A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
Commotion Festival: The city as a work of artBY: AJ Sabatini 06.26.2012
What James Joyce did for Dublin, Commotion Festival is doing for three emerging Philadelphia neighborhoods— that is, savoring the poetry in the lives of ordinary urban people and places.
Commotion Festival. June 16-30, 2012 at various locations in Grays Ferry, Point Breeze and South of South Street neighborhoods. commotionphilly.org/festival.
The city you thought you knewAJ SABATINI
The Commotion Festival commenced calmly on Saturday evening, June 16, with free pizza and a talk-with-the-artists-and-neighbors event in a nondescript lot beside the humble Zion Hill Memorial Baptist Church on 27th and Ellsworth Streets. The sundown get-together, which featured a book signing and preludes to the sound and video projects to come, highlighted a view of the pale blue-grey-smokestacked PECO Substation III facility angled forbiddingly on the west side of Grays Ferry.
The mirrored facades of the blue-grey Center City skyline provided the backdrop. Traffic was light, the company was local, and the friendly conversations flowed casually. It was a moment to savor another slice of Philadelphia’s variegated cityscape.
June 16, as readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses know, is Bloomsday, and I spent part of it listening to readings from the book at the annual event held in front of the Rosenbach Museum and Library on Delancey Street. Before he went blind, Joyce was a dedicated urban walker, and he attempted to cram all the lives of the city dwellers he knew, along with allusions to the plot and the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, into his noisy, smelly, argumentative and linguistically exuberant novel so that people could read it to each other once a year and feel verrry literary and somewhat Irish.
(Some years ago, after a Bloomsday indulgence, a few friends and I tried to drink to Joyce at local Irish pubs. The bartenders, patrons and few Irish descendants there had no idea who Joyce was or what team Ulysses played for. Well, at least they served Guinness and Jamesons.)
If Joyce had high tech
Unlike the recent Odunde Festival— an annual, heavily attended joyous street celebration of food, crafts, clothes and music in the cross-section of streets around 23rd and South— Commotion pointedly focuses on the Grays Ferry, Point Breeze and South of South Street neighborhoods and their daily life, as engaged by a cohort of artists and members of the community brought together by the festival’s director, the sound artist John JH Phillips (from the University of the Arts). The events in the Commotion, all free, are meant to emphasize specific sites, including the Shiloh Baptist Church and the Grays Ferry Crescent at Schuylkill Banks. (The project is sponsored by PECO, an encouraging demonstration of a big utility’s interest in the neighborhoods in question.)
Joyce, the consummate novelist and language lover, would have savored the poetry of neighborhood names like Point Breeze, Grays Ferry and South of South Street. And were he around today, along with laboring on the nuances of words and sentences, he would likely make use of video cameras, audio recording technology, advanced photographic processes, book making, electro-kinetic sculpture, live projected video, interactive theater, installation art and dance performance, websites, Google Earth and air conditioning— all of which, except for the A/C, are part of the Commotion Festival offerings.
Neighbors’ boxing gloves
The kickoff event at Zion Hill Memorial Baptist Church was the occasion for handing out two works: a CD with 13 ambient and processed compositions by Philadelphia musicians and sound artists, and a 72-page color and black-and-white photographic collection by University of the Arts teacher Tim Fitts, titled Verandering, a Dutch word that roughly translates into “change” or “the act of revising or altering.”
In that mode, a third of the book’s photographs are complexly textured images of surfaces (peeling paint, cherry blossoms in puddles) or tinted long shots of the power substation. These are juxtaposed with stark black and white studies of objects— a baseball, a tool belt, boxing gloves— owned by people from the neighborhood.
Similarly, the Sound Places CD consists of layered sounds and voices recorded from the neighborhood, most invoking the infinite subtle variations of fluttering bass traffic noises, wind scraping steel and concrete bridges, muted voices on short walks and unexpected birds on flight through the soundscape. As you might expect of a neighborhood that’s a jumble of warehouses, industrial sites and railways, the recordings reveal the pulse of lives enmeshed amidst the constant wash of mechanical rhythms and only incidentally musicated hums.
Dancers as ghosts
By contrast, the Historic Shiloh Baptist Church at 2040 Christian Street stands in the midst of a completely residential neighborhood. The Church has a storied past (dating back to 1842) and an aging interior with multiple spaces, hallways, gathering rooms and turning staircases whose wooden footfalls show its wear and tear.
Shiloh’s devoted congregation is part of the Shiloh Dance Days events (June 20, 21, 27 and 28). Two dance companies, Subcircle and Team Sunshine, have constructed works that will vary each evening (the programs include dinner with congregation members).
Subcircle has been based in Philadelphia since 1998. The partners, choreographer and dancer Niki Cousineau and designer Jorge Cousineau, are a near-magical realist pair whose smart, dazzling dance technology works often engage themes of distance and enchantment.
For their work, forget me…forget me not, the audience members were led, in groups of 15, on a tour of the old parlors, back stairwells and haunted rooms on the building’s second and third floor. Four dancers— like ghost re-enacters— served tea in a faded dining room, performed rituals in darkened shower stalls and created an atmosphere fitting the authentic 19th-century Philadelphia surrealist set.
Prior to the tour, audiences viewed a live screen projection, by Jorge Cousineau, of images of one-time parishioners; if you looked closely, you noticed the people sitting next to you as well— and yourself, too.
A second work, wonderwave, was performed by Team Sunshine and danced, with earnestness and poignancy, by Benjamin Camp and Makoto Hirano. They set themselves up on stage in front of a makeshift wall with panels and cabinet doors, allowing them to open one or the other and play with food, a fish tank, a window. They kept the crowd amused with guy-on-guy mimicry and parodic movement riffs cued by waving their remotes at a sound system.
Paul Simon’s bouncy music dominated about half the performance. But Makoto let everyone know he was from Japan, and that country’s last natural disaster physically and psychically intruded to undo the guys’ playfulness and darken even Paul Simon’s upbeat tempos.
The Commotion Festival— which also includes a play by Ed Schockley, a sculpture raising block party (by Jebney Lewis), interactive media installations by John JH Phillips, and more dance and sound works by Bowerbird— will play out through June 30.
Respond to this Article