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Nonconformance Performance

The Fifth Annual Transmodern Festival Pushes Its Everything-Goes Art Out of Its Safe Zones

Michael Northrup
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Nelson, Bonnie Jones, Jaimes Mayhew, Stephanie Barber, Adam Robinson, Rebecca Nagle, Catherine Pancake, Ric Royer

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 4/2/2008

The Transmodern Festival

April 3-6 at Load of Fun

For more information visit

It's a drizzly Wednesday evening on North Avenue, and aside from a waitress catching a smoke outside Joe Squared and a few tired commuters huddled under a bus shelter outside the Family Dollar, it's deadsville. There's no indication that this street, 18 short days from now, is going to become a cortex-tickling bazaar of the eclectic and unexpected. Pedestrians out for a post-church Sunday stroll will encounter the likes of Thach Thao Nguyen's urban-foraged spring roll stand, packed with wild plants from the neighborhood; a cluster of mimes engaging in a perverse variation on Rock Paper Scissors (Black Power fist, Nazi salute, peace sign); a "Love Parade" complete with a strolling accordionist and spontaneous hugs for passers-by; and something called a Monster Drummer Thunderupagus playing the drums. Be forewarned: Thunderupagus is not cute.

This one-day "Pedestrian Services Exquisite" street fair from another dimension comes courtesy of--who else?--the Transmodern performance and arts festival, now in its fifth incarnation and even more determined to bust wide open all expectations and limitations, including its own.

In previous years, the festival held outdoor events in the Wyman Park Dell across the street from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Or the "bowl"--as artist and Transmodern co-organizer Laure Drogoul referred to it to co-organizer Catherine Pancake. "She said, `The bowl is such a safe space. Don't you want to get it out of that bowl and on the street?'" Pancake recalls. "And I was like, `Um, I don't know--the bowl's kinda cool," she laughs.

But Drogoul persisted. "`If you really want to deal with performance and deal with space, you've really got to get this thing onto North Avenue and get it on the street and with the people,'" Pancake recalls her insisting. "`Because if you're dealing with space and time and materials, this is way richer than having it in some little park.'"

Pancake sits on a folding chair in the stark and serviceable main lobby of Load of Fun, the gallery/studio/performance space at North Avenue and Howard Street. And the people with her at tonight's planning meeting--Rebecca Nagle, Stephanie Barber, Theresa Columbus, Adam Robinson , Ric Royer, Bonnie Jones, and Jaimes Mayhew--are the nerve center of this year's Transmodern Festival. The rain still falls outside, but inside this circle of artists working for a greater purpose there's a definite low-kilohertz buzz hinting at something utopian and grand. Maybe it's because nine months of frenzied planning and organizing have finally jelled into a sweet little lineup over which everyone in attendance can breathe a sigh of relief, but some of that snap in the air is definitely related to this year's decision to locate everything within and around Load of Fun and North Avenue. Performance art is a hard sell, even to edgy, attuned audiences. Presenting it to a completely new population unfamiliar with its expectation-defying lunacy can mean the difference between Rive Gauche and just plain gauche--a risk the collective is willing to take.

"The work really engages people," says performance artist Rebecca Nagle, one-third of the team (along with Mayhew and Drogoul) curating Sunday's street festival. "A lot of the performances and the artwork are really interactive, and engages people--not on a high-art level, but that's the whole idea."

"It's undeniable to me, living in Baltimore since '93, that there's so much mythology around North Avenue," Pancake adds. "And so I do like the idea of interacting with North Avenue. There's a ton of history here--this used to be the great cultural corridor."

"I hope people come from the suburbs on Sunday," filmmaker/performance artist Stephanie Barber chimes in. "That's sort of revolutionary, to walk around in a neighborhood you think is so scary, and it's so not."

Revolutionary isn't the half of it. Sunday's street fair is the capstone of an extended weekend, beginning Thursday night, of performances, installations, sound, film, and--according to the web site--"mayhem, ecstasy, and radical culture." "There will be installations immediately as you walk in, installation in different spaces," co-curator Theresa Columbus says, offering a quick preview of what to expect on opening night. "But performances onstage are the emphasis. There's a theatrical production, and two collaborative play-type performance pieces. There's an amazing vocalist/electronic musician named Anna Oxygen who's capping the night--she does this operatic, electronic--"

"Is she your Thursday must-see?" Barber interrupts.

"Well, yeah . . . but no, everyone is!" Columbus giggles, palpably giddy about the roster of talent she's assembled. It's part of Transmodern's informal official policy: one night, one curator, which gives each evening's program a distinctive and cohesive flavor.

"A funny thing happened about last year," performance artist Ric Royer says. "Friday and Saturday were, aesthetically, very different from each other. And we got some people who were like, `Friday was so great, everything was everywhere, it was like a party.' And other people were like, `Ugh--it was like a party Friday night, it was terrible. Saturday was great, though--things happened.' So you have these people who are used to certain performance conventions or, even if they're used to them, they just don't like them. Where in this space, you can have a stage upstairs, where at Creative Alliance you can't."

That offhand remark is the most telling of what's different about Transmodern 2008's decision to inhabit every floor--and the surrounding neighborhood--of Load of Fun, rather than rotate between venues at Maryland Institute College of Art, the G-Spot, Area 405, and the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. "Really, it's every artist's, curator's, or organizer's dream to take over an entire building," co-organizer Bonnie Jones says. "Very few spaces could afford that kind of flexibility. I mean, literally, Transmodern is taking over this entire building, from everything outside to everything inside, in every corner and crack--and the pizza toppings" she drawls, her voice taking on a not-very-serious wink. "We're going to be in the pizza toppings."

In other words, four trips to Load of Fun on four different nights will yield a quartet of very different experiences. Thursday and Saturday nights feature onstage performances on two floors, with an emphasis on visiting artists such as GOBULUX and Dynasty Handbag, while Friday is, as Royer puts it, "balancing extreme chaos" as local artists such as (City Paper contributors) Rahne Alexander and Spoon Popkin create a free-form mingling gallery of installations and performative happenings scattered all over the place.

"I don't know if it's going to sound snotty or ass-kissery to you, but I would say that the question of us having blossomed is not because of this building," Barber emphasizes, although every member of the collective sings Load of Fun owner Sherwin Mark's praises for making such a phenomenal space available to the city's artistic community--and their festival--for very little in return. "It's really blossomed because of the work of the original people. Each year it's a little better, and it's getting larger. That's why Theresa and I said yes to curating. That's why more people want to be around it."

The ephemeral nature of performance art aside, there is something rare and special and bittersweet about what's going to happen inside these doors starting Thursday. "Places like this don't last long," Royer says of Load of Fun. "It's all part of the economic cycle. What happens when venues like this are given money to expand its cultural dimension, and--well, you know how it works. The market goes up, and the people who made it culturally specific can't afford to live there anymore.

"It's hard not to feel positive doing something in a neighborhood that's attempting to move on," Royer continues. "It's not just because we decided Load of Fun's cool--once you're here, it's hard not to feel positive about working in a neighborhood that needs it and is on its way."

So is the Transmodern Festival--and, in a broader sense, the Station North revitalization initiative that Mark and other artists are a vital part of--like an infusion of white blood cells at the site of an injury, so the city's own immune system of cultural cachet is able to heal itself from within?

That analogy makes Barber stiffen visibly. "Oof--that's a rough metaphor," she recoils. Why? "Uh, because it's a historically African-American neighborhood that white people are coming in and fixing? It's just a rough metaphor, that's all I'm saying."

A good point, and the other members of Transmodern stress that this festival isn't back-door gentrification, supplanting an "inferior" community culture with a supposedly superior one. "Maybe not just think of it as a cleaning up," Jones says, "but as a group of people who actually just want to interact with the community and be part of the environment."

"Because things are going on here," Barber says. "Just not the things we're into. It's not desolate just because it's not what we're into."

"I think anything that celebrates art and culture opens those doors and opens those communications around and in the neighborhood," Pancake says. "And opens up people's ideas about what's happening across races or across gender."

She's hopeful about Sunday's Love Parade doing just that, since it draws some of its inspiration from the African-American tradition of show-stopping parades while blending in its own Situationist-style social work. "There are these images of Baltimore that The Wire promotes--there are drug dealers, and there are all these people in neighborhoods for years trying to survive," Pancake says. "All they're trying to do is keep their yard together and keep the drug dealers off their block. No matter what gender or race you are, let's just celebrate your block and make stuff for the kids and parade up and down the street like the marching-band culture that's here."

And bridging between existing cultures to create a new, rarified, and energized state is what Transmodern is all about. "To feed on the energy of movements like that, as opposed to the patness of the movement itself," Jones says. "Do you know what I mean? Like, `Oh, I'm part of the Surrealists.' But there was an energy that exists before `surrealism' was a term. That's the real, fertile, interesting part." H

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