Three voices, twenty homes and one big idea: these are the numbers driving Chicago Home Theater Festival’s producers—Laley Lippard, Blake Russell and Irina Zadov—to use film, theater and performance as a catalyst for community development and cross-town engagement. Over a week in May, the festival pairs performers with hosts to showcase under-represented artists in non-traditional venues. The events they and their coterie of hosts create don’t curate art as much as places—not in the sense of exclusion, but in terms of transforming ad hoc, private spaces—a living room, a studio—into places where the public can assemble and enjoy and discuss art together. On the eve of the festival’s 2014 sophomore effort, I spoke with each of the founders to learn how they got involved in the project, how it works, and where the festival will go in years to come.
Art could be a means to re-route borders.
Laley Lippard heard about Home Theater Festival International a few years ago in Berkeley, California. Founded by Phillip Huang under the rubric of “Fuck Institution,” the festival was intended to circumvent arts institutions he believed cost too much to rent and required pedigrees in the form of grants and residencies. The IHTF put control completely in the hands of the performing artists and acted as a pass-through aggregator, giving them 100 percent of the profits.
Lippard understood IHTF to be a loose federation where “artists could take space and place for their work [and] could take ownership for that part of the process. Institutions did not have to give validation to the artists.” She recognized in the IHTF a movement to create significant work in private domestic spaces and transform them into places of radical togetherness.
Lippard wanted to bring this sense of ownership to Chicago’s long tradition of grassroots organization and apartment galleries, as well as its more sordid reputation as a city of segregated communities. Chicago Home Theater Festival could be a way, she says, “not solve it, but show how art could be a means to re-route borders. [CHTF] could bring northerners south, southerners north.”
Blake Russell, a performing artist in the city and curator for CHTF, agrees. “Last year was more experimental and diverse. This year there is a more intentional focus, a specific mission: ‘Re-routing your creative map.’ It sounds like language an institution would use, but we see artists from all over the city performing in neighborhoods they’ve never been to.”
This is a radical idea for viewing and sharing performing art.
Originally Irina Zadov was an audience member in Phillip Huang’s Home Theater Festival International when she lived in San Francisco. A year later, she provided a host home. The next year she mounted her own home-based spinoff. When she moved to Chicago, Zadov, says Russell, “didn’t have the resources to connect to the different performing arts of the city.” A few emails later, Russell came on board as CHTF’s curator and looked for ways to bridge performing and time-based arts with Chicago’s stronger, resource-rich visual arts scene.
Zadov was born in Belarus. She is a socially engaged artist, educator and organizer interested in creating a dialogue between diverse communities. While Russell and Lippard approach the Chicago Home Theater Festival from more aesthetic perspectives, Zadov brings a social justice priorities: collecting stories and creating space for artists from all disciplines to have shared cultural experiences.
“The first year,” according to Lippard, “was a spirit of complete collaboration. There was a radical sense of trust.”
In this second year, Lippard’s concern is to increase events and to align the venues and performances thematically.
“We wanted to double programming,” she says, “and focus on making site specific, responsive works of art where some kind of alchemical change would occur … audiences get to experience a conversation that a host is having through art.”
Surround yourself with people who are vastly different than you.
Zadov adds that “with the support of Propeller Fund, an expanded curatorial team and a lot more time to plan, things are much more organized and formalized. We work closely with the hosts.” Each night the festival presents multiple artists in the host home, and according to Zadov, this year the hosts participated in the curation of those artists.
“The hosts really represent wide range of folks,” says Zadov. “Some are artists and curators, some are educators and activists, some are leaders in their communities. They all have real pride in their neighborhood and connection to their neighbors. They help us to connect hyper-local audiences from twenty different neighborhoods. There is a very good representation of the neighborhood, but each night there’s somebody that’s traveled over an hour to get to the performance.”
The home is the great equalizer.
“The challenge is getting people out of their comfort zones, out of their neighborhoods, out of routines,” concedes Russell. “These are alternative spaces; this is a radical idea for viewing and sharing performing art. It takes a little coaxing to get people out of their neighborhoods; there is a real comfort that Chicago Home Theater Festival is in people’s homes, not in an abandoned building, not in the streets. You’re going to a house party. People feel a huge sense of comfort and ease in being able to approach a new neighborhood, new travel distance, new kind of art, people. Everything seems to be of greater ease in a home.”
The Chicago Home Theater Festival and the homeowners are very welcoming, introducing visitors to each neighborhood with a tour. “At a home people shake your hand,” Russell explains, “have their arm around you—in a metaphorical sense. It seems as if these alternative spaces offer a level playing field. The home is the great equalizer.”
The Chicago Home Theater Festival has ambitions. In its second year, it had expanded by seven home-venues. Within the next year, the producers hope to have something happening every day in the month of May. Further down the road, they are planning for events that take place throughout the year, as well as an international festival.
“Cross-pollinating this hyper-segregated city is going to be a focus,” emphasizes Russell. “I think we can only go up from here, and what up looks like is expanding into areas that we have difficulty reaching… we are as far north as Rogers Park, as west as Logan Square, south to South Shore. There’s a huge gap in our map in the southwest. If we overlay our map with some of the school closings or major crimes in the city, we would find the people we have not reached are in these areas. How do we reach the greater Chicago public?”
Lippard hints at an answer. “Surround yourself with people who are vastly different than you, who have different perspectives and different communities. Chicago Home Theater Festival is at a point of collision between different communities. The energy of collaboration is amazing.”
The Chicago Home Theater Festival transforms private homes into sites for performance, cinema, and interdisciplinary art. Produced, organized and developed by Irina Zadov, Blake Russell, and Laley Lippard, the CHTF showcases underrepresented artists working in non-traditional media. These carefully curated events intend to engage the hosts at the crossroads of art, activism and scholarship in neighborhoods with overlooked creative capital. Prior to each performance, volunteer tour guides meet audience members at CTA stops near participating homes and introduce them to the history, culture and personal stories of the communities. Participants are invited to share their experience live via Twitter and Instagram and all documentation will be featured at chicagohtf.org.
Victoria Eleanor Bradford is an artist and arts administrator working between Louisiana and Chicago. Her current work involves spearheading a contemporary cultural center in Louisiana, directing programs for Chicago Dancemakers Forum, contributing editorials to Chicago Artists Resource, and pursuing a rigorous studio practice. Victoria received an MFA in Performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her recent work has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago Artists Month, Open House Chicago, Chicago Artists Coalition, and Design Cloud Gallery.