Friday night I found myself in a dingy room with shredded drop-ceiling panels, glue tracks lining the floors, and a crusty gray carpet with piles of paint chips in the corners. I gazed at an ugly fluorescent light that looked like it had collapsed against a dirty wall, gasping for breath. It was missing its protective panel and middle bulb, and I wondered, Is that supposed to be art?

I was at the Nova Young Art Fair afterparty slash open house for Bridge magazine’s brand-new Network of Visual Art, a 6,000-square-foot dividable work space available to artists, galleries, and not-for-profits for dirt cheap rent–$1-$1.50 per square foot. Situated over a transmission-repair shop in the West Loop, the space used to house a Michelin tire outlet and later a bunch of punk kids who left a wake of dirty laundry, dried-up pools of vomit, pissed-in containers, and beer cans–piled five feet high in some places, according to Nova director and Bridge editor Michael Workman. A couple of guitars were still smashed into the walls long after the kids were evicted a few months ago–the instruments are now part of an installation by Erik Wenzel. Bridge paid over $15,000 to get the space up to code and cleaned it up enough to look like a place you might be murdered in. Having grown up in just that kind of setting–at one point we lived in an abandoned gas station in Missouri–I felt completely in my element.

I’d spent the fair in a filthy tent in an outdoor lot at the parking garage next door, looking at bad high-school-caliber art made by people who should know better. There were tedious muddy paintings, facile anime images, and calculatedly offensive animatronics (e.g., a Michael Jackson Santa wagging an enormous potato of a penis at an elf he held upside down by the ankle). Apparently there was more-adventurous work inside the building, but the stuff in the tent snuffed my will to look at any more art.

News stories equated Nova’s show with the two big art events that ran concurrently: Art Chicago in the Park and Chicago Contemporary & Classic. One story in the Sun-Times went so far as to position Nova as a major combatant in the “Chicago Art Fair War,” a “big rumble” featuring “threats and counterthreats, trash talk, cries of dirty pool.”

“They talked about it like it was on par with those other shows,” Workman told me at the party. “But we weren’t staging that scale of an exhibition. . . . We always saw ourselves as an adjunct. We weren’t promising A grade. This is above an auto shop.” Workman said his show was intended to expose artists who haven’t gotten a lot of attention yet. “There’s a lot of art that doesn’t get seen,” he said. “Maybe the artists aren’t hip enough, or they’re not playing the game, or they don’t have ten grand for a booth in an art fair.” People seem to assume that anyone not repped by a gallery isn’t any good, he said. “It’s domino psychology, and I don’t like that.”

Well, hats off to him for giving the little guy a chance, but there’s one thing Nova sorely lacked: quality control. Even Workman doesn’t dispute that. “I liked some of the art, I didn’t like some of it,” he said. Several exhibitors hung art that wasn’t in the slides they sent in their applications. Next year, he said, “if you’re gonna put something on your wall that’s not from a slide, we’ll take it down.”

So there’s gonna be a next year?

“We’re going to double the size of the fair,” Workman said. “We need to grow. And we’re going to try to provide a better environment for showcasing the work. We were so artist-centric this year that we didn’t think enough about the viewers. But this was our first year. We’re still new at this.”

Just before heading to the Nova party I got a phone call from an editor at a national celebrity magazine I occasionally do research for. She asked if I might like to spend the rest of the weekend in Toledo looking for information on a certain actress who found herself on the cover of every tabloid last week with her creepy, toothy, older new boyfriend.

I said yes–playing celebrity-gossip PI gives me the same sort of gross satisfaction I get from extracting a blackhead–but I was bummed I’d be missing the near-naked action that the local activist group Topless Humans Organized for Natural Genetics (THONG) was planning for Saturday at Eddie Bauer. THONG believes the use of stain-resistant nanotechnology fabrics and Teflon-treated clothing are potential hazards to public health and the environment, which makes Eddie Bauer a prime target. They were taking their clothes off in the store to raise awareness. You don’t really see that kind of thing every day–unless, of course, you’re me.

Instead I spent all day Saturday digging around a town I’d never been to for information on a woman I couldn’t care less about–including walking up the driveway to her parents’ house and asking her mother if she’d like to speak to me (“No thank you, sweetheart”) and pissing off her high school principal, who’s also a nun. It all left me feeling sleazy and lonely. Half a room-service pizza and a long nap later, I was ready to go out and try to have some fun.

By the time I got to Mutt Lynch’s Old Dog Saloon, an exposed-brick cave with enormous plasma TVs playing sports and that weird Geena Davis movie where she’s a bloodthirsty amnesiac, a long-haired band playing Sly and the Family Stone covers and blues-funk renditions of Prince had two young women in sparkly camisoles grinding on each other’s legs. Over near the bar, a woman who had no control of her facial expressions–they were somehow pinched sideways–also had no control of her legs. She fell on her ass and her friend just left her; as she staggered to her feet five guys circled her like sharks.

I was chatting up a couple of regulars when a scuffle in the back of the place distracted us. A young lady in a pink floral top started shoving another woman, and when a bouncer attempted to restrain the instigator she tried to break a beer bottle on his head. The bouncer grabbed her by the neck and started dragging her out the door, only she was flailing so much he accidentally slammed her face into a brick wall and she fell to the floor. When he pulled her back to her feet she was fully insane, swinging at anyone around her, shrieking unintelligibly, digging in her flip-flopped heels.

An off-duty cop with her index finger in a metal splint stepped in and the girl broke loose and attacked her. The cop unwound the gauze from her finger and tried to tie up the girl gone wild. Four policemen finally showed up to cart her away.

“Wow,” said one of the women I was talking to. “We’re here every weekend, and it’s never this crazy.” But it felt like home to me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Serhii Chrucky, Andrea Bauer.