On October 4, the crowd at the Great Chicago Fire Festival collectively inhaled as an engineer’s headlamp crashed toward the Chicago River. Only moments before, he had been hesitantly chopping into one of the towers on the Festival’s central floating sculpture.
Three two-story floating Victorian houses—constructed by the Pilsen-based, spectacle-art-theater company Redmoon—had been moored between the Columbus and State Street bridges in the days before the show. Burn tests had indicated that the structures would last only nine or ten minutes when they finally went up in flames. Yet the fires had smoldered well past that mark, and as more and more of the thirty thousand spectators grumbled unhappily, the operations crew began attempting stunts that weren’t worth all the hazard pay in the world.
The engineer with the lost headlamp slipped as a shower of cinders, a flaming plank, caved out right before him. One leg dipped into the river. He laid there a moment, straddled half-off the pontoon.
“We’re having some electrical difficulties.”
Rob Stafford, of NBC-5 fame, had been a weirdly disembodied presence all evening, his projected cheer clashing off the concrete canyons of the Riverwalk. His lush narration on Chicago’s early-industrial era had transitioned into cursory, halting excuses for the white-lamped shadows vainly poking around the Fire Festival’s half-burning sculptures.
The Great Chicago Fire Festival had originally been pitched as a celebration of Chicago’s resilience in the wake of the titular catastrophe’s destruction. To read the homes themselves as “resilient” is both a bad joke at Redmoon’s expense and an expensive one for arts foundations and taxpayers—$2 million, $350,000 from city coffers. The crowd was reasonably anticipating the kind of thrills teased by the steamboats that flared their propane spouts close against the Riverwalk: heart-clenching, glorious, but ultimately brief and ephemeral. But when the time came, the propellant-soaked wood on the houses refused to take. Call it wind, or rain, or warped wiring, those babies didn’t burn.
The riverbank crackled with applause as the engineer pushed himself up from his precarious fall and bowed off, ducking around the smoldering pontoon’s southwest corner. What Redmoon lacked in their trademark spectacle, misfortune repaid in dangerously genuine theater. The Fire Festival was reasserting itself as the human drama it’d been all along.
Redmoon had spent the whole summer partnering with fifteen different neighborhoods, rolling out smaller Fire Festival spectacles on the North and South Sides. Along the way, they meticulously recorded hundreds of present day stories of “grit and greatness,” to commemorate Chicago’s historical rebuilding project. Redmoon had proposed a thesis: Chicago resilience is stable over time. What helped the city bounce back in 1871 still helps the city meet its challenges in 2014. The nonstarter on the river dragged these principles back under the spotlight, as the Redmoon techs improvised to keep the show going.
The Great Chicago Fire Festival was not intended to be brief and ephemeral. It was an exploration of a static trait. Redmoon trailers chugged tirelessly from Austin to Avondale, Englewood to Woodlawn, North Lawndale to South Shore in pursuit of this idea. Only a fraction of the Fire Festival took place on the Chicago River. But, sadly, only a fraction of the summer’s work was visible from the riverfront: sideline shows, a cavalcade of photographs dangling from the lampposts along Wacker Drive, a brief prologue on the loudspeakers.
Redmoon’s best work lay in sustaining an artistic experiment for four months, across an entire city, yet they let the city’s hopes finally rest in three incombustible mansions. From this mismatch issued angry aldermen and caustic tweets, all proclaiming the Festival considerably less than the sum of its parts. The detractors are right that the “Grand Spectacle” finale sputtered and choked, but the entire Fire Festival was—if anything—a spectacularly slow burn.
This retelling of Redmoon’s story of Chicago’s “grit and greatness” begins in August, with really pretty cars. Lovingly waxed fenders and dreamy chassis are drawn up in two long files adjacent to a Pilsen concrete-mixing yard. The summer sun angrily glances off the automotive polish. It’s a far cry from the damp and bitter forty degrees of the October 4 Grand Spectacle yet to come. Somewhere on a distant P.A., a sultry, sibilant male voice proclaims that “the lowrider rides a little higher.” (A friend later says this is obviously the George Lopez theme song)
The “Slow & Low Community Lowrider Festival” was the work of the Chicago Urban Arts Society. Drawing from all over the midwest, CUAS had curated super-snazzy hydraulics, whitewall tires of every manufacture, enough chrome for a fifties sci-fi film, and stripes of all colors. In short, cars you could write erotic poetry about.
Redmoon’s workers were not yet in sight from the CUAS check-in booth, but their theater’s boxy façade lay just a block and a half to the north. Redmoon had effectively signed on as a volunteer, making the Lowrider Festival a sponsored “Neighborhood Event” of the Fire Festival. In support of these designated events, Redmoon carted out various ready-made spectacles to spread the word about their up-and-coming riverfront festivities over the course of the summer.
I hear Redmoon before I see them. They have an emcee with a handle that sounds like a note-taking lapse: DJ Such’n’Such. Mr. Such’n’such has selected a heart-pumping mix of bouncy Latino pop. He is enthroned upon a storm: a “Cyclone Grill,” to be precise. Like the cars that flank it, this industrial-grade barbequing carousel is an accomplished piece of engineering.
To build your very own Cyclone Grill, cut a solid metal disk fifteen feet in diameter and suspend it about five feet off the ground around a fifteen-foot high steel core. Make sure it rotates freely. Strap on nine Weber Grills and all the culinary accouterments your local chef might need, a fully-fledged sound system, and large fans and sunshades for the comfort of all involved. Harness trikes at even points along the disk, and invite young children to ride in circles and whip up the tempest with their pedal power. Deposit tin-wrapped, juicy-hot hamburgers into the messenger boxes on the backs of the trikes. Recruit a small army of interns and volunteers to dress the fixings and distribute refreshingly cold root beer at an adjacent table. Charge absolutely nothing.
The Redmoon volunteers helped conduct crowds from the eye of the storm to the lens of a camera. The Mobile Photo Factory—a portable picture studio and printing center, painted in its own fiery livery—had cleverly concealed itself among the ranks of lowriders. The Factory represented the Fire Festival’s staple summer spectacle. Like most impressive meteorology, the Cyclone Grill turned out to something of a rarity, appearing far less frequently than this makeshift photo center. The faces suspended from the lampposts along Wacker Drive on the day of the Grand Spectacle had all issued from the Factory.
After signing a release, I was handed chalk and a flame-shaped chalkboard. On one side, I completed the block-lettered fragment “I OVERCOME,” in one or two words. On the reverse, I similarly told them what “I CELEBRATE.” I ducked into the trailer, and they snapped a few shots as I held up the sign. Redmoon then stamped my face onto a button and laser-printed it into a few stickers—all for my own use, all free of charge.
Ten or fifteen people seemed to trail behind the welcome table at any given time, flames in their hands and sparks in their eyes. A sampling of their chalkboards produced snatches like: “I overcome the odds,” “I celebrate Halloween and X-Mas,” “I overcome language barriers.” A lady leaned over and asked if I knew how to spell “metastasize.” (I did not.) The cancer survivor and I agreed that four syllables were probably too many for that small field. Grit and greatness come concisely.
All the while, Redmoon’s interns ran their Factory with Fordian efficiency. They juggled their attention across their visitors; sponges and clear canisters of cleaning solution danced across their hands. (One intern confided that dirty chalkboards had been a source of recent contention.) Two interns staffed the front welcome table. One ran the printer. Two more furnished buttons.
A more nebulous band had fanned out into the crowd, conspicuously engineering wonder, or so their black t-shirts (“I SUPPORT ENGINEERING WONDER”) loudly declared. One wonder engineer stood circled by four gentlemen sporting bepatched leather vests, chains, and military caps, all nodding silent approval. He was pitching the October 4 spectacle. He gestured expressively, speaking half-confidentially: “And it’s just all going to burn down!”
At a different venue, beneath the same unrelenting summer heat, the Mobile Photo Factory had just finished setting up. The sponsored Neighborhood Event that afternoon was the United We Drum Family Day, at the Logan Center in Hyde Park. The drummers would drum, the shaker players would shake, all while Redmoon offered their nifty, carnival-style booth as a supplementary diversion.
While I waited for the show to start, the Logan Center beckoned to me and Kristin Walko, a fourth-year University of Chicago undergraduate and Redmoon intern, as an air-conditioned sanctuary. Walko spoke fondly of the building on her way in: its various nooks, the hole one of her own art installations had left in the ceiling above our meeting space. “I love the walls here,” she said, reaching up to pat the plaster.
All summer, the Photo Factory’s crew of interns rotated through different duties. They stamped personalized buttons on one day and toted cameras and microphones the next. The interns were responsible for seeking out individuals who wanted to elaborate about their statements on the Photo Factory chalkboards. If Redmoon was going to conduct a Great Chicago Fire Festival and celebrate grit, greatness, and renewal, they intended to chronicle current, man-on-the-street narratives of triumph against the odds. Walko and her fellow interns were after the documentary evidence.
This turned out to be the source of much well-intentioned handwringing.
“You never just want to use a person as a tool to get to an endpoint,” Walko said. She spent hours poring over the video interviews, compiling and cutting. Of all the footage taken over the summer, only thirty-four interviews finally made their way onto the Fire Festival’s YouTube channel. Each interview averages only one or two minutes.
“I’m worried about my editing,” Walko admitted. “There are very few people who are great speakers—and they have great bites.” Her interviewees had fantastic tales that rambled and roved, but resisted PR-style compression. Still, Walko’s bosses would often ask her to try to get a clip down “to six or eight seconds.”
“It’s more important to protect the person’s representation,” Walko said. “I don’t want to make someone a martyr, but tell their story accurately.” The project made her realize that, “as a storyteller, I have an obligation to represent them in their true spirit.”
This frequently took the form of abandoning otherwise compelling stories entirely. Walko cited one woman who spoke about a domestic abuse incident. “She changed her mind: ‘I don’t want to talk about that!’ ”
Walko believed that people were willing to speak to her because they felt comfortable around their families and in their home communities. “They want to have a voice, and this is an opportunity—nobody ever asks! We want to hear more about it,” she said.
I asked her if all her interviews were so heavy. Was there anything light, or even funny in her experience? Walko reached for a story about one administrator’s lifelong involvement at the South Chicago Art Center, somewhat unexpectedly captured while making arrangements with the institution over the phone. But, she finally broke straight with me. Can you take a single mother’s story lightly? The subject matter demanded her attention, and her gravity.
“I don’t expect them to laugh and joke about being a single parent.”
Nevertheless, this story of single parenthood was her favorite encounter in the Fire Festival thus far. Redmoon’s hunt for grit and greatness nosed her along to the find the most crucial kernel in that woman’s tale.
“You could see she was a really great mom.”
“That’s it!?” A bystander had overheard our photographer and I discussing the scale of Redmoon’s mansion sculptures. The skies had yet to clear on the afternoon before the Grand Spectacle, and the high winds spat fine mist into our faces. The man approached us. He mentioned the day when the river’s bridges had gone up to admit the pontoons downtown.
“I had the same complaint! They said they were full houses!”
From the concrete embankments along Wacker Drive, several stories above water level, the three mansions looked small and fragile.
During our talk, Kristin Walko had joked about the mundane exigencies of her work with the Photo Factory: how UofC students aren’t known for their brawn, how she took quiet amusement in being the heaviest lifter on the Redmoon team.
“We’re climbing on top of a trailer…” she recalled, “things are awkward, things are breaky, things are always changing.”
The mansions appeared pretty breaky.
Down below, framed between the glowering State and Wabash bridges, the western and central pontoons looked more appropriately impressive. Engineer Brandon Roost, also known as “The Rooster,” propped himself against a metal railing. A Redmoon staffer was pointing out the various features of the plastic-clad Go-Pro camera that would sit strapped to his head.
Roost belonged to the team that welded the mansions’ pontoons from scratch. The rafts not only had to support the weight of the houses, but also fit onto flatbed trucks for transport and successfully trap each sculpture’s charred debris with a network of hidden chicken wire. Tricked out in rubber slickers and boots, the red-bearded Rooster had been asked to perch on one of several hydraulic booms almost completely concealed beneath the Chicago River.
“It was a strongly worded suggestion from the director,” he laughed.
Roost reassured us that the water with which he’d already been splashed today was warm compared to the present air temperature.
As soon as the mansions were well and truly aflame, Roost would rise forty feet into the air on the steel boom and impotently attempt to douse the inferno with a fire monitor affixed to his platform. His Go-Pro would stare into a hellish maw from above. Our own photographer was duly impressed. Walko’s summertime video interviews were arguably small potatoes stacked against this kind of footage.
Yet the houses barely flickered, and in hindsight Rooster’s Dantesque vignette didn’t quite pan out as Redmoon had intended. The brightest spot on that cloudy day didn’t come forty terrifying feet above the pyrotechnic pilot lights. Rather, it presented itself as sixteen different dance, music, and spoken-word performances in AMA Plaza and Pioneer Court, as the day’s earlier docket of sideshows. The documentary recordings obtained by the Redmoon interns—the repeated appearances of the Mobile Photo Factory, the Cyclone Grill—proved part and parcel of Redmoon’s master plan to draw in fifteen partner neighborhoods, which these performers now represented before the public.
The performers from St. Therese Chinese School were a ray of sunshine against the storm and squall. A little contingent of green-robed sprouts bobbed between one older group of girl tumblers. A second group of students manipulated the show’s undulating silk dragon. They were overshined by a towering adult dancer, shaking a radiant yellow disk, trembling as she stretched herself to her fullest height—seemingly a solar goddess. All refused to acknowledge the chill through their sheer outfits, the embroidery catching gray light and scattering it with each movement. Parents questing for home videos braced tripods against the autumn gusts, where Redmoon interns had once lugged them in merciless mugginess.
The spectacle produced by that one dance group generated more cheer and warmth than any flaming mansion.
The thirty thousand people who crowded the riverfront that evening weren’t there for the spectacle alone. Among them were parents, grandparents, extended family—friends and co-workers and teachers. They had assembled to support the talent that had rushed to the heart of the city and choked Michigan Avenue with a clot of culture. Some of the people who waved the wood and paper signs, proclaiming themselves residents of “ENGLEWOOD,” or “SOUTH CHICAGO,” were braving the elements and the commute for the pure and simple reason that their hometowns deserved a presence downtown.
The great failure of the Great Chicago Fire Festival was that its most important element fizzled—the prolonged engagement of Chicago neighborhoods in artistic production was pitifully underemphasized. Redmoon ultimately lavished too little spectacle on their most impressive accomplishment. They broke that most cherished rule: instead of showing us the city’s collective contributions, Mr. Stafford told us over the loudspeakers.
The booths of the Neighborhood Bazaar—an assembly of craft vendors from Redmoon’s partner communities—seemed to spend most of their time wrapped in protective plastic sheathing. The hundreds of Photo Factory images that had been captured—culled to a mere handful—flapped unremarkably in the wind. The Cyclone Grill ought to have been in full force, helping to tastily trim the snaking queues for food truck dinners with its hot, juicy, and totally gratis hamburgers.
For what it’s worth, the Grand Spectacle itself fared just fine, yielding its own share of conspicuous successes even without the houses. The actor wildly ringing the inaugural gong was hearteningly expressive, his skiff zipping by in a cloud of burning sage and incense. The combination of the Chicago’s Children Choir with the droning, amplified synth made the apparition of their tour boat—the singers’ sweet, ghostly register—seem dreamlike and surreal.
Despite the popular groan, Redmoon didn’t “burn” the city of Chicago. They burned themselves by shortchanging their hard work. In presenting the Fire Festival’s own story, Redmoon enacted the kinds of errors their interns attempted to avoid while presenting the stories of the city. They trimmed their winding, rambling trek across town into a brief, glorious bite that—on account of a just little wetness—stuttered beneath hundreds of eager flashbulbs. Now that the smoke has settled, Redmoon’s own narrative more clearly reads as an effort to build relationships up, though they couldn’t burn their own houses down.