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Jim Lasko: The Great Chicago Fire Festival - Why This

Jim Lasko is the Executive Artistic Director at Chicago's Redmoon Theater—​creators of the Great Chicago Fire Festival. Jim’s work has activated a wide range of public spaces, from the Museum of Contemporary Art to the Jackson Park Lagoons, from groundbreakings for the Art Institute of Chicago and the Spertus Center to urban interventions that pop up in some of the Chicago’s most underserved communities.

The Great Chicago Fire Festival was created to unite Chicago’s neighborhoods and celebrate Chicago’s grit, greatness and renewal following the fire of 1871. The Great Chicago Fire Festival was built from MIT professor Mark Schuster’s concept of a “signature event”: a cultural event that so genuinely reflects the true nature of a city that it becomes a cultural and economic beacon for its citizens, the nation, and the world.

The festival will grow from Chicago’s neighborhoods. In the inaugural year, Redmoon worked with community-based partners in 15 neighborhoods throughout the city to produce the Summer Celebrations, a line-up of 30 events at local public parks, plazas, and street corners, sometimes woven into existing fairs, festivals and block parties - energizing, unexpected public events quite like Chicago Loop Alliance's summer placemaking series. Through the events, we wanted to generate an unprecedented city-wide conversation about the festival’s themes of grit and resilience, of overcoming and celebration. We wanted the Summer Celebrations to discover, promote, and glorify the often overlooked stories of our powerful, brave, and generous citizens.

With this in mind, we created one of our latest spectacle machines, the Mobile Photo Factory. The Factory is an innovative mobile photo booth, house inside a revamped horse trailer that travels throughout the city to capture beautiful, striking portraits of community members. Before entering the booth, participants respond to the prompts “I overcome…” and “I celebrate… ” on chalkboard placards, and then have their pictures taken with their responses. These photos will be displayed on October 4th, when tens of thousands of Chicagoans will come together at the Chicago River to participate in the culminating Grand Spectacle.

One of three mock-1871 houses to be ignited on the Chicago River during the event

The Grand Spectacle draws on Redmoon’s legacy of manifesting new urban rituals that unite the city in shared celebration. At the heart of Redmoon’s outdoor Spectacle work, there are visionary artists driven by the challenge of creating events that redefine the possibilities of public space. Like Chicago Loop Alliance's ACTIVATE and summer placemaking series, Redmoon’s public events actively engage audiences within their community, and invite them to see a street corner, a public park, or a space like the Chicago River in a new light.

This is the power of a large-scale ephemeral event like the Great Chicago Fire Festival. These events create moments of wonder-based shock; the audience cannot believe what is happening on the street corner they frequent every day, or in the park they only know as a site for neighborhood violence. Particularly in public spaces, especially when the event is rooted in the character of a place, the audience is reminded of the power of community, and for vibrant neighborhoods like the Loop this benefits residents, tourists, and business owners alike. They are reminded, as they are united with neighbors and strangers in shared experience of something massive, wonderful, and unlike anything else they have seen before, that they are a part of something that is bigger, civic, and powerful. The meaning and memory of that space is forever changed, and the audience recognizes the possibility of this change in their everyday life. 

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