As warm and cold fronts violently collided in the gathering dusk Saturday night, an estimated 300 people made their way to 55th Street and University to experience what was likely the first glam-rock opera ever held in a parking garage. In the calmer, balmier gloaming of the previous evening, dozens of the same people, along with hundreds more, attended a party at the Smart Museum of Art that featured freely-flowing wine, models scantily-clad in student-crafted clothing, and a screening of an ultra violent, pornographic clay-mation short entitled "The Unicorn," among other things.
Until very recently, spring at the U of C meant Scav Hunt, Summer Breeze, and little else. What became apparent this weekend is that the Festival of the Arts (FOTA), an event that was resurrected on a large scale last year for the first time in two decades, has established itself as a mainstay on the U of C social scene.
"Code Name: Fabulous"
Friday night's Smart Museum-based shindig marked the launch of FOTA 2003. The party, "Code Name: Fabulous," according to FOTA organizers, began at 9 p.m., as attendees mingled in the Smart's concrete courtyard, a space they shared with balloon bedecked, hoop-skirted women and large, bright-orange rubber balls--reminiscent of the ubiquitous FOTA beach balls deployed throughout campus to build anticipation for the festival.
A large tent was erected in the center of the courtyard where attendees snacked on free food and drank free wine, as a DJ spun in the background. It was here, at 10 p.m., that the night's main event kicked off, a fashion show highlighting the talents of four college students: FOTA organizer and fourth-year in the College Maggie Hansen, second-year Victoria Anderson, and third-years in the College, Rachel Frank, and Maria Chikina.
Young women bearing placards, heralded the start of each designer's collection, like the ringside girls at the start of a boxing match, but more naked--they wore only panties (designed by Hansen), placards and smiles. More beautiful undergrads, male and female, followed these placard bearers, as the four women's creations sashayed and strutted down the aisle on the backs of your friends and classmates, to a pulsing soundtrack and the cheers and applause of a crowd which packed the large tent.
Following the fashion show's approximately 40-minute display of sexiness and creativity, a clown troupe called CLUNK performed for a thinning crowd. Dancing and further mingling rounded out the evening, which lasted until about 1 a.m. An estimated 750 to 1,000 people attended, according to FOTA organizers. "It exceeded our expectations," Hansen said, "and we had some high expectations."
FOTA surfaced again Saturday evening, this time in a very unlikely location: the University-owned parking structure at 55th Street and Ellis Avenue. Here, FOTA organized a concert by two U of C rock bands: opening act and mainstays of the Hyde Park music scene, Starlister, and headliners P1xel and the Chronic Network.
It was, literally, an evening of garage-rock, but with a decidedly un-garage-rock glitter twist. Following a solid 40-minute set by Starlister, the members of P1xel took the stage: their necks were boaed; their hair, teased; shoes, platformed; pants, tight; and faces, glittered. A smoke machine, light show, five-camera Fire Escape Films crew (replete with a boom), and the night's spectacular thunderstorm added to the band's aura of largess.
P1xel and the Chronic Network described their eponymous live show as a "rock opera," which tells the story of a robot named P1xel who lives in the future, but "yearns for the past." P1xel (the band) told this story through original music, interrupted by the odd technical difficulty, and a narrative flow of lyrical non-sequiturs, delivered by the front man, again, "P1xel," a.k.a. Gabe McElwain, a fourth-year in the College, the Maroon cartoonist.
"Prepare yourself for the loudest science you've ever heard," McElwain told the crowd at one point, before the five-piece band launched into one of their "12 and a half" songs. Along with band leader McElwain, P1xel is: College students Ronni Kuller/ "Petal A. Lexis," a keyboardist and fourth-year; third-year Paul Brannon/ "Slugger Metropolis;" groupie favorite and lead guitarist "Stryker"/third-year Jon Hersh; and fourth-year Aniel Mundra, alias "Dr. Throbbin 'n Burnin'," who spanked the electric bass. Audience members literally found it impossible not to move to the music, as an enthusiastic contingent of bounding bodies caused the fourth floor of the parking structure to bounce menacingly.
After about an hour of stage theatrics, including the histrionic collapse and removal of "P1xel," and a good deal of easygoing homo- and hetro-eroticism, the band produced its coup de gras: a limousine drove up to the stage and whisked away band members and would-be groupies, while the rest of the crowd dispersed into the torrential downpour. P1xel's command performance drew respect from the crowd, which was comprised primarily, but not exclusively, of members of the undergraduate student body. "I go here, and I know you don't have much spare time at this place," said fourth-year in the College Andy Rafter. "[P1xel's performance] is especially impressive when you think of how much time they must have put into this," Rafter continued.
"Be sure to mention it's not over"
"[P1xel's performance] shows that we have a lot of talented crazy people at this school and all they need are resources to do unnecessarily wonderful things," said fourth-year in the College and FOTA participant Ayelet Evan-Nur.
Evan-Nur's remark encapsulates FOTA's mission in a nutshell; according to event organizers, FOTA exists to provide funding and publicity to would-be artists, allowing them to unleash their creativity unencumbered by logistical concerns.
Made possible by a two-year-old University grant for the arts and by the Student Government Finance Committee, FOTA is headed by a core group of six students: lead coordinator Maggie Hansen, public relations coordinator Amy Biegelson, opening celebration coordinator Nathanial Prottas, documentation coordinator Joy Kim, gallery coordinator Lucy Scwallie, and site/print designer Elliot Brennan. All are fourth-years in the College with the exception of Brennan, who is a member of the class of 2002.
These six organizers, along with nine student liaisons, have worked for the past several months, evaluating artists' proposals, dispensing funding, and creating publicity.
Along with the lavish Smart Museum launch party and Saturday's rock concert, FOTA boasts dozens of installations scattered throughout campus, a series of workshops, a circus to be held Friday night between the Regenstein and Bartlett, numerous concerts, a garden installation in Midway studios, and more. All told, an estimated 450 students will participate directly in the eight-day festival.
Along with "showcasing the best of the best," as Hansen put it, FOTA hopes to introduce the arts to a wide campus audience and build networks between other artists. "By starting out with such an elaborate and successful opening, we got the attention of people who wouldn't normally patronize the arts, while giving artists a chance to meet and talk," Hansen said.
According to students who attended this weekend's festivities, the efforts of FOTA's organizers have paid off: "I hadn't even heard of FOTA until this year, but it's definitely enjoying a resurgence, I think it's exciting," said third-year Laura Weiss. "I had a pretty good weekend."
Weiss's comments were echoed by fourth-year Holly Sabin: "In the past [FOTA has] been a week of weird stuff that the mainstream couldn't understand as 'art,' and it just further alienated people from the art scene here," Sabin said. "It's been more inclusive this year," she continued, describing the crowd at the launch party as "everyone from frat boys to hipsters, and everything in-between."
Organizers claim that the improvements in FOTA 2003 are a product of experience gained during last year's 16-day festival. "Last year we tried to do absolutely everything," Hansen said. "This year we could look back at what was necessary and successful."
Accordingly, FOTA has been streamlined this year to eight days, allowing more emphasis to be placed on each component of the event.
Hansen and others did express concern, however, that the high profile events of this weekend would lead students to believe that FOTA was a two-day affair that has already concluded: "Be sure to mention that it's not over," Hansen said.
FOTA runs through May 16.