Diverse mix of people honor 'Mess Hall' cultural center

Flashes of light exploded as Mess Hall Space attendees took turns standing in photo booth and posing with a gigantic blowup Santa in camouflage and a cardboard cut out of Dick Cheney.

At the table in the center of the Mess Hall, another group sat and chatted jovially, making Valentine's Day cards from newspaper clippings.

They also cut out words from the articles related to capitalism - the holiday was created to move cards, flowers and candy after all — and used them for the cards. 

The events are quintessential Mess Hall, the supporters say. It is typical that the folks gathered at 6932 Glennwood Ave., entertain, entrall and make each other think.

At Mess Hall, the members of which celebrated its fifth anniversary Valentine’s Day weekend, anything goes.

Specifically, anything that falls into the realm of culture including poetry workshops, visual art exhibitions and political activist meetings, can be hosted at Mess Hall, as long as it doesn't involve any money being exchanged.

"We call it an experimental cultural center, and part of the experiment is figuring out what it is," says Matthais Regan, a Mess Hall key holder.

Artists Holly Holmes and Tom Burtonwood showcased their political art project, a gigantic camouflage blow-up Santa and camouflage blow-up Torpedo covered in Grocery food ads at the "Capitalism Breaks My Heart" event. The art project portrays the idea that war is a commercial activity explains Burtonwood. 

Concerning the purpose of his art, Burtonwood says, "We are not trying to make money on it, we are trying to make a statement."  One of the primary principles that guide Mess Hall is that no money is exchanged.

"There is a sense of freedom not only that you don't have to pay (to enter), but also it's a free flowing atmosphere," says Sergei Telis, a Roger Park resident.  "You can meet neighbors that are interested in art and it's laid back and fun."

Amy Partridge, another Mess Hall key holder, says the center allows people with unconventional dreams to blossom.

"It allows people to really try new things and experiment with new forms of community building new forms of art making new forms of discussion and critique," says Partridge. "It really allows for experimentation because there is not a lot of stake. No one has a monetary investment that needs some kind of pay back."

There are 15 key holders and there is no scheduled open and closing times.  New events continually take place at Mess Hall.

Mess Hall operates on the idea of "surfing on surplus." Boxes filled with donated goods by the community members are laid outside Mess Hall for free. Once the boxes are emptied, the community members replenish them. 

"If you have something for free, what's the most use you can make of it? Regan says. "How can you distribute that freedom?"

Individuals who have a proposal for an event can email the key holders, who in turn review the ideas and organize new events.

As part of the fifth anniversary celebration of Mess Hall, attendants watched a “Legacy of Torture,” a documentary about the police torture of Black Panthers from San Franciso during the 1970s.

The filmmaker, Claude Marks attended the event, saying, "We never forget. We never forgive."

Cristobal Valencia of Rogers Park was moved after the presentation.

"It's a huge inspiration for activism to see an over 30 year cultivated struggle,” Valencia says. “What I would come away with is to create a political promise to not abandon people." 

There is no single, neat definition that describes Mess Hall. Partidge explains that it transforms every time someone plans an event. 

Valencia tries to offer an encompassing concept of Mess Hall: “Regardless of experience, economic level, education level, race, sexual orientation, Mess Hall is a common place where we can engage critically with culture and produce culture."