I had initially planned to drive Chicagoland’s highways in order to properly witness Expo’s Override project, which involved putting 20 artworks on 28 of the city’s digital billboards, but when I learned that each work appears for a matter of seconds in a loop which is 90 percent regular ads, I realized the folly of that scheme. Instead, I gmapped my way to the highway, found a good angle, poked my nose through chain-link fence, and waited for the art.
The moment of suspense did suspend my skepticism about the project. There is a long history, both locally and internationally, of art on billboards, and while I knew that Override included some interesting works, the overall project didn’t seem on par with that history. The fact that the works were chosen entirely from artists represented in the fair seemed like a missed opportunity, given that a lot of Chicago’s most publicly engaged artists don’t have gallery representation, much less representation at the fair. The promotional photographs I had seen, which set the various images strikingly against Chicago’s iconic skyline, were more glitzy than civic. So when Override’s organizer, critic and curator Stephanie Cristello, told me the project aimed to “fit into the experience of advertising but also disrupt that experience,” I didn’t expect much disruption; I expected advertising. More precisely, I expected an advertisement for the fair.
I have no idea what the people in the cars were experiencing. The other pedestrians on the overpass were blissfully ignoring the highway billboard. Importantly, the works carry no identifying information. No highway driver could tell that the Vik Muniz piece, George Stinney Jr., was originally a subtle 63-by-42-inch collage. No one going 50 miles per hour would recognize George Stinney Jr. in this form, I suspect, even if they were familiar with the history. (In 1944, at the age of 14, Stinney became the youngest American to be sentenced to death and executed.) Would I have preferred a simple line stating that awful history? I think so, yes. Was it powerful to see a mug shot of an unnamed African-American boy flash briefly against the Chicago skyline? It certainly was.
The other pieces were less pointed and their impact was less clear. Does the word “Toiletpaper” combined with an image of a pool table carry any titillation and surprise outside the art world? A regular ad for toilet paper wouldn’t have been out of place in the regular ad-stream, and some of those regular toilet paper ads are pretty weird. What about abstraction? If you’re not familiar with her work, or invested in contemporary painting, would a Joyce Pensato just look like a drippy glitch? Come to think of it, most of the pieces, for all their variety, would have mainly registered as glitches, odd and very temporary breaks in the relentless flow of advertising.
For those of us in the art world, however, the Override project is actually more advertising. It adds to the blue banners around town and the banner ads on our computer screens. But for this one-man focus group at least, it is Expo’s most effective advertising. As I walked the two miles down Grand Ave to the fair, I was more excited than I usually am for such gatherings.
But I resisted the temptation. I was supposed to be winding my way to the center of this thing. I had initially thought the very center, the private core, of the fair would be the group of 25 curators that Expo had invited as guests, paying for their three-day trip and taking them to private lectures, collection visits, studio visits, luncheons, and a symposium. Underlining the fact that “curators don’t have the means that collectors have” to attend fairs, Nicole Barry, Expo’s deputy director and head of VIP relations, had detailed the curators’ itinerary for me over the phone as she was herself on a private bus, leading the group on a tour. And of course, these curators in turn serve as an attraction for the fair, potentially purchasing works for their institutions and giving artists various opportunities. This nexus was certainly a space where one could behold the unholy minotaur of art and commerce. Alas, I wasn’t on that bus.
According to Ed Gilbert, who directs the Anglim Gilbert Gallery in San Francisco, the fair in Chicago is by far the best experience on the circuit. “You don’t question your existence here,” he told me with an easy and knowing smile. Even if you make less money here, he explained, Expo Chicago reminds him of the early days of art fairs, when Art Chicago, which ran from 1980 to 2011, was the only major fair in the United States. “There was only Basel, Chicago, and Cologne… In the ‘80s there were birds in here, and people smoked, and everyone organized things more like what nowadays you’d call a pop-up space.” Back then, fairs were a place to try out new things and meet new people, Gilbert recalled. Pavel Zoubok, who had the booth next to Gilbert’s, was nodding in agreement. He added that his Chicago collectors move at a “civilized pace” because people tend to spend their money at the same pace they earn it. “They don’t have funny money,” Zoubok explained. His tiny dog was pulling him in the other direction. “Plus, they let me bring my dog!”