Transmodern Festival focuses its many creative brains on movement in its various forms
Published: April 27, 2011
The Transmodern Festival
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Last Friday, filmmaker Xavier Leplae was in Pittsburgh—a little more than 500 miles from where he started in Milwaukee, Wis., and a little less than 250 miles from his eventual Baltimore destination. He’s coming to town to present his new film, Rasmalai Dreams, as part of the Transmodern Festival. Only he’s traveling a bit unusually for an artist attending an arts festival. He’s riding his bike.
“I travel a lot—or I like to travel a lot,” he says by phone. “But I’m beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable with using so much fossil fuels to get around. So, I thought, part of travel is experiencing things and seeing new things, so I figured why not just bike? Because, in a way, I’m still traveling and experiencing new things, but I’m not using as many fossil fuels. So I’m experimenting with seeing if I can actually avoid using airplanes or cars to get places. Because it’s just so easy to buy an airplane ticket and go to another part of the country. This is the first [trip by bike]. I might do some more in the future too—whenever I want to go somewhere far away, just try to do it by bike instead of by airplane or by car.”
Los Angeles artist Kirsten Stoltmann is coming to Baltimore too. She flies in the morning of the first day of the festival, and an even bigger issue about her relation to space is on her mind. In “Post-Nothing,” her hilarious short that she will present at the festival, she is seen taking a casual jog down a stereotypically lovely suburban Southern California neighborhood when, well, you’ll see. Suffice it to say that the suburbs and Stoltmann don’t entirely get along.
“So basically the piece is about being in the suburbs,” Stoltmann says by phone with a comic lack of pretension. “I live in a really suburban neighborhood, and it drives me crazy—it’s the death of me. It’s caused me to drink a lot.
“I thought it would be funny and I’d kind of get to know the neighbors and maybe I’d join the PTA just for fun,” she continues, kinda/sorta explaining why she moved to the suburbs (she has a daughter, the suburb has good schools, the usual reasons). “But there was nothing funny about it. It was really as bad as you’d think it would be. It was really that cliché. And I was like, ‘OK, I’m suffocating.’ So I made a video about that. And I’m moving.”
Bill Shannon thinks through space for his performances. The Pittsburgh-based street artist created his own form of dance/movement involving a skateboard, other props, and crutches, which he has used to get around due to a degenerative hip condition, though you wouldn’t guess at all watching him glide by. Part hip-hop dance, part skateboarding improvisation, and entirely his own thing, Shannon’s performance art—which he brings to Transmodern Friday night—is a breathtaking fusion of his interdisciplinary ideas. “I future-sequence my route of travel, so I know what kinds of streets I’ll be crossing and stuff like that so I can decide what kind of props I’m using, how I’m going to roll, etc.,” Shannon says by phone of his Transmodern performance. “I know there’s going to be some wheeled devices, for sure. It’s a little bit of performance art, some movement elements to it. It’s not a pure dance performance, but I probably still will be doing some dancing in there. Think of it like a busker—a bunch of props, some dance moves, some funny stuff.”
Motion, movement, mobility, migration—these themes bubble up through this year’s Transmodern Festival in a variety of ways. Migration and immigration get examined in the Copycat Theatre’s ambitious Rooms Play. The festival’s footprint widened this year, including not merely nearly everybody housed in the H&H Building like last year (the Whole Gallery, the 5th Dimension, Floristree, Nudashank [co-operated by City Paper contributor Alex Ebstein]), but also the nearby Current Space and 14Karat Cabaret. Festival-goers will have to move around the neighborhood itself to take everything in. The Sunday afternoon free outdoor component, the Pedestrian Services Exquisite, plans on spreading itself throughout this corridor, with Fluid Movement’s Love Parade marching through the area and back to the Current Gallery. And these themes were a conscious choice for the festival.
In an e-mail, Laure Drogoul—one of the co-curators of the festival, along with Stephanie Barber, Jenny Graf, Rebecca Nagle, CampCamp (Marian Glebes, Ryan Patterson, and Fred Scharmen), Eve Hanan, Valeska Maria Populoh, Copycat Theatre, Rose Hammer Burt, Claire Cote, and (erstwhile City Paper contributor) Carly Ptak—wrote that works that deal with or express themselves by moving or passing through were encouraged for the festival, as were works that identify moments of rupture and the effects of transience, migration, and mobility. “When the current organizational group got together, we made that decision because we felt that would be a more interesting direction for the festival,” Drogoul says when reached by phone. “It was something we were all interested in and it seemed it would work better for the overall aesthetics of the festival—just in terms of having the spectator be a bit more of an active participant in general. And one of the ways to address that would be through mobility and moving the audience through spaces. . . . The decision then was how are we going to activate so much footage, and the way to do that is to partner with a bunch of conspirators and ask them.”
It’s difficult to judge accurately if what those conspirators have come up with is the biggest (by number of participating artists) Transmodern Festival ever—each year it feels like it takes a small town to pull off—but the collaborative scope of this year’s installment looks quite ambitious. In addition to Rooms Play, Cote’s video-game inspired dance-theater piece Power Moves Forever Quest features live music and sound by Dan Breen, Dan Deacon, Chase O’Hara, and Josh Van Horn; puppetry and costumes from Kaitlin Murphy, Clarissa Gregory, John Marra, Marcela Villa, and Alex Vizzio; video projections; and the Effervescent Collective and friends as dancers/performers. In an e-mail Cote describes the piece as an exploration of the “physical limitations of the body through simulating video game interactions.” It sounds like a gigantic dose of brain-scrubbing WTF?
It’s a piece, though, that straddles a digital-reality divide that increasingly feels to be part of human activity. For her Friday night performance “Google (Performance) Art Video,” local artist Christine Ferrera interacts with a video version of herself in a way that, she hopes, creates an odd interaction between the live and onscreen personas. In an e-mail she calls it a self-reflexive and insular piece that came out of a “need to let myself indulge fully in self-doubt/self-critique and not make art that I thought was ‘important’ or that I should make [italics hers],” and mentions that it grew out of a thinking about looking up certain words online in hopes of discovering hidden truths and inspiration.
That’s a very personal consideration that fueled a project, but it’s something we all do: We all live partly online and offline these days, even if that online life is where we go to seek information about ourselves, our plans, our paths. Leplae reports that he’s been using Google Maps to plot his bike route from Milwaukee to Baltimore. “I can go in and go onto Street View and actually take a look at the road,” he says. “So I used that a lot, to at least anticipate what I’m getting myself into.”
It’s been a learning process, figuring out how to travel without the usual luxuries of travel. “I studied ultralight backpackers, how they pack their gear,” Leplae says. “And learning how to bring it down to as little as possible, the weight. And I tried really hard, but I’m still carrying a few things that I didn’t really need. But that’s part of it too. I’m learning. It’s kind of cool in that way. I’m learning new skills—like camping, biking, gear, stuff like that.”
It’s a casual curiosity that appears to inform Leplae’s work as well. Rasmalai Dreams is an oddly fascinating viewing experience. For a little more than an hour you watch, in 3D, a series of people dance, deliver monologues, enact scenes, and do other things over backgrounds shot in and around Mumbai. It’s this beguiling mix of ethnographic imagery—shots of market stalls, a man playing a stringed instrument on a bus, a train station—with what feel like random bits of disconnected movies or television shows.
In other words, it feels like this dizzying mix of travel footage and excised Bollywood scenes because, in some ways, it is. While in Mumbai working with a friend on a movie, Leplae put ads in the paper and on the radio seeking auditions for an American movie. More than 150 people showed up, and an ad agency he was working with vetted that pool to about 60, whom Leplae brought into a Bollywood studio. He shot their auditions and used about 30 of them for Rasmalai Dreams.
“They came to the audition with a prepared monologue or a prepared dance piece or song,” Leplae says. “That’s the end result of it. A lot of the monologues people were doing were from Bollywood films. I didn’t know that. Indian people told me. I was just taking a chance and it ended up being kind of interesting. Again, I learned something. I had no idea what people would do.”
This see-what-happens approach runs through aspects of Transmodern as a whole this year, especially Sunday’s free Pedestrian Services Exquisite, which Drogoul likens to an urban safari. “I just wanted to keep the city and the spaces of the city as kind of our frame, our ever-expanding canvas—and really the fallow areas of the city and activating that space,” she says. “And of course, ‘pedestrian’—there’s pedestrian as in walking about, but there’s also that saying, ‘Oh, you’re so pedestrian’—the common folk. And we just wanted to keep it for the common folk.”
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