No Passport Required brings an international theme to Artscape
Published: July 17, 2013
A week before Artscape begins, the only sign of the nation’s largest free arts festival on the street is the profusion of thick white power cables coiled and draped around the neighborhood, as if Zeus had finally discovered bondage. But all over the city, artists whose proposals for the Midway—as the Charles Street corridor between Penn Station and North Avenue is popularly called—are feverishly working in their studios.
If you want to get a sense of the vision behind the process of selection that sent these artists scrambling back to their studios with a little cash and a bunch of ambition, the dark and divey red-and-black interior of Club Charles, just a block up from the Charles Street bridge, is a good place to start. Evan Moritz, a member of the Annex Theater and a curator of No Passport Required, is sitting at the long crowded bar over a pint of beer, while his co-curator, Kristen Faber, works behind it.
“I was initially approached by Jim [Lucio, the visual arts coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which puts on the festival] to do a special project with the Annex Theater,” Moritz says. Moritz and the Annex Theater, which just moved into the newly opened Station North Chicken Box, took over the mantle of the Ten Minute Plays from the Un Saddest Factory, which is on hiatus. They will perform 12 different 10-minute plays on the Midway through Artscape.
Once that was decided, Lucio asked Moritz if he would curate the rest of the corridor, since Moritz had experience with the curation of the Midway, one of the most artistically intense portions of the festival, in 2009 with other artists, including Rebecca Nagle and Carly Ptak. Faber, who does community murals with kids and other work related to the community interaction with art, was a natural fit.
“Artscape is the event that is most interactive in the city,” she says, placing a beer on the bar. “We get to pull on so many of our very best and brightest artists, but then we get to pull on people outside of the city as well. I love the free part where everyone is setting up and we get to see what happens.”
The two curators were constrained only by their budget and the international theme of No Passport Required, which Lucio chose because it was an extension of last year’s roadside-attractions theme. “I wanted to take that and expand it and make it bigger,” Lucio says. “It was a cool idea because I didn’t know what people would be inspired by. It could be architecture, it could be fashion, it could be food. There’s one group from New York that is going to be inspired by rituals and customs, and then there are more traditional things like [CP contributor John Ellsberry’s] the Taj Mahal, but executed very well.”
In choosing projects, Moritz says he had dual criteria. “The first and most important criterion is that it has to be a great Artscape. It has to be something that people from all ages and all areas of Baltimore can come to and really enjoy and have a great time. And I do think, for all the craft booths and funnel cakes, that people tend to remember the Midway section. But secondly, then, it becomes: How do we have some unifying aspect to it?”
At this moment, Faber returns from the far end of the bar. “Practically, I was looking for people who could take up a lot of space and make a really impressive presence on the bridge,” she says. “Because that’s always very exciting: to walk into something and it’s like, What is this? and get to maneuver around it—something with a big presence. And something that fit into the theme too. Some people had no connection to the theme, and it was a little bit more far-fetched.
“There’s this group from New York called Wild Torus and, to me, they’re the wild card,” Faber adds, with an obvious air of excitement. “They do performance environments and it’s interactive. It’s something that hasn’t ever existed at Artscape and never will again.”
As an example of the application process, Faber explains Wild Torus’ proposal. “They sent YouTube videos of their performances, and all of them were totally different, and their webpage was hard to navigate and so you got this sense, anything that interested them, they tried to incorporate into the performances, the costumes, the environment.”
Moritz cuts in. “I think the success of their proposal is that they didn’t tell you exactly what they were going to do, but they did give you a very good sense of what the feeling of their work was going to be.”
“And what they were capable of accomplishing too,” Faber adds soberly. “Because I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach to anyone. If you don’t tell us—”
She and Moritz agree that such proposals can seem like there is no idea.
“I think my boyfriend kind of did that,” Faber says and laughs, perhaps uncomfortably.
The boyfriend’s proposal was not accepted.
Faber works her way down the length of the bar, taking orders and pouring pints.
According to Moritz, they were given $30 or $40 thousand for the Midway, which also funds the art cars and the bigger projects that are booked farther in advance. Lucio knew that he wanted to keep working with 1-800-GOT-JUNK and Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning, which created the Roadhouse venue for Artscape in 2012. “They are a great group to work with because they have a large team of students to work on these large destination pieces,” Lucio says of Morgan State. “They get to show off what they’re doing and get some hands-on work that will hopefully pay off in their real careers.”
1-800-GOT-JUNK is a trash-removal service, and Lucio always noticed a lot of records in their warehouse, so he realized they could bring together a bunch of DJs to play them. “Whether it’s old Berlitz records with some mariachi or something, we thought it would be fun,” Lucio says.
It was the job of Morgan State’s School of Architecture and Planning to figure out what kind of space would best facilitate that. “We looked at the theme of No Passport Required as an opportunity not just to highlight one culture,” says Brian Grieb, of MSU, who is co-leading the project with Brian Stansbury, “but we wanted to look at it as something that is unifying and binding. We’re all one on this planet. This led us down a path of looking at [Buckminster] Bucky Fuller’s work. His most famous thing is the geodesic dome, but he actually was a forefather of a lot of ideas in terms of sustainability and that really became the foundation of what we wanted to do. Then we put that in terms of having music, and DJs, and a place to congregate.”
The students and faculty not only design the dome structure— the result of these ideas coming together—but they also must build it. And as the curators sit at the bar, a team of 12 students and two faculty members are busy working on their different parts of the project.
Just down the bar from Moritz, Craig Coletta, of Yellow Sign Theatre, is thinking about his company’s contribution. “Joy [Martin], who owns Club Charles, called us and said she was going to transform the bar into a Moulin Rouge history of French dive bars and decadence. She thought it would fit the theme well to do the history of the French debauche and she asked if Yellow Sign could do something fitting. So I thought back to our first show, which was a Grand Guignol, French horror theater of the 1890s. I took our original piece, which was our adaptation of a 1903 piece The System of Dr. Guodron and Professor Plume, which is itself based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. We rewrote it and made it more extreme and more extravagant.”
In addition to the roughly 40-minute play with “massive weirdness and gore,” according to Coletta, Yellow Sign will team up with Twisted Knickers burlesque troupe to present La Belle Epoque.
Walking out of the door of this already historic dive bar into the quiet night surrounding what will soon be the international Midway, it’s almost possible to imagine the Belle Epoque butting up against Buckminster Fuller hosting DJs beside the Taj Mahal. As Lucio says, with Artscape, “You can come up with this idea and imagine it, but the great thing is that you really can’t predict what the individual artists will do with it.”
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