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Art Mon Oct 28 2013

A Look Inside Northwest Side Venue: Space Club HQ

Photo by Alan Callaghan

My first taste of Space Club HQ was a night of karaoke where I scream-sang Kid Rock and sipped PBR tallboys from the liquor store across the street. Between dancing and singing my heart out that night, I grew to admire the people behind Space Club for opening their own artistic venue on top of working full-time jobs -- something many of us only dream of doing.

Space Club HQ, 3925 N. Elston Ave., is best described as an art space operated by a group of friends who originally came together in pursuit of a sizable venue to practice their own art -- theatre, visual art, performance art, you name it. As is the case with great ideas, they soon realized its potential and began to host public events. In addition to hosting a series of karaoke nights cleverly dubbed "In Space No One Can Hear You Sing," the venue has played host to a series of "Freak Show" circus performances by Thom Britton, screened the 1945 British anthology classic film Dead of Night in 16mm and showcased Bogumil Bronkowski's artwork in an exhibit titled "Oh, the Horror!", among several other events. Lucky for us, they're knee deep in programming ideas -- a pinewood derby seems to be in the works.

Amber Robinson, Evan Chung, Alan Callaghan and Bart Pappas are the "official board members," or the organizers, behind Space Club HQ. I chatted with Amber and Evan via email to learn more about why they opened the space, what makes Space Club different than other venues and what you should expect on the calendar in the coming months.

Would you say that opening up your own art space is tremendously difficult or easier than you thought? Describe the opening process if you can.

Chung: There was a lot I wasn't prepared for in this process. Walking upstairs on the first day and realizing that all the heaters we remembered being there were gone -- that was a fun surprise. I've learned a whole lot about issues of electricity, occupancy limits, finances, licensing, security, insurance, etc. It's the first time in my life where I've had to employ a real estate agent or a lawyer, so that's exciting! We've been in Space Club for a year and a half now, and there's still a ton of work left to do. There's a pair of pigeons who live inside our awning. We put up pigeon proofing which we thought did the trick, but they managed to find a four inch space to sit on. They have no place else to go now, so they sit still all day and continually shit on to the same spot of the sidewalk.

All that said, the amazing thing is that the only thing you really need to put on interesting events is a room and some people. That stuff comes pretty easy.

Robinson: Of course we got ourselves into this because we want to put on plays and concerts and throw parties -- not because we want to make budgets, and learn about building code, and ask people for money. Evan has really been the one taking on the brunt of the business side of things -- I doubt if any of this would have been possible if he hadn't been capable of figuring these things out as we go.
There is a constant shortage of money, time, and manpower, as is the case with any arts-based organization, no matter how big or small.

What kinds of events do you hold at Space Club? What's on the calendar?

Chung: So far we've hosted music performances, dance shows, plays, parties, gallery shows, film screenings, improv and stand-up. We're really just starting out. There are a million ideas for programming floating around that we haven't had time to get to yet.

We've worked a lot with the Five Eyes Projects, an American Sign Language arts organization. We have an ongoing monthly series of karaoke nights called "In Space No One Can Hear You Sing" and a concert series we're calling "Space Jams." A poetry reading series is also in the works that should be beginning in November. I'm planning on partnering with my friends at the Northwest Chicago Film Society to try to host film screenings -- and that is film, not digital -- more regularly. It's also a dream of mine to hold a pinewood derby.

Robinson: We've also held a series of visual art exhibits, which we like to pair with a performance of some kind, so we can take advantage of the multimedia aspect of this space. We're fortunate enough to know some of Chicago's amazing comedians and improvisers who've volunteered to perform at these openings. We had an evening of incredible solo-performances, for example, Zach Zimmerman's show "Straight Man," and Tyler Sample's one-man improvised Western "Lonesome" that we paired with an exhibit of art inspired by isolation.

There are so many projects in our back pocket right now. I'm most directly involved in the theatre branch of activities, and we've been using the space quite a lot to develop and workshop new theatre. We have plans for more installments of the music and variety show, "Space Jam." There's a TV show, "Uncles," [that] we want to film in the space.

What makes Space Club different than other similar venues in the city?

Chung: I think our strength is in our eclecticism. Most spaces end up focusing on one or two areas, but we try to be a kind of one-stop shop for everything, often combining multiple disciplines at once. Even just in the realm of music, the kind of bands that rehearse there range from surf rock to Latin jazz to Meat Loaf tribute bands. The downside of that lack of specific focus is that we have to scatter our resources in a dozen different areas, but ultimately I prefer it that way. Most of the main people who run the space I've known since I was 14, and I think by this point we share a unique kind of silly aesthetic. You'll see it in action in the way the place is decorated. It's the only DIY space I know of where people willfully linger in the bathrooms to stare at the things hanging on the walls.

What is it like to work a full-time job on top of managing an art space?

Robinson: I think if it were just managing the space on top of our jobs, that would be one thing. But one of the main reasons behind Space Club is to give us a home base to produce our own work, which includes theatre, music, film, and more. So the real struggle is finding a way to balance both keeping Space Club running, with the creative projects we want to do there. It's a lot to try to squeeze out of the few hours you have after work each day. And it's frustrating knowing there's so much more we want to do, but lacking the time to do it. But everyone who wants to both make art and pay their bills has to figure that problem out somehow, so it's just something we figure out as we go. It's a good thing we're still young!

Why is Space Club important to you? Why should it be important to others?

Chung: For me, Space Club's most important function is as serving as a gathering place for all my friends to do wacky stuff together. We call it Space Club HQ in part because we love "Star Trek," but also because to us it conjures the image of a kind of scrappy Encyclopedia Brown treehouse where we can all hang out after school. That's the kind of atmosphere we try to create for ourselves.

I hope others find it to be a unique and unpredictable space in the city where, like on the "Aggro Crag," anything can happen.

Robinson: In order to keep our city interesting, we need places where people with the great ideas can make those ideas happen. Without these spaces, there's all this potential that just stagnates, never gets a chance to add to what makes this a city worth living in.

How does Chicago fit into all of this? Do you feel like you could open the same venue in NYC or LA? Why or why not?

Chung: I have a hard time imagining opening anything similar in NYC or LA, at least not a space this big in any kind of easily accessible area. Chicago fits right into a sweet spot; it's like a smaller city like Pittsburgh or Minneapolis where it's affordable enough that you can produce just about any project you'd like, but it has the population and resources of a metropolis to support it.

Robinson: I don't think of our space or the work we do as being definitively "Chicagoan," as opposed to some other city. But I'm sure someone coming from another city might easily point out things that are distinctively Chicagoan in what we do.

Personally, I'm most closely connected to the theater scene in Chicago, and I know one thing that makes Chicago theater special is a focus on creating great work that justifies itself, rather than being just a stepping stone in your career. I would say Space Club falls in line with that. We're not doing this to propel our personal careers up to something higher. We just want to help each other make great ideas happen, and we want a place to share them.


You can learn more about Space Club HQ by visiting their Facebook page; also, Space Club's in-house theatre company is accepting donations here.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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