Wednesday, September 24, 2014

CIW Speaker Q&A: BuzzFeed's & Celebrity Gossip Expert Anne Helen Petersen

You can see Anne Helen Petersen at this year’s Pop Culture: Your Life,Trending on October 15. Join the #IdeasChat on Twitter on Tuesday, September 30 for a discussion of New Directions in Pop Culture co-hosted by Petersen.

This year, CIW speaker Anne Helen Petersen—whose doctorate, as she slyly puts it is in “celebrity gossip”—moved from the limited audience of academia to the pop culture powerhouse that is BuzzFeed. As a professor at Whitman College, she had taught classes on topics like Mad Men. Now, she’s using her position as Features Editor at BuzzFeed to introduce a new audience to her blend of academic criticism and pop culture.

Anne Helen Petersen will discuss celebrity culture and more at Pop Culture: Your Life, Trending.
Petersen’s newest book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, which comes out September 30, focuses on the tabloid scandals of studio system actors like Montgomery Clift, Mae West and Clara Bow—hardly household names to the average Millennial. But it’s clear that Petersen’s academic interest in celebrity isn’t limited to the golden age of Hollywood, and she often draws comparisons between the celebrities of the early days of film to those that walk the red carpet today. She writes extensively about actresses like Jennifer Lawrence—or J. Law, as Petersen prefers—and Petersen started our conversation by declaring Kim Kardashian the “savviest” celebrity (“She’s just brilliant”).  We talked to Petersen about stars, the intersection of celebrity culture with our broader society and, of course, the Kardashians.

OK, let’s back up to your statement about Kim Kardashian: That she’s “not the biggest, but the smartest celebrity.” Why do you think that?
One of my friends said that she is a “vertically integrated commodity,” which I just think is so smart. What I mean by that [is] she is the commodity herself, but she also controls the way that she sells the commodity. So she controls the production, the distribution and the commodity itself. She has her hands on every single lever. And yes, absolutely, she has advisers. Like all very intelligent people, she knows how to pick people who are smart to advise her. So, [say] something like developing the Kim Kardashian mobile game. That was a game; that was a celebrity game that had done fairly well, and she just branded it to her and then used the microphone of her various distribution networks to make people want to play it. It was an addictive game before. It’s not like putting Kim Kardashian’s name on it made it more addictive. It’s just that it was this combination of a game and a scenario of her life that made people want to play it more…. She’s made millions of dollars off of a game that has cartoon approximations of her face.

Her talent is being Kim Kardashian. She hasn’t have to do anything other than be herself.

Is she someone you see as having definite counterparts in classic Hollywood, or is Kim Kardashian a new brand of celebrity?
No, I think she’s totally different. In part, she’s just very much the post-modern celebrity in that there’s no there there. There’s no talent to back up other than being herself.

So, if you consider the celebrities today and the celebrities you profiled in your book—those of the studio system—what do you see as the themes that stretch across the different eras?
The way that I think about stardom over the last hundred years is that there’s these periods of rupture, where scandals and the real self of the star leaks out. This happened in the early 20s, it happened in the 50s and it happened in the mid-2000s with digital stuff that made it harder and harder for celebrities to keep their images under control. [Editor’s note: Since we talked, another celebrity hacking "scandal" became big news. Petersen’s take indicates that in today’s culture, it may be more of a non-scandal.] A lot of times that also coincides with bigger shifts in what’s happening in the way that stars are managed. In the 1950s, it coincided with the stars no longer being part of the studio system.

What happens every time that there’s one of these ruptures is that there’s a recoil. They try to make the system even stronger. Right now what you see are stars who are trying to exercise even more control. [For instance], having their Twitter and being very, very precise and careful about how they are perceived on social media. Beyoncé is really the perfect example of this in that her Instagram and her Tumblr are immaculately maintained components of her image.

If you look back at the classic Hollywood stars you studied, is there one celebrity who stands out as being exceptionally good at controlling his or her image?
I mean the thing about those stars is that their images were all controlled for them. There’s some that really were able to collaborate with their studios and were able to weave really infectious messages about themselves, like Mae West’s union of sex and wit. Here’s this new body type that everyone should want, which really was the case. People were scared that kids were going to get fat because they wanted to look like Mae West, which is just so funny now.

If they didn’t adapt their images with the different currents, they only lasted three or four years. That’s what happened with Mae West, that’s what happened with Clara Bow and it happened with Rudolph Valentino. The people who persisted—so, someone like Joan Crawford—she changed her image entirely five times. She was like Madonna.

What is it about all of this—these profiles and studies of people from Mae West to Madonna to Kim Kardashian—that you think is important? Why does pop culture matter?
When I was an academic, the field that always gripped was broadly called cultural studies, which was looking at things that might not be high culture but that people really use to make meaning in their lives and that a lot of people dismiss. Whether it’s romance novels or movies—you know, crappy movies—or stars, there’s a reason people consume these things, and it’s not because we’re stupid. The thing about stars is that whatever stars there are at a given time, if you really look at them and their images and what their images come to represent, it’s just such an amazing reflection of different ideologies circulating at the time and ideologies under threat.

You look at someone like Clara Bow, who had this vivacious modern sex appeal, and you can see that the culture at the time was really fascinated by this different idea of what femininity and female sexuality look like. But then you also watch what happens when that becomes too much. There’s a limit of how much they’ll accept of that. So, I just think that it’s such a great way to think about how culture changes—mapping [those cultural changes] through stars.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Chicago Artist Who Is Fluffy Talks Politics through Hip Hop

Before she started making music professionally, Who Is Fluffy was starting dialogues about race, religion, gender and politics from the driver’s seat of a Chicago cab.

“The people who got me really got me,” she said of her time as a taxi driver. “But there were definitely a lot of cab rides where I didn’t get tipped because of my political views.”

Now, her willingness to face taboo topics head on is only benefiting her as a hip-hop artist and musician. Released this July, her debut EP examines gender, race and class politics. And her most famous collaboration to date—a single called “Best Friend” featuring Prob Cause, actor James Franco and R&B legend Smokey Robinson—came about, as she put it, only “because of who I am and how cool my friends are.”
Chicago rapper Fluffy released her debut EP
in July of this year.

One of those friends is her frequent collaborator and most vocal supporter, Psalm One.  Both Whitney M. Young Magnet High School grads, the two rappers began collaborating in 2008. Initially, Fluffy served as a business advisor and sometimes DJ, but Psalm One “inspired me to want to do more artistically.”

“I’ve always written and performed but never expected to put out my own material for some reason, on a larger scale, until I started working with her,” Fluffy said, adding that she’s pushed Psalm One “to do more on the business side of thing.”

Fluffy and Psalm One—alongside The Hood Internet and others—are embarking on their biggest business and musical collaboration to date with the Chicago Takeover, a multi-country tour that will bring Chicago hip-hop overseas. For Fluffy, the Takeover is an opportunity to do what she loves best: talk politics.  She’s particularly eager to share her work with the Carrefour Collaborative, an Illinois nonprofit that supports artists in Haiti, and has even prepared a statement in French for the multiple stops the tour will make there. (One imagines that the statement will be as bold as her take on the situation in English: “France, in particular, should ramp up their efforts in Haiti.”)

More generally, she hopes that her frank approach to tough issues will spur on others to start uncomfortable—but necessary—conversations.

“A lot more subjects have become taboo, and I don’t think that that’s the direction we have to go in,” she said. “I think we have to challenge the way that we’ve been thinking about life and society and love and friendships, and we have to try to improve and move into the future on some of these things.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

CIW Q&A: Wolf Gang's Max McElligott

The inspiration for Wolf Gang’s Max McElligott’s first album Suego Faults came, quite literally, from a dream. But now the British singer reports he’s become more grounded, and he’s brought that sound to his sophomore album. In advance of his show at Subterranean on September 19—co-headlined with Sir Sly and featuring opening band Secret Someones—we talked to McElligot about the reaction to his more mature sound and who he sees next.
Max McElligot (second from the right) is bringing sounds of reality to his latest album.
You quit college to pursue music. What led you to that decision?
I just sort of realized in my last year of studying at university that all my life that the one passion I had was music. The one thing that I could work endlessly toward without feeling like it was hard work at all was music…. I was 21, young. I just thought I’d take a leap of faith. I dropped out... Luckily, I was able to secure a record deal quite soon afterward. So, that’s how it all came about.

How does your newest album differ from Suego Faults?
The first one was very ethereal, very dream-like, quite youthful and romantic. Everything down to the way it sounded, like the production and everything… The second record is a lot more down-to-earth. The recording of it is slightly rawer, a bit more organic sounding.

Lyrically, it’s a bit more real. James [Wood, the bassist], who is the primary songwriter, has written some amazing songs. They’re about more real-life experiences rather than dream ones. It’s a bit more of a mature record. I mean, I think there’s still a lot of Wolf Gang stuck in there. It’s still me singing and the arrangements are still quite ambitious sounding soundscapes, and people who enjoy the first record will like in the second. It’s just a step forward really.

What types of reactions are getting from people to some of these newer songs? How do people respond to the real-life songs?
Some of them are really quite emotional. Some people are not too well and ill, and they talk about how music got them through a bad patch, or they may be unwell still and not going to get better. I’ve had that a couple of times, and I’ve never really had that before. It’s really tough at first to even get your head around about how someone might be in that position. It makes you think a lot. It’s very touching.

You kind of forget…. When you write songs—many songs I may have written eight years ago in my bedroom—when you write that, then you kind of forget that the song takes on its own life and can affect people in different ways, many years after you’ve written it and long after you’ve thought about it. That’s an amazing experience, I think. Every time we come to America there’s funny stories, things that happen, people that you meet. Very touching things that happen as well, like people coming and telling me something that’s personal to them or what music might mean to them.

We always ask: What are you listening to right now? What band or musician do you think is the next big thing?
To be honest, I think Secret Someones are just absolutely incredible. I’ve fallen in love with that band, watch[ing] their performance every night. They have a song called “Let You Go”, which I have no doubt will make the radio sometime soon and having a huge impact. It’s just the most amazing kind of Fleetwood Mac type—I mean, to me, it’s Fleetwood Mac anyway. An amazing love song, real 80s filter. There’s just so much character to that band. I’ve been really enjoying getting to know their songs.

How has the tour been more generally? Have you gotten to do any sightseeing in the states?
We’re so lucky—we get to wake up in the city and get a whole day of getting to wander around and see stuff. I’ve been trying to make the most of that. I went to Philadelphia the other day, which is absolutely incredible, and took a walk downtown. It’s nice to have a little time to soak up the vibe of the city.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

CIW Q&A: Sir Sly's Landon Jacobs

Released this month, Sir Sly’s debut album You Haunt Me puts the LA–based band’s signature sound—winkingly referred to by members Landon Jacobs, Jason Suwito and Hayden Coplen as “sly-fi”—on full display. A breakout year for the trio, the band toured earlier in 2014 with The 1975 (“the best thing that’s ever happened to us”, according to Jacobs), and are currently co-headlining a multi-city tour with Wolf Gang. The band's biggest hit to date, “Gold”, was picked up for a Cadillac commercial, a move that has gained the band a lot of exposure but is, as Jacobs admits, “ironic” for a song whose theme is commercialization. You can catch Sir Sly yourself in Chicago September 19 at Subterranean.

LA-based Sir Sly (from left: Hayden Coplen, Landon Jacobs and Jason Suwito) will bring "sly-fi" to Chicago September 19 at the Subterranean. 
We talked to frontman and vocalist Landon Jacobs about Sir Sly’s breakout success, their start at their local church and where they see themselves going next.

Let’s start at the beginning. What’s Sir Sly’s origin story?
I grew up playing music at church, and that’s how I met Hayden—he played drums at the church. I sang and played the guitar. We played music together outside of church as well. That’s how I met Jason was recording at his studio. Jason and I started Sir Sly together when Hayden was doing finals at USC one week.

What was that transition like—going from playing church gigs to forming a band?  Was it seamless?
It definitely took a long time. I’ve been writing songs since I was 14. I started out just me and an acoustic guitar playing coffee shops and stuff, writing stuff on piano, recording tons of stuff on tape recorders, filling up journals full of lyrics.

It took years to kind of figure out that I wanted to push the boundaries creatively a little bit more and record electronic stuff. That was one of the most important parts of meeting Jason and writing with him—the ability to do that so quickly. Going from playing a church to what we’re doing now, I think it was a period of really intense questioning in my life. So, this whole record is vaguely about that transition and the relationships surrounding it and all the experiences that have happened in the past two years.

What are the experiences you delve into in your album?
It deals a little bit with changing beliefs and dealing with death of family members and relationships, like growing up with family members with addiction. [It’s] sorting through the mess of life.

Given that you started songwriting at 14, is that what writing music always was for you—a way to “sort through the mess of life”?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve never been a big journaler, writing about day-to-day events or memories. For me, it’s always been about songwriting and sorting through the emotional aspects of the situations that I’m in.

What do you envision for Sir Sly in the future?
There’s places I want to play, and there’s places I want to record. I’d love to play a show on every continent by the time I die.

Even Antarctica?
No, not Antarctica. Unless the scientists down there are really into Sir Sly, I don’t see that as really being a distinct possibility.

With your new album, you may end up with fans in Antarctica!
Who knows? Why not? Why not go and film a music video there or something?

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Meet the Lab Host: Rooted Self Expression Center

Meet the Lab Host gives you an inside look at the innovative, creative, forward-thinking Chicago organizations hosting CIW 2014 Labs.  To learn more about 2014 programming, consult our online schedule

Get some fitness for your soul with Rooted Self Expression Center on Saturday, October 18 from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m.

Shruti Sekhri founded Rooted Self Expression Center in August, 2014 with the goal of providing a place for self-exploration and discovery—or, as Sekhri puts it, “fitness for the soul”.  Funded in part through a Kickstarter campaign, the Center puts its focus on creative activities, including art, acting and improv, voice, movement and writing, that allow for self expression regardless of skill level. Sekhri guides us through what creative activities to expect at the Center’s upcoming Lab.

Rooted Self Expression Center's walls become canvases for self expression for

In three sentences or fewer, what is your organization's manifesto or mission?
At Rooted, we believe that the deepest purpose of life is to have genuine connection; however, this connection can only come when we allow ourselves to be seen.  So, our mission is simple: We want to provide a safe and judgment-free place where people can freely access and express themselves in a way that deepens their connection to themselves and others.

Why Chicago?  Tell us why this idea or organization is based in Chicago, how you think the city has supported the project and how you think the project contributes to our city. 
Chicago is full of culture and openness, both of which provide a perfect platform for Rooted. It is also “the City of Big Shoulders” with a real attachment to responsibility, and we feel Chicagoans need Rooted for release and self-care. There has been encouragement and appreciation for Rooted every step of the way from artists and corporate leaders alike.

Give us a sneak peek of what we should expect at your Lab.  What hands-on, interactive activities do you have planned for participants?  (But don’t tell us everything—keep some of your Lab a surprise!)  
You should be prepared to have a one-of-kind experience!  For starters, you’ll get to write all over Rooted’s walls. There will be prompts and questions on the walls for you to respond to, and the experience will help you get accustomed to self-expression before the “workshop” portion of the Lab starts. 

Then, you’ll choose from two self-expression workshops customized for CIW:  1) introspective: an array of activities incorporating visual art, creative writing and expressive writing or 2) interactive: a mix of voice and movement activities along with expressive writing.  In either case, you'll be given the tools necessary to complete the activity—there is no experience or skill required.

We want to be in the know!  Name one person, place or thing that you think is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets—a secret until now, of course.  
I attended Sunday Dinner Club when a couple of really talented chefs opened up their homes for an invitation only, paid dinner with BYOB.  The invitations were forwarded amongst friends and brought together 20 to 25 strangers who connected over the amazing food and the privilege to be in that personal space together. Though they have since moved into a non-residential location, the laid-back, home-like atmosphere remains. 

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Local Look: Rags of Honor's Mark Doyle

You can see Rags of Honor Founder Mark Doyle in the CIW Conversation Veterans: Life after Service. And learn how to screen print yourself at the Rags of Honorhosted Lab Screen Printing for Good.

Rags of Honor is a silk-screen operation whose t-shirt logo, as Founder Mark Doyle once told The Chicago Tribune, "pretty much sums it up": "They had our backs. Let's keep the shirt on theirs." The nonprofit, now a year and a half old, employs homeless veterans, providing screen printing training and jobs. And it's wholly the brainchild of Doyle, who started it from his car after returning from a year on an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan. There, he "watched billions spent building that country, while our veterans were living under bridges, in their cars and in shelters." Now, Rags of Honor is providing jobs to many of those veterans from its West Side location and with clients who range from Walgreens to Rutgers University to individuals across the city of Chicago, Doyle is optimistic that Rags of Honor will continue to grow in impact. We talked to Doyle about Rags of Honor's mission and how the organization has been able to tap into Chicago's rich "community spirit".

Mark Doyle provides homeless U.S. veterans employment
through the screen-printing organization he founded, Rags of Honor.
Why did you choose Chicago?
Chicago is my home. I have worked at the White House and on two presidential campaigns, lived in Arkansas, Delaware and even Afghanistan, but this place is like no other place, and I always wanted to be back here. This city has embraced our mission whole heartedly. Every time we hire one homeless veteran he or she becomes a more complete person again and that makes that individual more engaged with family and community.

If you could go back in time before you started this project and share one piece of advice with yourself, what would you tell yourself?
I would probably tell myself to be prepared for a slow build. I'd tell myself to ramp up in a more gradual way.

What are your next steps?
This project is in its infancy. My goal is to be the largest employer of homeless veterans in America. To do that, I need to keep adding customers, building an infrastructure, defining the verticals I want to grow into, developing a sales and marketing strategy and establishing a retail presence to take this nationwide.

We want to be in the know!  Name one person, place or thing that you think is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets—a secret until now, of course.
The best-kept secret of Chicago is the depth of character and amazing will of Chicagoans to help those in need. To a person, everyone who has come in contact with us has always asked the same question: What can I do to help? Chicago is truly a place where the community spirit is not just present, it is thriving.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Monday, September 8, 2014

CIW Q&A: Redmoon Theater's Jim Lasko

Go behind the scenes at The Great Chicago Fire Festival in an interactive CIW Lab on September 10.  Learn more and purchase tickets here.

Redmoon Theater’s Jim Lasko is a civic-minded artist with a central goal in mind: to put Chicago’s strengths, resiliency and unique culture on display. Central to that goal is the upcoming Great Chicago Fire Festival, which will culminate October 4 with a fire display on the Chicago River and which celebrates “Chicago’s epic resurgence and strength after the Great Fire of 1871”. We talked to Lasko about his creative vision for The Great Chicago Fire Festival, Redmoon Theater and our city as a whole.

Redmoon Theater's Jim Lasko. Photo credit: Sandro Miller.
You have been at Redmoon Theater for 23 years, starting as a Co-Artistic Director for the theater. How has your artistic vision for the theater changed over time?
I will admit that that has changed over time for sure. Originally, we had a very exciting visual style that was primarily based in puppetry and pageantry, and over the years it’s become a much more mechanized and device-centered aesthetic that’s more civically engaged.

Today, Redmoon Theater focuses on events that engage the public and are held in open spaces. What is it like to put on an event in a public space rather than in a theater?
The form we were excited about, the form we were working in had a real populist sensibility and that made it possible to take that form and put it into public space and move it out of the theater and into the real world as it were. [This is a much more] challenging space because theater is designed for the maker to have total control over the elements: the lights, the sound, which way the eye moves on the stage, all of that stuff is designed with the theater space. If you’re in public space, none of those controls are there. You don’t know where people are going to be seated. You don’t know what other sonic elements are going to be involved. You don’t get to control the light or even the weather. We had to adapt and change the aesthetics to get there, but I think we have developed a unique and exciting form as a result of trying to meet those challenges.

Certainly, if we’re talking Redmoon events in public spaces—and the challenges inherent in those types of productions—we have to mention The Great Chicago Fire Festival.
That is by far the biggest and most exciting collaboration we’ve ever engaged in. We’re dealing not only with those challenges that you [mention], but we’ve collaborated with 38 different community-based organizations and probably 7 different governmental agencies and [at least] 3 federal agencies. The amount of collaboration and communication and consensus building has been enormous. Those are challenges but there also incredible opportunities. You don’t get to perform on the Chicago River without having met those challenges, and that’s what makes it such an exciting project really.

Why do you think it’s important to put on a large-scale event like the Great Chicago Fire Festival? What are you trying to convey to the public with the event?
We have an amazing city. There’s a disproportionate amount of attention given to the very important but sensational stories of corruption and violent crime and homicide. I’m not saying that those don’t need to be covered, but they don’t need to be the only stories told. There are other stories that need to be told about the brilliant artists that live in the city and the everyday people who heroically go to work everyday and meet the challenges of their lives and overcome those challenges and celebrate one another. I think this is a celebration of Chicago: It’s a celebration of its artistry. It’s a celebration of its citizenry. It’s a celebration of our grit and resilience. I think that is a really vital and important story to be told and to be felt by the city and ultimately it needs to be part of who we are.

In 2009, you became the city of Chicago’s first Artist-in-Residence. How did that position influence the development of the Great Chicago Fire Festival?
That was a really exciting opportunity that was really in some ways ultimately the seed of the Great Chicago Fire Festival…. I had worked with the previous Commissioner of Public Affairs, Lois Weisberg, and we were trying to think really about what a unique spectacle celebrating Chicago might look like, as an adjunct to the Olympic bid. [We were] trying to think about: How do we want to show our city to the nation and the world when the Olympics come? That was really the job and in many ways the seeds that were sown during that time with the Artist in Residency became the Great Chicago Fire Festival that we’ll be seeing in October.

What was your primary focus in your work and research during the residency?
I spent a lot of time really thinking about the challenge of how to celebrate Chicago.  I thought a lot about the different mappings and ways that Chicago could be seen—not only by neighborhood, but by fire district, by poverty zone, by cultural districts, etc.  It was really a kind of study of Chicago: its assets and its deficits. The challenge of who are we uniquely and how do we celebrate that for the world to see was really what I was doing at that time.

How do you see the Great Chicago Fire Festival and the way it celebrates our city evolving in the coming years?
We hope that this is Chicago’s Mardi Gras. We hope that this is an annual event.  What’s most exciting for us is that we would have created platforms for many different kinds of artistic collaborations and neighborhood collaborations. We hope to really expand our group of collaborators in the coming years quite a bit.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.