The "Ocean of Light: Submergence" exhibit will remain in the MAH's Solari Gallery even after the Frequency festival is over.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Welcome to ‘Frequency’: MAH debuts technological arts festival

Installations combining light, sound and digital culture — some featuring audience interaction, some leaning more toward performance art — come to the museum and its downtown Santa Cruz surroundings. “You absolutely need to be open for adventure,” the MAH’s director says.

Once upon a time, the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz thrilled locals and transformed downtown with a much-buzzed-about event called “GLOW: A Festival of Fire & Light.” And, as its name suggests, there was much shooting of artistic, Burning Man-esque plumes of fire skyward and other pyro-spectacles.

That was not so long ago — the 2010s, to be exact — but one pandemic, one local fire tragedy (and one leadership change at the museum) later, playing with fire now doesn’t feel so fashionable.

This week begins a new tradition, as the MAH launches a biennial festival called “Frequency: A Festival of Light, Sound & Digital Culture.” It’s a kinda-sorta continuation of “GLOW,” an effort to enliven the MAH and its surrounding spaces, such as Abbott Square, with a memorable reminder that the visuals arts contain more than paintings and sculpture.

“Frequency,” like its predecessor, is about staking a claim in both digital arts and in the immersive experience that is becoming more and more part of the museum experience.

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“Frequency” — taking place Thursday through Sunday — is a set of 13 different installations from a variety of different artists and perspectives. Some feature an element of audience interaction. Some lean more toward performance art. As the MAH’s executive director, Robb Woulfe, puts it, “some of it is very accessible; some of it is a bit esoteric.”

But what these 13 installations have in common is an embrace of leading-edge technology, many times to comment on the use of the same technology in our daily lives. “Zoom Meeting,” for instance, by Santa Cruz digital artist Aron Altmark, re-creates the now-familiar Zoom experience in a 3-D space in real-time.

Josh Bauer helping put together a geodesic dome for the Frequency Festival held at Abbott Square and the MAH.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Another, titled “Quilt City,” uses architecture to meditate on our relationship with screens. There is a video-game installation, a walk-through geodesic dome, even a hoop dancer using LED lights and body art.

“You absolutely need to be open for adventure,” said Woulfe, who took over MAH’s leadership role in 2020 from transformative former executive director Nina Simon. “I think that’s the beauty of these types of festivals.

On the surface, there’s a lot of blinking lights and it’s very spectacle-based, but if you read some of the artists’ statements about the work, it hits you there’s some really thoughtful work going into this.”

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Much, but not all, of the festival will be free for visitors. The MAH’s second-floor Solari Gallery, the museum’s showcase exhibition space, will be given over to “Ocean of Light,” a walk-through installation designed by the U.K. artists collective Squidsoup, featuring 5,000 pinpoints of suspended light.

“Ocean” will remain at the MAH many months after the “Frequency” festival has come and gone. Other areas in play for display include the MAH’s rooftop garden, the atrium, the “secret garden” and Abbott Square. In conjunction with the festival, the MAH will hold a few extracurricular activities, such as an “illuminated” bike ride through downtown.

“Frequency” is the result of a worldwide RFP (request for proposals) the MAH held in the fall of 2020. The final roster of invited artists is both international and local. Participating artists represent countries as far away as the United Kingdom and South Korea.

Yet about half of the artists represent Santa Cruz, an epicenter for digital arts partly because of the Digital Arts & New Media program at UC Santa Cruz, which is a partner in the festival.

One of the locally based participants in the festival is, in fact, called The Epicenter, a Santa Cruz organization catering mostly to children and young people in empowerment through arts and technology. The Epicenter is presenting “Entanglement,” a 22-foot geodesic dome to be positioned in Abbott Square.

The dome is equipped with lasers attached to sensors that in turn trigger natural sounds of the California coast, allowing those to interact with it to create a unique combination of light and sound, often in collaboration with someone else within the dome.

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The Epicenter’s Allison Paradise said that the piece is meant to illustrate a crucial point that applies to everyone interacting in any environment. “The idea is that everything we do impacts everyone and everything around us, sometimes in ways that are unexpected,” she said.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, “Entanglement” will not be used in the fullest capacity for which it was designed. The number of people interacting with the installation at any one time will be limited. The cover of the dome is translucent, allowing those on the outside to observe how those inside are interacting with the lasers. There will also be a short film nearby explaining the themes of the piece.

“Entanglement” will debut at the festival, though Paradise said she hopes one day, in a more COVID-safe future, the dome will be able to accommodate more people. “When you’re out and just spontaneously moving and spontaneously being in the world, that’s when it’s most joyous. I love it so much, because it really just invites you to be yourself with no judgment.”

The MAH’s Woulfe said “Frequency” will return to the museum biennially, in odd-numbered years. Next year, the MAH will debut its even-numbered-years event, “CommonGround,” in which installations will pop up in various urban, rural and architectural spaces around Santa Cruz County. “CommonGround” is slated for Sept. 9-18, 2022.

“Frequency” takes place Thursday through Sunday, from 5 to 10 p.m. each evening. Most installations are free. Ones inside the MAH will be subject to museum entry fees. For more information, to go the MAH’s website.

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