Imagining a Different RNC

Elephant illustration by Judy Rifka.

Even while crammed into a booth in an 8th Avenue diner, Chris Wangro, between bites of his bagel and poached egg, gives good interview. Wangro, executive co-producer of the Imagine Festival of Arts, Issues and Ideas, has had a lot of practice. Director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department’s special events for six and a half years, he has been in charge of a long list of unwieldy occasions, including the 1995 Papal Mass in Central Park and last fall’s 100,000 person Freedom Ride Immigrant Rally.

The Imagine Festival will open on August 28th at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The weeklong coalition of more than 100 venues, artists and performers, is planned as a platform for the voices of New York’s arts community during the clamor of the RNC. Wangro explains that the not-for-profit festival is intended as a "third space," an alternative to traditional left-right sound-bite politics. Instead of pushing a specific political agenda, the organizers hope to draw on New York’s creativity to spur open discussion and fresh debate on the issues.

The idea for the Imagine Festival grew from a one-off event called "Arts on the High Wire" in 2002. Wangro was one of several producers involved in bringing together New York’s arts community in support of the city’s arts organizations that were badly hit by 9/11. "It was a time in which billions of dollars were being promised to New York by the government, but no money was being targeted for the not-for-profit organizations," says Wangro. "As many people did, we pulled ourselves together and did something."

The Imagine Festival began to take shape as soon as the organizers of Arts on the High Wire heard that the RNC would be coming to New York. Wangro recalls that "we saw it as an incredible opportunity to speak out from the cultural capital of this country. We decided to bring together the broadest cross-section of the New York arts community and provide a forum and place" for people to put forth their views.

Although he supports the rallies and marches that are planned for the RNC, Wangro is keen to emphasize that the Imagine festival has a different agenda. "The arts are traditionally about understanding and deciphering culture, framing questions and thinking on the issues," says Wangro. As a result, each of the festival’s six days will feature a different theme—freedom, community, democracy, justice, prosperity and the future. Daily panel discussions that correspond to each of the themes will be held at The New School, CUNY, the Asia Society and in public libraries throughout the city. True to the spirit of open discussion, there are plans to host a debate on environmental issues between Friends of the Earth and members of Republican and corporate think tanks.

The festival will sponsor everything from opera to large-scale street theater in venues across the city that range from the Jewish Community Center to the Knitting Factory. Fringe acts will run alongside well-known names like comedian Margaret Cho and Marc Anthony Thompson of Chocolate Genius Inc., who bookend the festival at the Apollo Theater. Although the individual partners are members of the festival coalition, they will fund events from their own resources. How much the venues and performers decide to charge for events will remain at their own discretion.

If there is one overarching theme to the festival, it is an emphasis on communication. "The Comfort and Safety of Your Own Home," is an innovative Brooklyn-based project by Josh Fox and the International WOW Company that unpacks the cultural quicksand of America’s communication overload. "The play is about how people are invaded through their television by a nation of fear and the sense that things are spiraling out of control," says Fox.

The site-specific performance is the first of a four-part play cycle, each of which focuses on a particular country—the USA, Thailand, Argentina, and Iraq. In this first installment the audience, limited to 30 people per night, will be shipped via tour bus over the Brooklyn Bridge, past the navy Yard, prison and newly built Steiner Studios, to the company’s rehearsal space in which each room has another scene.

"Imagine you are channel surfing," Fox says. "You might see an image of Guantanamo Bay, a trailer for the latest blockbuster and an advert for a new kitchen unit. As we take the audience past the movie studios, a prison and residential homes, we’ll show them that it’s all right here in Brooklyn."

Once the audience is at their destination, they will find that the play is set next to a torture chamber. "Imagine sitting outside a prison cell in Abu Ghraib," says Fox. "It would be impossible to have a meaningful conversation; language is destroyed. The tendency of our brains is to normalize our experience, and if we don’t stay awake we are capable of horrible things." By collapsing the physical distance between here and Iraq, Fox is trying to puncture the moral distance that cushions American audiences from the impact of televised images of war.

This is precisely the sort of complex message that is hard to convey at a protest rally. "People in this culture are trained not to think deeply," says Wangro. "We are trained to move quickly, to think quickly, to digest news and sound bites quickly. People need to stop and think."

Another festival contributor who needs time to distill his message is the Brooklyn-based literary performer Marshall Weber. Weber is known for undertaking marathon public readings of iconic texts, transforming books like James Joyce’s Ulysses (36 hours) and the Bible (72 hours) into forms of meditation. His work is the antithesis of the sound-bite, a salve to the heartburn of the 24-hour news cycle.

For the Imagine Festival, Weber plans a non-stop reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. He will read the Iliad beside the Vietnam War memorial in Water Street, when he’s finished, he will get up and walk over to the Staten Island Ferry and start the Odyssey. "I try to read simply and unobtrusively," says Weber. "But I site the readings in contexts that create a multi-sensory experience."<

Weber sees these classic myths as particularly appropriate for the current moment. "One is a book about war and the other is a book about a soldier trying to find his way home," he explains. Ultimately, Weber is "trying to create a really long-term historical context for this ethical dilemma when military culture gets out of control. The Iliad is about what happens when the soldierly myth of war as politics by other means is destroyed. The Odyssey is about the resonance of this for the rest of society—we are lost, how can we find our way home when we destroy not only our home, but our concept of it?"

Weber maintains that the readings slated for the week of the RNC are also about reclaiming public discourse. "Today we are used to associating public reading with authority—with the state, corporations and the church," he says. "Before the mass media, people talked in the commons, in the town square, on the soap box. For me, reading is about saying you don’t need power and authority to engage in the discourse."

The Imagine festival’s strategy of engaging venues and performance spaces not only provides space for this more meditative work, but it also sidesteps attempts by the city to quash dissent. If the city doesn’t own the space, Bloomberg and company can’t withhold a permit.

Wangro’s former position as the city’s director of special events gives him particular insight into the issue. "We knew right away that we weren’t going to get the parks, that we’re not going to get the streets," he says. "We wanted to be masters of our own forum, and we didn’t want to expend all our energy fighting the city for spaces, so we went ahead and created a coalition of venues."

One festival piece that will occupy the streets, though, is "The Freedom of Expression Monument." Its title is suitably verbose—the monument is a giant, orange, 20-foot tall working megaphone. It will be set up in Foley Square and directed at the federal courts as part sculpture and part performance art. As people wander past, they will able to climb a ramp up to the aperture and bellow a piece of their mind.

And, whether on stage or in the streets, in the words of Gunter Grass, "The job of a citizen is to keep your mouth open."

For more information on the Imagine Arts Festival, go to www.imagine04.org

Contributor

Dan Bell

Dan Bell is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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