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Nice Little Machine

How a Wearable Art Show Became Poised to Take Over Baltimore’s Experimental Art Scene

Christopher Myers
FESTIVE: When Not Finishing Her MFA Thesis (including “doing the same thing,” on the wall behind her) Jackie Milad is one of the organizers of Transmodern Age.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 4/6/2005

It really wasn’t that long ago. In August 2003, experimental artist Catherine Pancake approached Jackie Milad and Bonnie Jones, co-owners of the then-newly formed Chela gallery, about an idea she had for a festival. It would be called Transmodern Age, and its focus would be “otherworldly adornment”—artists using costuming and body-based works in ways that exceeded fashion’s already spacious limits. In addition to being a great way to tie together many aspects of Baltimore’s nascent avant-garde scene—bringing in players from places like the Red Room, 14 Karat Cabaret, aminibigcircus, and Fluid Movement, among others—and provide a central showcase of female players in experimental media, Transmodern would be an opportunity to invite artists from outside Baltimore and expand the city’s dialogue with the national cutting-edge scene.

The proposal sounded great, Milad and Jones agreed to help, and in December 2003 Transmodern Age premiered (“Clothing Arguments,” Dec. 10, 2003). The response was so tremendous that all three women knew they had hit on a good thing worth repeating. So here we are in 2005, days away from the second, expanded, revamped coming of Transmodern Age, and co-organizer Jackie Milad is psyched.

Milad, a dark, bespectacled pixie (think Audrey Hepburn as a mod librarian), looks excited, not exhausted, even though she’s spent the last six months organizing her MFA thesis show at 3 South Gallery, as well as working with Pancake and Jones putting the final touches on Transmodern 2005. “Last year [in addition to organizing] I did a performance with Temple Crocker,” Milad says. “This year I just wanted to be spectator/organizer. We work really well together, the group. Catherine works very well at delegating jobs, and we all take on responsibility very well. It’s a nice little machine.”

This year, the core group abandoned the first Transmodern Age’s theme of “otherworldly adornment” and decided instead to pose to its participants the open-ended question “What is human?” As Pancake put it in part of the festival’s call to artists, “How do we actively participate in and comment on human relationships in real time in our life and creative work? How can something be deeply human and deeply alien to one’s sense of humanity at the same time?”

“One thing that I like about the concept is that it’s open to a lot of different interpretations,” Milad says, teasing her words carefully out of a mind abuzz with free-floating ideas. Milad’s original concept was political in origin—specifically, how ideas floating around the public dialogue (Is a brain-dead woman on life support human? Is the connection between two men in love real?) have their roots in these “human or not” questions.

“We wanted to make the artist deal with what’s going on politically without being obvious about it,” she says. “Issues the gay community is dealing with, issues the global community is dealing with, all of that has to do with relationships and how we deal with other people.” But she stresses that was only her starting point. “It doesn’t have to be about this political thing we’re talking about. An artist can take it into different, apolitical perspectives. That was important. I wanted to say, like, ‘This is what we present to you, can you present something to us that is unique to yourself?’”

Judging from the depth and breadth of this year’s participants, the answer is “yes.” As well as local perennials Laure Drogoul, Audrey Chen, and members of the Charm City Kitty Club, there’s also Wynne Greenwood, aka Tracy and the Plastics, who backs her rock band with video projections of herself and uses everyday objects (such as the rattling ball inside a bottle of nail polish) as musical elements. There’s Paper Rad, a collective of three who create Flash animations and internet comic strips reminiscent of a peyote-soaked browse through an ’80s sticker collection. And there’s Praxis, a husband-and-wife performance team whose activities include kissing people’s boo-boos and turning water into wine.

“We looked for artists that either had worked in the past with other artists in a collaborative sense—specifically duos,” Milad says. “And if we hadn’t, we proposed, ‘Can you try to work with another person and put something original together for this festival?’”

Maybe the reason Milad is not more exhausted has to do with the local art scene’s own collaborative spirit. “It’s really very exciting. I couldn’t say what it is—I have all kinds of little theories about that—but I think there are a lot of really strong organizers in Baltimore, people that believe in this kind of work,” she says. “They’re sort of the magnet pulling people in. I think that there’s a sense of do-it-yourself that a lot of people in the city have, that if it doesn’t exist, you just do it.”

You don’t have to tell that to Cindy Rehm. “You want to see the room?” she asks, with the casual pride of a mom-to-be who’s got the nursery just the way she wants it. A quick jaunt up the wide wooden stairs of her Greenmount Avenue cottage shows that “spare room” is not just some clever name for a gallery space—it’s literally a spare room in her home, the kind of small upstairs space that less enterprising souls clutter up with gym equipment and unopened boxes from college. Rehm used to do that, too, until it dawned on her that she didn’t have to shell out money for gallery space when she had four usable walls in her own abode. Now making the minispace available to a rotating roster of artists is just one of many contributions Rehm makes to the Baltimore art scene.

Milad says she invited Rehm to participate in Transmodern Age because she knew Rehm “had such a well-defined vision of her art.” Besides, Transmodern’s human-centered theme fit perfectly with Rehm’s performance work. “I do a lot with women’s issues and issues of hysteria and the female body,” says Rehm, a sturdy woman with bright eyes and a Jolly Rancher-colored wardrobe. The specifics of the work she’s performing (titled “Marking”) at Area 405 on Friday night are hinted at in its instructions: the enigmatic “Milk, Blood, Hair.” Like much of her other work, “it deals with issues of the female body and fluids and staining.”

“It seems like at this festival there’s a really diverse variety of the kind of performances.” Rehm says. “Some people are coming from a music place, some from a theatrical place. Some are stage-based, some are more like a one-on-one interaction. So I’m really interested to be in that format where there’s a lot of different things happening.”

Naoko Maeshiba feels the same way. “There’s a scene here going on that’s not really happening in D.C., a community of artists who are really pushing and exploring the boundaries,” she says. “It’s really refreshing. I’m finding more people to collaborate with here, many more people than I was finding, actually, anywhere else.” Maeshiba raises a matchstick-slim arm and pours herself a cup of tea, betraying her dancer’s pedigree by investing the simple action with extraordinary grace. “People are really open. They might be a filmmaker or a visual artist, but they’re open. Their form is open to other forms.”

Maeshiba, whose work spans performance, dance, and theater, also takes the body as a starting point. “It’s like the body has ingrained memory and history up to this point. How I point at something is completely different than how you point,” she says. “It’s been ingrained. The history is ingrained.” Maeshiba maintains that she doesn’t dance in the space, she dances the space—the so-called “empty” void is as engraved with history as another person’s body. (Her performance Saturday night at Creative Alliance is influenced in part by the vivid red walls in the theater.) And this time she’s dancing with a partner, her frequent co-collaborator Tatsuya Aoyagi. “Mostly I like working with a performer who brings different energy, and who can manipulate the energy so that they have richer texture, so it’s not like one note. And [Aoyagi’s] one of the people who can do that. It’s a matter of sensitivity. And he’s got the sensitivity.”

Maeshiba’s travels have included residencies in Japan, Hawaii, and D.C., but she’s finding her new home to be a very fruitful place for an artist. “I feel that Baltimore is very fluid in between the fields,” she says. “That’s really fascinating. I think that’s a good direction. That’s something I have been thinking of for a long time about Baltimore. It feels like a perfect place to be connected.”

That’s a sentiment Milad echoes. “That’s very much a Baltimore thing, ‘the more the merrier.’ It’s totally a more-the-merrier mentality in this city,” she says. “I think that’s why I enjoy living here so much. It’s a good city for an artist to create work and to experiment, and I think it’s necessary for even those well-known people to come to a festival like this or to a city like this because they can afford to experiment. It seems that every artist believes in what we’re doing—new work, new artists, new art forms.

“Bonnie and Catherine and I just had this idea that we’d have some cool stuff,” Milad concludes. “I didn’t expect people to get so excited about it. In Baltimore, when someone presents a good idea in an accessible way, people get so excited. And they want to support it.”

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