(sub)Urban Projections: Too slick and scattered

The annual (sub)Urban Projections multimedia fest, which began last night at the Hult Center, has grown into an event that the community seems to get more excited for every year, and rightfully so. The event is singular in this city; it’s an arts adventure with unexpected tech oddities, collaborations and innovations around every corner and up every staircase.

That being said, I really wanted to love Night One of (sub)Urban Projections, but I just … didn’t.

Perhaps it was the $9 “Purple Rain” cocktails that set the wrong tone. (I mean, really? Am I missing something? That seems like a pretty crass cash-in on Prince’s death. At least Voodoo Doughnuts is donating some of the profits of its “Raspberry Beret” doughnut to a “Prince-inspired charity.”)

That’s not to say there weren’t gems to be found; there were. Pretty much all the dancers and choreography were entertaining. The “Blessing to Saraswati” Balinese ritual by the Lane Community College Dancers had a centered, ethereal quality amid the chaos, dancing their way to the top of the Hult and releasing flower petals on the crowds below.

Other highlights: Jorah LeFleur’s ‘Secret Devotional’ altars and spoken-word performances drew a crowd. It was silly and kitchsy, but it actually had some heart. Each altar was set up like an old-school polling booth with curtains and inside were some quirky, pop-culture curiosities.

A favorite was the booth with a viewmaster wound by a whisk through which you could see some vintage old-timey soft porn – a lady slowing stripping.

Back upstairs, the Prince memorial was a nice touch.

On one of the top floors was “Morning Distortion,” a piece that had more to say than most — set up was a typical bathroom sink with a mirror, but the mirror was a digital screen reflecting the audience.

As I walked up to it, as if on cue, a gaggle of teenagers rushed in front and started making the ubiquitous duck face and taking selfies of themselves taking selfies of themselves. Wow. If that doesn’t tell you where society is today, I’m not sure what will. This art piece did its job.

There was also some great costuming and headdresses and it was hard to tell if performers or attendees sported them, blurring the line between the two.  And the members of the High Step Society electro-swing band always puts on a great show, as they did with ‘Rite of Swing.”

Finally, the fest continues to win on the interactive front, allowing for audiences to directly participate.

OK now let’s get to the tough stuff. First, it should be said that this is an incredibly ambitious event in a complicated space that would be difficult for anyone to pull off seamlessly. That kind of ambition should be applauded in a city where it can be rare, even disparaged.

However, my biggest critique of the night was there was no there there. For all the work that went into this event, and it’s clear that a lot did, it felt scatter-brained, fragmented, disorganized, without purpose.

This may be in part because of the lighting. In past years, the lights have been turned low, shrouding the great Hult lobby in darkness, which not only allowed for the digital projections – a large part of the fest — to be seen crisply and clearly, it also allowed for some magic. I could see just one too many strings – or in this case electrical cords — for the magical ambiance to ever have a chance to settle in.

Not only that, the dimming of lights and use of spotlighting in years past guided audiences from performance to art installation to performance and so on. This year people seemed … aimless. Many attendees said they were confused about where to go, what to look at and were concerned they were supposed to be somewhere else.

Another issue was that the techier art installations and performances felt a little too slick, a little too cold, with too little to say. Where was the heart? What conversations were provoked by these pieces? Great art has urgency to say something, to evoke something, and I just couldn’t figure out what a lot of these pieces were trying to convey beyond technical prowess. Perhaps the artists themselves did have important messages to share, but from the outside, it felt pretty opaque. A lot of the time it felt like you were watching cool people play with cool gadgets, but the results were lacking, half-baked; the ends couldn’t justify the means. I overhead some people even deeming it student work. Ouch.

Taken as a whole, this event did a splendid job of reflecting back to us where are heads are at as a society: Distracted, over-stimulated and worshipping all things techy. While tech is integral to the future and the arts, it has to be more than just ones and zeros and dudes sitting at laptops pressing buttons.

We at EW, without a doubt, will be back next year to check out the next (sub)Urban Projections. It’s a hugely ambitious event that we hope to see return to the full form its shown so well in past years.

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