To most Chicagoans, alleys don't have a great reputation—they reek of trash, attract unwanted attention and aren't an ideal place to hang out after dark. But when Tristan Hummel looks down an alley, he sees endless possibilities: a fashion show runway, a pop-up art gallery and a happy hour hot spot.

The 27-year-old is the programs manager and curator for the Chicago Loop Alliance, an organization that creates unique urban experiences in the Loop.

This summer that means heading CLA's ACTIVATE series, a project that brings art installations, live music, drinks and people to the Loop's otherwise unused alleyways. The series is hosted one night each month through October, and each event boasts a different lineup: DJs and live performances, laser and light shows, a fashion runway and a giant inflatable blob are just a few of the highlights.

There's a name for Hummel's work—it's called placemaking.

"It's the idea that a space becomes a place when there are memories attached to it," Hummel explained. "Why is your living room cozy and comfortable? It's because of the memories and family and things you've created around it that make it so interesting."

Of course, there's a business model behind the emotional attachment, too. When you get people to spend more time in a place, they're more likely to spend money there as well.

When he was just a sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hummel made the most mundane space a place when he transformed a CTA train into an artistic gallery dubbed Art on Track.

For six consecutive years, Hummel rented out CTA trains and transformed them into mobile art galleries for an evening. The wild idea garnered national attention and put Hummel's creative mind on the map.

It was also in college that Hummel realized his calling wasn't necessarily to be an artist himself, but to help artists get their work in front of the public.

"I thought I was a really great artist when I went to that school," said Hummel, who studied 3-D animation. "But the kids who went to that school are phenomenal. I became much more interested in the artists than my own artwork."

There was just one problem: Young artists didn't have many places to display their work. Sure, there are art galleries sprinkled all over the city, but Hummel encountered art and artists that didn't belong on the white walls of a gallery. He looked to unconventional spaces, like the CTA, for other options.

"Not everyone's art is suitable to that situation," Hummel said. "I think there's a lot of room for white gallery space, but there's all of this unexplored public space."

Of course, not all of his out-of-the-box ideas pan out. As a college student, Hummel was commissioned to put art in nightclubs—something he swears he'll never do again. He hung art-equipped viewfinders from chains on metals poles at Sound Bar. In theory, clubgoers could look peer through the devices as they socialized—but that's not what happened.

"The minute you put silver poles on a club floor is the minute all of these half-naked chicks start gyrating on them," Hummel laughed. "They were shaking the poles, and the artwork was shook to pieces by these really aggressively underdressed ladies."

In order to keep his bank account afloat after graduation, Hummel picked up a job flipping burgers at Kuma's Corner.

"I was a poor character fit," Hummel laughed about his stint in food service. "I met the owner, and the first thing he said was, 'I [bleeped] your mother,' and I just told him, 'Well, I'm glad to finally meet my father.' That was the extent of our interaction ever."

In 2011, he created Built Festival, a three-day event that turned a Wicker Park parking lot into a mini city of art-filled shipping containers. More than 100 local artists were invited to take over a container and display their work at no cost.

CLA was just one group involved with Built Festival. Later, when they needed an art curator to join their team, Hummel came to mind.

For the past three years, Hummel has been tasked with bringing artistic programs and large-scale installations to the Loop. His approach manages to keep his co-workers impressed.

"He has the ability to find artists that can take art and color and transform the street's energy," said Marla Gamze, CLA's marketing director. "His inspiration creates change, and that change creates a great vibe on the street, which is what we're aiming for."

One of his most daunting projects was Color Jam, an installation at the intersection of State and Adams streets, which splashed vibrant colors all over the sidewalks, crosswalks and buildings surrounding the area. Hummel consulted the buildings' tenants, city and federal officials, the Chicago Department of Transportation and various utility companies before the project could come to life.

"All this stuff has to be permitted and regulated, and it's really a complex thing to navigate," Hummel said. "But ideally, all of those restrictions can drive the creative force."

There are two things that motivate Hummel's success: watching people experience his projects and exposing artists who might not reach the public otherwise.

"I want to create experiences that open doors for artists beyond that experience—get them to the next step or help them achieve something," he explained.

But it's after an artist's installation is revealed that Hummel really gets to enjoy his hard work.

"It's such a rush," Hummel said about watching the public interact with art. "People either love it or hate it. But even if they hate it, at least you illicit some kind of emotion and people are thinking about it."


Upcoming events

Sept. 17
Oct. 16
More details: loopchicago.com/cla/projects-and-programs/activate

Tristan Hummel on ...

  • Favorite piece of art in Chicago: "It's the Bean. The Bean is awesome. I know that's a lame answer, because it's the Bean. But Millennium Park is an incredible art space in the city."
  • Dream art venue: "A barge—I really want to do a show on a giant barge. Could you imagine going down the river with art, and you could stop at Navy Pier? It would be really interesting."
  • His apartment décor: "I'm rapidly evolving into a full-blown adult, where I'm buying furniture and not inheriting it, though plenty of stuff in my apartment has been found in an alley."
  • Chicago's art scene: "Chicago is an every-man city where there's a lot of room to practice and grow your ideas. That's why I do think Chicago is the best place in the country to develop your ideas … or at least the most accommodating."