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Co-Prosperity Sphere

Placemaking Principle:  You can't do it alone

by Brendan Crain

April, 2010

When you step into the Co-Prosperity Sphere (C-PS), it's hard not to be impressed by the space alone. The gallery, located in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, is almost a full two stories in height, giving it an open and airy feeling. In pleasant contrast, the room is chockablock with nooks and crannies filled with art produced by members of what co-founder Ed Marszewski refers to as experimental cultures. "What we try to do [at the C-PS] is what we've always tried to do," Marszewski says, "which is to present emerging cultural forms and artists, and to work with and expand our networks internationally."

That "always" carries a lot of weight. C-PSis the name of the physical building that serves as the de facto headquarters of the Public Media Institute(PMI), co-founded by Ed and his wife, Rachel. PMI serves as the nonprofit umbrella for a cornucopia of projects, festivals, and publications that started 19 years ago as the arts magazine Lumpen, which PMI still produces. C-PS isn't even the group's first space: They previously operated a live-work gallery in Wicker Park called buddY. (And, as we saw last month, they currently maintain a presence in the Loop through the Pop-Up Art Loop program).

While a mere paragraph could never adequately sum up of all of PMI's projects, the takeaway is that the folks behind C-PS have very broad interests. But if there is a common thread that ties all of these pieces together, it would seem to be the sense of community that the Marszewskis and their cohorts, an ever-growing band of artists from around the city and the world, have built.

Looking back on the project that spawned PMI, Ed explains: "We put out [Lumpen] monthly for many years, and through doing that we were introduced to so many different communities ... You put out a project -- whether it's a blog, web site, publication -- and people notice it, and they want to get involved, and you start making friends. Then you start working together."

Finding a common interest is a fantastic way to build a sense of community. For artists, the need for inexpensive resources -- living and working space, materials, etc. -- can make collaboration a no-brainer. In a way, then, the C-PS, with its position at the bricks-and-mortar center of a dense network of social connections, is like a microcosm of a neighborhood. The gallery is filled with art from from vastly different viewpoints. The geographic diversity of participants in PMI's massive Version Festival, an annual gathering inspired by hybrid arts festivals the Marszewskis experienced in Europe, is impressive in and of itself. And though the space is operated by a private nonprofit organization, it is as public as any park or plaza.

When thinking about how to activate a dull public space in your neighborhood, consider the fact that sometimes, buildings, trees and benches may not be enough. The revitalization of derelict public spaces often serves as the cause that neighbors rally around, but as PMI and the C-PS illustrate, those spaces can also be revitalized as a happy side effect when people gather to work together on other projects.

Back in the gallery, Ed notes that the physical community that surrounds C-PS has been a common theme in exhibits and events PMI has staged in the space. "We try to generate community dialog," he explains. "Our projects are meant to do that. Our space is meant to show that there is a way to engage with your neighbors. We're trying to bring people here to get them involved with what's happening in Bridgeport." Here, a community of common interest is breathing new life into a physical community, instead of the other way around. Urbanists, architects, and activists, take note.

If you are interested in learning more about PMI or checking out the Co-Prosperity Sphere, you can visit the gallery at 3219 South Morgan Street.  In fact, PMI's 10th annual Version FestivalChicago Art Parade on May 1st in the West Loopwill be held at the C-PS and several other Bridgeport-area venues from April 22nd through May 2nd, 2010, and will include the second annual Chicago Art Parade.