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The Arts

The Reconstruction

The Transmodern Festival finally sees its ideas coming to fruition

Emily C-D

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 4/1/2009

When the Transmodern Festival was started in 2003, its founders imagined that it would be cross-disciplinary, multi-genre, and, above all, devoted to performance pieces that challenge the steep walls that separate audiences from artists. Now, six years and five festivals later, the curators/organizers behind the festival feel that their 2003 vision is finally starting to be realized. The odd mix of artists and academics that make up the small, active, national performance community have flocked to the festival, now one of the largest in the United States. Catherine Pancake, a documentary filmmaker and a co-founder of the festival, said that the first festival was just a "proof of concept" for what followed.

"What was in my mind in 2003 is actually happening now," she says in her Seton Hill home, where the curators have gathered to discuss this year's festival. "It's much more immersive, with many more artists and sensory experiences. It's taken on a life of its own."

The Transmodern Festival has also managed to confuse and integrate the arts in Baltimore. Painters become actors and performers become artists over a four-day festival that runs like an exercise in organized chaos. With mixed-media and platform artist collectives and event spaces such as Wham City and Floristree, it appears that the Baltimore arts community is now only an outgrowth of the spaces "activated," as the collective members claim, by the festival.

In the first year, Pancake says, the festival drew about 75 people per night. Last year, more than 600 people participated in the festival, with even more expected this year. Despite the festival's rapid growth rate, the organizers have been able to keep up by turning many of the artists into curators, or organizers, of their own nights and spaces.

"We used a festival model at the beginning, with a set group of artists and an organizing body," says Bonnie Jones, who co-founded the festival with Pancake and Jackie Milad. "What I started to realize in thinking more about this year is that the festival has grown outside that model."

Laure Drogoul, an interdisciplinary artist who participated in the first two festivals, says that Transmodern's use of multiple locations--this year, events are at the Load of Fun Studios and the H&H Building--allows it to transform its environment. "It's nomadic," says Drogoul, who is again curating the free Pedestrian Service Exquisite, held outside of the H&H Building on Sunday afternoon. "It moves from one part of town to another part of town. It's exciting because you activate one space in town and move and activate another space. That's very transmodern."

Transmodernism, according to the festival's organizers, is an organizing principle for art and life that resists the nihilism of post-modernism and the strictures of modernism. As Jones puts it in a statement made in 2003, "transmodernists are looking forward to another future where people (with their identities intact) effect global change and create brave new art."

"The festival wasn't built to prove a particular historical concept," Jones says. "It's a new idea about the ways art and community work together. The name has caught up to the festival and the festival has caught up to the name."

Pancake and Drogoul echo Jones' sentiments, noting that they are as concerned about assembling spaces as they are about programming particular events. "We create this ecology and get everyone to work in it together," Pancake says. "Some people are really excited about that, artists who are by nature multi-disciplinary."

While the festival organizers say that they initially had to push artists to do more experimental, collaborative, and multi-disciplinary work, now the artists come to them with ideas. "One of our curators [Ric Royer] was tentatively putting together a show that had more theater-based works," Jones says. "The artists said that they wanted to involve the audience."

Even though the festival is one of the newest established festivals on the Baltimore calendar, the artists it presents are far more familiar now, thanks to the popularity of performance on YouTube and other sites, than they were in 2003. If the artists are becoming curators of the event, the audience members are increasingly both the participants and documenters of what goes on. "We ask people to officially document the event for us," Pancake says, adding that some of the best documentation shows up on Flickr and YouTube pages after the festival is over. "It's going to be a little more mishmash [this year]."

While some performance artists are resistant to recording--they sometimes rely on the sales of documentation of the work to make a living--the organizers suggested that the documentation can become part of the event itself. "The smaller the distance between the event and the documentation the better," Drogoul says.

Increased documentation may even make the event more unique, Pancake suggests. "As people become more wired and spend more time on devices, this event will be more rarified," she says.

Already, the organizers are excited, if a bit wary, of what will likely be the biggest draw of the weekend, a Saturday evening performance of Dan Deacon's new album, Bromst. Other Saturday highlights include the Freddy McGuire Show, featuring the video artist Anne McGuire, and a new installation, "Ball Movement 09, Baltimore Cup" curated by Michael Benevento, the co-director of the Current Gallery. (City Paper contributor Emily C-D and art director Joe MacLeod are each involved in Thursday night projects.)

Several of the installation pieces take place over several days at the festival, and throughout the festival there will be roaming performers. The unpredictability of what will happen on any given night is precisely the point.

As part of its desire for inclusivity, the organizers say the festival is constantly looking for women and minority artists, who have been historically underrepresented in the arts. But unlike pluralists who see the inclusion of these artists as merely a social good, Pancake offers another rationale for including these voices. "We see women, or a certain ethnic group as an economy that's not been tapped," she says. "There is a heavy focus on feminism and multiculturalism. We want to get everything we can out of these marginalized economies."

For example, Pancake says that the festival this year includes Ami Dang, an multimedia artist whose work is informed by Sikh spirituality and performance. Next year, Pancake plans on bringing in an artist who will create a mobile arts center, complete with a marching band.

One of the things that sets the Transmodern Festival apart from other arts festivals is its expectation that the works presented will be received in many different ways, with varying degrees of participation and understanding, by those who attend. "We try to balance the more conceptual work with the pieces that are more spectacular," Pancake says.

"You have a million different points of access," Jones says. "It's like a perfume."

"Or a recipe," Drogoul breaks in.

"Or a fine scotch," Jones says.

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