Organized by Ralph Eaton in conjunction with the 2nd Annual Roanoke Marginal Arts Festival,Roanoke, Virginia February 20, 2009
Ralph Eaton flapped the elongated, noodle-like sleeves of his patchwork, neon-yellow suit as he marched in a loose column of bicyclists, performers, and costumed revelers. A young girl with a popcorn bucket on her head pointed at him and shouted, “Look, it’s that weird piece of art.” Ralph doubled back as the parade surged past shops and grinning locals; the girl grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her into its ranks. The 1st Annual Hoo-Rah Marginal Arts Festival Parade (MAF Parade), which Eaton organized with promoters River Laker and Beth Deel, was the kick-off event of Roanoke, Virginia’s second annual Marginal Arts Festival (http://roanokemarginalartsfestival.blogspot.com), a week of performances, events, and exhibitions organized by artists, poets, and musicians (all from lesser-known artistic circles from around the country) with the local community in Roanoke itself.
Art parades have been springing up everywhere recently, from This Town Needs a Parade, a DIY art student freak-out in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to Deitch Project’s Art Parade, a counterfeit spectacle of High-Art pomp and hipster grandstanding in Manhattan. Parades of this ilk draw as much inspiration (if not more) from Mardi Gras, Brazilian Carnivale, leftist political demonstrations, and Gay Pride parades as they do from Robert Watt’s Flux Parade or Joey Skaggs April Fool’s Day Parade. Not unlike Pasadena’s Doo-Dah parade, founded in 1976 as an alternative to the Rose parade, the MAF Parade emphasized fun and community awareness. Although smaller in scope than Doo-Dah, the MAF Parade, with around fifty people, managed to be more anarchic and socially present than many of its peers.
Advertising for the parade emphasized that it was free, car-less, and an open public platform—a chance for artists and the public to interface, minus institutional or corporate entanglements. The parade route zigzagged through downtown Roanoke’s sidewalks; beginning at the Martin Luther King footbridge, crossing into Market Square and ending at the Roanoke Public Library, which was the site of an exhibition of emerging artists as well as the post-parade bash. By leading the participants through busy downtown areas, this path encouraged intermingling with spectators, which in turn swelled the parade’s numbers. Like a derelict band of fools, the MAF Parade had no marching orders or clearly defined borders; it enthusiastically cascaded through knots of onlookers, ensnaring the less timid into its gamesome jaunt. Young kids in Star Wars and superhero costumes skipped alongside cycling Critical Mass veterans. Jeffrey Rigdon and the Vikings of the Valley tramped next to Post Neo-Absurdists as they performed Ubu Enchained. Snuggle monster Amanda Delapointe and tentacle-fingered Sarah Burch danced past Roanoke’s internationally renowned visual-poet and archivist Jim Leftwich in his stamp-art jumpsuit. Beth Deel and Wendy Wertz Schuyler, the owners/operators of The Water Heater appeared as the myScoper girls, the colorful avatars of their online arts calendar. Local performance poet T.J. Anderson beat out rhythms on his drum as Tiny Tim and Miss Vicky dragged scroll-like sashes down the thoroughfare. We were all walking out of step together.
Festival organizer Brian Counihan, who got support for the Marginal Arts Festival through the small downtown private high school, Community High (where he teaches), manned an info desk in the middle of the parade route, where leaflets and propaganda about Jim Leftwich’s Mail Art Responses to Trench Art show, experimental poetry performances at the Water Heater, John Wilson’s power tool drag-racing and many other events could be found. Community High, which integrates Roanoke’s cultural resources into its classrooms, joined together with the Roanoke Public Library, Hollins University, The Jefferson Center, and other cultural organizations to develop specific events and programs for the Festival. Counihan proposed that the festival coincide with and end on Mardi Gras, February 28th, to mirror the use of Carnivale as an act of urban catharsis. For Roanoke, the festival offered an opportunity to “let go,” but not without asking its participants to re-entangle their creative and/or quotidian practices with a new awareness of what their community can offer.
Most art parades are ardently theme-less or try to achieve an ecstatic barrage of discrete micro-themes, leaving open the matter of how to position the cultural experience. Often participants and their fans revel in ‘acting out’ while the public chalks it up to high-minded, arty weirdness, and so the dance of mutually assured alienation continues. But Roanoke seemed engaged by the MAF Parade, and the amount of energy put into and given off by the Marginal Arts Festival as a whole. Curious folks followed the parade, went to shows, and talked with the artists and performers. The diverse mix of fringe groups and artists in attendance use process, play, and intervention to assert an ethical autonomy, a pedagogy dependant on collaboration and openness that reveals the system of relationships among people as it invites them to join in.