At SSN block party, art goes to work for the community

Festival offers music, free ‘cue, face painting

By Ben Rossi

Ask U of C students to throw a party and you’re not likely to be too disappointed—rumors of fun’s death have been slightly exaggerated. But ask them to put on a block party, and you might get puzzled looks. After all, to have a block party you need a neighborhood, and the fact is ties between university and the surrounding neighborhoods are tenuous at best.

Enter the Southside Solidarity Network (SSN), an RSO dedicated to connecting students with the community through hands-on activities and research. Two years ago, SSN created Art in Action, an all-day spring block party in Woodlawn. The idea was to get art off gallery walls and out of basement studios and into the community, in an event planned by both students and community members. This year, with a full lineup of student and professional musical acts, free barbecue, a puppet show, face painting, and more, Art in Action gives students a good reason to cross the Midway and meet the neighbors.

Fourth-year Clare Johnson was one of the event’s founders. She thinks it provides an opportunity for community members and students to meet each other in a different, more relaxing context.

“The idea is to create a neutral space, separated from the historical resentments between the school and the neighborhood, for people from the university to interact with the wider community,” she said. “We need a space where can learn about people in Woodlawn outside of being told not to go beyond the Midway.”

Art in Action will be held both inside the First Presbyterian Church on East 65th and South Kimbark and on the grassy lot just to the south of it. Mark Hopwood, a first-year graduate student in philosophy and member of SSN, thinks that this location is important. When he arrived at the University last fall, he was discouraged from exploring the area around the 170-year-old church. “I was told officially and unofficially that you shouldn’t go south of 61st. I was skeptical and I wanted to know more. Around that time I met some people from the SSN.” Hopwood thinks the First Presbyterian is ideal both as a party venue and as a community gathering point. “First Presbyterian has a large outdoor and indoor space and a long history of activism. It isn’t easy for people from Woodlawn to go over to the campus, and we want students to know that Woodlawn isn’t closed off.”

In that vein, the festival will involve more than the usual block party activities. A central aspect of Art in Action is the informal discussions going on throughout the afternoon about issues touching on aspects of life in and around the university. This year, issues on the table include policing, hip-hop and youth culture, and domestic abuse. Experts will lead the discussions, but anyone is invited to weigh in.

Still, Johnson stresses that Art in Action isn’t about politics or community tut-tutting. “It’s a chill event. Yeah, it’s got a lot of back-history and politics behind it, but it’s first and foremost a party.”

In the end, art is at the center of Art in Action, and there’s a lot of it to be enjoyed. Musical acts include the student band Saturday Realism, underground hip-hopper HB SOL, and bluesman Mr. Shorty Mack. Saturday Realism is a pop band with classic rock influences, an elaborate explanation of its name on its MySpace page (it’s got something to do with German émigré artists and cigarettes), and a trumpet player adding fills between the verses to spice it all up. “Everyone On Her Side,” a cut from their forthcoming album, has a skipping bass line reminiscent of Motown that somehow blends pleasingly with the sad-bastard vocals. Chicago emcee HB SOL wittily raps about his hard-knock upbringing with unusual finesse and lyrical complexity. He’ll also be leading the discussion on hip-hop and youth culture. Finally, Mr. Shorty Mack, a charismatic soul singer, figures prominently in the local blues scene and is scheduled to jam at the 2008 Chicago Blues Festival in June. Local artists will also have tables set up where they can display their work, and the Puppet Posse will put on an audience participation show.

But if the arts are well represented at the festival, crafts don’t get short shrift. Windy City Knitters will be there for a stitch ‘n’ bitch session, and those who can cope with getting a little messy can try painting T-shirts and faces. An arts and crafts table stocked with supplies will be on hand for the many neighborhood children (and children at heart) who show up.

Along with the free barbecue, the festival offers a tasty sample of the Hyde Park progressive and activist community. Student groups like the Platypus Affiliated Society and the Students for a Democratic Society will have tables side by side with the Hyde Park Green Party; Southside Tenant Organizing for Power, a tenants’ rights group in Woodlawn; and the Progressive Labor Party. They’ll hand out information, chat about the issues, and join in the fun.

Whether you’re interested in politics or partying, Art in Action makes a good Memorial Day weekend destination. It’s about good music, good food, and, as Johnson put it, “just having people hang out and chill.”