The Great Chicago Fire Festival

Redmoon Theater

Funding Received: 2013
Chicago, IL
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
October 1, 2014

By Michael Reinhard

My name is Michael, and I’m tasked with helping the festival from a production and administrative end. I came to Redmoon from the University of Chicago flanked with eight other interns. We’ve been helping capture the story of the Great Chicago Fire Festival by interviewing residents across the city about their stories of grit and resilience. I’m excited to share with you the breathless months since our last update.

Mary Hinojosa Mary Hinojosa[/caption]

The Great Chicago Fire Festival team held an artistic retreat in April that finalized our conception of the festival’s riverfront finale, The Grand Spectacle. We are building sculptures to resemble Chicago’s pre-1871 architecture that will magnificently burn away to reveal different interiors, symbolizing the city’s epic rebirth following the historic tragedy of The Great Chicago Fire. The Grand Spectacle combines the taglines of our festival: “I Overcome” and “I Celebrate.” The finale showcases the historic difficulties faced and resilience the city showed following the fire that remains relevant to the daily lives of its citizens. Chicagoans continue to face a wide array of challenges: access to cultural resources, prejudice, archaic city grids, education inequity, disease, and endemic violence. Yet, the stories we have collected throughout the summer challenge assumptions and journalistic narratives around these issues.

At our Summer Celebration events, we asked community participants to write their own “I Overcome” and “I Celebrate” statements before they entered our Mobile Photo Factory, which we co-designed with the acclaimed photographer Sandro Miller, to have their portraits taken. The results have been stunning. That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups on the way. Some of our portraits didn’t turn out the way we hoped. Taglines were written in illegible scrawl, responses weren’t specific, or participants found our project difficult to understand. Often, families crowded into our Photo Factory and that was a great service to them, but did little to advance the conversation around personal stories of grit and resilience. It was representative of a deeper problem in our Summer Celebrations. They were a too mechanical. People went in, and they came out with very little interaction or critical reflection. It wasn’t yielding the results we had originally planned.

Mary Hinojosa Mary Hinojosa[/caption]

We had to troubleshoot. Our team found solutions that aligned with our festival’s goals. It pained us to limit portraits to only one subject, but we believed our participants deserved their own self-narratives, not just the ones circulated by familial and community ties. Additionally, we began using the chalkboards to anchor a conversation around the festival and its themes of resilience and celebration.

Recent Wins
In the back of our heads, voices chatter and ask if the work we’re doing is impactful. While the difficulties of urban life clearly loom in the media, our festival leverages social change on a personal, everyday level. While modern life creates the potential for greater civic awareness, it also brings with it the pre-scripting of other people’s lives. Media is suffused with narratives about other people, and it saturates our thinking. Yet, so often, we learn that people’s lives are not easily portrayed by headlines. There are real stories that become abstracted through simplistic distillation. Our Mobile Photo Factory provides a stage for participants to tell their stories.

For instance, one woman, Lauren, told her struggle living with Bipolar Disorder, and it gave a different portrait of the illness than the one we’re used to hearing. Lauren detailed the very real struggles in her life. The change is happening on the level of awareness, of the language people would use to describe another person. If someone hears Lauren’s story, they might think differently about her illness and her capacity as a person. A change in language can greatly benefit another person’s experience of their life and its struggles by relieving the stigma of struggle.

Lauren Bailey Lauren Bailey[/caption]

If you want to hear more stories like Lauren’s, then you will be happy to know, our website is live! Throughout the summer, my fellow interns have been capturing video interviews at our Celebrations. We’ve recorded and put them onto a map of Chicago, so you can look at our GCFF map and see stories across the city. Our map asks Chicagoans to take another look at their city. It asks them to question and interrogate the narrative of their city and themselves by extension. We’re helping Chicagoans re-think and re-imagine their relationship to the city and their neighbors, whether they’re blocks or miles away.

We’re currently in a sprint towards the Grand Spectacle. Our intern cohort is creating a video documentary as a way of reflecting on our work, the festival, and the relationships we’ve forged throughout the summer. Additionally, we’ll be sorting through our captured stories to select powerful images to put on the riverfront. With the portraits we’ve chosen, we’ll celebrate the wonder we’ve ignited around the city this summer.

Lauren Bailey Lauren Bailey[/caption]

I’ve started to get a sense of what our Summer Celebrations do. They empower people. No one’s taglines are fed to them. Our questions help respondents present their truest selves to the city. Our aim is to create powerful images that force all Chicagoans to reconsider the city in which they live. It’s a great privilege to give our fellow citizens the space to tell their own narratives. We call our participants “Co-Authors” of the festival, and that’s exactly what they are. We’re not telling anyone’s stories—we’re giving people the stage to tell theirs.

We hope you can join us at the Great Chicago Fire Festival this Saturday October 4th.  Visit for details.