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The Street Art Shortage

What are we, Cincinnati? Get out there and clutter up this city!

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If you passed by the corner of Damen and Fulton last Saturday night, a chain-link fence proclaimed your loveliness. Styrofoam cups stuck in the fence spelled out YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL--cheesy as it may have been, it's always nice to be reminded. It was part of an anonymous international project based in Chicago called, natch, You Are Beautiful, that covers ads with posters bearing that slogan, distributes stickers, dresses up dumpy spots in the city with site-specific warm fuzzies, and encourages one and all to spread its Aguileran message around the world.

Saturday night You Are Beautiful displayed some of its work at Open End Gallery as part of "Urban Gardening and Exterior Decorating," which in turn was part of the Version>05 festival, a ten-day summit incorporating art, media, technology, and politics that ends on Sunday, May 1. When I heard "Urban Gardening" I imagined I'd get tips on taking advantage of the green-thumb opportunities that abound in Chicago--clipping tentacles off regenerative plants, such as the ubiquitous philodendron, from city-owned planters and propagating my own, say--but no. The event addressed ways that public art can effect change, or at least interfere with the status quo.

Inside Open End I was greeted by a table bearing gifts: the $5 cover got me a spaghetti dinner; a couple of agitprop posters; a little sack of zines, including an "Urban Gardening Guide" that provides measurements for city fixtures such as signs and lampposts and tips for wheat pasting; and stickers galore, my favorite of which just says OUT OF ORDER, presumably for slapping on gas pumps, vending machines, and parking meters. On one side of the room inhabitants of the art space Diamonds on Archer screen-printed partygoers' clothing with drawings of roses, intestines, rib cages, and diamonds on the spot for free.

Photos and pieces of guerrilla public-art projects were displayed around the gallery. My favorite campaign turned a New York City law against the people who passed it. Large posters repeated part of an antistickering law over and over in an ASCII-style typeface to form portraits of five New York City Council members: "There shall be a rebuttable presumption that the person whose name, telephone number, or other identifying information appears on any sticker or decal affixed, attached or placed in violation of subdivision A of section 10-117 of the administrative code of the city of New York violated this section by . . . affixing, attaching or placing by whatever means such sticker or decal." Underneath the pictures were the council members' telephone numbers.

The last time I went to Open End was last month for "Tragic Beauty," an installation of large-scale found objects turned into sculptures for the show, then dismantled and reappropriated for the street. (See the story by Jeff Huebner in this section for more on that project.) At the gallery the work seemed sterile and forced, but when I saw it outside I loved it.

German street artist Andreas Ullrich, who helps run a three-story live/work space in Munich called Gruppe Ideal, spoke and showed slides at "Urban Garden-ing." "People have an obligation to decorate their surroundings," he said. "If your surroundings don't match your ideals, what you feel inside, you have to change them."

Good designs talk to a situation and demand a response, he told us. He showed a picture of a billboard on which a cartoon man muses, "I can't believe what I bought!" while gazing at an adjacent billboard bearing an ad for a new car.

When Ullrich got to Chicago for the festival, he said, he was expecting "a real lively street art scene." But he quickly discovered the sad truth: "The authority in this city seems very up-to-date." As soon as something goes up, it comes down. "I urge you guys in this town to rethink strategy," he said. "It's too clean, this city."

While walking in the freezing wind and rain to the Damen/North/Milwaukee crotch to catch a cab on Friday night, I spotted a pigtailed brunette in frosty eyeliner wearing a tight T-shirt cropped to expose her midriff, a pair of tiny gym shorts rolled down almost to her pubic bone and hiked up her ass crack, and knee-high tube socks. She sort of reminded me of me.

She and three guys were dressed up for an 80s sport-themed loft party just up the street. After clapping and squealing in delight at their getups at Food Mart, my friends and I were all set to adjust our wintry outfits for the party--till we discovered it was at the Jerkstore, Johnny Love's loft. Being well acquainted with the place, I skipped the party and embarked on a search for novelty.

I didn't find it at Crobar, where Perry Farrell was supposed to be guest DJing late that night after Felix da Housecat's set. I figured I'd grill Farrell a little on his decision to do Lollapalooza at Grant Park this year. But Felix kept sounding an alarm that was like what a Mack truck's horn might sound like if you turned it waaay up. It unnerved me so much that after the second blast I split and headed back to Buddy, where I'd spent the majority of the night for the opening of Version>05.

By the time I got there a dance party had started--one so peppy the floor was bouncing. It wasn't long before I'd shed three layers of outerwear. Then I had to flip my eyelids inside out and squirm like I had no bones to ward off a leering, close-dancing menace. With his curly hair, wily eyes, and a brown scarf wrapped around his head, he looked like a leprechaun disguised as a hippie. Normally I would've said something so rude that he would've gone home and written scathingly about me on his blog, but something stopped me. That's when I figured out why this year's Version festival is called "Invincible Desire."

Version>04, called "Invisible Networks," was a little like school: a nonstop circuit of lectures, workshops, and film screenings. At every turn attendees were learning stuff and being beseeched to "do something" and "make a difference!" By the end of each day we were so antsy that we had to let off steam, and we did, at nightly parties that quickly turned hard and sleazy and debauched. One soiree at the now defunct (and sorely missed) Bruner and Bay space wound up with firecrackers on the dance floor and several people taking off their shirts. I may have been one of them--I don't really remember.

This year's festival has felt looser somehow, partly because the partying is better integrated into the events. Gallery shows include lectures, dinners, live music, and the previously mentioned screen printing, none of it as hard-core or goal oriented as the run-up to the election made everything feel last year. Version>05 has stressed doing small things that look pretty and make people feel good.

Which is why I chose not to crush that guy on the dance floor. It would've been too easy, and besides, I was having too much fun to care.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.

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