May 15, 2007

Looptopia letdown due to lack of late-night activities

“Go Looptopia!” was the cry of many a college student indulging in either alcohol or mockery during the wee hours of Chicago’s first, and possibly last, “White Night.” The idea of a city-wide dawn-to-dusk celebration including various cultural institutions is a universally appealing idea. This year, a group of businesses and cultural organizations in the Loop, the Chicago Loop Alliance (CLA), decided to put the concept in motion for the first time in the United States. In its execution, however, Looptopia was quite a few paces away from the blowout success its organizers hoped it would be. Whether the event attains the status of a local tradition or gets lost in the back-issues of local hype magazines all depends on how well the CLA can rework the event in the coming years.

The idea for Friday’s all-night arts festival came from Nuit Blanche, an annual event in Paris started in 2002. Featuring free, all-night admission to art galleries, museums, cafés, and other cultural hotspots, Nuit Blanche has inspired a handful of similar and successful events worldwide, in cities such as Madrid, Rome, Toronto, Brussels, and São Paulo.

So what went wrong in Chicago? For one thing, Chi-town’s own “White Night” wasn’t truly dawn-to-dusk or citywide. Around midnight, many spaces, including the Art Institute, closed their doors; police began blocking access to Millennium Park and kicking people out of the Cultural Center for crowd-control purposes. These inconveniences didn’t seem to affect a vast amount of people, but they certainly ran contrary to the welcoming vibe the event was supposed to give to the neighborhood.

Looptopia spanned only part of the Loop, by no means filling it. In their January press release unveiling the event, the CLA gushed that Looptopia would “literally transform the entire Loop into a sensory playground with cutting-edge lighting and design elements that will immerse the Looptopia visitor in amazing sights and sounds.” Literally, the Loop transformed into nothing of the sort. Most people who got off the U of C shuttle at Congress Parkway seemed to have no idea where to go or what to do once the bus left. The only sign of a neighborhood-wide arts festival was the slanted roof of the Smurfit-Stone building, which flashed the name of the event in dim orange lights.

Another misfortune of Looptopia was that on Friday, the CLA’s website went down, and with it a comprehensive schedule of all the event’s performances and activities. A handful of people in Looptopia vests strolled the Loop handing out maps and schedules, without which the event would have been barely navigable. Looptopia was no street carnival—over roughly five hours, this writer saw a total of one balloon artist, one street musician, and three mimes while traversing the Loop on Friday night. Most performances occurred indoors, and rarely were there signs visible from the outside to indicate whether something interesting was going on within a building.

This isn’t to say that Looptopia was by any means a disaster. There were plenty of sights, sounds, and spectacles to behold—it just took a certain amount of determination to seek them out. Low temperatures gave the walking-intensive event something of an unfair disadvantage. In what turned out to be a mixed blessing, nearly all the performances were free. You can’t really expect a great time if you haven’t paid for one.

If Looptopia makes it to next year, a few words of advice are due. Either go for a specific performance, or go for the people watching; otherwise, it’s best not to go at all. The most fun I had all evening was not straining to see more than the double bass’s scroll of a gypsy jazz band in the Art Institute or watching sketch comedy that was only funny to the people who bought cocktails. Watching a circle of a dozen people play hackeysack on the sidewalk, counting the number of flights on a fire escape on a building behind an outdoor stage, and seeing a Columbia College student share a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey with a homeless man were the obvious highlights. For those determined to attend Looptopia next year, do yourselves these favors: Come with friends, come with a plan—and, as a last resort, come with alcohol.