The second annual By the People festival — an arts celebration that incorporates visual art, performance and dialogue — opens Saturday at various venues throughout the District. Larger than last year’s inaugural edition, the festival is also more than twice as long, running through June 23. It’s more mobile as well, because one of the event’s three “hub” locations is a floating barge, pulled by a tugboat, that will moor at Georgetown, Capitol Riverfront and Anacostia Park.
Kate Goodall, chief executive of the festival’s organizer, Halcyon, calls the roving craft “a nice symbol for what we’re ultimately trying to achieve with this festival, which is connecting people across divides.” Founded in 2017, the Georgetown-based Halcyon is a nonprofit that sponsors two residency programs: one for artists and another for social entrepreneurs.
The nine-day festival emphasizes visual and performance art, and it includes dance recitals. There’s also a slate of artist talks and some panel discussions, which Goodall sees as an integral part of the event.
Halcyon’s goal is “to make an international arts festival that’s unique for D.C.,” she says. “This [city] is the world’s mouthpiece. Artists will want to come here to say something.”
This year’s festival programmer is Jessica Stafford Davis, founder of the Agora Culture, a website that connects artists and collectors. Her focus, she says, is “people who are sidelined and don’t have a voice.”
As it did last year, By the People will fill the mostly unused Arts & Industries Building with art installations. These include Jonathan Rosen’s selfie-themed “Walking on Clouds” and works by several local artists.
The barge will host Hank Willis Thomas’s “They Are Us, Us Is Them,” a piece that might be best described as a floating billboard. The third hub is Union Market’s new event space AutoShop, a converted car body shop that will host a multimedia work by Kahlil Joseph, as well as several other events.
In conjunction with the Smithsonian, festival programming will include “Solstice Saturday” on June 22, a celebration of the summer’s first Saturday that will offer free programs and performances at Smithsonian museums, most of which will remain open until midnight. Many other exhibitions and events are scheduled at more than a dozen satellite locations.
By the People wasn’t designed for art collectors, but it has added an art fair this year, in partnership with the D.C.-based art consultancy Monochrome Collective. The fair, which opened last week in an empty storefront at 1267 Wisconsin Ave. NW, includes works by 51 area artists and will continue through June 23.
“Last year, people asked where they could buy art,” explains Goodall of Halcyon (which, along with Monochrome, will take a commission from any sales. The artists keep 50 percent of the proceeds.) “We see it both as an opportunity to help underwrite the festival a little bit, and a nice way to include more local voices.”
Goodall says that tickets for high-profile art and culture fairs in other cities can run more than $1,000. By the People, on the other hand, is committed to remaining free. “We always say we provide haven,” she says. “And haven is composed of space, community and access.”
For a preview of some of the festival’s offerings, read on.
Fresh from a well-reviewed showing at the Venice Biennale, Kahlil Joseph’s “BLKNWS” is a split-screen video montage that melds images of current events with pages from magazines and clips from TV, movies, music videos and stand-up comedy. The theme is mass-media representation of African American history, culture and experience, but the L.A. artist recontextualizes footage from some unexpected places.
In a sample of the piece, Joseph mashed up a scene from the 1977 miniseries “Roots,” a 1973 interview with Maya Angelou and a moment from “Under the Skin,” an arty 2013 sci-fi flick. (In the movie, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who sheds a simulated human epidermis to reveal a sleek black figure beneath. The video feed is ever-changing, so those snippets may or may not appear in this version of “BLKNEWS.”)
You won’t find the video on as many screens as you can find ESPN at bars, but it can be viewed at a few locations, including Union Market’s AutoShop and the Eaton D.C., a boutique hotel on K Street NW. The artist, who has collaborated with the likes of Beyoncé, hopes to blur the distinction between his creation and everyday TV programming.
While By the People spotlights prominent out-of-towners, the fest doesn’t neglect local artists. In addition to the regional artists featured in the By the People x Monochrome Art Fair, the festival includes works by Victor Ekpuk, Rania Hassan, Naoko Wowsugi, Martha Jackson Jarvis, Ada Pinkston and Carl “Kokayi” Walker, among others.
Nearly scraping the ceiling of the Arts & Industries Building, Ekpuk’s 18-foot-high “Eye See You” is the most imposing piece he’s ever exhibited in the District. The Nigeria-bred artist is represented by Morton Fine Art, and regular visitors to that gallery will recognize the distinctive glyphs that cover the towering totem. Derived from an ancient African writing system, the ideograms are an Ekpuk trademark.
Also at Arts & Industries are Hassan’s “Paths,” an installation of suspended hand-knitting about connections to time, place and events; Wowsugi’s “108+1,” a collaborative performance based in part on the significance of the number 108 in Buddhist practice; and Jackson Jarvis’s “Adaptation,” inspired by her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s service in the Revolutionary War as a free black man.
Other works about African American history and identity include Pinkston’s memorial to slaves sold by Georgetown University priests in 1838 (on view at Arts & Industries) and Kokayi’s mixed-media exploration of black masculinity (on view at Union Market).
As the country faced the threat of fascism in the 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt extolled the nation’s “four freedoms” — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear — ideals that were soon turned into a set of widely reproduced illustrations by Norman Rockwell. New York multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas drew on that history when he co-founded For Freedoms, a platform for artists to engage with civic issues. Thomas’s contribution to the For Freedoms initiative is a billboard piece. Reading “They Are Us, Us Is Them,” the billboard will travel the Potomac and Anacostia rivers on a barge.
According to the artist, “They Are Us, Us Is Them” is designed to address political and cultural polarization. “From the perspective of the quote-unquote ‘other side,’ what do we look like? How do we build new majorities in the community, recognizing that we all have more in common than [what separates] us?”
As it makes its symbolic journey from Northwest to Southeast, the craft will be anchored on the Georgetown Waterfront from Saturday to Tuesday; Capitol Riverfront from Wednesday to June 21; and Anacostia Park from June 22 to 23. Each location will host spoken-word and music performances. Visitors will also be invited to write down their own ideas of freedom on sets of four lawn signs, reading: “Freedom of . . .,” “Freedom to . . .,” “Freedom from . . .” and “Freedom for . . ..”
In installations that he’s mounted in cities such as Los Angeles and Shanghai, New York artist Jonathan Rosen allows selfie photos to talk back to their makers. “Walking on Clouds,” which will be on view in the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building, is his largest installation yet, and it’s the first one that participants will approach through calf-high fog.
Once they reach the piece, visitors will face three mirrors that offer randomized text messages that Rosen calls “affirmational or provocative.” Timed to the shutter speed of a cellphone camera, these communiques move too quickly for the naked eye to see. But they’re readable when seen in photos taken in front of one of the mirrors.
Rosen encourages people to post the pictures on Instagram. “That is, essentially, the art,” he says.
Sometimes a random phrase scores a direct hit. Rosen remembers a man who looked at his phone and began to cry. He explained that he was single and 45, and he was contemplating having a child via a surrogate. The message he saw in the selfie was, “I want to be a parent.”
“Even though it’s totally random, it’s sort of like this divine intervention,” says Rosen. “I hope the work is sort of a reminder of what’s possible.”
Festival hubs include the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industry Building, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW, Union Market’s AutoShop, 1309 Fifth St. NE, and a floating barge, which will dock at Georgetown, Capitol Riverfront and Anacostia Park. For additional satellite locations, visit. bythepeople.org .
Dates: Saturday to June 23.