It seems like your average Friday, as the sweaty, suited masses ascend the Rosslyn stairmaster and enter Washington’s alcove of white-collar ennui. From Metro, they will travel their usual routes: left to Deloitte or the Corporate Executive Board. Right to the media mills of Politico. Up Wilson Boulevard to buildings with blacked-out windows, places where 4G networks mysteriously shut down.
But if all goes according to a loosely devised plan, Rosslyn’s workers will pass through the looking glass into the topsy-turvy madness that haunts Adams Morgan after midnight. They will see a suited woman churning her “do-nothing” machine, a man slithering around on his belly. They will witness fellow commuters heaving chicken wings at some poor soul constructing a turban.
And Arlington’s mundane routine will be disrupted by this SUPERNOVA — a glimmering, spacey glob of acidic oddness or, more formally, Rosslyn’s first three-day performance art festival.
So be warned:
Artists are saner than they appear.
Anticipate smells and hold your nose.
Beware the body paint and the Jabberwock, son.
It’s going to be a wild ride.
Or it won’t be.
“No one’s really sure what’s going to happen,” said Cecilia Cassidy, executive director of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, the primary financial backer of this weekend’s festival. “We wanted to do something out there. We wanted to radically change the old image of Rosslyn.”
And that they will. This 75-artist strong weekend is taking over your parks, your streets, your lobbies, fair Arlington. All attempts to avoid it will be in vain: There will be too many people covered in feathers and mud, too many septuagenarians marching in Sunday’s Grandma Parade. While the Rosslyn BID has done jazz and film festivals before — financed by businesses that opt-in to pay extra tax for projects — SUPERNOVA may be the most alternative art festival thatit has ever tackled.
But you will not see nudity, violence or deeply offensive material, elements sometimes associated with art’s most controversial field. There will be no self-circumcisions, a la Adrian Parsons, the D.C.-based performance artist who, in 2010, famously took a dull Swiss army knife to his anatomy at Warehouse before dashing off to the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital.
“It won’t get that weird,” said Philippa Hughes, the producer of the festival. “But it will be uncomfortable. Performance art is meant to be provocative.”
Still, it’s a big change for a neighborhood that was once a commuter outpost known for its close ties to the military industrial complex. And with $200,000 going into the festival, $150,000 of which is coming from business tax revenue raised by the BID, much is riding on this wild trip.
Hughes pitched performance art along with several more staid ideas when approached by the BID last year. They had heard of her work with the Downtown BID and her riotous dance parties. A former lawyer and founder of the local arts network the Pinkline Project, Hughes always seems to have her pulse on wild happenings in the art world. She hopes the 100-plus performances will be opportunities for social commentary, many on sensitive issues such as age, gender or solitude. Many performance artists address LGBT issues, and Capital Pride coincides with the dates of the festival.
“The BID easily could of have done the standard summer arts fair,” Hughes said. “We’re hoping this is a catalyst for creating culture in Rosslyn.”
And Hughes knows a few things about performance art: She once shared her 14th Street condo for a week with Pittsburgh-based performance artist Agnes Bolt, as she lived in a transparent bubble, requiring Hughes to feed her. It now seems that Hughes prefers planning festivals to hosting what are called “endurance pieces” in her home.
Hughes along with festival curator Eames Armstrong, a D.C.-based artist and director of Soapbox at Hillyer Art Space, secured national and international performance artists, with some traveling from as far as Spain and Finland. Local artists are also participating, including J.J. McCracken, who will perform a 24-hour piece called “The Still Point,” and Kathryn Cornelius, who married and divorced seven times at the Corcoran in August in her piece “Save the Date.” Most of the artists will be paid $250 for their performances, and the entire festival is free.
Lovers of the avant-garde may think the festival is the greatest thing to happen to Rosslyn since DARPA invented the precursor to the Internet there. But for others, public performance art is a risk, or, worse, a waste. And with Artisphere, Arlington’s once publicly funded arts center in dire financial straits, some might wonder whether a festival is the best use of BID money.
Cassidy notes that the funding for the festival is only a portion of the BID’s $4 million budget. And the arts are an economic driver: Cassidy cites the Arlington Commission for the Arts’ study that says arts in the county generate $85 million in local economic activity each year. While a handful of Rosslyn BID board members had reservations at first, she says nearly all members of the BID are on board with the concept.
“Our board is pretty sophisticated, and those members who have not been exposed [to performance art] are very open-minded,” Cassidy said. “But that’s why it’s really bold for a group of business people to support something like this.”
The definition of performance art is nebulous; for one, there’s no “performance art began in X,” since a disruptive art form need not be so formal about dates. Itinerant performance troops existed in the Middle Ages — although performance art is definitely not theater. It draws from everything: visual art, music, dance and became a popular form of protest art in the early 20th century. It spans all cultures: Russia, Japan and France, among other countries, developed the art form simultaneously.
The ’60s made it subversive and cool, with Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono making it “a thing,” to quote Hughes. Museums caught on in the ’80s and ’90s. Recently, New York went wild for Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art, after she sat in a chair for 750 hours, staring. Tilda Swinton prefers to keep her eyes shut in “The Maybe,” a piece where she sleeps in a glass case all day at MoMA.
While museums have opened their doors to performance art, cities are slower to accept festivals.
“We’re really ahead of the curve with this,” Hughes said. “New York has a performance art festival, and Chicago is having one the same week. But not many cities have done something this large before.”
It might be because on the surface, these acts are odd and often misunderstood. It’s why Cornelius, the D.C.-based performance artist, doesn’t want to mention the consulting firm where she has her day job. “Though my boss loves ‘The Do-Nothing Machine,’ ” she said of her contemporary critique of labor that she’s performing in Metro Park on Friday.
“I’ll be performing as people are going to work,” Cornelius added. “I wear a suit and pearls, tie my hair back, and operate the do-nothing machine,” an oversized wooden toy that looks like a machine, but isn’t one.
Cornelius, who has been performing for 10 years, says her piece and many of the other works deal with corporate culture, making the placement of the festival in Rosslyn odd at first blush.
“But having it in this location says something,” Cornelius said. “This art is for everyone, and it’s great that there’s a local opportunity to showcase it.”
Performance Art Festival,
June 7- 9, throughout Rosslyn. www.rosslynartsproject.com/supernova