Olivia Junell, codirector of Experimental Sound Studio | Chicagoans of Note | Chicago Reader

Olivia Junell, codirector of Experimental Sound Studio 

“Right before the shelter-in-place got announced, we started thinking: OK, how can we help?”

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PHOTO BY MEG NOE

  • Photo by Meg Noe

Olivia Junell, 33, has been codirector of Experimental Sound Studio since 2015 and managing director of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival since 2014. In 2015 she joined the board of Afro-feminist troupe Honey Pot Performance, whose research and outreach efforts include the Chicago Black Social Culture Map. On March 21 she helped launch the Quarantine Concerts livestream series with ESS codirectors Adam Vida and Alex Inglizian, drummer Ben Billington (who books the Resonance series), and guitarist Daniel Wyche (who curates the Elastro series at Elastic Arts).


As told to Philip Montoro

I moved to Chicago in 2013 from Houston, where I'd been working at the Contemporary Arts Museum. I came for my master's at the School of the Art Institute—I did a dual master's in arts administration and public policy and in art history. Kate Dumbleton, who's an instructor at SAIC, was on the board of Experimental Sound Studio at that time, and so ESS ended up being one of the first places I went to in Chicago.

A couple years later a job opened up as director of community interaction—partially a development role but also partially an outreach and partnership role. I had been at ESS for a year when Lou Mallozzi, one of the cofounders and the longtime executive director, decided to retire after 30 years. At that time, Adam and Alex and Dan Mohr (who was still at ESS) all decided to pitch to the board a collaborative leadership model. That's when I became one of the codirectors.

ESS is dedicated to artists exploring the sonic arts—supporting the development of new work, presenting work to the public, recording and documenting work, and ultimately archiving it in our Creative Audio Archive. There are six of us, and there are no full-time people. Every day at a small organization is a different hat.

When the pandemic hit, you saw canceled gigs, and then you saw artists being super quick to respond and set up livestream shows. Right before the shelter-in-place got announced, we started thinking: OK, how can we help?

Our immediate thought was that we needed to provide a hub, a central place where all of these artists could go to perform, so they could tap into a much larger network than maybe they would be able to tap into on their own. We reached out to Ben and Daniel and Carrie Cooper, who's at Dark Matter Coffee. We talked to Nick Wylie at Lumpen. We wanted to make it a platform, not something that ESS was a gatekeeper for. Every evening is curated by a different organizer.

  • New York-based bassoonist Rebekah Heller performs at a Quarantine Concerts show curated by Corbett vs. Dempsey on May 23.

We've had Corbett vs. Dempsey, curators from Elastic—some of those include Sam Lewis, Billie Howard, Erica Miller. Eduardo Francisco Rosario has curated two really wonderful nights. We've had Social Norms, which is a New York-based group. We've had Soundpocket, which is based in Hong Kong and has been a longtime partner of ESS. I'm working with a curator from Miami that I'd never even heard of before this all started, Eddy Alvarez. He and his brother run Vidium.

Rebuild Foundation did one in April. Feed Your Head Collective, which is people from all over but I believe is based in Philadelphia. Tomeka Reid did her Chicago Jazz String Summit, which is an international lineup. Lumpen has done nights, and they have a Twitch channel also—we coproduced a streaming guide for artists. In normal circumstances, you couldn't get all these people on a bill together. With ESS's budget, it'd be a very long-term project to even think about bringing a curator in from Baltimore.

  • Cellist Marika Hughes performs as part of Tomeka Reid's Chicago Jazz String Summit, which the Quarantine Concerts hosted in early May.

Since April 1, we've done a show every day, until last weekend. We're now booking August. One of the central goals of the Quarantine Concerts was to provide a stream of revenue to artists—100 percent of the donations every night. So that means that $47,000 has gone out to artists that has come directly from audience members.

We can get so many different types of lineups together, audiences from all over the world—ESS can't fit even 40 people in our space. We most nights have twice that. We've gotten up to over 1,000, which for experimental music ain't bad. We're at 157,895 views so far.

In terms of accessibility, it slices both ways. It's as accessible as the Internet. People who maybe did not have the mobility to make it to concerts in person—it's free on your phone, comin' to you live. On the flip side, not everyone has the Internet.

Some projects it makes more sense to think about in a different way than just a nightly presentation, raise money for the artists, et cetera. Rebuild Foundation's Juneteenth celebration coming up is a really good example—they're gonna have artists playing from different outdoor locations, and donations are going to the Tamir Rice Foundation. We'll be looking to do more partnerships like that, while also making sure the artists still get money. We're looking for sponsorship, and the fundraising wheels are at work.

Last week a lot of the curators decided to postpone their shows, because the world needs space to focus on other things. A lot of the artists need that space also. Saturday was still the Ende Tymes Festival—they're donating all their revenue to the Gianna Floyd fundraiser, to Reclaim the Block, and also to the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Relief Fund.

  • Chicago producer Brother El performs at a Quarantine Concerts show curated by Sam Lewis on April 25.

Art is incredibly important to seeing us through challenging times—not just seeing us through but also highlighting important emotions and realities of different people's lived experiences. Historically experimental music is a white, male, academic space. And that's such a narrow and inaccurate picture of what is happening. It's our duty to be intentional in collaborating with Black musicians and Black organizers and POC musicians and organizers and artists. We've had lineups curated by Luke Stewart, Sam Lewis, Damon Locks. JayVe Montgomery curated "Shelter in Space." We know that we need to come at this with a lot of intentionality, because it's been fucked for so long.

There's definitely still space for this type of platform after live music returns. Maybe it's for commissioning artists—how can you get really experimental with the act of streaming? We have our gala coming up July 17, 18, and 19—Laetitia Sonami is working with two artists, Sue-C and Paul DeMarinis, to engage with that task.

We've been able to create such an amazing network of artists and curators—maybe livestreaming stops, and we do something in the in-person world or the recording world with those partnerships. Everyone feels very open to following the path wherever it may lead.  v

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