I had only been to Bumbershoot a smattering of times over the past few years, and each time had felt vaguely indifferent to the festival as a whole. Mediocre music, moderately priced tickets, and the same old street vendors as were prominent at every Seattle street fair, from University District to Ballard and back again. I walked in this past Saturday, therefore, with mixed expectations.
I was greeted by a very friendly press room, complete with bagels, and after a brief stop, I was on my way into the festival. The eclectic mix of street fair and festival I actually found myself enjoying – if ever there was a gap in the schedule of artists I wanted to see, it was comforting to know that I could at least peruse the wide array of jewelry, merchandise, and fair food available.
The first artist I saw was Dude York, playing inside the Seattle Center. With a subtle flash of my press pass, I was in. However, the queue of would-be attendees wasn’t so lucky. I immediately noticed the space left in the venue – with a little squeezing, all 25 people might have fit. Though the space felt open and uncrowded, for the people who had paid to get into a festival that they were unable to see music at, it was unfortunate. The same held true for many other events – Bill Nye was a wonderful show, but for the line out the door, and other comedy shows were sold out from the start of the day. For those who had come to see specific shows, they may have felt that their tickets had been wasted.
On the whole, the artists we saw were enjoyable. Dude York was some very mediocre punk rock – they channeled the Pixies, but with worse songwriting. However, Big Freedia was perfect in all her sassy glory – her shouted encouragement at twerking women were perfect, and her music spot-on. Mac DeMarco was fun country rock in all of its trucker hat, twangy glory, with some decent songwriting along with charming band members to boot.
Panic! At the Disco was, as usual, awful (why do people like these guys?), but the lead singer partially redeemed himself with one hell of a back flip. Bill Nye took me back to the 90s, again making me overly interested in science – in this instance, sun dials (did you know there’s one on Mars?). Elvis Costello was worth it for sheer celebrity viewing, though his guitar seemed to be about as big as he was, and Polica was hauntingly beautiful in its synth-pop meets soulful singer manner. The award for kick-ass show, however, went to Walk the Moon, whose extremely enthusiastic young lead singer and catchy songs like “Shut Up and Dance With Me” led everyone in the crowd to a dancing, singing, shaking high.
I left feeling like I had gotten my share of good music at a venue that, for downtown Seattle, did a pretty good job of hosting these people. Even the visual art was unique, and provided a welcome break from the madness. Photographs from the 1960s were compelling, and especially enjoyable were the playable video games, which visualized sound in a beautiful way.
All in all, Bumbershoot lived up to its reputation, and even surpassed it. Its idiosyncratic mixture of festival and Seattle street fair made it appealing, and the prevalence of decent artists made the music worthwhile. Most of all, I appreciated the effort that was made to appeal to a wide range of audiences. From Elvis Costello to Big Freedia to Panic! At the Disco to Wu Tang Clan, Bumbershoot on Saturday alone appealed to at least four demographics. Despite the overcrowding and the terrible quality of the maps, I found myself having a lovely time, and experiencing a wide array of artists that I typically wouldn’t have seen at a music festival.
The bottom line: Ultimately, Bumbershoot is what you make it. Next year, buy a ticket for one day, or two, depending on who’s playing, but rest assured that you’ll most definitely find something you like – provided you can get in.
Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.
While the advent of Bumbershoot is met with ambivalence like nowhere else more than Seattle’s south end, where the arrival of the nation’s largest annual music and arts festival is just as likely to be met with rabid exuberance as it is with dull insouciance from past festival goers, this year’s event comes peppered with some hyperlocal flare that just might be enough to make the trip to the shadow of the Space Needle worthwhile this Labor Day weekend.
The South Seattle based creative arts trio of Andy Arkley, Courtney Barnebey and Peter Lynch, better known as the artist collective LET’S, will be presenting their fully interactive art installation Finger Power at this year’s festival.
The group, who originally formed together ten years ago as a rock band under the moniker Library Science -“We obviously called it that to
attract members of the opposite sex.” Jokes Lynch- chose to move their creative camaraderie from the realm of music into “living aesthetics” three years ago when they began yearning for greater creative expression than local dive bar performances allowed them.
Their latest endeavor, which will be unveiled today at 3:00pm at the Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion and be on display for the entire labor day weekend, combines the trio’s love for music, color, and gaming, and features six different interactive consoles that transform colors into instruments, encouraging six different people at a time to form an impromptu band and simultaneously spawn music and art -think Guitar Hero fused with a large scale Jackson Pollock inspired paint by numbers kit.
The Emerald caught up with the members of LET’S prior to Finger Power’s opening at Bumbershoot.
Emerald: So how does a group make the transition from rock band to creators of art installations?
Peter Lynch: After we put out three different albums we kind of just ran out of drive. It started getting more annoying than it was exciting. After we broke up the band we didn’t quite know what we were going to do, but we were still really good friends, and us breaking up the band was kind of like saying that we didn’t want to lose our friendships. So, we thought why don’t we see if we can do something else together and after about a year we started deciding to make art constructs.
Courtney Barnebey: It seemed like when the band stopped we all kind of just went our own ways and that gave us a little bit of distance from each other that was needed. We then just naturally came back together around the time that Andy got a piece accepted at the Soil Gallery.
Andy Arkley: Yeah, around that time I remember sending Peter and Courtney an email saying that, “Hey, I’ve got this show. Here’s an idea of what we can do. Do you want to try (building art installations)?” Everyone agreed to give it a try, not knowing how big of a project it actually was going to be (laughter). They say that an artist has to hone their craft, so we were used to practicing 3 days a week as a band and just translated that to working on the art installation.
Emerald: The transition actually seems more seamless than you would imagine.
Courtney: It was really interesting how everything came together because everyone of us naturally has a creative role and tendency in our group, and we fell back into that with each other. When we came back together to build these interactive installations it was like: “Wow, this is super exciting! This is why we decided to collaborate together in the first place!” We have a history, so every project we work on, we’re not forging new relationships or new ways to work with each other. We kind of just feel back into that pattern of how we used to work together. We just had a different medium.
Peter: Yeah, I felt by the end that the band was really restricting, and Andy and Courtney are more visually oriented, while I’m more musically creative. The art installation was like, “Oh! This is how we can still cluster together and make stuff, and be exploiting what we really want to be doing.” We want to be doing great work that’s collaborative, but we no longer wanted to just restrict it to, “Okay! You make the album cover. You make the live videos, etc.” This really opened up a lot of creative boundaries.
Emerald: This is actually LET’s second year at Bumbershoot. How does Finger Power compare to last year’s entry and what are you hoping people take away from it?
Andy: Last year we made a piece called Magic Synch. It was our first piece and I would say that it was definitely an experiment in making a directly interactive art installation. The curators at Bumbershoot said that the piece was pretty successful, and people really interacted with it. I think we learned a lot of things just from watching people use it, and it gave us a ton of new ideas about what we wanted to create for this year.
This installation involves color a lot more. I’d actually say that this piece is, is a lot more focused than the last one we made, there was just a lot of things going on and all kinds of craziness, this one has some pretty focused things. There’s six colors involved in it that go along with six stations. It’s a lot more obvious than last years about how you’re interacting with it. One thing that happened last year was that people would play with our art installation but they wouldn’t exactly understand what was going on, but we wanted people to be able to do that this year. Last year’s piece was a little more chaotic, and we’ve definitely pushed it towards a little less chaotic this year… but it’s still pretty chaotic (laughter).
Emerald: So why the focus on color with this installation?
Courtney: Going back to people understanding what they’re doing, we tried to use color so that people could better correlate the buttons that push on the installation with what’s going on around them. So if someone is at the orange console, and is controlling the color orange that is a one to one correlation. They can see what they’re doing and how they’re interacting with everyone else, so it was a way to give visual order to the piece so that people would get a more meaningful interaction with other from it. If a person knows what she’s doing, she can now interact with the person next to her better. We wanted to give people the tools to be creative.
Andy: Ultimately, with this piece we’re trying to create that feeling that you get when you’re collaborating with another person. That’s the feeling we already have as LET’S. We want Finger Power to inspire those positive moments derived from collaborating together as a team. That elation that comes from that. We’ve attempted to create an installation that reproduces that feeling amongst random people.
Peter: The great thing about incorporating color in this piece is that you can’t mess it up very much. You can do what you can do, and your color is your instrument for you to attempt to master in a way. The shift from last years to this years is that we’re telling people to not only rely on their ears, but also their eyes so that you’re actually looking at what you’re doing. We have both visual and sound and what other two things do you need to make instantaneous collaboration?
Emerald: So with this installation you’ve intentionally empowered people to be as creative as they choose to be?
Peter: Yes! When we were figuring out what our group was about we kept coming back to this idea of allowing people to find their own creativity, so even if they haven’t been musicians before they get to create music. They get to play with other people without having to have a superior understanding in music. Hopefully that feeling of being creative with others is something that they can take from this and apply in whatever realm of life that want.
We’re aware that probably 80% of the people who walk in and play with it will be: “Yep! Okay, let’s grab a beer.” But, the hope is that you get moments like last year when this jazz musician from St. Louis discovered us, and came in everyday to play with our installation. He kept telling us: “Wow, you guys need this thing down by the river in St. Louie! I’d have my friends come down there everyday!” He kind of became the unofficial orchestrator of the installation, telling people what buttons to push and when, and he and all these strangers created some really cool stuff together!
Emerald: What would it take for you to designate Finger Power as a success?
Andy: It’s kind of hard to know exactly because last year some things happened with the installation that I didn’t know was going to happen, like 18 year olds interacting with 60 year olds. It was surreal watching them teach each other, and that too me was one of the more successful things I saw. I guess if I see people enjoying it, that will be a success. It only takes a few people for me to be like: “Yes! I totally inspired a couple of people and they’re totally getting the purpose of the installation.”
Peter: It doesn’t take lines out the door for me to deem it as a success. It’d be nice to have people come back two days in a row though. I’d love to impress a couple of people, but I just want it to be a fun experience. It it just so happens that only 5 to 8 year olds really love it, then hey, we succeeded with that!
Courtney: For me, it’s success is defined by if we can get more people to interact with each other than they do with us, and if they are actually aware of that interaction and not just off in their own zone somewhere. I want people to look at each other and say: “Yeah we’re doing this together!” That’s when a sense of community is created.
Finger Power will be at featured at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavillion, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle 98109 as part of Bumbershoot Weekend. A display schedule is below:
Fri, Aug 29th: 3pm-8pm (FREE)
Sat, Aug 30th: 11am – 8pm (need Bumbershoot pass)
Sun, Aug 31st: 11am – 8pm (need Bumbershoot pass)
Mon, Sep 1st: 11am – 8pm (need Bumbershoot pass)
Amplifying the Authentic Narratives of South Seattle