Fertile ground: MdW Fair Hopes to Seed Collectivity and Artist-Led Change

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From MdW Atlas, appendix Roberts; Studio Confluence; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2020

“The Midwest Can Be Alright” – The Gizmos

“I Hate the Midwest” – Dow Jones and the Industrialists*

Even a decade later, Gregory Sholette’s artworld dialectics, “Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Corporate Culture,” resonates with his simple yet escaping conventional wisdom point: the greater art world exists on the back of what it rejects. Dark matter, deliberately opaque, aesthetically chaotic, politically turbulent, and very often by and for the voices of the historically marginalized, is a substitute for what the art world cannot or will not use, and, to its turn, reifies what he wills. In the years since the publication of “Dark Matter”, the art world at large has made haphazard attempts to combat “dark matter”. Sometimes nobly (institutional and academic identity and representation) and sometimes dishonestly (NFT and performance activism), the way the art world is reassessing what has historically been considered “dark matter” or art “alternative” is an ongoing process that speaks volumes about the demands and follies of our contemporary politics.

From MdW Atlas, appendix Roberts; Studio Confluence; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2020

That such institutional initiatives constitute real change, this contingency of “alternative” artists (and planners, activists, designers, educators) continues to search for elements outside the restrictive confines of the world of art. art (and increasingly society). Often with semi-utopian ambitions, this network continues to imagine a new world of their own, aware of their collective powers. To some extent, the elevation of the possibilities of this worldview is behind the return of MdW (pronounced “Midway”), a coalition of midwestern artists originally brought to you by organizers from the Public Media Institute of Chicago over ten years ago.

Photo courtesy of MdW fair organizing partner, Public Space One.

Originally slated for 2020 but postponed, like most things, by the first wave of COVID, MdW has returned with a larger-scale vision that maintains the disjointed spirit of the original. Distorting the standard fair format of convention center art malls again, MdW Fair takes the form of an “assembly” through local events at Mana in Chicago in September, an online atlas of texts and d ephemeral and “drifts” towards regions of the Midwest organized by seven spaces mainly managed by artists in the region: Confluence (Minneapolis), Public Space One (Iowa City), Charlotte Street (Kansas City), Bulk Space (Detroit) , Wormfarm Institute (Reedsburg, Wis.) and Big Car (Indianapolis). “It’s always been a great time to amplify artist-run projects,” says co-organizer Nick Wylie, “but this seems like a particularly good time to help people come together again and meet people who are working on similar projects under similar conditions… It would be cool if MdW can serve a tiny bit of the fertilized soil that helps new initiatives grow.

From MdW Atlas, appendix Roberts; Studio Confluence; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2020

MdW’s assembling of a coalition of alternative Midwestern project spaces for this iteration raises the question of what about the Midwest is particularly ripe for such an endeavor. The Midwest, with its convergence of belts (rust, bible, corn, lead) and its skyline of farmland punctuated at times by midsize towns in various states of abandonment and renewal, has always seemed in crisis of identity. This shifting regionalism is no doubt recognized as a site of fertile possibilities by artists’ projects and cultural producers (and politicians, as the region turns increasingly purple). Yet with possibility comes inevitable frustration, and that’s a central attribute of the Midwest. “The brain drain is real when working on a social sculpture in the larger cornfield,” says MdW co-organizer Brandon Alvendia, and indeed the Midwest is a region that asks you, constantly, to refresh or maintain your ambitions and convictions. , to truly believe in what you’re doing, regardless of the potential dividends. This possibility-impossibility tension is what makes the Midwest unique to its coastal or southern brethren, especially in terms of the art world.

From MdW Atlas, appendix Roberts; Studio Confluence; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2020

Although it is tempting to get bogged down in the provincialism of the MdW project, these larger ideas, around prosperity and survival in changing or difficult conditions, correlate with the contemporary moment and state of the country. As we collectively come to understand how to negotiate a sense of outrage and helplessness in the United States, events and projects such as MdW’s remind us of the loneliness that power brings. MdW’s atlases, assemblies, drifts, fairs and gatherings of many people are united by a belief not only in the power of art to provoke and stimulate, but in its ability to foster connectedness. It may seem fickle policy to simply say that “doing something together, however ambitious” makes sense, but it has long had a quiet power, especially in art history. Friendship is at the center of so many artistic movements, poetic movements, avant-gardes and directions of research. MdW, imperfectly but nevertheless with sincerity, is a small parenthesis of the possibilities of friendship, and therefore, a negation of the too often latent capacity of art to change things.

*Bloomington, Indiana bands from the 1980s. Many thanks to former Midwester Aaron Walker for bringing them to my attention.

MdW Assembly, at Mana Contemporary, 2233 South Throop, in addition to Co-Prosperity and other Chicago venues, September 8-11. More at mdwfair.com

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