Saturday at Artscape 2013

by William Prior

This event is a collection of oddities and tents. Lots of tents.

I headed to Artscape on a Saturday afternoon by light-rail. I had attended in years past, and was excited to see how it, or I, had changed. What I first noticed as I left my air-conditioned car was how packed the seemingly enormous area of cut off city streets was. Cutting across the areas of Mount Royal Avenue, Cathedral Street, Charles Street, Bolton Hill, and Station North Arts and Entertainment District, their website advertises that they attract more than 350,000 visitors over three days, and they really weren’t kidding.

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Every street at Artscape is lined with something: self-made art vendors, festival food and drink stands, street performances, stages with live music, interactive art exhibits, and the attendees themselves. With four outdoor stages, as well as scattered performances indoors, free live music is a big part of the Artscape experience. When bands were playing at the Wells Fargo Main Stage, the largest one, the accompanying hill was swarmed with attendees, dancing and clapping to the music, sipping on lemonades and beer.

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The vendors at Artscape provide a huge array of products: abstract paintings, professional photographs, tons of jewelry, clothes, accessories (hats, scarves, leather wrist bands), sculptures, and even didgeridoos.

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Though massive debt is a “healthy” American student tradition, I was not interested in spending my time emptying my bank account. Being free was a big draw for Artscape, and the experience is in no way determined by the amount you can buy. Down every street was something new to be seen. With the heat staying in the 90s, I moved through one of several misting tents, thirsty for the taste of Natty Boh others were drinking, and ventured through Artscape.

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An exhibit I was excited to see from my experiences in the past was the traditional collection of art cars, old and new cars transformed into simple or massive works of art through coloring and sculpting on its outside. I’ve always been interested by art cars, the idea of traveling not just in a four-door air conditioned haven, but sending some sort of at least aesthetic message to any and all you pass on the road. This year, the most interesting and detailed car was a massive six-wheeled futuristic vehicle called the “Finn Jet”.

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The most innovative exhibit, if it could be called that, was run by one of the many organizations that uses Artscape as an avenue to garner attention and interest: the Baltimore Bike Party. Situated with a tent, a line of onlookers, and a levy mechanism, volunteers lifted bike riding attendees into the air for a short spin, displaying faces of fearful surprise to enthralled enjoyment.

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Artscape isn’t just about art. It is an active project of community engagement that uses art as its medium. It is vastly different from any sort of museum or traditional area of exhibition. The experience itself, is an exhibition on the 350,000 different people that come into the heart of Baltimore every year. My favorite exhibit, the one that most reflected this message, was a contraption of bent metal tubes, covered in brightly colored fabrics and paper, connected to a series of trees, with electronic music floating through the air, beckoning passerby to enter its psychedelic den called the “Soundnest”.

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Inside a single front man played a trumpet fitted with a synthesizer, as children and adults looked onward and played with the various other odd instruments (bells and chimes) scattered around the tent, adding to the encompassing and entrancing presence of the enclosed space of a bizarre brightly colored world that could easily be a part of a hippie music festival.

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Despite its focus on music and chaotic multicolored decor, near its entrance stood a scribbled on board that others were actively adding too. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the board was not scribbled on, but written with overlapping messages and symbols to express an answer to its short heading question: What can heal our communities?

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I left the tent with a feeling of togetherness and involvement with a mass of nameless anonymous people I had never met. People brought together not only by attending a festival, but together from the inherent connection of living in a shared space, a shared community, no matter the barriers of apartments and established social circles. Artscape provides a perfect venue to represent the lack of those barriers, a sprawling mass of tents and people walking not only by each other, but with each other under the same heat and with the same intent of finding some means to express themselves. I turned to leave and ride back home on the light rail, facing the same crowd I had entered only hours ago, still engaged in the miniature city within a city. Artscape has been a free Baltimore tradition for three decades now, and for good reason: hot, busy, fun.

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More images from Saturday at Artscape 2013 below:

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