posted by Caroline Picard

For those of you who don’t know about what “PHONEBOOK 2008/2009 annual directory of {insert adjective here} art spaces” is about, let me give you a little window. First of all, we’ve added Canada, which means there are about 100 additional spaces. Secondly, whereas last year we collected essays by art-space-directors here in Chicago, this year, we’ve asked for essays from people across the country. We thought it would be a good way to sample different aesthetics and goings-on, straight from the horses mouth, so to speak. At any rate, I posted one of those essays a while back about Portland. I’m about to post an essay about Philadelphia (you see how broad our sights) by Andew Suggs.

Phonebook is set for release in just a few weeks! The release party will be held at ThreeWalls (119 N Peoria St., in Chicago’s West Loop). Check out their website for details, or scroll back on our blog (I posted an announcement about it). If you’re interested in pre-ordering a copy, you can do so. Just email Nick Sarno: The cover price is $15, if you order now we can sell you a copy for $12 (includes shipping & handling).

Here is yet another essay of foreshadowing….

The Alternative, or The Underground

by Andrew Suggs

The founders of “alternative” art spaces may now look to well established models.  The degree of creativity, experimentation, and risk that may have once inhibited would-be startups no longer exists.  Alternative spaces are ubiquitous, especially in major cities, and some have been around for more than twenty-five years.  Traditionally, alternative spaces have served as incubators for artists’ careers; the ideal trajectory has been a move from alternative space to commercial gallery to museum.  In our current moment, though, this scenario has become much less exact, as have the distinctions among the kinds of art spaces that exist.  Think of that behemoth alternative/museum space on Houston in New York that regularly showcases unheard-of twenty-somethings alongside blue-chip artists, within a moneyed and well-connected institutional setting, or of recent Whitney Biennials and their youth-obsessed scouting of cities far and near for obscure “talent.”  Mid-career artists are finding themselves drawn to show in alternative spaces if it suits their practice more than traditional settings.  Artists whose concepts were once more en vogue are now pushed to show in smaller, less-traveled venues, as the speed with which art trends come and go increases.  “Alternative” space and programming is increasingly hard to define.

Especially in Philadelphia, where the commercial sector of the art market is mostly irrelevant and far smaller than the alternative art scene (because of a lack of collectors?), one begins to wonder: to what do alternative spaces stand in juxtaposition?  They are multifarious here and, as elsewhere, upset the categorization alternative space/commercial gallery/museum: Vox Populi, Bobo’s, Space 1026, PIFAS, Print Liberation, Fleisher-Ollman, and Little Berlin represent alternative practices, commercial models, museum-like settings, collaborative efforts, and/or experimentation in varying degrees.

When I moved to Philadelphia two and half years ago, I found myself scoping out a niche within this scene.  Circumstance and internet luck led me to intern at Vox Populi; I then became an artist/member and Exhibitions Coordinator.  Vox, like many alternative spaces, follows a museum model: there is a white cube for display and other signs of aspiring professionalism; members hope for career advancement and recognition/visibility.  There are announcement cards, (low budget) publications, invited accomplished speakers, etc.  This is not to be disparaged, of course.  It is no small achievement for a small artist/member-run organization to function successfully without the financial and organizational resources of institutions with wealthy boards and immense private funding.

I have come to realize, though, that while my involvement with Vox is rewarding (I enjoy the community, the “game” of running a space, the opportunity for frank discussion of my artwork and my peers’), my penchant for the alternative is not being totally satiated.  What I want is an underground.  I want to feel as if my challenge to accepted practices is more subversive, and more tangible.

My longing leads me into basements and warehouse spaces with loud music, sloppy painting, and raunchy, challenging performance art. Here the experience blends with rivers of booze, ending in nights of debauchery and communal cursing of the system.  In such venues I have found the queer artists whom I had initially thought were totally absent from Philadelphia’s landscape; they are my neighbors in South Philadelphia where they party, make artwork, and support themselves with part-time and odd jobs.  Their challenge to authority – to accepted structures – and their ingenuity to create effective and personal work/play/exhibition structures (outside the more mainstream “alternative”) astound me.

Philadelphia’s underbelly exists, if even on a small scale and in cloudy clash with nostalgia-for-bygone-counter-cultural scenes – but it is strangely disconnected from my experience with an established alternative space.  A conundrum, then: reject the more established alternative as staid and unexciting or try to use the resources of a twenty-one-year-old alternative space to suit my desires to bring truly challenging ideas to a public outside my circle of friends.

Spaces like Vox are not rare.  In fact, most alternative spaces, which you probably frequent or to which you are more intimately connected, follow a similar model.  The model is effective in many ways: artists are given a chance to show their work in a respectable situation with a variety of visitors—an opportunity they might not otherwise have. Communities develop around the space (if not enough among spaces), and ingenuity and hard work end in tangible results.  Artists are able to become more visible within the gallery/museum framework, and their ideas reach a greater audience.  If underground culture’s aim, though, is to in some way rupture the fabric of the status quo, and if we (as champions of the “alternative”) espouse these aims, to what ends are our efforts directed?

My concern and my charge is this: in following what we must admit is a now-standard framework for founding and maintaining alternative spaces we must not compromise the timbre of our programming.  An alternative space that supports unchallenging output is not fulfilling its function.  Our output – the work we make and show, the music we promote, the performance for which we provide venue, the discourse created by our events and associations – should remain dangerous, toothy, aesthetically bold and strange.  Our organizational/business model may mimic a museum or gallery (even if our little money comes from different sources), but we must take care that our programming and our relationships do not mimic those systems.  The stable aspects of institutions allow us a framework in which to function.  But our success within this framework can be redefined.  Administrative practices that enable sustainability should allow our output to be more challenging.  We should be as subversive as commercial ventures that infiltrate and appropriate DIY/underground/alternative cultures for their own ends in our infiltration of institutions to exploit our messages.

If our goal is to show work that would otherwise remain unseen, we should pursue this mission with vigor.  The statement itself lends some direction.  Why would work remain unseen?  Part of this answer has to do with means, of course.  Exhibiting work requires some money and space.  However, as is evident in Philadelphia, even living room galleries that require almost no resources for startup can quickly become hotspot destinations.  There is no shortage of alternative space.  Rather, work remains unseen because its concept is difficult, its aesthetic unpopular, its message peripheral.  But the reason we visit alternative spaces, the reason we pour our energy into maintaining them – is to provide a home for this work.  Let’s remember that vague concept, “the underground,” and its aims.  Let’s mine it, foster it, and realize it.

Andrew Suggs is an artist who lives and works in Philadelphia.  He is the Exhibitions Coordinator of Vox Populi and an occasional writer, critic, and curator.

posted by Caroline Picard and written by Nell Taylor.

This article was originally published in the first Phonebook, (2007-2008)

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Collecting ephemera is an act of city beautification. Cities look their best in detail. I could describe Chicago as a large Midwestern area on Lake Michigan populated by sports fans and colorful politicians and composed of a series of communities linked together by common streets and not much else. There are some tall buildings that have become relatively less tall in the last couple of years. You would know this is Chicago.

Creative people seem obsessed with the lack of attention their work receives in this overcrowded stadium-in-a-cornfield; having bought into the myths promulgated by this “big picture” vision of the city, they despair at their own artistic marginalization. They look out over the horizon (–is that Naperville, getting even bigger? And is it coming this way?) for an audience or even just a sounding board, another artist with whom to compare notes and ideas. On the off-chance that they find one another, they immediately set about building a bunker, stocking it full of their pooled resources, and disseminating exhibitions and publications of each other’s work to the outside world. They defend their fort, tooth and nail, from interlopers. They spread out. They divide and conquer. They hide themselves so well in these small spaces that the new arrivals seeking out community can’t see the bunkers for the shiny new residential developments and overstuffed shopping carts rising higher and higher into the air.

The new crop finds the old myths justified and begin the cycle again.

Now say you took the output from all of these art-shelters and lined them up on a shelf; the project documentation, the journals, the handmade books, the zines, catalogs, manifestos, newsletters, magazines, chapbooks, programs. For the sake of argument, include works by those sports fans and news on those colorful politicians, particularly if it was written anonymously in all block-caps and shoved into your hand by a guy with a bullhorn as you walked to work. And force yourself to look at them as if it was your first moment to discover each object; it might not be to your taste, it might seem shoddily assembled; you find it pretentious or simplistic, you don’t agree with the point of view, it’s covered in mold from someone’s basement, the author declares that their dog peed on the very object you hold in your hand (edition 3/50). But there are individuals behind each one and at some point, they have witnessed things you haven’t. And you’ve never lived in their heads (of course not, you’ve been holed up in your bunker). Despite your initial (and often better) judgment, you learn something. And another city starts to emerge.

In the course of running the CUL, I have found myself fascinated by the passions ignited in a ten-year old Museum of Science and Industry controversy; moved by a 16 year old stoner’s alternate party documentation and musings on 9/11; reading an entire zine on home-schooling cover to cover that doubles as a critique of the CPS; lost in a series of 25 year old newspapers that are nothing but gorgeous advertisements; and discovering political actions that literally took place outside my door. These ephemeral objects cause me to reconsider my own ideas of the city’s history as all of these details begin to fill in the rich tapestry subsumed by the “Hog Butcher for the World” view of Chicago.

Beyond that impersonal historicism, though, I appreciate that these works make me question where I was at that particular time. What I was doing and what I was contributing to that tapestry at that moment.

Documenting the creativity of the city is an excellent weapon to use against apathy. To those who complain that the city isn’t what it used to be and that there is nothing to do here anymore, I like the idea of sitting them down in front of a pile of works from our collection and saying: Here are your tools, figure out what you’re going to do about it. It’s not only about documenting the past; it is meant to inspire and to incite people to create new work and to be more active– in the present and for the future.

Ephemera presents a holistic view of Chicago’s creative communities by using tiny little details found in the cracks and crevices of our bunkers to help break them down and encourage the kind of collaboration necessary to, as your local street corner waste basket would say, keep Chicago beautiful.