June 12, 2012

Artists to take culture to DNC crowd

Bins of recycled paper turned into sculptures? An 11-story screen for visual art? Conversations around Charlotte piped into uptown? These are all ambitious projects planned for the DNC by a group of artists called the Quasimodo Project.

When are the bushels of paper thrown out by the participants in a convention not trash? When someone shapes them into a sculpture.

How can the windowless, blank side of a building have something to say? By serving as an 11-story video screen.

What enables barbershop chitchat to resound uptown? Multimedia installations set up during the Democratic National Convention.

An ad hoc band of Charlotte artists is scurrying to flesh out their ideas for bringing art to uptown’s sidewalks and green areas during the DNC in early September. The group wants visitors to discover that creativity is at play here.

“What it will show is that we’re much more of a cosmopolitan city with a forward-thinking, collaborative group of artists,” says Crista Cammaroto, director of galleries at UNC Charlotte. UNCC’s Center City Building would be the canvas for those videos.

“This is not the usual, top-down way of creating culture – where some organization makes a plan and hires artists to fill certain boxes. This is basically artists taking the lead and figuring out what we would like to see,” says Manoj Kesavan, one of the coordinators. He and another of the ringleaders, Faron Franks, are affiliate artists in residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art.

The group includes more than two dozen visual artists, performers, writers, game designers, museum curators and teachers. Some have been regulars at the Point 8 forum discussion group founded by Kesavan. The coming of the DNC, Kesavan says, gives them a reason to “bring together a group and, instead of talk, actually create something.”

They call their undertaking the Quasimodo Project. Someone suggested the name on a whim, Kesavan says, because his and Franks’ studio at the McColl Center is in a onetime bell tower – reminding them of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” But Kesavan thinks the moniker actually makes sense.

Like Quasimodo, their group is “right in the middle of the city,” Kesavan says. “But it’s hidden to most people.”

Culture on the street

By mid-June, the group aims to settle on its list of projects and figure out how much money they’d need, Kesavan says. He declined to estimate the costs before then. While the group has made overtures to potential donors, he says, none has announced a decision.

Everything the group envisions would take place “literally on the street or just off it,” Kesavan says. “So we’re taking culture right to where people walk.” The ideas include:

Sound Salon: Microphones would pick up conversations at locations representing a cross-section of Charlotte, such as a barbershop on Beatties Ford Road or a hair salon in SouthPark. The talk would be piped into installations uptown.

The displays, Kesavan says, will give viewers “a feel for Charlotte beyond the bubble that uptown will be during the convention week.” Amid the trees next to the Carillon Building on West Trade Street, for instance, “you’ll feel as if there’s somebody sitting at a bench and having this conversation.”

Recycling/Re-seeing: The group would put receptacles uptown and ask conventioneers to toss in leftover papers. That would become the material for collages or sculptures.

This would make recycling “a visible, fun, interactive thing,” Kesavan says. “It’s a medium with so many possibilities.”

Mile-Long Gallery: QR codes, those speckled squares that smartphones can read, would be sprinkled along Tryon Street uptown. The codes would link viewers to artworks and information posted online.

“It could be a painting, or it could be a video clip of a performance or dance,” Kesavan says. “That’s the great thing about a QR code. You can include any medium in that.”

Superhero Game: Designers would create a group of superheroes called the Guardian 8. Playing off the DNC theme, Kesavan says, the heroes would have “vaguely political powers” such as charisma. Their adventures would play out as an online game and in real-life theatrical performances.

“The idea is to integrate the virtual with the real,” Kesavan says.

Projection Wall: The north side of UNCC’s Center City Building, which is blank, flat and white, would become a giant screen for videos.

Snippets of the conversation from the Sound Salon could be turned into text that would be flashed onto the wall and manipulated visually, Cammaroto says. The superhero game’s characters might appear.

Yard Art Day: Spearheaded by photographer Deborah Triplett, the project would let anyone display their works outside their homes on Sept. 3. Triplett’s yard art page on Facebook has attracted more than 800 members.

“Everyone can take part in it,” Kesavan says. “It’s almost like starting a new festival.”

‘Exciting creatively’

At the outset, the artists’ group had only the Mile-Long Gallery in mind, Kesavan says. As they brainstormed, other ideas bubbled up.

“It was a loose process – but very exciting creatively,” he says. “We’re taking a leap and seeing where we get to.”

They have to move fast. While the DNC’s opening date of Sept. 3 has set the clock ticking, it also supplies motivation.

“If there were no such big thing happening – no such deadline – you wouldn’t get all these people to commit to doing something,” Kesavan says.

Besides choosing the projects, raising the money and creating the art, the group has to nail down locations – such as the spots for dozens of QR codes along Tryon Street.

“They’ve been pretty clever about thinking about their projects,” says Tom Warshauer, a manager in the city of Charlotte’s department of neighborhood and business services. His job has included work on public art projects, but in this case he’s volunteering with the group on the side.

The group wouldn’t be trying anything as tricky as closing a street, Warshauer says, so it probably won’t need permits. A QR code might simply involve a sticker on a window. The projects, he thinks, should be doable “even within the context of DNC security and access.” And the convention will deliver hordes of potential viewers.

“Arts organizations and artists are always trying to get a good audience,” UNCC’s Cammaroto says. “And the audience is going to be here.”

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