By Daniel Carlin, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 25, 2012
In the words of Jay-Z, “Welcome to the party life.” In Ann Arbor, the art scene is putting the “art” back into the “party.”
In an effort to showcase avant-garde works, Ann Arbor artists recently began curating experiences in unexpected sites, harkening back to the 1960s Happening movement.
“There was a certain dissatisfaction among some artists who felt certain established venues might not be appropriate for them,” said Associate History of Art Prof. David Doris. As a result events, or Happenings, that merge various art forms began to occur, including painting, sculptures, film, light, music, dance, theater and poetry.
“They were trying to really question the boundaries of art, music and theater,” Doris added.
While there is a level of spontaneity and improvisation, the main aspects are devised in advance. The multidisciplinary elements attempt to blur the line between the artwork and audience — eventually allowing the audience to become a part of the art.
American artist Allan Kaprow coined the term in the 1950s, but the events became more popular in the following decade. In fact, one of the strongest and most developed Happenings was once hosted in Ann Arbor.
Between 1966 and 1967, pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol organized a series of multimedia events called the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” While each Happening was not exactly the same, he worked with a consistent group of artists: the band The Velvet Underground, actress and musician Nico and members of his own studio, the “Factory,” which included artists Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov as well as actress Edie Sedgwick.
“Exploding Plastic Inevitable” went on a short tour in 1966, which included Ann Arbor. Warhol also brought “Up-Tight,” an iteration of “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” to the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Almost a half century later, Ann Arbor is redefining the Happening movement through pop-up galleries, local businesses, warehouses and house parties. Though technological advances since the 1960s have assisted contemporary Happenings, they have continued to foster live, social interactions, creative play and community.
Finding art in a hopeless place
Due to Ann Arbor’s increasing retail rent, it’s difficult for small businesses — let alone experimental art facilities — to survive. The empty storefronts across Ann Arbor’s downtown streets testify to the fact that space is not the issue. According to LoopNet, a commercial real estate listing service, local retail prices have been increasing by 1.4 percent per year.
“Downtown Ann Arbor is just difficult to get that good balance between a really nice gallery space and, actually, some gallery that can stay in it,” said Chaely Chartier, co-founder of Charlie LaCroix Art Brokerage.
A little more than a year-and-a-half old, the brokerage represents local contemporary artists. While they have no fixed gallery site, the company maintains a consistent pop-up space on Main Street called LePop Gallery, where their fifth show opened last week.
Charlie LaCroix Art Brokerage does not pay rent for the space. Instead, the brokerage convinced a real estate agent that it was better to have them than an empty space on the ground level. While the property is still on the market, the pop-up acts as “commercial staging” and theoretically will raise the value of the space for prospective leasers.
Pop-up shops have grown internationally popular and no longer hold a seasonal stigma. LePop acts as a social forum while connecting artists to potential buyers.
Last week at LePop, Detroit artist Michelle Tanguay opened her first solo show, “Sweet Tooth.” Her inspiration came directly from candy, she said.
“I was eating so much candy and I was getting the worst toothaches,” Tanguay explained.
Tanguay is also the co-founder of Pop Up Detroit, which encourages young Detroit residents to use vacant spaces to display their artwork.
With “Candy Land” colors and a pop-art aesthetic, the opening reception had everyone smiling. Her work is accessible, and LePop creates an unpretentious environment. There were even paint tubes scattered underneath one of her works, which alluded to an artist’s workplace.
“I think people need to start noticing the spaces that are available. It isn’t just about the art. It’s about revamping the city,” Tanguay said.
By the lab
When University alum Tobias Wacker opened lab — a coffee shop on East Liberty Street — in March 2010, he wanted it to be more than just a commuter coffee destination.
“We originally started lab as a place for the community,” Wacker said. “We really wanted to be a part of Ann Arbor — more so than just a place to study and come in and out.”
To that end, lab focuses on the promotion of local art, acting as a sterile coffee shop and gallery for artists during the day.
“We have a video projector and always play art and short movies,” Wacker said. “It is an open server and technically anyone can upload videos onto it.”
But by night, lab transforms into a dimly lit music venue for disc jockeys and live acts.
Wacker, who grew up as a fan of the Detroit techno scene, takes particular interest in the electronic music scene — some of lab’s employees are local celebrity DJs, such as Charles Trees and Joy Dettling (DJ Paw Paw).
At the warehouse
In an episode of HBO’s “Girls,” the characters find themselves at a warehouse party in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. While a character ironically refers to it as “the best party ever,” warehouse parties are essentially raves in industrial locations where police are less likely to interfere.
The movement originated in the United Kingdom during the 1980s, but drifted to the U.S. during the emergence of techno in Detroit.
Today, in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, warehouse parties have become a hybrid of DJ-driven music and art installations.
Roughly six years ago, Ann Arbor-based art collective Forth From Its Hinges threw its first warehouse party. Originally, co-founder Sam Haddix wished to display his artwork on the walls of the local coffee shop Elixir Vitae Coffee and Tea. But after being informed of the shop’s three-month waiting list, he decided to create his own show.
Near the Ann Arbor Airport on Plaza Drive, the exhibition featured a variety of art mediums including paintings, installations, short films, live music and DJs. The event was free, and open to all ages. After the success of the first showing, Forth From Its Hinges organized a handful of other Happenings in the same space.
After drifting apart over the years, certain members of Forth have assisted with the most recent warehouse party to arrive in town: SHADOW/SHADOW.
“The event is not only about curating Ann Arbor art, but having a lot of fun with it,” Joshua Bay, a musician featured in the show, said.
In early September, Architecture and Urban Planning senior Olivia Vander Tuig co-organized SHADOW/SHADOW, which was promoted as an art show and dance party. The event featured local artists, DJs and musicians, including Bay, a University alum who goes by Known Moons.
Bay takes “having a lot of fun” to heart in his performances as he sometimes plays the guitar with a violin string.
SHADOW/SHADOW took place in a 7,000-square-foot space located in an isolated area on Main Street. The warehouse had been used as Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design faculty studios from 1998 until November 2011.
While the show was supposed to operate as a place of artistic freedom and celebration, there were was a $5 cover, a 21-and-up age requirement and a dress code of all black.
Still, the event brought a contemporary spin to the warehouse scene.
“We drew a lot of our inspiration from the Detroit warehouse party, where people would go set up for a night and go until they got kicked out,” Vander Tuig said.
Within the house
With burdens of rent and maintenance fees, there’s a growing trend in Ann Arbor of turning houses into a venue. From site-specific art installations to full-fledged concerts, residents and students are treating their homes like studio spaces.
In Kerrytown, a handful of School of Music, Theatre & Dance composition students call their home “Comphou5.”
The residents are no longer the only ones calling it by that name. Since September, Comphou5 has hosted shows that blur the line between college house party and independent music venue.
“We were sort of trying to create our own alternative to having concerts in the Music School,” said Music, Theatre & Dance senior and Comphou5 resident Samn Johnson. “No one really goes to (the University’s concerts) besides the Music School students.”
With a lack of facilities to showcase experimental art in Ann Arbor, Comphou5 provides a homey, accepting turf for new sounds. Johnson, who is also part of the musical collective GRL MTN, said the collaboration of people and sounds can tap into unexplored harmonies.
“We are trying to have something where electronic musicians play and then, at the same time, have some classical music going on, too,” he said. “And then try to combine these two different worlds that are separate.”
In the computer
“I think the Internet is really helping to facilitate our music scene,” Johnson explained. “People are listening to each other’s music online who didn’t know each other in person and then deciding to meet up.”
Due to developments in technology, these contemporary Happenings are taking on new forms in Ann Arbor. The Internet is used as a connecting forum for artists. GRL MTN and local band Chrome Sparks even found a bandmate in a chat room.
In a generation consumed by social media, there are new and meta ways of promoting, creating and preserving Happenings.
LSA senior Cory Hearns attends local concerts and shoots interestingly crafted short films.
“I was inspired by this French blog, La Blogothèque,” Hearns said. “Whenever bands come through Paris, they film these very grainy one-take videos of bands playing in obscure places.”
Hearns uses this approach to create his own film technique.
“I just bring my camera, and at certain moments I click record,” Hearns explained. “I won’t stop until the song is finished.”
After the shows, Hearns posts the videos on various social networking and media websites. Artists greatly appreciate Hearns’s films since they act as artistic forms of preservation and even as promotion.
The Internet and film are innovations that allow for art to be created, accessed and shared faster than ever. Many art critics believe that new media further blurs the line between the artist, the artwork and the viewer.
With the University’s amenities, cultural institutions and valued public art, Ann Arbor prides itself on its creative culture. Below this topography lies an energetic community that is redefining how people view and experience art. This group is pushing audiences out of the white box known as a gallery and into new, inventive spaces. Though it is partially due to extortionate real estate prices in downtown Ann Arbor, there is a paradigm shift occurring: “art” is transforming from a noun to a verb.
“Art shows in Ann Arbor are unique,” said Chartier. “And they are unique, in the fact that it is not just a bunch of people kind of standing around and talking in, like, big, fancy words about art.”
The “new Happening” movement has an emphasis on mobility — physically and electronically. While Happenings offer a flexibility of space, the digital world allows for a new portability and accessibility into art. This engagement and celebration of art offers a new, authentic voice within Ann Arbor. Yet it begs the question: Has the party just begun?
Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that David Doris is an associate history professor.