The Next Fest Thing
Checking In On the Other Arts Festivals Going On During the City’s Annual Big Summer Blowout
“The premise is not anti-establishment, anti-Artscape at all,” says Sherwin Mark, the affable South African ringmaster behind aLtsKape, an art and music showcase taking place at his Load of Fun Studios this weekend, in collaboration with nearby WestNorth Studios. Sitting on a patio chair in the former office furniture store, a dog with David Bowie eyes at his feet, Mark is quick to explain that aLtsKape isn’t a guerrilla attack on Artscape’s crowd-pleasing concerts and greasy fair food, just a grass-roots effort to get festivalgoers excited about local art and artists.
“Artscape has done a great job over the years, and the city is highly supportive of the arts in multiple ways,” says Mark, surrounded by a handful of the artists who call Load of Fun, a warehouse at North Avenue and Howard Street, home. “But Artscape doesn’t do certain things, and everyone understands what Artscape has become and what it does. This year, they’ve got a Ferris wheel. But you know, OK—that’s what it’s about. What you’ll see at aLtsKape is probably a lot more political, a lot more controversial, a lot more confrontational.”
Mark’s fellow aLtsKape agitators nod their agreement. They’re a ragtag, paint-stained crew—helmed by Mark, the organizational committee includes pink-haired pixie Spoon Popkin, abstract painter Daniel Stuelpnagel, and Irish artist Bart O’Reilly. There’s also art-car aficionado (and occasional City Paper contributor) Dan Van Allen, who has organized a gas-burning car parade July 22 at the American Visionary Art Museum, hoping to pacify art-car fans that feel slighted by Artscape’s decision to showcase environmentally friendly vehicles this year. In addition to providing car display space at Load of Fun, Van Allen plans to present a “green” vehicle of his own in the official Artscape exhibit, as well as a slide show at aLtsKape documenting seven years of artistic mayhem at Nevada’s Burning Man festival.
As the curator of Artscape proper’s Self-Taught exhibition (page 52), Van Allen offers praise and criticism about the city-sponsored festival in equal measure. “I think one of the big problems with Artscape is that their performing arts budget is 10 times their visual arts budget,” he says. “So I think it’s good to have more things with visual art, because they’re not really funding it. They seem to be more concerned with getting big-name performers down there. They’re putting their money into getting these national acts, and the visual artists, who you think of when you think of Artscape, are getting the short end of the stick.
“Gary Kachadourian’s turned Artscape around,” Van Allen continues. “Before he took over, it was inaccessible. It was artists from New York flown in, friends of curators. Gary came in and opened it to Baltimore artists, so every year there’s been shows that are accessible to almost anyone that applies.”
While Van Allen wrangles the city’s beloved art cars along North Avenue, Popkin will be inviting anyone who produces small works of art priced in the $1 to $5 range to join her on the median strip outside Load of Fun Studios, in an attempt to sell pieces to frustrated Artscape-bound motorists. Her flier suggests peddling “postcards, painted rocks, pins, stickers, effluvia, noodlemen, patches, whatever you can imagine.”
“Anybody who wants to do it should just show up anytime,” Popkin says. “You make it, you sell it, you keep your money—whatever you want to do.”
Atop Load of Fun, Vox Environmental Arts is installing a light sculpture that Mark describes as “the equivalent of giant disco balls.” Creative Capitalism co-founder Peter Quinn is designing a banner for the side of the building. Inside, the curious can wander through 18 open working artists’ studios, check out a light installation by Dan Conrad, miniature dioramas by Dave Bakker, a traveling work of art in the building’s elevator, poetry readings, performance art, and live music by Lurch and Holler (ex-Lambs Eat Ivy) and the Tinklers Auxiliary on Friday night.
Though the entire aLtsKape committee seems slightly nervous about whether or not the whole affair will come together—there’s a decidedly off-the-cuff, DIY aspect to the proceedings—Mark views this year’s alternative festival as a starting point.
“Even though we’ll do it again next year, it’s not easy to do,” Mark says. “I’ve got to say, in light of the recent controversy regarding art cars, to do something like this, all kudos to Gary Kachadourian or whomever at Artscape, because it’s hell to do. But it’ll happen. And maybe we have 10 people drop by. OK. Next year, there’ll be 50.”
Meanwhile, over at the Copy Cat Building (1511 Guilford Ave.), a handful of young musicians and artists are banding together to produce Whartscape, every local indie-rock fan’s wet dream incarnate.
Reminiscent of the brain-jarring, body-jostling round-robin shows held at the warehouse’s Wham City space last spring, Whartscape’s Friday-Saturday night lineup features 19 bands, including local graphic-design-core duo Double Dagger, spazz-punk darling the Death Set, and a hefty lineup of Wham City’s usual suspects, including Blood Baby, Video Hippos, Human Host, Wzt Hearts, Ecstatic Sunshine, and Cex. New York’s Japanther, Aa, and Matt and Kim also join the party. The whole thing’s being overseen by Dan Deacon, Wham City’s resident purveyor of sugar-shock electro-pop, with help from other Copy Cat regulars.
“Our original goal with Whartscape was to have a huge week-long festival directly linked to Artscape, by being one the off-site galleries,” says Deacon, speaking from a national tour that ends with a set at Whartscape. “This fell through when our plans to move into a new space were pulled out from under us at the last minute. So, we shrunk the festival down and tried to make it as awesome as we could with the limited space/resources/funds—none—available to us.”
Despite the space setback, in addition to Whartscape’s extensive live-music lineup Wham City is offering a week’s worth of events leading up to Artscape. Double Dagger vocalist/graphic designer Nolen Strals joins Squidfire T-shirt designer Kevin Sherry for a free public lecture, part of Wham City’s ongoing series. The warehouse space hosts a screening of works by local filmmakers July 19. And on July 20, it presents an evening of alternative theater, featuring, at the very least, a live-action version of He-Man. Everyone involved with Whartscape is careful to explain that they’re not trying to detract from Artscape—rather, they hope their festival will be seen as a creative alternative.
“Our main reason for having Whartscape during Artscape is that Baltimore is packed that weekend with a lot of people looking for stuff to do that a city-sponsored festival can’t really be host to,” Deacon says. “Not that we are doing anything insane, but I don’t think Artscape would be too into Blood Baby screaming ‘stab my face’ at families eating gyros and looking at painted plates. Plus, Artscape ends at sundown, while we can rage into the night.”
“I don’t think people should come here instead of Artscape, I think they should come in addition to it,” adds Adam Enders, a filmmaker-turned-playwright and member of the thrash-punk Blood Baby. “We wanted to try to add more parts of what art is to it. And that’s why we’re having a film and video night and a theater night, because Artscape doesn’t really have much to do with that. We just wanted to broaden the whole aspect. We just don’t feel that Artscape is weird enough, and art should be kind of weird.”
Though both aLtsKape and Whartscape are obviously reactions to what their organizers perceive as Artscape’s increased commercialism, Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, commends the renegade event planners for adding to the overall profile of Baltimore’s annual arts celebration.
“We love them,” he says via phone from BOPA. “We love both the groups, because they’re doing really positive stuff in the community, and the fact that they’re putting on big events in conjunction with Artscape. It’s great. What happens outside the festival is as important as what happens inside. The whole idea of a central festival generating energy all around the city is maybe the best thing you can say about the festival. All creative growth is excellent, and if Artscape has a role in causing it to happen in other places, that’s great.”
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