Chicago’s Hugo Ball Creates “Security and Safety” in an Increasingly Frightening World

The long-running monthly dance party is dedicated to the freedom of personal expression for its DJs and partygoers.

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Jan 29 2017, 5:10pm

Photo of (from top) Eris Drew, Sold, Justin Long and Sevron from Hugo Ball. Photo by Erik Tallackson.

Launched in 2012, Hugo Ball is a monthly party dedicated to the freedom of personal expression for its DJs and for its partygoers. Influenced by the Dada movement and 90s dance culture, the party aims to channel warehouse spaces and nightclubs of the past with its attention to diverse representations of music, art and culture.

Here, resident DJ and Hugo Ball co-founder Eris Drew explains the origins of the party and why it matters in 2017.


DJ Justin Long and I had these long mix sessions in 2010 and 2011 in my apartment. We were legitimately a little bit disenfranchised from other things that were happening at the time in the city. We were just staying in a lot.

We felt like so much of the club scene was moneyed and straight and white in the city. We really wanted to get back to a party that was about mixing people up and having straight and gay people in the same space. You know, not tailoring to these very specific demographics. We wanted it to feel more like the lost party scene we came out of in the early 90s that was incredibly diverse and brought people from different socio-economic realms or sexual orientations or racial lines. So we came up with this secular, yet religious and polysexual party idea.

Justin began art school and we were talked a lot about Dada [an early 20th century art movement created in response to World War I]. We came up with an idea to give the party itself a personality rather than using a narrative about the DJs.

We named it Hugo Ball. That is an actual person. He was one of the founders of the Dada movement, a German poet and one of the creators of sound poetry. A lot of people don't even know that. They just think it's a cute name for a ball or a party.

For us, Dada seemed to usher in the new age. People were looking for a sense of spiritual connection or mythology in a very secular world. These spiritual ideas went through the 20th century, whether it was through the Dada art movement or Music Concrete in the 50s or DJing in the early 90s. People in the Dada movement used irreverence and uncanniness. They were kind of punk in a sense in that they took existing media forms and really mixed them up. In doing so, they revealed certain truths about the society and the very nature of existence.

We felt that the artistic practice of DJing is connected with these ideas. That essentially, we are auditory collage artists. Dada is sort of known for collage or at least bringing collage into fine art.

All of our live shows are done on hardware and all of our DJ sets are always done on vinyl. It isn't to be elitist. We felt that this was a practice that is disappearing. We knew there were people out there that thought it was still worth doing. At the time we started, we wanted to try to create a place where it was safe and where these old practices could still be carried out.

One of the main things we've done is transform the space and the experience of the space. Smartbar has a big mural on the back wall. It's a colorful place. We subverted the space. We blacked everything out, took every logo away and created the same kind of feeling you would experience in a warehouse. The reason we did that is because we felt like we were having a sort of surreal, almost religious dance experience in those kind of spaces and not in night clubs. Nightclubs are branded. They're very bright. They're based around the flow of people to the bar.

Now granted, Smartbar is already not like that. But we really took it to the extreme, even going so far as to bring in our own visual installations. We wanted to bring people out of reality and build that notion of uncanniness.

And we've removed professional photography at the party. Well frankly, I wanted closeted people to be able to come to the party and not feel like there's going to be some photo of them up for their family to see. We wanted to create more of a feeling of security and safety in this world where everything is fucking frightening all the time. I think we've accomplished that.