Making Art Pay
This story is part of a series profiling working artists as they try to make a living in the Triangle. We’ll talk to musicians, dancers, performers, painters and poets about the state of the Triangle arts scene and the possibilities for its future.
Will The Triangle Take a Risk on Experimental Art?
To say that a Reflex Arc show is something that you don’t see every day is an understatement. Case in point -Saturday’s performance at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room:
As Crowmeat Bob blares out an irregular tattoo on the saxophone, Ginger Wagg squirms on the floor, pushing a barstool in front of her. Suddenly Bob stops playing and Ginger freezes. Then more discordant notes fill the air, and Ginger is up and running. First she heads to the balcony, where she dangles spasmodically over the railing, then she’s off down the hall towards the bathrooms before spinning around and running outside. What she’s doing out there is anyone’s guess, but inside, Bob is saxophoning his way up to an electric guitar waiting in the corner.
When Ginger comes dashing back into the room, Bob quickly changes instruments and Ginger’s movements slow down to match the fuzzy ambience of his strumming. Then she’s back to the barstool, which screeches maniacally against the floor as she pushes it into the crowd of silent onlookers. Eventually, after some more climbing and crawling and a few shouts, both Bob and Ginger become still and fall silent.
It was surely a bizarre experience for those who just came to see Carrboro rock band North Elementary (Reflex Arc was the opener) celebrate the release of their new album. But then again, the bizarreness was kind of the point.
The idea behind Reflex Arc, according to Ginger, is to create a moment in time where rules don’t apply and where the boundary between audience and performer is blurred -if not outright obliterated.
“One of the biggest things that I focus on is trying to convey that everybody has a choice in the moment of watching something,” she says. “We are moving around the audience and the audience is moving around us; I think there’s a real power in giving someone the ability to view something the way they want to view it.”
And what if their choice is to not view it at all?
“I don’t want to alienate anyone or make anyone feel uncomfortable,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But sometimes you have to get close to doing those things. If someone walked out, I would say ‘That’s a choice that you made for yourself. I’d love to talk to you about what happened.’”
But the challenge for Reflex Arc is finding an audience in the first place. While the experimental music and contemporary dance scenes in the Triangle have certainly grown since Ginger first moved to Carrboro nine years ago (“I couldn’t even find a dance class then.”), they are still both tiny parts of the larger local arts milieu. Experimental artists across all media are dependent on a handful of small, niche venues to perform or display their art. These venues are usually harder to find and draw fewer spectators from the general public, which makes it difficult for these artists to earn any kind of living from their art. The good news is that such spaces are becoming more common. Last year, for example, during Hopscotch Fest, Reflex Arc performed a show at a pop-up space/art installation in downtown Raleigh run by the FLIGHT Fund.
Still, for Ginger and others like her, there is a desire for a more sustainable solution. That’s why she and three other local artists (Culture Mill co-founders Tommy Noonan and Murielle Elizeon, and IndyWeek writer Chris Vitiello) are organizing a series of public meetings across the Triangle called Articulating Value in the Arts. Their aim, appropriately enough, is to “articulate our own value as artists and improve the conditions in which we work and create together.” So far, there have been meetings in Durham and Raleigh, with one more planned in Chapel Hill later this month.
The organizers of Articulating Value, which was funded with a small grant from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, are careful to bill their project as just the beginning of a conversation about creating a more supportive environment for local artists. Once the meetings have all been concluded, the plan is to hold a conference and to produce a publication containing findings from the meetings and suggestions for going forward. But for now, the gatherings are simply a space for local artists to come and help formulate ideas that might one day become tangible projects.
And at the most recent meeting, held at Anchorlight, a shared studio space in SE Raleigh, there were plenty of ideas. About 23 people show up for three hours of facilitated discussions, much of which was spent in small, break-out sessions.
There was talk of developing skill-sharing exchanges among artists, and creating more arts service organizations like Culture Mill. There was also considerable discussion about encouraging collaboration across racial and socioeconomic lines, something the mostly white, middle class group was eager to see happen sooner rather than later.
But the idea that people were most excited about was that of creating an “artists hub” -a physical space for people to gather, work, and perform together. There were some leads about vacant government buildings that might prove suitable for such a space, but also plenty of doubt as to whether any city in the Triangle would be willing to let a bunch of artists use that space. In the end, it was determined that progress on that front would only come if and when groups like this were able to successfully articulate the value created for a community by having a healthy population of working artists.
For her part, Ginger acknowledges the difficulty of convincing local governments and the general public that art like hers is for everyone. Still, she’s optimistic that as the Triangle continues to grow, so too will local residents’ appetite for the avant garde.
“The word ‘experimental’ can be scary for people, but really it just means we’re going to try something a little different,” she says. “Artists are always taking risks, and the public has to learn to take some risks with them.”
Josh Rowsey, aka J. Rowdy, is a recording artist, actor, improvisor, and writer in Chapel Hill. He’s also one of the founders of No9to5 Music, an artist collective with a mission to push the boundaries of hip-hop.