Molly Hewitt was dressed as a cake. She was stacking teacups and sitting cross-legged in the back of a pickup truck, fake eyelash and glitter placed haphazardly all over her face.
“I’m having a tea party,” said the graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “My name is glam hag — I’m a glamorous hag,” she said with a childlike smirk, her dress exploding in tufts of fabric all around her.
Hewitt was one of the many artists, designers and performers who participated in the Chicago Loop Alliance’s (CLA) ACTIVATE event on Sept. 15 — an initiative that aims to transform Chicago loop alleyways into pop-up urban experiences.
ACTIVATE events are free to attend. Crowds of almost 5,000 people have been cramming into downtown alleyways for free drinks, shows and performances since the initiative began in the summer of 2013.
“We specifically choose underutilized alleyways in The Loop,” said Liza Massingberd, CLA’s public relations representative. “ACTIVATE events are meant to drive people and investment into The Loop by getting them to come to a fun, weird alley party.”
ACTIVATE is held once a month from May to October. Since the program’s creation, an estimated $900,000 has been generated for downtown businesses, according to a recent ACTIVATE press release.
“People abandon The Loop after the work day is over,” Massingberd said. “Instead of them going home and spending money at a neighborhood bar, we’re aiming to keep them in The Loop in order to increase neighborhood revenue.”
Everyone gets a guaranteed free drink with an RSVP — the September event hosted local brewery the Lagunitas Brewing Company and various wine retailers — and each is tailored to a particular theme.
This year’s series was focused on the five senses. Participants were able to deeply immerse themselves in film screenings and artist murals for “see,” appetizers and specialty beverages for “taste,” and live opera singers for “hear.”
“Every ACTIVATE event is really obscure, so people can pretty much decide what they think the event is supposed to be,” Massingberd said. “Our curator, Tristan Hemel, is the one that gathers artists together, but we never really know what the final product is going to look like.”
The Sept. 15 event was the highest attended in the 2016 summer series so far, with 4,738 RSVPs, although people are able to attend without registering online. More than 30,000 people have come to ACTIVATE events since 2013.
“Each year, ACTIVATE continues to grow and evolve,” said CLA’s President and CEO Michael Edwards. “We don’t want attendees to only experience art, we want to encourage them to be immersed in it.”
The final ACTIVATE event of the year is on Oct. 13 and is themed “A Celebration of the Senses.” RSVP registration is now open on loopchicago.com. The alley location will be revealed two weeks prior to the event.