Live Art for the Masses

photo by Jim Gavenus

Louisville, Kentucky seems like an unusual home for live art. I don’t know about you, but when I picture the form I tend to imagine it in one of the world’s major cities, in a very modern venue, and covering the higher brow of contemporary performance. I picture us, the audience, as generally polite; we engage in some knowledgeable head-nodding, we sip our glasses of wine.

Reader, I ask you to consider one rollicking evening of the Motherlodge Live Arts Exchange, in which live art is what happens in a crowded bar in Kentucky: durational performance art by the bar, a band created when an indie star had a meet-cute with a local jazz ensemble, an improv comedy three-on-three slam in the back room, all surrounded by a pop-up gallery of contemporary art.  There’s local bourbon, and beer that tastes like bourbon.

artist and University of Kentucky professor Rae Goodwin, mid-performance at The Bard's Town

Now that you’ve got your mental image sorted (and may I suggest a Four Roses as your hypothetical bourbon of choice), let’s start with the art.

I spoke with Teresa Koester Mills, Louisville artist and Bellarmine University art faculty, the co-curator of the visual art portion of the ‘lodge, on the opening night of one of two pop-up galleries. This year’s theme was Thresholds,” and the galleries featured work from over twenty local and national artists.

Something Koester Mills said really struck a chord with me, as a director who brings theater to non-theater settings for my company SUPERWOLF.  I asked her why she thought bars and music venues were good locations for Motherlodge’s art shows. “We want to offer art democratically – less than 1% of the population frequent galleries. We want to put art where people go.” Great point. Can you picture the art revolution? All the local bars, restaurants, hotels and doctor’s offices of America featuring local artists rather than anodyne paintings of generic landscapes?

the festival's co-curator for visual art, Teresa Koester Mills, at the opening of a pop-up gallery

I spoke with several of the young local artists featured in the gallery at The Bard’s Town, and they described a healthy art scene in Louisville, with a mix of privately owned galleries, contemporary art festivals, and lots of newly commissioned outdoor pieces throughout the city. They were appreciative of the chance to participate in Motherlodge for quite a few reasons- including having their work hang alongside more respected national artists, and also the fact that they get to keep 100% of the profits, unlike a gallery. “The venues don’t charge us,” noted Koester Mills, enabling her to give the artists all the proceeds from work sold.

Gather Round the Table

A new addition to Motherlodge’s programming this year was the Long Table. For the unfamiliar, “The Long Table is an experimental public forum originally developed by performance artist Lois Weaver. The Long Table experiments with participation and public engagement by re-appropriating a dinner table atmosphere as a public forum, and encouraging informal conversations on serious topics. It is literally a very long table set up with chairs and refreshments where anyone and everyone is welcome to come to the table, ask questions, make statements, leave comments, or simply sit, listen and watch.” (From Weaver’s own description.)

Festival founder Rizzo sat in on a Long Table in New York this fall, during PS122’s production of Cuqui Jerez’ The Rehearsal.  He realized that a gathering of performers, academics and audiences, all sharing space around a table, fit perfectly with his festival’s mash-up vibe. He planned three discussion events across the week, each with a separate topic, facilitator and location.

The first, at the Haymarket Whiskey Bar, an intimate new music venue, was a welcoming gathering. Rizzo proferred the topic for the event, a broad and suitable one for the kick-off evening: “the drive towards creative, or transformative, performance, and the idea of the live arts exchange.”

Ray Rizzo describes how the Long Table work, with his wife Traci Timmons

The group included college professors, a jazz singer, a clown and a chef, a playwright and the venue’s hospitable owner, among others; the group was raring to go. The conversation ranged from the spontaneous moment of creative light striking, to the harnessing of collective energies of a disparate group of practitioners, into the practicalities of creating spaces where new performance modalities can occur. There was debate as to whether the culture of live events was being washed away by the larger trend of experiencing art (and life, generally) via digital formats, and the increasing tendency for audiences to self-segregate into ever smaller subcultures.

In typical ‘lodge fashion, the evening then continued with an Improv Film Scoring Explosion, a selection of recent films accompanied by musicians from New York, Louisville and Australia. Audience members did their part, several of the more gregarious improvising live vocals.

The second Long Table of the week was led by musician Jesse Elliot of These United States, a New York based rock band in the midst of a national tour, and curator Teresa Koester Mills. They held a dialogue on the “thresholds” theme between Motherlodge artists, performers, and audience members.

The final Long Table of the lodge was inspired by another “threshold” – that between life and death. A featured visual artist this year was acclaimed documentary photographer, Jim Gavenus. Gavenus offered a series of powerful and poignant images documenting the final weeks of life of terminally ill and elderly individuals.

the Long Table on the stage of the Rudyard Kipling

Members of the Ernest Becker Foundation, an organization that fosters conversations leading to a deeper understanding of human mortality, helped present Gavenus’ work. Bill Bornschein of the Becker foundation led a powerful Long Table inspired by Becker’s book The Denial of Death, and those seated at the table included local journalists, two drummers, a poet, and perhaps most touchingly, two men who volunteer to lead services in the local cemetery for those who cannot afford funerals. Topics ranged from green burial, to whether it is desirable to prolong life via medical advances, to various participants’ interactions with their seriously ill relatives, to varying views on the idea of life after death, and the concept of the soul.

This sounds heavy, and indeed some of us did come and go from the stage, preferring to sit privately with our thoughts in the audience area below. However, the striking setting- gathered around an old table at the rustic Rudyard Kipling – a warm, worn wooden building that has been a farmhouse, and a brothel, and then a performance venue for over thirty years–with the Louisville late-afternoon light streaming in–and Becker’s powerful photos on display in the room beside us- made for quite a beautiful moment in time. “How odd and wonderful to share a spiritual dialogue with strangers in the midst of performing arts festival,” I wrote in my notebook after the event.

But How Were the Shows?

Inspiring, hilarious, joyful. In post 3, I’ll highlight Motherlodge’s “live” arts, including a Hamlet adaptation featuring musical performance by Bonnie Prince Billy, Lady Rizo finding her ‘rockabilly boyfriend’, Oscar-winner Michael Shannon playing Steely Dan – plus a glimpse of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, including the feisty Future of Arts Criticism panel. Stay tuned!

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