Skeptics had every right to expect BOOM Charlotte to implode under the weight of its extraordinary ambitions in 2016. Until then, the city had been as hospitable to avant-garde culture – especially in large quantities – as the Mojave Desert is to monarch butterflies.
Yet the festival planted itself in Plaza Midwood in its first year, grabbed the city’s attention in the second and returns April 20-22 with 53 performers, groups or visual/auditory artists in its third go-round. Now America has noticed: The Miami-based Knight Foundation recently gave BOOM a three-year grant totaling $100,000.
You might expect founder-director Manoj Kesavan to dream even bigger with this bankroll on the way. Instead, he’ll use it to stabilize his still-young project.
“What I really want to do is expand our fund-raising capabilities,” he says. “The first two years, we started from zero in getting money for BOOM, and now we won’t have to.
“This festival grew like we never intended. We put on close to 100 programs now, and I am still the only person working on it full-time. The Knight grant lets us expand the infrastructure to keep up with our growth.”
Scan the list of performers, and you’ll find Fringe staples from previous years – Sinergismo, Taproot CLT, XOXO. (They’re in the part of BOOM inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which gives non-mainstreamers places to work during the Edinburgh International Festival.)
You’ll also find a horde of less familiar folks at The Intersection, the outdoor space devoted to free performances and visual arts: Raleigh rapper Seph Dot, indie alternative band Leanna Eden and The Garden Of (LETGO), Rhythmic Soul Dance Company, the pop-jazz Alfred Sergel IVtet. (BOOM always has the coolest names on its roster, especially among visual artists. This year’s batch includes Trap, mulletvision, WDSTK – pronounced “Woodstock” – and Fart.PDF, aka Farticus.)
It may be a surprise to find the Light Factory, Charlotte Symphony and Community School of the Arts joining in: These institutions existed before most BOOM performers were born.
But, says Kesavan, “(Blumenthal Performing Arts president) Tom Gabbard gave us good advice. He said, ‘If it’s only going to be avant-garde shows, you’ll always have a limited audience.’ So we’re open to other things.” Even then, Kesavan encourages unusual activities: Light Factory members will teach passers-by to make cyanotypes, capturing images of objects on light-sensitive paper using only sunlight.
Kesavan’s especially proud of four things this year. First, value for money (or no money). Fringe shows still cost $10, and the day pass to see those has been reduced to $35. An $85 pass buys you tickets to everything, including an after-party. Yet most shows are still free, and Eric Ndelo’s AfroPOP! Nation will lead pop-up performances of art and music in corner lots and unused spaces in Plaza Midwood.
Second, “La Raza Cósmica: An Unbounded Visual Art Exhibition” will sprawl across more than a dozen neighborhood stores and restaurants. Artists will interpret a 1925 essay by Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos, who believed humanity would create a new civilization from an agglomeration of races, without respect for color or class.
Third, a glowing, 40-foot igloo will dominate the parking lot at 1117 Pecan Ave. Tom Montagliano’s “Immersive Igloo” contains eight speakers that create an array of psychedelic, ambient electronic soundscapes. Says its creator, “The music takes listeners on a 50-minute journey through a variety of dream-like, three-dimensional sonic environments, while a flat field of synchronized lights illuminates the walls.” (Yeah, that’s a BOOM thing.)
Fourth, Kesavan feels, “We may be the only event where the true diversity of the community is represented – not just across race, but gender and age. Our curatorial group is more diverse than before.
“After the (Keith Lamont Scott) shooting in 2016, we had a Pecha Kucha night where artists started a dialogue about our city. We were an asset that way and didn’t realize it.” He believes BOOM, which came out of his involvement with Pecha Kucha, “has a responsibility to bring the broader community together, to be about more than just art.”
So audiences get stimulation, maybe even provocation, while they’re entertained. What do art-makers get from BOOM?
A chance to be seen by people (especially families) who’d never discover them in their customary venues, says curator-choreographer Salena Mable Stamp. An impetus to create new works with the guarantee of performance, as she’ll do this year with Taproot CLT. Introductions to people they’ve never known who can provide wise feedback or become collaborators.
Stamp has put together four years’ worth of “Loose Leaves” concerts locally, opening them to choreographers of every stripe. But her time at The Intersection will catch viewers who’d never think to come to Duke Energy Theatre, or maybe even uptown.
Meanwhile, she’s co-creating the dance theater piece “What Future is It Now?” and will take the dance lead in a full-length Taproot CLT show for the first time. She hopes this view of seven alternative futures, imagined in the form of a TV reality show, could turn into a hot ticket. “That’s what you want,” she says. “A few people see it, word of mouth builds, and by the last show, you can hardly get in.”
Stamp doesn’t want BOOM to grow, at least during its one weekend: “It’s already so big that I can’t see everything I want to. I like the idea of extending it in some way through the year.”
Kesavan does, too. He’s talking about “Echoes,” one-day mini-explosions that might arise around the city on Friday nights, perhaps as soon as this fall.
“Instead of doubling in size, we need to find more outlets,” he says. “Cultural offerings concentrate in a few pockets of this sprawling city. It’s our responsibility to work on that, too.”