Festival celebrates epics, economists, and emergence

One of the focal points of the Chicago Humanities Festival will be this Saturday’s Hyde Park Day.

By Ben Sigrist

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Great Gatsby, from modernist art to undiscovered dimensions, the 19th annual Chicago Humanities Festival is about “Thinking Big.” For six weeks the Festival will showcase some of the biggest ideas that humanity has dared to pursue. One of the focal points of the Festival will be this Saturday’s Hyde Park Day, which will include art exhibitions, performances, and discussions set throughout Hyde Park and the University.

In a student’s mind, thoughts of the humanities may call up long, painful hours locked away in a library, trudging through the Iliad. But through scientific inquiry, critical social thought, and artistic creation, the humanities are still very much alive in the modern world. Running through November 16, the Chicago Humanities Festival includes 120 events around Chicago that celebrate the history of the humanities and explore their role in contemporary society. The “Thinking Big” theme of this year’s festival has its roots in Daniel Burnham’s famous 1909 plan for the urban development of Chicago. It was the first comprehensive plan for the growth and development of a major American city. Burnham once famously said, “Make no little plans.” In this sense, the city of Chicago as we know it today is a tribute to the great successes that have arisen from big ideas.

For an additional dose of the awe-inspiring on Hyde Park Day, acclaimed poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project, and former dramaturge Chad Gracia have joined forces, like superheroes of the performing arts, to re-imagine the Epic of Gilgamesh in “an enhanced staged reading.” Komunyakaa, the senior distinguished poet in the graduate writing program at New York University, has produced a verse translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh that will be performed by the Silk Road Theatre Project, a group dedicated to showcasing playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds. The production will take place at the Oriental Institute and will also include a discussion with Komunyakaa and Gracia after the performance.

The University will be involved in many of the festival’s presentations, especially on Hyde Park Day. The day will begin with a keynote address from University professor and Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker and other University professors and staff members will be involved in presentations throughout the day. Becker will be joined by what festival organizers describe as an “unusual number of economists” from the University and elsewhere in presentations throughout the day. In addition to the sheer academic strength drawn from the University for the festival, University artists-in-residence the Pacifica Quartet will perform works by Ravel, Berg, and Beethoven. There has been a special effort to foster student interest in the festival with free admission to many of the events for both students and educators.

Many of the presentations at the festival this year will also reach across disciplines to create something that it is truly unique. “At their core, the kind of inquiry that goes on in the arts and sciences is very similar,” says Lawrence Weschler, artistic director for the festival. In some cases, art and science come together in ways that Weschler describes as “jaw-dropping amazing.” Physicist Mark Hereld of the University and artist Daniel Sauter of the UIC School of Art and Design will work together on Hyde Park Day to create an artistic presentation known as “The Emergence Project.” They will present a dynamic visual representation of the patterns they find through analysis of the discourse produced in the day’s presentations.

At the heart of this presentation is the phenomenon of “emergence,” the way in which simple interactions can result in very complex patterns without any apparent design. To explore just how deep the rabbit hole goes, there will be a panel discussion with Mark Hereld and other great minds, such as Nobel Prize–winning physicist Robert Laughlin, on the philosophical and scientific implications of emergence.

The Emergence Project represents one of the most important aims of the Chicago Humanities Festival: to challenge the way that we perceive our world. The Festival’s organizers admit that in a way, the theme of this year’s festival evolved from last year’s theme, “A Climate of Concern,” which addressed humanity’s relationship with the natural world in light of the concern about global warming. Hopefully, “Thinking Big” will lead to discussions about how to approach some of the world’s most pressing needs.


Chicago Humanities Festival