I have to keep reminding myself that Lo-fi Arts Festival at Smoke Farm is indeed a festival. Like, a potentially-overpriced party where people go to get away from the big city, do shrooms around a campfire and frolic around sparkly things.
That sounds pejorative. Let me start over.
Until this weekend, I’d never been to Lo-Fi or Smoke Farm. I always felt like the last person left in Seattle who hadn’t. Over the years I've known people who organize Lo-Fi, who curate it, who cherish it, but it remained the stuff of myth to me. This mythical farm was purchased and established in 1993 by Rubicon Foundation as a “non-traditional, self-governing” place where culture can happen away from all the hubbub. Annual events include Burning Beast for foodies and Smoke Farm Symposium for serious thinkers. Then there’s Lo-Fi for artists.
Earlier in the week, the theater critic from the Weekly Paper Everyone Reads told me he wasn’t going to the fest this year because they were beyond needing what meager championing and support (he was being humble) his reviews brought. “Lo-Fi is all grown up now,” he said.
Maybe he was right, because Lo-Fi wasn’t giving out press passes. They had four photogs already coming and I could get photos from them if I wanted. Ok.
(Now's a good time to mention the photos I’m posting here come from my iPhone or, generously, from photographer Bruce Clayton Tom; they may or may not be sanctioned).
YOU HAVE TO START SOMEWHERE
So Saturday morning I roll up to the Farm, pay the hoi polloi $110 price of admission to get three people and a car into the place. As we hand over our cash we’re told the three of us would have to share one art map and schedule because they’re afraid of running out. This map is a double-sided xerox on a single sheet of paper. Ok, so I might get lost, might not catch everything, but maybe we don’t need it. It’ll feel more like a scavenger hunt. And Lo-Fi probably needs to save money. After all, Porta Potties don’t grow on trees.
We park, pitch a tent, slather on bug repellent. The clouds part and the sun comes out. We grab our precious map and go.
The farm is lovely. Ancient trees and mile-high stumps and gargantuan nurse logs are gorgeous. Sweeping meadows full of swaying grass and bouquets of cattails are delightful. Paths wind through all of this, peppered with artwork—over 40 installations or performances worth.
As we strike out, right away we stumble on a poetry reading tucked in a clearing. At the poet's feet is a sculpture made from found sticks and stones. Dancer Nikolai Lesnikov postures in the distance, shirt off, chest out. After ten minutes, a few mosquitos and ADD kicking in, we move on before the poem's climax. Further along the trail, Joanna Lepore’s vegetated tire swings hang from high branches; one invites swinging, the other two are packed with soil and plants. In one magically secluded area, words embroidered across diaphanous squares of fabric are strung like prayer flags from tree limb to limb and flutter lightly in the breeze. It’s Ellie Dicola’s Sacred Contracts, a deconstructed poem about loss.
As I linger to examine the enormous effort put into the installation, a little boy enters the clearing with his mother and yells, “What’s art about this one?”
Oh, youth! I ask the kid what art he recommends so far. The vegetated tire swings, of course.
Sporadically installed along the route, Robert Zverina’s Space Reassignment Zones—small patches of ground arbitrarily cordoned with faux caution tape—seemed silly at first. Then I come across the grass is greener over there zone and it made me laugh. Ok, lighten up. This is no Robert Smithson, but who doesn’t like a wry, zen pun?
There are a few sweeping, open spaces at the farm. The largest of these is designated the “upper pasture meadow,” and no inch is spared artistic intervention. Sarah Kavage and Adria Garcia have once again fastidiously braided a field of grass, creating matted, spiraling, labyrinthine paths edged with tightly woven rails. Actually getting closer to Robert Smithson. It's wonderful. Textile artists Allie Manch, Rachel Ravitch and a few others are nearby weaving strips of white cotton bed sheets on a jumbo loom. The loom is so large the weavers must coordinate movements and crisscross with equally large movements, making an awkward, interlacing dance. We round another bend in the path to find a crowd clustered around acrobats performing feats of strength under the shade of a large tree. A slip of a man is leaping on the back of a giantess. She stoically exits down a path with him balancing on her broad shoulders.
Now the heat is beating down. I come across a blasé journalist who slips me a swig of honey whiskey from his flask. I notice a lot of fat, black slugs underfoot. No stilettos at Smoke Farm.
By the end of the first hour, I’ve seen such a jarring pastiche of work, I’m not sure what to make of it. Two things stand out, and funnily, they’re both anamorphic works. The first is one of Ilvs Strauss’ Hello Postcards. At first glance, you think you’ve just come across an old picture frame strung up in a grove. Then you notice pieces of wood suspended helter-skelter in the branches. Align yourself just so in front of the piece and Strauss’ message comes into view. Shift to the right or left a little and the word slips, exploded into fragments.
The other standout is a remnant from a Lo-Fi Festival three years ago (I'm told), a piece by local king of anamorphic art, Jason Puccinelli. Like a postcard left out in the sun, the faded sliver of a painting fixed to a post still blends seamlessly with the unchanged landscape when you stand in the right spot. Amidst the carnival atmosphere of the festival, it’s a breath of stillness and sense of the unceremonious passage of time.
Fast forward past a late afternoon spent on the picturesque Stillaguamish River, past kids and poets running amok on the beach, one topless woman showing plump tits, naked performers slathered in mud, a troupe of artists wandering around in supersize papier mache heads and waterlogged robes. Past people cooking steaks and corn on the cob on grills at dusk, past more strains of poetry (good and bad) and alcohol flowing like milk and honey.
I’m wondering how I will write about this—as art.
Two other Seattle curators, unaffiliated with LoFi, stop me mid-sentence as I'm describing my experience thus far. “This isn’t an art event though,” one of them insists. But I think it is, based on the amount of work that goes into the event on the part of curators and artists. And the cultural grants awarded the project. Also, the fact that the word "Art" is in the name.
Night has officially arrived and Ilvs Strauss’ giant cardboard HELLO sign that’s been waiting at the bonfire site is torched. It goes up in a splendid flash fireball. The Balkan-inspired band Orkestar Zirkonium starts playing. It's the beginning of a truly Bakhtinesque carnival. The music clatters uproariously, clownish brassy melodies and tubas and thick-skinned drums pump through the air and people dance like dervishes as trails of sparks and lit ash fly upwards and dissolve into darkness.
The mayhem eventually organizes itself into nothing short of a surreal, Fellini dream procession accompanied by the orchestra’s ruckus and illuminated by a host of diesel fuel-drenched torches. We blaze a snaking trail from bonfire, through wooded groves, toward a now pitch-black upper meadow pasture.
We arrive at a giant paper Chinese lantern suspended from an elephantine tree in a clearing. It’s the same clearing where the slip of a man had balanced on the giantess while the sun beat down and we sipped honey whiskey. The site is now transformed, nearly unrecognizable. High above our heads, dancers Tanya Brno and Yuri Kinoshita flit around inside the lit globe like a pair of silhouetted Tinker Bells while harps lullaby below. One finally descends into full view, twirling and gyrating along a long length of red silk. Aerial silks—pole dancing’s more dignified, better-clad sister—don't usually do it for me, but the setting was unforgettable. At this point, a crowd wild with intoxication and breathless from the torchlight procession hushed itself in delighted bewilderment.
Ironically, what made some of the best impressions at the festival were the more high-fi installations that emerged in the post-bonfire hours of the night. Like Amanda James Parker’s Roving Firefly Gang dressed up with violet LED lights on their limbs, moving slow as syrup, twinkling near and far along unlit winding paths or frolicking in dark pastures. Or the Acrobatic Conundrum aerialists wearing glowing, Tron-inspired suits while pirouetting in the dark from unseen trees. Or Silent Disco, the black-lit DJ tent, where people wearing wireless headphones danced ecstatically in silence till the wee hours.
YOU HAVE TO END SOMEWHERE
So how do I write about Lo-Fi—as art?
I could sum up the experience as a bucolic bacchanalia for a few people from the city to experiment with site specific performance and lite land art while getting stoned around a bonfire then breakfasting on seven dollar watery-grits-and-mango-chutney breakfast burritos from a food cart followed by midday dips in a river. It’s a drunken Dharma Bums party, minus the overwrought Beat zen transcendence and misogynist group sex (that’s at Burning Man).
Which brings up a problem about documenting an event like this for history's sake: when you think about this festival in its eventual, historical terms—if I were to read about this in book on the Northwest art scene forty or a hundred years from now—Lo-Fi would sound like a bohemian dream, like a Surrealist ball or Dada cabaret or 60's Happening I’d die to have seen. But the legend of something is colored by rosy glasses, by a poetic review or pretty photograph, by a romantic, honey whiskey and drug-hazed memory. So what part of this story should be written?
Or, as one of Seattle’s performance celebrities muttered Saturday morning as she walked past The Satori Group’s inscrutable outdoor office installation Fieldwork situated in an overgrown meadow: “What I’m feeling about this whole thing is it illustrates how the hypothetical version of an idea is sometimes much better than the reality.”
Art needs a textual bikini, says historian and critic Boris Groys. With no residual document or critical review (no matter how slight or impotent—a placard with title will even do), art might suffer an oblivion of forgetfulness in the public consciousness. It might just remain the unheard sound of a tree falling in the forest. (Or of a hallucinating artist falling in the forest.) But is amnesia necessarily a bad thing at a festival where the quality of the art isn’t the star, for better or worse? Enthusiasm for a strip of land, community, memories and getting drunk is what this festival is about. Maybe the organizers of Lo-Fi were right about keeping the media out: maybe this art or non-art is in need not of a bikini, but a shroud, lest a good time be judged in the name of art.