Design for Living

Fusebox Festival creates a pop-up village as part of its thinkEAST Living Charrette

Concept art for Tank Farm History Exhibition by Thoughtbarn
Concept art for Tank Farm History Exhibition by Thoughtbarn (Courtesy of ThoughtBarn)

Fusebox Festival has always been great at making use of space belonging to others – say, filling the south steps of the Capitol with 200 two-steppers or the French Legation lawn with scores of musicians raising Mozart's Requiem from the dead. Most of those, however, have been one-offs: individual events crafted for one Fusebox that went away with that year's fest. This year, the cross-disciplinary arts fiesta is creating a space unique in its 11-year history, one that not only will serve as a key site for the 2015 festival but could have a lasting impact on the property for years to come.

Since last summer, the Fusebox team – led by Artistic Director Ron Berry, Managing Director Brad Carlin, and scholar-in-residence Carra Martinez – has been hard at work imagining how to develop a 24-acre tract in East Austin that had once been a tank farm for jet fuel storage before neighborhood activism shut it down and forced its cleanup. Fusebox doesn't own the land or even have a financial stake in it, but the company has been tasked with leading the process to determine what will go there. Landowners Robert Summers and Richard deVarga approached Fusebox because they envisioned artists and creative industries as integral to the development they'd dubbed thinkEAST. With a $400,000 grant from creative placemaking consortium ArtPlace America, Fusebox and its partners – DeVarga and Summers, entrepreneur Fred Schmidt, the city's Cultural Arts Division, and architectural planning firm TBG Partners – launched their "living charrette," an 18-month process involving dialogues with thinkEAST's primary stakeholders (Govalle and Johnston Terrace neighborhood residents and local creatives) and gathering public input at community meetings.

For the first nine months, the process may have resembled many similar projects: lots of confabs over coffee, presentations to folks in plastic chairs, brainstorming ideas on butcher paper. Now though, at the halfway point, it's about to look very different as it goes in a direction that's distinctly Fusebox-ian. As part of the 2015 festival, Fusebox is creating a pop-up village on the thinkEAST site that will incorporate ideas already gathered from the Living Charrette and create opportunities to gather more. "One of the main things we do as an organization is put on a festival," Berry says, recalling the inspiration for the move. "So if we think about festival as a tool, maybe we could use that as a way to invite a lot of people into this."

So starting April 9, for four days, Fusebox shifts its focus to thinkEAST, with installations, concerts, screenings, art exhibits, workshops, a fashion show, and more. Berry and Martinez met with the Chronicle to explain more about the Living Charrette, what it will look like and how it came to be.

Ron Berry: Often a charretting process or planning process doesn't happen in a very public way. Sometimes it does, but often it doesn't, so we wanted to blow open the doors of the conference room, put the conference room outside –

Carra Martinez: In a pecan grove –

RB: In a pecan grove, on the property –

CM: Undeveloped –

RB: – and invite people into this. Also, we love this idea of testing some of these ideas before this thing ever gets built. So you don't build the thing and then people are like, "Ehhh ...."

CM: So what you see in the festival map or the charrette map are things you might expect to see at a Fusebox Festival. There is a stage. There is a conversation area. There is a gallery area. There is a fashion ... what?

RB: We're modeling a fashion co-op. There are a lot of fashion designers in town, but very few places where they can actually produce clothing, so we're modeling a kind of fashion cooperative that would take things from design to manufacture to retail, all in one site, and paying people really good wages to do that.

CM: So you see those things, but what's different – and maybe the smartest part about the plan – is instead of letting those things exist in a bubble, they're put into relationship with the way the city produces itself. So what does fashion say about jobs? What does art say about cultural issues? How does this link to transportation? How does this link to health care? So in these things that you might expect to see at Fusebox, there are these little input hubs that start drilling down into larger communal issues. So while you're looking at a history of East Austin, there will also be someone there to get your opinion on "How did you get here? How did you feel about how you arrived here today?" Then those are collected in one space, and that becomes a part of the overall planning process. So seeding those conversations next to the stage, next to the art gallery, next to the fashion factory. You start to see that network that's actually shaping the city.

Austin Chronicle: What kinds of physical structures will be on-site?

RB: Thoughtbarn, which is a local design and artist duo, [is] creating this installation of one of the tanks, and you can enter the tank, and inside you encounter the history of the tank farm. And that's the first thing that you encounter when you enter the site. We like this idea that when you show up, you encounter the history of what was here. Before you imagine the future, you have to encounter the past of this.

CM: That was requested from a stakeholder meeting. Someone said, "What if you could be inside a tank? Or you had to deal physically with the tanks?" So even that installation is driven by the meetings we've had.

RB: And on this property there are these three dead trees, and they form a pretty striking identity for part of the property. [So other artists are] turning those into installations. There are going to be piñatas hanging around the trees that are decorative, but then also every other hour there's a big piñata-breaking. There are participatory sculptures in a kids' area. Then there are several tents, 20 feet by 40 feet tents. You could very quickly spend our entire budget just on temporary physical materials, and we felt like that was maybe not the best use of these funds. So [we have] a mixture of these installations that are visually spectacular, and then there are temporary structures. And different elements are residing in these tents. We have a tent that's devoted to workshops and talks. We have a tent with the UT School of Architecture, and their students are creating this library of innovative building materials that have all been made out of organic and food material.

CM: Mushrooms. Kombucha walls.

RB: It's really awesome. There's a pop-up art gallery that Big Medium is helping to curate. KOOP Radio is gonna have a station where they'll be gathering people's stories about place and things that they like about place. TBG, the master planners, are going to be out there with a design center, and they'll have runners taking in input from all these different areas and folding them in. We're playing with green space, with public space. There's a community cafe outdoors, and there's a larger public green where the stage is, where the kids' activities are.

CM: And there's a tent where [we're showing] a little documentary that happened in response to community requests [about] how can we address how kids are walking to school. Because there wasn't infrastructure in East Austin until well into the Eighties, for 55 years [kids have] created this crazy path through the woods to get to school, and they're still using it, and it's dangerous.

RB: People started saying, "Hey, kids that live on this side of the railroad tracks, you know, technically they're supposed to walk all the way through the neighborhood down Airport, which is a state highway –

CM: With no sidewalks.

RB: – anyway, it's this ridiculous route. No one in their right mind would walk that way to school, plus it's really dangerous. So over the years people have made their own informal path over the train tracks. But they're basically trespassing. We found out that crossing the railroad is like a Class C misdemeanor. So just to get to school every day –

Raymond Rivera (l) and Pete Rivera in an image from <i>La Loma</i>
Raymond Rivera (l) and Pete Rivera in an image from La Loma (Courtesy of Deb Esquenazi)

CM: They're committing a crime, basically. So we paired with some students from Eastside Memorial High School that we met through our connections with local folks and made this short doc together about how they walk to school. We gave the kids cameras. They filmed, they wrote. I produced and wrote, and Deb Esquenazi directed it. Peter Rivera, who's in the doc, he's a neighborhood leader, and that was one of his primary concerns. But when you start addressing that, you have to deal with so much economic and cultural history.

RB: That was one of the projects I was honestly most excited about. On the surface it's not even really about this real estate project that we're doing here. But in other ways, it's everything about that. We're engaging with people in the community about what are their needs and what are their interests?

We've been really interested in this exploration of festival as a thing. What are things that festivals are inherently good at that maybe other platforms aren't? And what are some things that our festival in particular can be doing that other festivals aren't? So one of the things that we were interested in that is related to this project is, how can we tap into the collective intelligence and creativity of our festival – both the artists and the audience – and look at something together, look at a problem or a question or a series of problems and create something together? So whether that's an actual physical thing or whether it's a set of strategies, this thing that is almost inherently ephemeral, a festival, leaves something behind that is a creative expression of all the people that are participating in it. That to me is a powerful idea and an interesting idea.

And with this particular example, thinkEAST represents so many of the most vital issues that are facing Austin right now, from affordability to live/work space to transportation to community health to segregation – so many of these issues that are front and center. Let's look at those, and let's invite a lot of people to look at those. Let's look at them from different angles. Let's look at those issues as they pertain to this particular site and this particular neighborhood, but that site doesn't exist in a vacuum, it's part of a whole city and a whole thing that's happening, so let's also look at what's happening around the city and how those things are inter-related.

To read more about Fusebox's Living Charrette, see a continuation of this interview with Ron Berry and Carra Martinez at

Fusebox Festival runs through April 12 at various locations around the city. For a full schedule, visit

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Fusebox Festival, thinkEAST, Brad Carlin, Robert Summers, Richard deVarga, Fred Schmidt, TBG Partners, City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, Deb Esquenazi, Eastside Memorial High School, Peter Rivera, tank farm, UT School of Architecture, KOOP Radio

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