From aerial dancers on the walls around Abbott Square downtown to performances at Evergreen Cemetery and installations at local farmers markets, on Soquel Creek in Capitola and in the Davenport Jail, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is going the extra mile to introduce its new biennial festival.
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A museum is a building, yes. But it’s also a concept, an idea, a specific perspective on art and culture. Most of the time, there is no use making that distinction because the building is itself expressing the organization’s artistic mission.
But for the next week, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History will be making the case that, however much the community loves its fabulous downtown space adjacent to Abbott Square, no four walls can fully contain its vision, that the MAH is more than the building it calls home.
That effort is called the CommonGround festival, beginning Friday and running through Sept. 25. And as if to drive home the point that much of the MAH’s community engagement happens outside the museum, CommonGround will begin this weekend with dancers performing literally on the outside of the museum — that is, on the vertical exterior walls of the MAH, presumably with no assistance from Spider-Man.
Overall, more than half of the festival’s events will take place in venues other than the MAH itself. Those venues include Evergreen Cemetery near Harvey West Park, the Davenport Jail historic site, at various farmers markets around the county, even on Soquel Creek in Capitola.
“We’re really trying to reach further out into the county and encourage audiences to find and explore some of those unique locations,” said the MAH’s executive director, Robb Woulfe.
CommonGround is one of two festivals the MAH will present every fall going forward. It will alternate, on an every-other-year basis, with Frequency, an art-and-technology festival that debuted in 2021. Most of its events and attractions are free.
The festival gets started Friday with three performances from the dancers of the Oakland-based aerial-dance troupe Bandaloop, innovators in dance and movement on vertical planes, and yes, they do still have to work within the confines of the laws of gravity. The performances will take place Friday and Saturday at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. on various walls of the MAH and McPherson Center buildings. The curious will gather shortly before showtime at Abbott Square, where MAH ushers will assist spectators in finding the best strategic spot to view the free show.
Elsewhere, Evergreen Cemetery, which is no stranger to live performances, will be the site for “The Language of Birds,” a collaboration among composer/musician Carolyn Chen, artist Natalie Jenkins and the Santa Cruz-based arts presenter Indexical.
Indexical’s Andrew Smith said that “Language” is, in essence, an exercise in listening to the natural world: “It draws from a number of cultural traditions, where the language of the birds is seen as a secret language or the key to perfect knowledge. And it’s a thing that you hear come up again and again, even in ‘Game of Thrones,’ you hear the spymaster Varys say, ‘My little birds told me,’ when he’s referring to his spies. So there’s this long-standing idea that birds are like spies, and they’re speaking a secret language and if only we could understand it, then we would have more knowledge. Carolyn is starting from this myth, and then using that as a way to guide people toward a heightened sense of hearing.”
The “Language” project is essentially two things: a performance of a new composition for voices and string with Chen on violin, which is ticketed by donation, and includes a docent-guided tour of the cemetery grounds, all beginning at 5 p.m. next Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 22-24; and a sculptural installation by artist Jenkins that is free and is open from noon to 5 p.m. on performance days.
Up the coast, the historic Davenport Jail will be transformed into an art space for a project called “The Writing on the Wall,” a traveling exhibition of letters, poems and other written material from incarcerated people on their lives behind bars. The installation will be free and open from noon to 3 p.m. Sept. 16-18 and 23-25.
As for the “History” part of the MAH’s mission, artists Daniel Ruanova and Ignacio Ornelas have created an installation of large-scale photos documenting the Bracero era, when farmworkers were imported into the United States during World War II. This installation, called “Transborder,” will be on display at three separate farmers markets in Santa Cruz County — downtown Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Watsonville on Sept. 23 and Live Oak on Sept. 25.
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“I think it’s going to surprise people,” said Woulfe, “who are just at the farmers market, making their weekly visit and hopefully they can learn a little bit more about the history of the Braceros and the history of this area.”
And then there’s an intriguing project that references the Santa Cruz Venetian Water Carnivals, public spectacles that took place near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in the early decades of the 20th century. Artists Monica Canilao and Xara Thustra — operating under the moniker MCXT — are creating a sculptural raft to evoke the old Water Carnival. The San Lorenzo today is no longer able to support the kinds of watercraft it once did, so the raft will be part of Capitola’s Lighted Nautical Parade on Soquel Creek on Sept. 24.
Also part of CommonGround is a multimedia project on conservation called “Refocusing Ecology” by artist Martabel Wasserman at the Little Giant Collective gallery, 115 River St. in Santa Cruz; “Weaving Aso Ofo,” a textiles installation from celebrated Santa Cruz fashion designer I.B. Bayo; and “The Land of Milk and Honey,” the MAH’s exhibition on the cultural and mythic connections inspired by agriculture between Mexico and California, which will be on display at the MAH’s Solari Gallery through the end of 2022.
Woulfe said he and his team are working to get across to the public the biennial nature of this new festival with Frequency, the arts/technology festival, which will return in 2023.
“We wanted to give a sort of line of sight, so folks understand that, one, Frequency is an every-other-year event and that it would be rotating with this new festival. I think a lot of folks are anxious and curious to see what it’s all about how it actually works,” he said. “And, with a dance installation on the side of our building and that beautiful project at the Davenport Jail. It just opens up those spaces in a different way.”