Take me away to a land of "Make Believe"


The automated heads on this table twirl and node in the Chicago Robotic Theatre entry

In Wicker Park we have a Milwaukee Mile of Art Installations filling empty shop fronts.  Entitled "Make Believe," one would hope we were being transported to Alice in Wonderland. Some of the artists manage to achieve this, for example Chicago Robotic Theatre.

In discussion with a member of the jury, I learned that they were given the concept "Imagine the future of commerce" by  the sponsoring WPB (SSA #33). What a limitation. Only one person out of the three chosen to jury the proposals was an art specialist.

Indeed as one walks down Milwaukee Avenue the converted shop fronts that are supposedly housing art projects fade into commercial oblivion. At least two of the artists used mannequins and in one window there is nothing. Was this meant to be a comment on the future of commerce? One wonders why the organizers came up with such a literal concept for artists to make proposals on. How narrow and unimaginative. If the organizers had run with the open-ended concept like "Make Believe", I'm sure the work would have been more exciting and original.


Robotic pieces on an old school desk chair periodically perform in "More Than Clouds in the Sky"

Wicker Park has the potential to be a buzzing art district just like Soho is to Chelsea in New York and Old Street is to Soho in London. If the concept had been more open ended, it could have put Wicker Park on the art map internationally.

In curatorial terms, there are those who think they are the artists, creating the concept for artist to follow and there are those who facilitate exhibitions letting artists be the artists. The later approach always tends to be the strongest and is ultimately the approach of Contemporary Art Museums around the world. We have so many amazing artists living in Wicker Park this could have been a real opportunity to show the diversity and brilliance living and working in our neighbourhood.

Having said this, there are some pieces that stand out like Chicago Robotic Theatre. When you place your hand on the window it comes alive with song and automata. It takes you to a place where one questions one's role in the world and one's responsibility to the planet. The title of the piece "More Than Clouds in the Sky" works on different levels but could be more dramatic visually. However, it remains a work of art that takes time and contradicts the notion of "shop till you drop," as the best art often does.

The piece that is the most visually striking is the ARTichoke project by Christophe Gauspohl. A wooden structure exits the building by the front door. Acrobatic mannequins leap through the space, heads collide in flight. Yet mannequins are a popular sign and signifier of the fashion industry and commerce down Milwaukee. The artist states that he is creating a dialogue between abandoned space, architectural gesture and human form. It's all literal and lacks visual poetry. But maybe it's a statement of consumers banging their heads with commerce.


"ARTichoke" as seen lit from the street

Across the street are the portraits of entrepreneurs in the neighbourhood. The portraits are constructed out of hand-shakes which is a nice idea but they have chosen to only represent men in the neighbourhood. Aren't there any women entrepreneurs in Wicker Park? It almost looks like a shop front for a political party. Next door is the Zoetrope machine which is easy to miss. I presume it is meant to move yet one is faced with a monumental black hexagonal form standing frozen in time, sprinkled with cardboard boxes on the floor.

Another installation is an interactive camera project entitled "takemewithyou." They have placed 100 disposable cameras and hidden them in Wicker Park. The artists live in hope that the cameras are found and that you email them the photos. Interesting idea to create different visions of the neighbourhood, but this project is lacking in execution. An abandoned space remains.

I cannot bare to talk about "Wing It," it is as bad as it sounds. Transporting you to another commercial district is the work of Matt Siber. This piece requires night time viewing and is a one minute video on a loop of the commercial district in Beijing, China. Does this transport us to another world? Yes, but only in the hours of darkness.

In "Slow" a series of cloud like forms are suspended in the window made out of styrofoam cups. "Slow" is created by two people who have a company designing shop fronts. When asked if the cups were recycled they said "Yes" when I asked what kind of cleaning fluid they used, one of the artists was none the wiser, while the other chirped in with a popular brand name. Those cups are so sparkling new there is no way they are recycled. Plus, the shop front designers have not utilized the material and really transformed it into something else other than styrofoam cups in circular formations.

Each artist or creative organization received $1,000 and it is great that artists are directly receiving financial reward for installing work in an exhibition space. I question why the organizers didn't come up with a more creative initiative to promote Wicker Park? Secondly, why did they need to hire two consulting firms to do the project? I'm sure one would have been enough. Thirdly, we may get a better selection if the jury is composed of art specialists. Plus the money saved on the expense of the second consulting firm could create a bigger chunk of money to be distributed to the artists. It costs each artist a minimum of $2,000 to put a show together. We need to be creating a system were we are able to provide the costs of installing a show and providing artists with a living wage.

I urge you to vote for your favourite window display by October 29th and one of the artists will win $5,500. "Make Believe" could have been a great opportunity to celebrate the talent living and working in Wicker Park. But I'm left to conclude in the spirit of commerce, may the best one win!



Official Response from the Sponsors of Make Believe

On behalf of the Commission of the Wicker Park Bucktown SSA (WPB), we would like to thank Our Urban Times (OUT) for a very thorough review of the Make Believe project. It is important that local media sources continue to exist and to cover local stories, and we applaud OUT for so doing. In the interest of full disclosure, WPB is a sponsor of OUT. We are glad to see that the journalistic integrity of OUT remains intact, and that the author of this article was not discouraged from writing or posting this article. There are a few misleading statements in this article that we would like to address. While we’re not sure what exactly is meant by the term “art specialist”, we are sure that all three jury members that volunteered their time and talents to assist in selecting the winning installations were more than qualified to do so. Even a brief listing of the jurists combined accomplishments includes gallery owner, art magazine editor, gallery director, art show producer and visual manager. We thought it was extremely important to assemble a jury of professionals that were qualified to review the submissions, but that also did not have any inherent conflicts of interest in doing so. We are proud of our jury, and wish to thank them for volunteering their skill in evaluating and choosing works that are engaging and diverse. The theme of the project, to envision commerce in the future, was determined by the committee that was leading the project early on. Members of the committee included Executive Directors of local arts organizations, a local architect, and an art insurance broker, among others. A central theme was developed so that the artists would have some parameters for their submittals, and so the jury could pick finalists that best exemplified those parameters. It is certainly part of the dynamic nature of the project that viewers form their own opinion of the theme, the artists’ interpretation and execution of the theme, as well as the quality of each installation and the project as a whole. To our knowledge, none of the selected artists nor the others that submitted proposals felt restricted by the theme, nor did they claim it was “narrow and unimaginative”, as OUT describes. In fact, we think the winning submissions are exciting and original, which is why the project has received such positive reaction from other media sources and passersby alike. We don’t think it gets much more original than interactive storefront theatre, or illuminating everyday objects, or using discarded, disposable objects to create sculpture. We are flattered that OUT thinks that a project like Make Believe could put Wicker Park on “the art map internationally”. We would love nothing more than to see coverage of the project in the New York Times, The Guardian or Le Monde. Perhaps that’s something we can come to expect in subsequent years of the program, but certainly not a realistic goal for the inaugural year. Our goal for year one was to have a successful program with local coverage, and to establish that an art-in-vacant-storefronts project like Make Believe is viable in Wicker Park, worth the time and effort that was put in by staff, vendors and artists. We believe the program is worth it, and we hope to have a sequel to Make Believe in 2011. We do take exception to the question posed by the article’s author: “I question why the organizers didn't come up with a more creative initiative to promote Wicker Park?” We think this project is indeed a creative initiative, promoting not only Wicker Park as an interesting neighborhood, but also as a way for each of the 10 finalists to promote themselves and their work, and as a way to highlight some of the vacant spaces along Milwaukee Avenue that could be rented by a local business looking to expand or a new business scoping out availability. We are further supported in our opinion that this project is creative when we look around at other neighborhoods, and see that only one or two others are doing the same thing. This is a unique project with multiple audiences and goals, which we think fits the definition of creative beautifully. As most non-profits and even for-profit corporations do, we often find ourselves in a position of having to choose between managing projects in-house or hiring out projects to vendors. In some instances, it comes down to time management: can our small but mighty staff take on a project and give it the attention it needs and deserves, given all of the other responsibilities they are required to fulfill? We are incredibly proud of our accomplishments as an organization, and we are very sensitive about stretching ourselves too thin, especially if it means our projects suffer in quality. Sometimes the decision is made based on whether we have the expertise in-house. For example, we do not have any engineers on staff, and therefore when we have specific questions about traffic flow at a certain intersection, we hire someone else to find the answer. It would be irresponsible for us to do otherwise. When we distributed the RFQ to hire the team to manage Make Believe (which was, of course, unnamed at the time) we knew we neither had the time nor the expertise in-house to complete the project in an efficient, professional and responsible way. This project deserved lots of special attention in order for it to be executed at the high standards we hold ourselves to, and we would not have been able to do so without the help of outsiders. We think the team we hired is dynamite, and we have thoroughly enjoyed working with them. As a point of clarification, we have only one contract with the lead consultant. It is true that another firm is working under that contract, but they were a part of the consultant team from the very beginning, and were not hired as a duplication of efforts. As for the remainder of the article, we won’t comment on OUT’s opinion of the individual installations, except to say that we are extremely proud of each and every one of them. We are honored to display such talented artists and artist teams in our neighborhood, and we hope that their exhibition in such a visible area brings them a new audience and more opportunity. One final note: We regret that the zoetrope was never fully executed. The artist who designed and built the zoetrope faced complication after complication with the motor to spin the zoetrope, and after much frustration and cost, he decided to pull the project. We hope OUT will take the time to revisit “Take Me With You”, which is now populated by many photographs that were submitted by people who located the hidden disposable cameras.

So sad.

As a resident, it saddens me that such a positive project would be ripped to shreds so malevolently. What a waste to spend your time judging and complaining about the actions of people + artists who are actually trying to contribute to improving our city.

More on Make Believe

According to the SSA #33 April 13 Meeting Minutes, $25,000 was used for the "first portion of Phase II of the WPB Art in Vacant Storefronts project." If this is Phase II, my question is, 1) How much of taxpayer dollars will be allocated to future phases? 2) Is there any measurable return anticipated on this investment? 3) Does the SSA#33 plan to repeat this project again, and if so, will they involve established arts groups like the CAC, Flat Iron, NNWAC, and many others? 4) The choice of the two outside consultants was interesting, given that one of the consultants was also the consultant chosen for the large scale 'promote WPB' campaign' which cost upwards of 60K and primarily involved ad placements in Time Out Chicago 5) Could the curating, and selection of spaces, and RFP process been developed by a full-time SSA #33 staffer, to keep costs at bay, and perhaps allocate more money to the participating artists rather than to consultant fees? See WPB April 13 Minutes at: http://tinyurl.com/2bus78w

Make Believe it's Art

Great article about the storefront installations on Milwaukee Ave. Thanks, Carron. As long as the process, the purse strings, and the focus are left in the hands of the SSA, I'm afraid that all the taxpayers are going to get is more Velveeta McArt. A "keep it about commerce kids and if you're lucky, we'll pick up the next few months rent" approach. It's time for the SSA to step up and support some large scale, VARA protected, public art projects that are vetted by the taxpaying residents of SSA 33 and not by the remnant vestiges of developers and their national brand boutique bohemian retailer pals. They can start with those Matlak era piles of cinder-block. The ones built by the bankrupt art annihilating developer that the SSA 33's alter ego, "The Chamber," so vigorously championed. (Look west on North Ave. from just east of Wood and you'll see what I mean.) Paint and cheese sandwiches, anyone?

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