I'M STANDING in Reed College's student union and people are scrambling around me, preparing for Jesse Van Buren's Four Part Pow Wow on Wyoming, a theatrical production adapted from a 1,500-line, never-finished poem by Van Buren, an English major at Reed. They're working toward the show's March 3 debut, which kicks off Reed Arts Week, an annual student-run celebration of visual, performing, literary, and musical arts, bringing together both visiting and student artists. RAW, in its 21st year, is taking on alchemy as its theme (and as you'd hope, it's free and open to the general public).
"I'm playing a fence that's playing a cowboy," one actor tells me. "My cardinal direction is north." While he's being funny, he is in fact playing a fence that's playing a cowboy. Van Buren explains that after interviewing dozens of Wyomingites while traveling on a Reed grant, he created four archetypes based on his research. I'm willing to bet that this is one of those archetypes.
Smoking two cigarettes at once, Van Buren tells me that after his poem is performed, the audience will eat the props. Student and chef Christian Anayas and student dinner club Uncommons created pickled foods and will fry breads for the occasion. Van Buren describes the play as "the index to a poem that [does] not exist," split into four and read "as a 'circle,' each section explaining [the next]" in order to create "a negative image of the unwritten poem." That's a headful.
But this sort of headful isn't uncommon around campus. While making some arresting poster images for the festival (based on the tarot deck), RAW graphic designer Paul Clay tells me in an email that he's also working on his senior thesis, creating "a Latin pop EP" from scratch, while "developing Latin pop music videogames." He describes the final product as "an interactive musical video installation all about border crossing: bridging gringo/Latino, feminine/macho, digital/physical." Clay says these efforts are "a big experiment to see if a queer and Irish-Canadian-blooded gringo can actually be a Latin pop star." His projects play chameleon, available at either face value (pop record, videogame), or as relevant social practice work that tackles a mouthful of issues (race, sexuality, immigration, xenophobia, etc.).
According to RAW's event coordinators, this year collaboration is at an unprecedented premium. Studio art major Yoseff Ben-Yehuda is creating an architectural installation that will act as a performance space for dancer Adrienne Wise. When I went to preview RAW last weekend, Ben-Yehuda showed me the dance space he designed for Wise—essentially a wooden tube, built to the specifications of Wise's movements. Ben-Yehuda was also working on a kissing booth and a third restrictive wooden space designed for another dance performance. "My hope with this and the other spaces... is to activate a bodily awareness in the viewer," says Ben-Yehuda, aiming "to transform our understanding of our everyday spaces and promote a more sensitive mode of spatial perception."
While collaboration plays a big part in RAW, there are also singular visions enacted by single artists. Ross Young is creating an architectural sound experiment to be installed in Eliot Hall. He's been collecting field recordings, captured in various locations, both indoors and out, and he'll be channeling those recordings through four sets of stereo speakers, attempting to manipulate the listener's spatial experience by forcing new sonic architectures. In RAW's contributor notes, Young asks, "Can architectural space be superimposed, expanded, or otherwise modified through sound?"
Sonic alchemy isn't the only form of architectural play on view at RAW. Ulysses Pascal will present an intriguing mix of architecture and sculpture which considers two competing architectural theories—essentially, buildings as skeletons, or buildings as skins. Curious about how to "make a structure without a skeleton," Pascal found inspiration in shells, thinking of them as "an exteriorialization of the interior: a marginalization of the skeleton into the skin." Inspired by the shell, Pascal is "[scoring] a number of circles on the surface" of a 100-foot-long cardboard strip, cutting each circle from its center to a specific point at its edge. Performing this task again and again, and folding the cut circles into surface dimples, Pascal creates a sturdy structure that curls around itself as a skeletal skin, its shape determined by the "position and diameter of the circles as well as the length and angle of the cuts."
While Reed students are pushing the limits, RAW's visiting artists are right there with 'em. Pae White—currently featured in the Whitney Biennial—has six tapestries on view in the Kaul Auditorium. The tapestries, each standing 26 feet tall and roughly 10 feet wide, are massive collages designed from trash. White scans trash into a computer, creates a design, and then sends the design to a workshop in Belgium where the mammoth tapestries are created. These collages show a wide range of complexity—one is as simple as a scan of a crumpled sheet of tinfoil, while another brings together circles of colored fabric, scraps of newsprint, and tinfoil birds to mingle with bright streaks created during the scanning process.
Other visiting artists include Jonah Freeman—famed for creating Black Acid Co-op (Hello Meth Lab in the Sun), a realistic, labyrinthine installation of a meth lab. Freeman tells me that he'll be creating a "narrative space through posters and collages" displayed throughout campus, pulling content from an alternate pop universe (inspired by Freeman's film The Franklin Abraham).
French filmmaker Pierre Huyghe is presenting Streamside Day Follies, a short film which tracks the move-in celebration of a new suburban housing development in upstate New York (it's a whole lot of little kids being really cute in homemade costumes). And Estonia's Marko Mäetamm is presenting paper animations, which are often violent (axe-murdering his family), sexual (having sex with his wife), and a bit sophomoric in their execution (they're paper).
Rounding out the festival, musical performances by locals and out-of-towners will be happening throughout the week, including sets by Grouper, Golden Hits, Pharaohs, Golden Retriever, Best Coast, the Mean Jeans, and others. Dublab—an internet radio DJ collective based out of LA—will perform two sets; Alejandro Cohen of Dublab tells me that the collective will be "DJing during the Masquerade Ball as the Dublab Soundsystem... [while] also presenting Tonalism," from 6 pm to 6 am on Saturday, March 6. (Tonalism is an all-ambient, chill-out set, and Cohen urges attendees to "bring pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, beanbags, lay down and listen").There's a ton of other stuff going down: the aforementioned masquerade ball, a medicine show, a gigantic cargo container that will act as the venue for Reed professor lectures, workshops, and art exhibits. You can find a complete schedule at reed.edu/raw.