To Be Conversant
Fusebox Festival gets Austin talking – with leading artists from all over the world
Ron Berry has an awesome job. As the artistic director of Fusebox Festival, Refraction Arts' hybrid arts extravaganza, he must pay attention to new work being created in the (broadly defined) visual and performing arts. He must attend festivals and talk to other artists and keep his eyes open and an ear to the ground. And from all this attention-paying, Berry and his team must piece together a combination of local, national, and international artists to infuse our city with 10 days of mind-blowing, definition-defying art. Lucky Ron. Because what could be better for an artist than being obligated to stay abreast of the global conversation?
The word "conversation" comes up frequently when speaking with Berry about Fusebox Festival. If one thinks of art as a dialogue – a series of actions and reactions between artists – then Fusebox aims to provide Austin with a snapshot of the current exchange. Berry hopes to encourage conversations between artists and between audiences. To that end, this year's festival will introduce a series of lunchtime discussions. But beyond literal conversation, Berry thinks of the experience of a live event as a conversation unto itself. "For an hour or so, you're not telling people something, but you're holding something up and looking at it together," he says. "And that could be a film, that could be an installation or a performance. Austin is a great place for conversation. There's something inherently unstuffy about this place."
Perhaps Berry's focus on the conversational aspects of Fusebox comes from his own epiphanic experience, which pulled him from an artistic slump and made him acutely aware of the importance of seeing other artists' work. Berry relates this anecdote: "With my own work, I felt like I had been banging my head against the wall for almost 10 years. Then I brought in this artist for Fusebox, and within about three weeks, I felt like I totally busted through this wall." Peat Duggins, co-founder of Okay Mountain and a participant in this year's Fusebox Festival, describes a similar experience: "Fusebox is the kind of event that charts unknown territory. Last year I saw a performance so inspiring that I went back three nights in a row. The performance subsequently changed my working definition of art. If you trust that it is worth attending, Fusebox might just shake you out of your seat."
Being shaken out of one's seat is great for artists, particularly those who live in a place like Austin. On the one hand, this city provides an affordable and enthusiastic environment for creating new work. But on the substantial flip side, we are isolated, and we are small. Julie Thornton is an art patron whose new performing arts fund, testperformancetest, is presenting four pieces at this year's Fusebox. She describes the challenges present: "Austin can be isolating to artists, because it's expensive to get out frequently. Audiences here can feel a bit out of the loop, as well." It's this very isolation that makes a festival like Fusebox so vitally important, connecting Austin to the national and international scenes, giving a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere. Phil Soltanoff, a New York-based artist who is collaborating with Refraction Arts on the multimedia piece 12:19 Library, discusses the importance of maintaining an awareness of the new work being created in your discipline(s): "You can't make an impact unless you're catching up to what's in the air at the moment. Then you can choose to advance it or reject it. But it needs to be part of your experience." Accordingly, Thornton notes, "Artists benefit by being around quality art." And while most starving artists don't have the time or money to travel around the world keeping tabs on what's new, Thornton points out, "Fusebox allows both artists and audiences a curated view of right now."
Among the artists who will soon be gracing our city, common threads are evident. New York's Nature Theater of Oklahoma will present four hours of its 11-hour melodramatic spectacle No Dice. The group's members describe themselves as being "devoted to making the work we don't know how to make" and "working from out of our own ignorance and unease." The international and multilingual Rotozaza, a favorite from the 2008 Fusebox, is returning to present GuruGuru, a piece from the company's Autoteatro series, in which audience members are given recorded instructions on how to behave. Rotozaza's artists are interested in seeing and creating work that "achieves a confusion of what we know as real and what we believe is constructed." And Britain's acclaimed performance group Forced Entertainment will be presenting Spectacular, a piece that explores "the now of the performance moment, the trembling edge of laughter, possibility, and invention." Regardless of locale, it seems all of these artists are fighting similar fights: attempting to create from a place of confusion and unease, to create work that is worthy of now.
Maintaining total awareness of the developments in any given art form is impossible. And determining how Austin fits into the landscape of the national and international artistic communities is similarly impossible. The most any individual artist can do is strive for awareness. See as much as possible. Read the relevant publications. Talk to other artists in his or her own community and elsewhere. And take advantage of those rare gems such as Fusebox Festival that bring the world to your doorstep and allow you, in turn, to show the world the work you've been creating. "You hope to leverage the power of the festival," says Berry. "So it becomes worthwhile for people to come and check stuff out. It would be very hard to get presenters to come see one Rude Mechs show, but if you've got 20 shows going on, then they'll come to Austin for the weekend. We are interested in trying to create a platform for local artists to engage and present their work on a larger scale."
And this brings us to why it's not just Ron Berry who is lucky to have such an awesome job. In fact, the larger truth is that Austin is lucky to have an intelligent and curious artist at the helm of Fusebox Festival, bringing us a thoughtful sampling of new work and providing local artists with an opportunity to engage with potential presenters. Duggins describes exactly why Berry is an ideal artistic director for the festival: "We had worked together on a few projects. In retrospect, each collaboration seemed to anticipate Fusebox: an experimental platform; a decentralized, egalitarian politic; a mishmash of artistic disciplines with a focus toward their convergence. Ron could talk modern dance with the modern dancers and screenwriting with the screenwriters. This seems to be central to why Fusebox works. Although Ron has his own critical voice, he is always more interested in hearing what others have to say." And nothing makes for a better conversation than a good listener.
Fusebox gives this small city an opportunity to be on a larger radar for 10 days, and though our base of artists may not be wide, it is certainly deep and vibrant. As Berry looks toward Austin's artistic future, he sees the importance of participating and engaging with the world. "I think if there's going to be any real growth here in terms of the quality and the ideas behind the work, we have to be in this conversation. We have to be talking to these other artists. We have to be seeing their work. It's essential."
And what will be the effect of all this conversation? Consider the man who has immersed himself in such dialogue for years. Berry says: "I feel less and less like a theatre artist. I am interested in making experiences. Each project or endeavor might have its own output. At the end of the day, my heart is really interested in the live event. What happens when you have people in a space together. I think it's a great antidote to the world."
As Austin continues to grow, our artistic community must strive to strike up conversations. We must contribute to the larger dialogue. We must maintain the vital combination of being both interesting and interested. Fusebox Festival provides us with the opportunity to converse with the world as it briefly journeys to our turf.
Fusebox Festival runs April 23-May 2 at various locations around Austin. For a full schedule, visit www.fuseboxfestival.com.