Artscape Diary: Three Days of Art Tourism in Baltimore

by Whitney Kimball on July 23, 2014 · 1 comment Baltimore



Every year, Artscape, the nation’s largest free art festival, descends on the city of Baltimore, erecting a mile-long tent city of mandala making, Jeep ads, a mainstage (mainly for smooth jazz), satellite art events, performances, and ferris wheel. This year, we decided to take the advice of the 2014 theme and #jointhemovement. With reservations, of course: at any scaled-up cityfest, you can pretty much count on a mix of kid-friendly craft booths and corporate remora which suck the lifeblood out of art.

But City Paper’s Michael Farley (aka Baltimore native Ellen Degenerate) had a better endorsement for Artscape, and I have never met a person who loves a city, and its weirdness, as much as he does. He described Artscape as a place “where totally normal people from the suburbs and totally crazy people who live under bridges come together over funnel cake, art installations, and R&B acts from the ’90s that you forgot existed but everyone is weirdly really excited to see”, and wishes people would take it more seriously.

So would this congress of weirdos and mainstreamers kill freakdom, or, in Michael’s words, lay “an amazingly fertile ground for art-making and viewing”? We went to find out.

Friday, 1:10 PM

Outside the window of a Bolt Bus, a rail-thin dude in a belly shirt, eyeliner, and leather jacket leans back sullenly on his car while his girlfriend tools around under the hood. They exchange a kiss. We have arrived in Baltimore.


Friday, 1:30 PM

We meet up with our friends and hosts Ellen Degenerate, Whitney Biennial, and Molly Rhinestones, all of them in a variety of gold sunglasses, pleather skirts, and beautiful peacock-y punk hair. Together, they look like they belong somewhere between an eighties techno music video and Normal Love. They look incredible.

We go to a convenience store to get a phone charger. The store also offers wigs (on sale), American flag leggings, weed leaf pocket knives, and every color of hair dye. Thinking about Michael’s green-tinted, long faux hawk. I eye the hair dye.

Friday 1:45

Artscape is as expected: Basically, it’s a long street fair of tents extending from Charles Street down Mount Royal, with a few open galleries on the sides. The closer you get to the heart, the more corporate it looks. From the far end of Charles, the mainstage plays a mixture of smooth jazz and ska. Further down the road, you can consume funnel cakes, Sno Balls, ride a ferris wheel, play “Battleship Duck Pond,” and a stand in a random tent for five minutes which seems to be blowing jets of mist on people. One of the big attractions, we’re told, is an “art billboard” which will be officially debuting that night.

Friday 1:46 PM

On Charles Street, the first-ever Baltimore Alternative Art Fair is taking place in a parking garage filled with lots of artist books and paintings. Provisional painting is EVERYWHERE; few objects have escaped the casual spray paint, alliterative titles, or words like: “Boogie.”

At Little Berlin, the fair’s centerpiece, people are performing “Trash Yoga”: yoga, performed in trash bags. I wonder if it has something to do with the trend of people wearing trash bags to sweat more when you work out (a pretty common occurrence at Planet Fitness Bushwick). Probably not, since the booth’s motif is a Philly Septa Station; it’s intended, as the curators put it, as a symbolic “ traveller’s connection point rather than a journey’s end”.

Behind the performers lies is a pile of newspapers and a bulletin board on which people are encouraged to add to a group collage. We’ll come back later.

Friday, 8:15 PM

Trigger warning!

“This work of art contains images that reference sexual assault and violence which may be triggering to survivors.”

The label comes with Agnes Moon’s video “# Rape (After Yoko Ono)” from the show Gutsy: Taking the Fear Factor Out of Feminism at Gallery CA. For the most part, Gutsy feels like a pretty safe space: Joan Cox’s colorful painting of two women defiantly snuggling on a couch; Lindsay Bottos’s bra embroidered with the words “Worthless worthless worthless”; Jolie Savelle Kumin’s Francesca Woodman-inspired nude self-portrait which feels less painful than an exercise in staging a composition. The old feminist tactics look…defanged. This isn’t really a fault of the work; it’s just that its ubiquity in galleries no longer makes embroidering bras feel like a “gutsy” move. Maybe neo-feminism matured into a more nurturing, affirmative role? Tuning out.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the whole show, though, was another label under Moon’s piece, which you would never find in New York: “Not for sale.”

Friday, 9:15 PM

There are lot of interesting dogs in the Copycat building. I see one with two different colored eyes. Are the dogs better here? We think so.

Upstairs, Springsteen Gallery is, as always, absurdly well lit, to the point where it looks from the street as though an alien landing is taking place on the second floor. This makes Springsteen look by far the most New York, professional gallery, and it’s like a lightbox for photos; people and art always look sexy. The light triggers an instant and intense wave of anxiety.

Friday, 10:05 PM

Back on the street, the Geico tent is closed. As I wonder hazily who the hell is signing up for car insurance right now, Corinna reads the slogan on the MICA street banners: “Structured/Freedom.” In a stupor, I think this sounds great. Corinna thinks it sounds like a bland corporate endorsement. I realize that she’s right.

Image courtesy of Corinna Kirsch. (Can anybody identify this man?)

Image courtesy of Corinna Kirsch. (Can anybody identify this man?)

Friday, 12:00 PM

Later, far from the Artscape’s core, we go to a performance in Tribal Haus, a full house with a bonfire outside, and a stuffed vulture inside. Through a crowd, we watch the performance, a guy in a black gimp suit flip through slide photos while messing with a lamp and some noise distortion equipment on the floor. “Do you know the name of the person in the picture?” he keeps asking, rotating between wigs and outfits to match the people in the images.

Then he smashes the lamp. It’s pretty good. I think this was what the punk ethos of “Here’s one chord, here’s two more, now form your own band” must look like as performance art.

When we stumble outside, creeping towards a bonfire, the performance has Michael talking excitedly about the difference between New York and Baltimore; whereas people seem to go to New York to solidify their brand, in Baltimore, artists muddle through ideas and change themselves.

Saturday 11:00 AM

Molly is now wearing a mermaid outfit and Ryan and Michael have split a matching pair of fish-patterned T-shirt and shorts. Michael says that people at the bodega always ask him if he’s coming from a costume party. They just dress like that.

Saturday, 11:45 AM

At the coffee shop counter, two people without pants hand us small squares of paper announcing their purpose:

“I’m Going Pantsless because I deserve respect.
No matter how I look or dress
No matter my gender identity
or sexual orientation

Saturday 12:00 PM

Over Ethiopian brunch, we talk about True Blood. Everybody thinks the show went off the rails when they added too many fantastical species, like fairy vampires, but we’ll watch anyway because we have an obligation to finish it. That’s kind of like Artscape, I think, about the Jeep and Geico-gallery hybrids.

Saturday, 12:30 PM

This is not to say that Baltimore isn’t weird as fuck. Outside, an insane person grabs me around the waist and says something about my skirt. I duck in the restaurant while he asks Michael if he knows “Charlie with the powder.”

Michael and Molly at the Walters

Michael and Molly at the Walters

Saturday, 1:00 PM

We stop in the opulent Walters Art Museum to see the final contestants for the Sondheim Prize, an annual $25,000 competition for artists living in the Baltimore area. Mostly, I like the way Michael and Molly look next to the classical busts.

Saturday 1:35 PM

Back at Artscape, a group of Black Hebrew Israelites are yelling from the scripture. Somebody calls them “Space Jews.”

Saturday 1:45 PM

Molly is now one of three mermaids.

Saturday 2:00 PM

Back at the Baltimore Alternative Fair, something is going on at Little Berlin; not sure what. “Trash yoga” has been replaced with a lot more newspapers, live portrait ink painting, and a man typing poems-by-donation on a typewriter.

Here’s one:

“I’m thankful for the powers that I’ve been given to breathe/
but I am more thankful for the time I’ve spent with you/
you are my queen./
my inspiration and my one and only muse/
I’m thankful for the time we’ve spent together/
and some day we will both be free”

Nearby, the group collage has taken a violent turn. I think it’s going for an all-over James Rosenquist kind of economy. People seem to have favored the biggest headlines, explosive cartoon graphics, wincing faces, and an image of a guy with a gun.

Saturday 2:35 PM

Outside, the logical thing to do seems to be to stand around the Battleship Duck Pond and drool over some funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos. “This whole bridge used to have art installations on it,” Michael notes. Now there are cars with fish painted on them.

“There’s no art at Artscape,” sighs Ryan.

Saturday, 2:40 PM

As we walk by the University of Baltimore (UB) with its ugly concrete building and Facebook-y graphic design, I think about how, more and more, cities like Philly and Baltimore are marked by University megaplexes. Last weekend, I’d just driven by Philly’s new Temple towers; those look like an airport complex jutting up among Philly’s open lots and old row houses. “It’s like they’re not living in Philly anymore,” my friend had said.

Myconids set up at the University of Baltimore

Myconids set up at the University of Baltimore

Saturday, 6:00 PM

It gets weirder. In a sterile college lecture hall on the top floor of UB, a small cluster watches the punk-minimal-house duo Myconids set up custom-made synthesizers, all the while playing light elevator music.

“Worlds in Collusion” is the title of the performance series, curated by the High Zero Foundation. As a representative explains, the idea of High Zero is to mix people who’ve never played music together before; sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a disaster. “Improvisers…always they infuriate us by not doing exactly what we thought they were going to do…it’s amazing. I learned about this sort of thing when I moved to Baltimore eight years ago, and it utterly changed my life,” he said.

Sunday, 11:00 AM

As Corinna and I are walking down the street with backpacks, cameras, and purses, I have never felt so much like the high-maintenance Patagonia-wearing couple from Portlandia. We pass by a punk who’s called out from across the street.

“Missed your show last night!”
“It was sweaty as fuck!”
“Did you play naked again?”
“Uh huh.”

We, on the other hand, had stayed in so we could function at work on Monday. God damn it, New York.

Sunday, 11:30 AM

At MICA, in the Sondheim semi-finalist show, Modernism, Minimalism, and classical sculpture seem to be the main wells for inspiration.

Finally, one piece looks specific to Baltimore: Nora Howell’s “Wite-Out,” an interview with Washington D.C. resident Natalie Hopkinson, who talks about watching D.C.’s U Street corridor—“one of the black cultural centers”—turn white over the years. “Does the old culture have any chance at all of overcoming this massive influx of change?” she wonders. She talks about gentrification’s mind games, as well as her resentment over things like bike lanes—not because they’re bad, but because the presence of whites indicates that the neighborhood is suddenly worthy of a better quality of life.

All in all, Artscape looks pretty white. Artscape has been around since 1982, but this year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake listed one of Artscape’s strengths as a draw for population growth. It’s clear who’s being lured down.

Looking back on #jointhemovement, I keep thinking of the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, which Austin Mayor Will Wynn has proudly described as a successful tactic to attract Facebook offices down to his city. But isn’t authentic “weirdness” just a matter of how long communities can remain untapped by the mainstream?


Sunday, 12:45 PM

In line for the BoltBus, we can finally see the Artscape billboard from afar. Michael was right; the ads are indistinguishable from the art. Ah well. Goodbye, Artscape.

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