Version 13 Festival welds art and social programs in Bridgeport

June 13, 2013

By: Jian Chung Lee

In an open field in Birmingham, Ala., Eric Fuertes and his collaborators operate an ornate printing press to the sound of death metal music.

“We emboss or burn our images into paper, leather, wood or any other material that chooses to be placed upon the altar of our art-making machine,” said Fuertes, an adjunct professor of sculpture at Northern Illinois University.

Two silver skulls sit on either side of the fire pit behind the press, watching as Fuertes moves metal plates over the fire. He pulls on one of the many machetes and handaxes welded onto the machine as handles.

He calls it the ‘Death Metal Press’.

Fuertes will exhibit and operate the ‘Death Metal Press’ at the Version 13 Festival in Bridgeport starting June 14. The theme for this year’s festival is the ‘Urban Operating System.’ It will showcase how community projects are changing Chicago neighborhoods. These programs include finding ways to fund art collectives, food banks and other groups looking to improve local amenities.

Fuertes debuted the press at the National Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron and Art Practice in April. It is one of many similar sculptures he has created as part of Dumbo Press, an artist collective that designs interactive printing presses.

He wants to make art more accessible. Printing presses allow Fuertes and his collaborators to create art pieces which they can easily produce and give to the public.

“We want everybody to celebrate it,” Fuertes said. “I want my work to be understood by a two-year-old and a 75-year old. Or a person who knows a lot about art and someone who knows nothing about art can appreciate it.”

Ed Marzewski is part of the Public Media Institute, a non-profit organization which cultivates cultural initiatives through multimedia, social programs and festivals such as the Version 13 Festival. For 12 years, The Public Media Institute and other Bridgeport locals, community groups and business owners have decided upon an annual theme that suits the needs of the city.

Last year’s festival brought community leaders, artists and entrepreneurs together to envision what the 'community of the future' would look like.

These groups started and operated businesses or art projects in 12 Bridgeport storefronts over the course of a month.

“You can use these technology metaphors or references as a way to [show] how we human being operate in this system of cooperation and information sharing,” Marzewski said. “You can see people operating as hubs or spokes, offering assistance to people in need.”

Other presenters at the Version 13 Festival look to make fresher produce, transportation and trade skills more accessible to the people living in their community. One participant, ‘Pocket Guide to Hell’, aims to connect Chicagoans with their local history and culture.

The ‘Pocket Guide to Hell’ is a street performance and tour group that guides Chicagoans through the more unfamiliar stories of their local history. Meghan McGrath is normally its web designer. But this Friday, she is snake-oil salesman Doc Merriweather.

“For this one, we’ll have people in bowler hats, an apothecary, lots of shills to endorse the medicine,” McGrath said of their performance, which will bring the 1915 story of con man Doc Merriweather and his conflict with the Pharmaceutical Association to life.

“I’m natively from Chicago and I feel that a lot of people here are deeply engaged with the city and, kind of like, proud of it and excited about it,”  McGrath said. “The motivation for all of these shows is to represent Chicago through street theater in a way that will be publicly accessible and memorable.”

Co-founder Marzewski wants the ideas at the festival to spread like a virus.

“I think if we help facilitate people’s activities and projects that things will happen on their own,” Marzewski said. “Nothing mind blowing. Really simple stuff. And Version Festival demonstrates really simple, obvious things have an impact.”

Version 13 Festival will have events at the Co-Prosperity Sphere on 3219 S Morgan St and Maria’s and Pleasant House Bakery on 960 W 31st St from June 14 to 22, 2013. Visit versionfest.org for more information.

Lee Jian Chung is a WBEZ arts and culture intern. Follow him @jclee89.