Some years back I was walking around downtown San Antonio with one of the founders of a well-known local arts nonprofit group who can often be seen staging community-driven performances in the public spaces around town. As we were crossing Houston street she looked up with a smile and said, “We own this town.” It seemed rather an audacious statement to blurt out. At the time I assumed she meant that she and her organization are popular and highly-visible. Perhaps it isn’t such an peculiar thing to say of an organization which can be found in almost all parades and important events. And over the years I’ve spent in this strange and wonderful city I, too, have found myself becoming something of a public person. I have marched and paraded in the streets for both political and celebratory purposes on at least a dozen occasions. I have made my way into the local corridors of power (not too impressive in this sleepy little city), powwowed with the media for many diverse causes, and I have worked on committees and boards to bring art and expression into the streets. So now, when I think of the declarative pronouncement, “We own this town,” I see a much richer interpretation. Sure, there’s a bit of braggadocio, with the “we” becoming the “royal we.” But more importantly is the notion that the people, the entire population of San Antonio, owns this town. We politic in the streets, we honor our champions and our dead in the streets, we party in the streets. So, if you feel comfortable saying “we own this town,” I assume you are asserting that you are actively engaged in keeping San Antonio centered around the spirit of community.
And this brings us to Luminaria. There are champions and there are detractors. Me? I’m a little of both. This lavish one night annual art event brings in huge crowds to downtown San Antonio, makes shitloads of money for included vendors, and does a decent job of bringing attention to the arts. Last Saturday night brought us the fourth year of Luminaria. I’ve been involved since the beginning. The first year I volunteered. And for years two, three, and four I have sat on the steering committee as one of the artistic chairs. All four years I have contributed as an artist.
What I’ve noticed over the years is a tendency to release giddy rhetoric abut the importance of art and creatively. The artists are asked to dream big. But, for budgetary concerns, the funds available to help these artists bring these dreams into the real world begin to diminish as the logistical needs of running such a large production become more apparent. Renting stages, hiring security, closing streets, purchasing liability insurance, securing ASCAP and BMI event rights, marketing, lighting, audio equipment, chingos of projectors, and on and on.
There is that horrible realization that to be able to do a good job of presenting the art, the lion’s share of the budget goes, not to the art (ostensibly the reason people are coming), but to the infrastructure, the context in which the art will be inserted. I’m wondering if in the future this might be remedied by treating the artists as vendors or contractors, with their own legitimate needs to bringing in sub-contractors to help with the installations and equipment rental.
I could go on all night blathering on about what I think Luminaria should be. It’s a silly game which hundreds of people are doing this week.
But I think there is one thing of which Luminaria should never lose sight. The artists are the draw. Keep them front and center in all decisions.
One other important matter is the issue of diversity. What I have learned of San Antonio history has revealed a serious struggle over the past few decades where individuals and institutions have pushed for rights and inclusion of all people no matter what their gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation might be. I do know that this was an issue for the first three years of Luminaria — by issue I mean that the committee members were all made to understand that the line-up of artists should represent the diverse face of San Antonio. I’m not so sure we succeeded this year. I do know that Victor and I — co-chairs of the Media Arts committee — kept diversity in the forefronts of our minds during the entire process. But the only reason we did this was because we have worked for community arts organizations in the past, and this sort of sensitivity is clearly etched in our minds.
(As an aside, I wonder if this was the reason that, during the opening ceremony, board member John Phillip Santos made something of a grand exit while the mayor was still speaking. I have a hard time thinking he was just looking for the water fountain.)
Fuck the behind the scenes stuff. What did the punters see?
They saw something magical and extraordinary.
This year Luminaria filled almost all of HemisFair Park. There might have been 250,000 people. That’s what we were expecting. Personally I think it must have been less. The crush of humanity was heavy, but not intesne.
I was too busy trouble shooting various stages and artists to really explore. But what little I did see was so cool.
Of the curitorial zones, I was most cognizant of Ray and Cindy Palmer’s zone. It was between two areas I was shuttling back and forth between: the dance stage in Plaza de Mexico and the Pumphouse Lounge.
Ray and Cindy brought in some great artists. And two of my friends were right there in the Palmer’s zone. Gisha Zabala had a beautiful three channel video projection in one of the fountains. And Deborah Keller-Rihn had a breath-taking installation of illuminated floating altars in a little cement pond near Gisha’s piece.
I had little opportunity to take pictures. I did show up for the piece which ST Shimi and I collaborated on. “City Hoop.” I made a film. Shimi danced to it. It was pretty fucking awesome. Here are a couple of photos:
I also got an opportunity to see the dance piece created by my friend Seme Jatib. Amazing!
Okay. Here’s my Luminaria film, City Hoop, featuring ST Shimi. And because I still can’t figure out how to embed video on the blogs for this site, I’ll do the next best thing. Add a link:
I’ve been laying low these last few post-Luminaria days. The whole thing left me physically tapped and mentally drained. And like the shutting down of any other sizable production, I’m sadden with the realization that many of the people I had been working with in such an intense manner I will not be seeing much in the future. A lot of the core players don’t move in my humble circles. The post production depression is a common affliction for those who work on collaborative time-based projects. I did make it out Monday to have a late breakfast with Deborah. Afterwards we took the thirteen inflated inner tubes out of the bed of my pickup truck. They were from her Luminaria installation. We were in the parking lot of Blue Star, each sitting on an inner tube and holding the stopper pin with a key. They deflate very slowly. After we’d done two apiece we decided to go ahead and take them all up to her studio. She could deflate them later, at her leisure. I suggested that she fob off this chore on the deadbeats who hang out in her studio while she’s trying to work — at the least, they can make themselves useful.
Deborah was also feeling that numb sense of bathos. She keeps saying how her piece would have been better had she done this or that. I keep reminding her that it was incredibly beautiful. She worked long and hard on it, and it paid off. Here’s a photo of her floating altars by Ramin Samandari:
There are twelve portraits (photos and paintings — all by San Antonio artists). The portraits are of leaders in the creative communities who have passed away in recent years. As moving as the piece was (aesthetically and conceptually) I have to admit I laughed aloud when Deborah told me that during the night of Luminaria a drunk woman on her cell phone tried to walk across the floating art and fell into the pool. The only casually was Deborah’s new iPhone, which got wet when she got into the pool to reset her art. And as anyone who has ever dealt with a water-damaged iPhone knows, there’s no recourse but to buy another.
I wasn’t able to spend much time at the Pumphouse Lounge, where some of the video was being screened. I was just too busy doing other things. Unfortunately, because of the high winds during the afternoon, Angela and Rick of Slab Cinema weren’t able to place their inflatable screen in our preferred area. There was no place to anchor the front of the screen, and the weights we borrowed from Magik Theatre just weren’t heavy enough. Also, it was too windy to blow up the inflatable furniture. Even if it wasn’t, I didn’t have anyone to help inflate them. Here’s a note to those of you on FaceBook. When someone posts a request for help on their page, don’t take that as an opportunity to crack wise or make pithy remarks. Find out how you can help, or shut the fuck up.
And while I’m bitching, this is for the passive aggressive tech guy at one of the stages who wanted to chew on me because there had been no plan on how to run audio from the DVD player beside the projector across the plaza, over to the the sound board beside the stage. While I was trying to figure out how to remedy the problem (instead of trying to find someone to blame), he finally let me know that he had taken it upon himself to drive to his house, on the other side of town, to get his own wireless equipment. I felt like explaining: “Dude, I assume you’re getting paid for this. Not me. And, yes, I for one am damn happy you took it upon yourself to save our asses, but, please, hold back the bile until you’re working for the Spurs or Cirque du Soleil, instead of a volunteer-driven arts event where the only people getting paid are the goddamn marketing firms, vendors, rental companies, and stage crew.”
But I was talking about the Pumphouse Lounge. Between screenings of short films, Aztec Gold was putting on an interactive show they called the Green Screen Bonanza, where people could walk in front of a green screen. A video camera would play back their images live, embedded into scens from one of several popular movies. I was curious how well this would work. And though I only had a short time to check it out, I was impressed. The technology, though low, worked well, and the people seemed to be digging it. Pocha and Payan pulled it off!
While I don’t recall having eaten anything that night, I did find myself passing one of the volunteer booths. Kathy waved me over and asked if I wanted a beer. Those volunteers have it all worked out it seems. I thanker her and took a short break on the porch near the command center to quickly down a can of beer. Also, on the two times I dropped by to check in on Joseph Hladeka, who had a three-channel projection on the south wall of Magik Theatre, he was happy to share with me a bottle of some sort of flavored vodka. So it wasn’t a night of total privation.
Probably my favorite part of the night was stopping every so often, in chance encounters, to chat with friends, enemies, colleagues, and FaceBook “friends,” most who are also, in some manner, involved in the San Antonio art world.
You see, we’re an amorphous and dysfunctional cabal who own this town. And we know it.