps, Goose Island brought beer, Do312 provided an RSVP platform and help with signing in guests (the party was free with an RSVP through Do312's site), and Red Bull paid for everything else that the studio couldn't fund itself. The musicians performed in front of a Red Bull logo several feet high.

Glass Lux perform at Fantasty - KATRINA JAYNE TARZIAN/DO312
  • Katrina Jayne Tarzian/Do312
  • Glass Lux perform at Fantasty

This corporate presence might've surprised guests who recognized the names of the local DIY venues prominently featured on the party's flyer: the Dollhouse, Young Camelot, Eco, and the Dojo. (Young Camelot had recently vacated its home, a church in Humboldt Park that's since been demolished.) These collectives not only helped VAM choose the performers at Fantasty but also contributed in other ways: members of Eco stage-managed the party and DJed between the musicians' sets, for instance, and folks from the Dojo handled the video projections.

Martell and Phelps (who collaborated on the sparkling-string installation) explain that they wanted to provide a worry-free night for the DIY operators, all of whom have put up with the precariousness of running unlicensed venues. "Our goal was to bring in all of these amazing spaces we've worked with and magnify them," Martell says.

Nearly all the Red Bull money went to participating artists and musicians, to people who worked the party, and to Kimler (for the use of his studio). Martell says the studio also arranged for private security and got the proper permits from the city for alcohol and catering.

"When people heard of this idea of all these cool DIY spaces and VAM and Red Bull being on the same flyer, it was confusing for some people—and that's totally valid," he admits. "The cool thing about Fantasty is you have all these DIY spaces who wanted to execute an event on a larger scale and not worry about police or the venue being licensed, and we had that. We found a really cool venue. We found funding that would go back in their pockets."

Martell and Phelps, who are both 26, have full-time day jobs. Since launching VAM in February 2015, they've largely funded it themselves—Red Bull has helped with just the one party, and Do312 has pitched in to pay artists at other events. Martell does what he calls "visual work" for a Japanese retailer he'd rather not name due to the amount of energy he devotes to VAM; Phelps is an actor and works in sales for Broadway in Chicago.

VAM founders Jordan Phelps (left) and Vincent Martell outside their Logan Square apartment - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • VAM founders Jordan Phelps (left) and Vincent Martell outside their Logan Square apartment

VAM consistently offers free admission to its parties (it's had four over the past year, of which Fantasty was by far the best ­attended), and it's a point of pride for the studio that it compensates everyone involved. The founders don't pay themselves, though. "If we end up with any additional funds left from sponsored events or drink sales, that all goes directly back into the production team," Phelps says.

Because VAM doesn't sell its services to artists, money is a constant concern. When VAM hosts, say, a musician's video on its online platforms, or even when it helps an artist make a video piece using its personnel and facilities, it doesn't usually ask for payment. "We will not charge for those services unless we're commissioned from production companies, record labels, publications, galleries, et cetera," says Martell. "Basically, those companies with sufficient funds."

Martell wants to open up VAM to private donations so that the studio can do more. Phelps mentions other possible plans: "We're looking to receive more support from local and national grants and potential private investors and advertising sponsorship in order to help us produce the highest-possible-quality work," he says. "I think we're still questioning how do we survive financially while still remaining 'underground.'"

Given that VAM considers underground culture its territory, it's worth determining how its founders define the term. "'Underground' is just another word for 'new and emerging' to me," says Martell. "We look in-depth at their creative work to judge whether or not it's different from commercial artists. We also look at their following and social-media presence. We will never work with artists who have a million followers. We're looking for artists with unique perspectives who may need help boosting their presence in their respective fields and communities. Artists and spaces who are saying bold things in their work and challenging the media."

Phelps adds, "Oftentimes remaining 'underground' can help them thrive. Underground does not always mean 'new' or 'young.' It means grounded and raw and honest."

VAM didn't seek out Red Bull, which may be why Martell and Phelps don't consider it a compromise of their principles to accept the company's help. "Red Bull approached us," Phelps says. "We were so dedicated to making sure the funds came from us. Over the past year, we've learned to get over the pride and be willing to accept help from others. We can pay that forward to DIY collectives and the people that work on these events."

Red Bull recently flew Martell and Phelps to a farm in Marfa, Texas, for a few days of brainstorming and networking with fellow entrepreneurs. VAM was the youngest group there and the only one devoted entirely to the arts.

"It was a very interesting process. We received mysterious packages in the mail," Phelps says. "[Red Bull] does stuff like this—fly people out to the desert."

VAM's contact at the company, John Kosmopoulos, is on-premise marketing manager for Red Bull North America. He declined to speak to the Reader. "Unfortunately Red Bull employees are not able to be quoted by media," he wrote in an e-mail. A request for comment submitted to Red Bull's press office was never returned.

Partygoers at Fantasty in March 2016 - KATRINA JAYNE TARZIAN/DO312
  • Katrina Jayne Tarzian/Do312
  • Partygoers at Fantasty in March 2016

Scott Cramer, general manager of Do312 and owner of Cramer PR & Events, noticed VAM after its launch party, when it began profiling some of his contacts and clients in the music industry.

"I reached out to Vincent and Jordan, and we realized we had a lot of the same interests. I wanted to support what they were doing and work with them," Cramer says. Last July Do312 and VAM took over Wicker Park space Canvas for an event called My Party, featuring Owen Bones, Teen Witch Fan Club, and other artists. "That's when I put them on Red Bull's radar," Cramer says. VAM and Do312 have since collaborated on a Pride event as well as on Fantasty.

Martell and Phelps use about 20 contributors, though not all work for VAM at the same time; they're employed as contract laborers. The cofounders would ultimately prefer to turn VAM into a full-time job for themselves and their team.

VAM aims to be an advocate and an aid for Chicago's underground arts community, but Phelps emphasizes that the studio doesn't consider itself a DIY collective—its mission is to help keep DIY collectives alive. VAM wants to spur collaboration between artists and arts scenes, as well as spotlight work by artists and musicians who might never get exhibits in prestigious galleries or shows in big venues. Martell and Phelps like the idea of building a hub for all kinds of Chicago-centric art—they might bring together club kids, a rock band, footwork producers, a textile artist, drag queens, and an artist who fakes Salvador Dali prints.

Martell and Phelps briefly attended the same college in 2008, but Phelps dropped out and Martell transferred to the University of Barcelona. The seeds of VAM were planted in 2010, when they began talking about their shared frustration that the people they felt deserved recognition in Chicago's underground art and music scenes weren't getting it.

Martell, who moved to Chicago at 12 and spent his adolescence in Downers Grove, was inspired by the arts scene in Barcelona and wanted to carry that energy to Chicago. Phelps, a 2016 Jeff Award nominee for a supporting role in Theo Ubique's Blood Brothers, was motivated to establish VAM by the potential he sees in the city's artists.

It took about a year for the two of them to build a network of artists they wanted to work with—they didn't want to launch a website with nothing on it. "There were some artists we researched who were disguised as interesting," Phelps says, "but when we dug a little deeper, we discovered they were trust-fund kids."

"Our main goal is to be a hub," says Martell. "If you're an artist doing cool shit and you need to promote a comic book, we're here."

"If you're a jewelry designer and want a fashion editorial for it, let us know," Phelps adds.

VAM has moved since its launch toward a stronger emphasis on video production, due largely to a partnership with local filmmakers and SAIC graduates Greg Stephen Reigh and Jeremy Freedberg.

Reigh and Freedberg, now VAM's directors of video production, have been involved with the studio for about a year and a half. VAM asked Reigh at the last minute to help Freedberg on a shoot for its Unfiltered series—video profiles of artists working in a variety of mediums, including Bones's music production and the art forgeries of Michael Thompson.

Reigh works regularly with Young Camelot knight and local filmmaker Emily Esperanza, founder of the Wretched Nobles of the Exiled Dynasty film series, and he's long wanted to document the city's DIY venues and collectives. He pitched a video series to VAM, he says, with the goal of showing people outside the community that the scene goes "beyond punk shows in some dirty hipster's house." He's so far produced five short documentaries about the Dollhouse, Eco, Young Camelot, the Dojo, and the Observatory.

He credits VAM with giving him the push he needed. "I told them what I've been wanting to do for awhile, which is the DIY series, and that I haven't been able to for money and time reasons," he says. "They gave me the funding and the deadlines. It was a way of getting me off my ass and actually making it."

Freedberg says he appreciates the "unlimited creative freedom" Martell and Phelps have given him. "I remember a very early conversation I had with [Martell], and he said, 'Dude, you're director of video production—you don't need my permission to shoot something,'" he recalls. "It's a powerful thing to be trusted like that."

While Reigh covers underground venues, Freedberg focuses on the Unfiltered series, which profiles underground artists. "Or they have roots in the underground, or a rebellious mentality," he says. Unfortunately, it can put underground artists at risk to give them the wrong kind of publicity—DIY venues and the artists who rely on them are especially vulnerable, because their lack of proper licenses can get them fined or evicted if they don't keep a low profile or luck into a sympathetic landlord.

"Generally speaking, in order to get around that, I walk on eggshells," Reigh says. "I tell the people in these spaces, 'If there is anything you don't want me to film, let me know.'" Martell notes that VAM has refrained from revealing the addresses or even the neighborhoods of most of the DIY spaces it's profiled.

"We're less focused on the politics of the space and more on the art that's being presented," Phelps says. "We're not trying to piss anyone off so they chase them down and try to shut down these houses."

Reigh says that ever since Young Camelot, which he profiled for VAM last year, was forced to vacate its home—it's been knocked down to make way for a six-unit condo building—he's especially conscious of the downside of documentation.

"There is that lingering feeling that I might cause the downfall of a house, which is really stressful," he says.

Phelps thinks the importance of documenting the work produced by underground venues and artists justifies the risks. He and Martell are frustrated with the city government's lack of support for artists who fall outside the mainstream or don't already have the backing of a corporate entity.

"Those collectives are doing really beautiful work. They're not throwing ragers. They're putting on art shows, hosting poetry readings, hosting podcasts—they're educating the community at these events," Martell says. "I feel like the city will gladly give a corporate venue money to throw a rager, versus the Dojo to host a poetry reading—which is fucking nuts. Something is backwards."

Erin Delaney, who sings in the band Daymaker and lives at Eco, says her Pilsen DIY collective enjoys an unusual luxury—a landlord who's "extremely comfortable with what we're doing." Eco was founded in 2005, and Daymaker guitarist Michael Egon Schiele, who also lives there, says "the owners originally operated it as an artist collective." For the past couple years, the space has played host to live music.

"I think what VAM is doing is preserving cultural events in Chicago that otherwise get zero attention," says Delaney.

Delaney says she was impressed by Reigh's enthusiasm when he showed up at Eco last year to profile the venue. "The ethos of VAM came through Greg," she says. She and Schiele's relationships with the studio have blossomed in the months since. Schiele writes for VAM's website, and he and Delaney worked as stage managers at Fantasty.

"To be honest, I would love to be taken seriously and respected for the work we do with Eco shows," Delaney says. "When VAM reached out and asked us to stage-manage their event, I felt so validated."

Bones, who's performed at all of VAM's events, says he didn't know what to expect at Fantasty, but was pleasantly surprised by its level of organization and efficiency. He remembers someone working for VAM approaching him before his set and asking if he had everything he needed.

"I don't get that sort of treatment at venues, and this was a group of people who showed up for the good of the event," he says. "To me, it seems like [VAM] brings together groups of people to do interesting things. They have some internal agenda I'm not fully aware of, but I'm rolling with it. I haven't encountered someone who hasn't enjoyed their events."

Katie Waddell, founder of peripatetic two-day annual arts festival 2nd Floor Rear, says her mission is similar to VAM's. She employs Reigh as a videographer (she's a fellow SAIC graduate), and he connected her with the studio. Reigh, under the VAM banner, produced a short documentary on Waddell and 2nd Floor Rear in 2012.

Waddell's festival takes place in alternative art spaces—only commercial galleries are excluded—and brings together artists who may not have access to major galleries or museums. The most recent event, February's 2nd Floor Rear 2016, revolved around the social and cultural politics of being in a specific place, and it included VAM's DIY series. VAM "supports the exact same scene and body of work I support," says Waddell. She'd also like to transform her personal project into a year-round, full-time gig, and she's likewise struggling with how to fund it. She says a lack of support from Chicago and Illinois government institutions means she'll likely need donors with deep pockets.

"There's really not a way to engage in this economy without working with corporations," she says. "If VAM is getting flak for being a sellout, they're definitely not. They're doing the important thing, which is focusing on the artists they want to focus on and actually paying their staff to make these films. I don't know how people expect them to do all this without partnering with a more substantial organization or for-profit organizations."

Bones points out that while other collectives in the city work hard to showcase lesser-­known artists, VAM has a special ability to leverage corporate relationships to create a bigger platform and generate more funding.

"Let's just face it—money sucks," Reigh says. "But if we can put that shitty thing they call money into something that builds culture or anything worthwhile—anyone who calls me a sellout, fuck them. I don't have reservations about taking money from Red Bull if they tell me I can do what I want."

Chicago artists unfortunately often pack up their belongings and move to New York or Los Angeles, and Martell says part of the reason is a lack of validation, support, and funding here.

Those who do stay, Delaney says, "toil away in obscurity on a lot of counts—it's outrageous how much incredible talent and creativity is in this city and that doesn't get shared outside of its borders."

Delaney, Schiele, and the VAM team hope that the studio's platform will encourage artists to remain in town and convince the rest of the country (and the world) that Chicago has arts and music scenes worth exploring and funding.

"We're telling [Chicago] artists that you do have the power," Martell says. "You are talented. You deserve to be compensated. I think the more resources we have in the city, or just someone rooting for you in the background, the more influence it is for artists to stay."

Martell and Phelps say they eventually want to replicate what they've done in Chicago in smaller cities in the U.S. with similarly vibrant but underrecognized underground scenes. In the short term, however, Chicago will be their sole focus.

"VAM entered our spaces, our homes, and became part of our lives, and suddenly the horizon got wider," Delaney says. "Suddenly there was more space to move around. I had not felt hopefulness toward the future. VAM made everything a little wider, and longevity seems like an option. It's fun to dream about. We love what we do, and I think a lot of people have more confidence in what they do because of this organization."  v

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