May 4, 2011
Athens’ Experimental Arts Festival
By Jeff Tobias
In a world where the consumer is king, when you strip away something’s relationship to the marketplace, you strip away its context. In that vacuum, things are granted license to get more personal, and by that measure, a little stranger. Without the inherent approval of mass-marketed success, anything created for its own sake can even become intimidating, like a Rorschach test where the decisions lie solely in the eye of the beholder. But beyond that potential scariness is a kind of freedom that can actually be fun, playful and welcoming; that’s what the AUX experimental arts festival is about.
“I can’t help but love the Fluxus movement,” says Heather McIntosh, curator and co-creator of AUX, a product of—and testament to—Athens, GA’s creative community. The 1960s art group she’s referring to made itself known to the world with a manifesto proclaiming an intention to “promote living art, anti-art… to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals!” From the get-go, each AUX event was guided by the radical notion that art could be for everybody.
“I mean, there’s tons of theory, and you can pick it apart and make it real tricky and make it real heady… but at the end of the day, all that stuff was really fun,” says McIntosh. “I mean, you look at those pictures [of the Fluxus artists], and you’re like, ‘They did a string concert in the street—and they wrapped the violin player with string!’ It’s really fun. It can be lighter than all that, too. There’s a good balance in every [festival] we’ve done, I think. We really tried to get a little bit of everything. So, you’ll hear some really heavy and dark stuff, but then there’ll also be someone doing something pretty hilarious.”
At this stage, AUX can confidently be referred to as an institution, with many different facets; it has far more dimension than the average neon-wristband festival fare. The seeds were planted in an attempt to bridge the gap between the University of Georgia’s school of the arts and downtown’s late-night rock scene. In 2003, Carmon Colangelo, the director of UGA’s Ideas for Creative Exploration program at the time, invited then-adjunct professor Mark Callahan to join up with ICE, a program promoting “innovative, multidisciplinary projects and advanced research in the arts through publications, performances and exhibitions.” As incentive, he suggested that Callahan develop “a dream project.”
“So, I thought, well, a dream project has to be a project that puts together Athens’ greatest resource, which is music, and the printmaking program, which was at the time ranked among the top five nationally,” says Callahan. He enlisted McIntosh [a longtime fixture of bands such as Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and her own, Instruments], creative polymath Steven Trimmer and journalist JoE Silva to curate a compilation of sound art from the local community, the obvious and obscure corners alike.
“Part of the thinking was: let’s really look for the stuff that creative people do for themselves and do for each other, rather than something they do for the industry,” says Callahan. “So, the idea emerged of the person who makes things privately, maybe on their laptop, that kind of thing, but not necessarily trying to put it out in the world. But it’s the thing that really gets them going creatively. It’s like—I wanna hear that stuff. Even if it doesn’t fit into a commercial format, that’s the interesting stuff.”
The result, AUX Vol. 1, is packaged in an ornate octagonal fold-out, designed and constructed by UGA printmaking graduate students. A release party at ATHICA in August of 2006, featuring sculpture, modern dance and an enormous tape loop, would be the launch of an ongoing annual event, unbeknownst to McIntosh or Callahan until it was over. “I don’t know that we ever said, ‘Let’s make this a continuing thing,’” says Callahan. “It was more like, ‘That was really fun! A lot of people came! Let’s do it again!’”
Fast-forward five years later, and the expansion of AUX’s breadth has been pretty remarkable, a seemingly endless, overflowing list of events and accomplishments. McIntosh has been both the curatorial and organizational motor behind the yearly festival, which, since upon moving to Little Kings and Ciné, has played host to video-art screenings, cacophonous free-jazz marches and other outer-reaching works and installations.
Under the supervision of Callahan, now artistic director of ICE, a second AUX compilation was released in 2010 with similarly craft-oriented packaging. Guided by McIntosh’s vision and hustle, the festival has landed headliners such as Chicago-based art-pop group Icy Demons, traditional folk-gone-free improv duo Mary Halvoson and Jessica Pavone, proggy jazz-rockers Michael Columbia and, perhaps most significantly, legendary Krautrock outfit Faust.
This year, notable out-of-towers include Andrew Raffo Dewar (woodwind improviser and composer, a student of Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier) and Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider, offering a demonstration of his Telethon Mind Controller for Synthesizer which is exactly what it sounds like.
But beyond the big names, AUX is a full day’s worth of unconventional performances and offerings from Athens luminaries—musicians with whom audiences may have only interacted in their pop-oriented modes. The secret of experimental music is that these “experiments” are what often yield results that become integral to Athens’ uniquely “off” approach to pop music. The location—Little Kings being possibly the most relaxed bar in town—and the price tag—five bucks—eradicates any potential for gatekeeping and replaces it with an atmosphere of casual openness. Eschewing a stuffy museum vibe, AUX is a peek behind the curtain into the local scene’s purest creative impulses.
“It’s just fun to see what your friends can get up to if they don’t have to be directly involved in the parameters of a 45-minute set in a rock song-song-song way,” says McIntosh. “It’s kind of like, ‘OK, now we’re gonna do a thing! We’re gonna get together and make something!’ I think it’s kind of like a public service for experimental music, like ‘Get yourself a cheap beer and see what your friends are doin’ when they’re not doin’ that other stuff! Go watch your friends freak out for awhile!’”
As McIntosh has been exposing Athens to the otherness of the community, she has been simultaneously ramping up her work as a session and touring musician, providing cello and bass work for Gnarls Barkley, Lil Wayne, Animal Collective and others. Not two days after this year’s festival, she’ll be packing up her life and driving out to Los Angeles to pursue work scoring films. End of a chapter? “Nah,” she says. “I mean, I’m gonna continue to do the AUX stuff. It’s not over. I’m gonna do it every spring, I’m gonna figure out a way to do it. This is still my home.” AUX will remain an Athens-based and -centric event, though; not only does it provide our town with something usually only accessible to metropolitan ears, but it’s something only our town could create.
“I want to keep working with my friends,” McIntosh says with a smile, “I have buddies out there, and there’ll be new buddies who I’ll meet through buddies, but the core of my music is what my friends are doing here. They get it.”