About the Founder A.J. Tarzian

A.J. Tarzian is the founder and Head Scenic Designer for Anarchitype Productions, a Chicago-based immersive design company.

Originally from Skokie, IL, A.J. received his BFA in Scenic Design from DePaul University in Chicago. Most graduates from his department go on to work for the likes of Broadway, Cirque Du Soleil, or try their luck in the film industry. However, when deciding how to put his talent to work, A.J. went a bit of a different route.

No doubt, A.J. has a lot of respect for conventional theater, and considers it the amalgamation of all forms of art at once. But rather than design sets for the small subset of people that are already artistically minded, he wanted to find a way to bring art to the masses, in bars, at festivals, and through his own underground events.

A.J.’s first foray into interactive art was to orchestrate site-specific plays, where “the art comes to you”. He and his fellow theatre friends would produce shows that took place right in people’s living rooms, or wherever the show called for. This approach meant that there was no longer a stage to separate the audience from the actors. It was a step in the right direction, but A.J. knew that for the art to truly have an impact, the audience needed to be participants.

This idea, that “we are all artists whether we know it or not”, spawned A.J.’s first successful enterprise into the realm of interactive art: Soul MasterPeace.

Soul MasterPeace

At its core, Soul MasterPeace is an immersive painting party, with live improvised music, using found objects for the canvas. But underneath, it is a vehicle designed to awaken the artist in all who attend.

Prior to the event, A.J. would lay out a selection of wet paint colors onto the objects. Once people arrived, they would put on a protective suit, covering everything but their head and hands, and start finger painting on the objects.

The music was orchestrated by his partner, Dirty MF. Dirty is an original member of the legendary (and Grammy-nominated) Acid-Jazz supergroup Liquid Soul. Dirty and his fellow band members (and oftentimes patrons of the event who knew how to play) would jam-out on improvised hip-hop/funk tunes while the crowd painted, danced,  and socialized.

“Soul MasterPeace was the first thing that I designed specifically to break through to people that did not see themselves as artists, or did not see art as important or something that they use in their lives.

The idea was essentially to just throw a party that was “cool to be at”. You know, have music that people are going to be into, drinks, and then while people have their guard down, like at a party, you’re ready to be social, you’re ready to let yourself go and dance, or whatever. Then you just gotta provide the paint and the paint suits, the music, and that was all you really needed. People would start creating artwork together, with people that they had never even met, or sometimes with people that they had known their whole lives, but were now getting to know on an entirely different level. It was kind of, for lack of a better term, “tricking people” into finding their inner artist.

It’s kind of like Plato’s “Allegory of The Cave”.

There are these people sitting in a cave that are chained so that they can only see the wall and the shadows moving on the wall. But the shadows are actually being cast by the opening of the cave behind them. If they turned around and looked at the opening of the cave, and saw, you know, people going to the market, and colorful trees and sky, and the sun that was actually creating the shadows, well, you can’t really go back after that. You’re going to be lying to yourself if you are like, ‘you know what, I don’t even want to acknowledge all those colors back there. I’m just gonna stare at these shadows all day.’

The hardest part is getting people to turn around and look at the light. That was what Soul MasterPeace was, and continues to be. We still do them from time to time.”

It didn’t take long for Soul MasterPeace to gain a following. A.J. put on Soul MasterPeace events everywhere from underground loft parties, vineyards on the West Coast, and even Chicago’s very own Navy Pier! It was a formative couple of years for A.J., but he had bigger ideas.

Anarchitype Productions

Following the success of Soul MasterPeace, A.J. formed a production company that focused on interactive art events called Anarchitype Productions.

The basic premise was to take recognizable archetypes and invert or distort them, to create experiences that made people see their reality in a new way. Continuing what he started with Soul MasterPeace, the events that A.J. created under Anarchitype Productions were designed for the patrons to be participants. The first of these events was a haunted house inside of Emporium Arcade Bar in Logan Square, Chicago.

“I like the theme of a “haunted house” because sometimes things that appear to be the scariest are actually the most freeing, the most beautiful. That’s something that, [art installation-wise] I always try to play with. I like having something that looks scary, like, you wouldn’t want to go through that door, it’s going to be dark and people are going to jump out at you or something. But then if you actually take that initiative, and are brave enough to go through, it’s actually beautiful in there. It’s got flowers, and color, and music and scents and things like that. It’s a visceral experience. I think it’s something that has an effect on your consciousness. You’re like, ‘man, I was not expecting it to be like this.’

There are so many things in life like that. Like facing your fears, or facing yourself, and your biggest critic is yourself. [It’s about] facing the things that you’re scared of within yourself, and how that is the only way to find security. Even sometimes people that look scary, you know, like “that homeless guy looks crazy” or something, but then you end up talking to him and he’s got the coolest stories, and you’re humbled, and he teaches you something that stays with you.”

A.J shared a story of a poetic occurrence that happened during the installation of that first haunted house that perfectly illustrates the values behind Anarchitype Productions.

In the week leading up to the event, A.J. was certain that he would not have enough time or manpower to get the job done. He had only one night to load and set everything up, and being on a shoestring budget, did not have a full crew to help him.
Earlier in the week, he had stopped by Emporium to speak with management and take a few measurements. While he was leaving, he stopped and talked to two middle-aged homeless men named Lionel and Jerry.

He told them about what he was doing and said that he would give them what little money he had in his pocket if they would show up the following Saturday night at 3 am to help him unload the truck. They agreed, and A.J. gave him the $12 from his wallet, assuming he would never see them again.

A.J. recalls being totally spent after several 18+ hour days of building the haunted house in his warehouse. He knew he did not have enough gas left in the tank to unload everything with the tiny crew at hand, and he was not sure how he was going to get the job done.

However, when he pulled up with that semi-truck full of scenery at 3 am the following weekend, there were Lionel and Jerry, standing outside the doors to the bar ready to go. They unloaded the whole truck in what felt like minutes. They had truly saved the day. He paid each of them $100 cash for their time, got them fed, a couple of beers, and even hired them to help with load-out the following week!

That juxtaposition of expectation versus reality is what Anarchitype Productions is all about. Everything you need is usually right there in front of you. You just have to be willing to step into the unknown sometimes to see it.

Emporium Pop-Ups

The haunted house was a hit, and A.J. was asked to come back and do it again the next year. That second haunted house was even more popular, and Danny and Doug Marks, the owners (and brothers) of Emporium were impressed. They owned several businesses in town, as well as a vacant bar next door to Emporium. Danny and Doug were in the process of trying to figure out what to do with that space.

A.J. discussed with them the idea of turning the space into a revolving theme bar, where they could create interactive spaces that had limited runs, some a week-long, some as long as 6 weeks or more. With the success of the haunted houses, Danny and Doug knew A.J. could pull off something like this, and so, Emporium Pop-Ups was born!

Over the course of 18 months, A.J. and the Anarchitype crew designed and built over 40 pop-ups, including the now-infamous Stranger Things popup, as well as collaborations with an extensive list of brands and other artists. His residency at Emporium no-doubt played a pivotal role in establishing the now thriving “Chicago pop-up scene”. It was not long before nearly every bar in town was doing pop-up art installations.

A.J. takes pride in knowing that he helped interactive art become mainstream in a way that did not exist before. The inclusion of art installations in businesses over the last few years has provided numerous jobs for working artists in Chicago (and beyond), and will likely continue to do so for many more years to come.

“When the Stranger Things pop up happened, I actually said a few times, man, you’re gonna see after this, there’s gonna be a pop-up in almost every storefront. Every bar is gonna start doing stuff like this. And I could be salty about that, you know, some people would be like, “all these people are just copying me”. But I was like, “I think that’s freaking amazing if that happens!” It’s just going to create value in art. It’s going to create jobs for artists.

Right now, there are a ton of knock-off pop-ups around, and when I tell people I did the original ones, they say, ‘oh, you do the ones that are in this arcade bar or this one?’ And I’m like, ‘no, no, it was Emporium, a couple of years ago.’ But that means that there are probably hundreds of people, you know, college art students and people like that, and they’re actually getting budgets to do art now. Unlike small theaters, bars can rake in 10 grand a night, so they’re actually gonna throw a budget to a theater kid to do an art installation that you wouldn’t get in a storefront theater.

That’s something that wasn’t really available to me when I was in college. If you were a set designer, you either designed for theater, or you were lucky enough to break into film and did that. Those were your only options. I can’t help but think that there is a lot more opportunity right now for artists. I mean, I see all of these installations all around town. And it’s great. It works.”

When Emporium Pop-Ups came to an end, A.J. continued to create interactive art installations, but something in him wanted to find a new vehicle for expressing his creativity. This new vehicle was music.

Harmoni¢a LeWin$key

Until recently, A.J. had not considered himself a musician. He played the piano when he was a kid, but was intimidated by music theory, and so when he got older chose a visual medium rather than go the auditory route. However that all changed when he started playing the harmonica.

He quickly became obsessed and developed a talent for the good ol’ hobo harp. With his primary musical taste being centered around hip-hop, he quickly found a niche in using effects to manipulate his harmonica to do some pretty wild things. With nothing but a vision for the sound he wanted to create, he started down the path of music production and developed his alter ego, Harmoni¢a LeWin$key. Along with that came a subgenre of hip-hop that he calls Swamp-Hop.

Swamp-Hop sounds like its name implies; a groovy, lo-fi journey that conjures images of cartoon characters on psychedelic adventures through humid landscapes. In typical Anarchitype fashion, it is both playful and dark, with a flair of the unusual.

Check out Harmoni¢a LeWin$key’s debut EP below!!