“Midwest might be OK” – Gizmos
“I Hate the Midwest” – Dow Jones and the Industrialists*
Even a decade later, Gregory Sholette’s dialectic about the art world, “Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Entrepreneurial Culture,” resonates with its simple yet conventional point that escapes wisdom: the world most great art exists on the back of what it rejects. Dark matter, deliberately dark, aesthetically shambolic, politically tumultuous, and very often by and for the voices of the historically marginalized, is a stand for what the art world cannot or will not use, and, in turn, proves what you want. In the years since Dark Matter was published, the larger art world has haphazardly tried to grapple with dark matter. Sometimes noble (institutional and academic identity and representation), and other times disingenuous (NFTs and performance activism), the way the art world is reevaluating what has historically been considered “dark matter” or art “alternative” is an ongoing process that speaks volumes for the demands and follies of our contemporary politics.
If such institutional initiatives are to lead to real change, this contingent of “alternative” artists (and planners, activists, designers, educators) continue to search for elements outside the restrictive boundaries of the art world (and increasingly, society). . Often with semi-utopian ambitions, this network continues to imagine a new world of their own making, aware of their collective powers. To some extent, raising the possibility of this worldview lies behind the return of MdW (pronounced “Midway”), a coalition of Central-Midwest artists first presented by organizers at the Chicago Public Media Institute over a decade ago.
Originally planned for 2020, but pushed back, like most things, by the first wave of COVID, MdW has returned with a scaled-down vision that retains the original’s rambunctious spirit. Again twisting the standard convention center art fair format, the MdW Fair takes shape as an “Assembly” through local events at Chicago’s Mana in September, an online atlas of texts and ephemera, and “slides” into areas in across the Midwest organized by seven primarily artist-run spaces across the region: Confluence (Minneapolis), Public Space One (Iowa City), Charlotte Street (Kansas City), Bulk Space (Detroit), Wormfarm Institute (Reedsburg , Wisconsin) and Big Car (Indianapolis). “It’s always been a good time to promote artist-led projects,” says co-organizer Nick Wylie, “but this moment seems particularly appropriate to help people come together again and meet people who are working on similar projects under similar conditions… rest easy if MdW can serve as a small piece of fertile soil that helps new initiatives grow.”
MdW’s gathering of a Midwest coalition of alternative project spaces for this iteration raises the question of what it is about the Midwest that is particularly salient for such an endeavor. The Midwest, with its convergence of belts (rust, bible, corn, lead) and skyline of farmland, punctuated by mid-sized cities in various states of abandonment and renewal, has always seemed to have an identity crisis. This regionalism in flux is no doubt recognized as a place of fertile opportunity by projects led by artists and cultural producers (and politicians, as the region becomes increasingly purple). However, with opportunity comes inevitable disappointment, and this is a central attribute of the Midwest. “The brain drain is real when you’re working on a social sculpture in the extended cornfield,” says MdW co-organizer Brandon Alvendia, and indeed, the Midwest is a region that constantly asks you to refresh or maintain your ambitions and convictions. , to truly believe in what you are doing regardless of the potential dividends. This possibility-impossibility tension is what makes the Midwest unique from its coastal or southern brethren, especially in terms of the art world.
While it is tempting to wallow in the provincialism of MdW’s project, these broader ideas, about flourishing and surviving under evolutionary or challenging conditions, relate to the moment and the contemporary state of the country. As we collectively come to terms with how to negotiate a prevailing sense of anger and powerlessness in the United States, events and projects like MdW remind us of the lonely position that power provokes. MdW’s atlases, assemblies, gatherings, fairs and congregations are united by a belief not only in the power of art to provoke and stimulate, but in its ability to foster connection. It may seem like an unsustainable policy to simply say, “doing something together, regardless of ambition” makes sense, but it has long had a quiet power, especially in art history. Friendship is the center of so many art movements, poetry movements, avant-gardes and research directions. MdW is, imperfectly but still honestly, a bit of a parenthesis of the possibilities of friendship, and thus a denial of art’s too-often-dormant ability to change things.
*Bloomington, Indiana bands from the 1980s. Many thanks to former Midwester Aaron Walker for bringing it 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