Lighting a creative fire through the Fusebox Festival

Hybrid Austin arts fest takes on big ideas but also deals in discovery and delight.


Highlights

Fusebox Festival tackles big ideas like the border and health care through the arts.

Austin is home to a lot of festivals, but few of them as intriguing as Fusebox.

There really isn’t anything else quite like the Fusebox Festival.

First, admission is free. You could stop right there. How do they do that?

(Answer: A combination of gifts, grants and elbow grease.)

Further, the hybrid Austin gathering, which returns April 12-16 to multiple locations, doesn’t just present vanguard artists from here and around the world. It urges them to engage with their audiences around the big ideas of the day.

For instance, this year multiple acts will dig into border concerns, and others will explore the state of community health. That’s the kind of thoughtful strategy you would expect from something like the Texas Tribune Festival, but it might surprise some to see it at an offbeat arts fest.

PHOTOS: Hybrid Austin event Fusebox Festival tackles big ideas through art

“We’re very aware that other organizations are much better equipped in this moment to tackle different parts of the border issue,” says Fusebox founder and captain Ron Berry. “This is true of any issue. We do think the arts are uniquely positioned to foster cultural exchange and collaboration; to engage our imaginations and create out-of-the-box thinking and possibilities; and to hold multiple viewpoints simultaneously.”

It should be noted that Fusebox is not just about big-brain ideas.

“For me, one of the things I’ve always loved about festivals is that they are — or can be — places for discovery,” Berry says. “Sometimes that’s simply hearing a new band that you didn’t know anything about. … I get such a jolt when I learn about a new artist that excites me.”

The border

“With the proposal of a new border wall, issues around immigration are certainly front and center at the moment,” Berry says. “Particularly in Texas because of our geography. The festival is an opportunity to look at our shared history along our border from both sides.”

Berry became interested in the repeated suggestion during the presidential campaign of a bridge instead of a wall. In his typically exploratory fashion, the bridge, in his mind, became instead a vast network connecting different artists and projects.

“There are real lives at stake,” Berry says. “But we also wanted to do something positive about it. Create. Connect. Share. Make things together. And celebrate what’s wonderful about our shared culture with Mexico.”

Some of the border-related projects featured in this year’s festival include the new opera “Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance”; “Tijuana and Yanhuitlan: La Democracia en Mexico (1965-2015),” a look at Mexican democracy from theater collective Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol; “Boom! Boom! Whamm! Swoosh!,” a public ritual by Ervin Morazan; and “Chulita Vinyl Club,” a little extra music at Al Volta’s Midnight Bar.

Community health

“What if festivals were not just these ephemeral things that pop up for X number of days and then vanish?” Berry asks. “What if we used the platform of a festival to look at something together as a city and then used that opportunity to make something together?”

For some time, the minds behind Fusebox have talked about the reality of Austin real estate.

“As we experience rapid growth, could we imagine a different, more responsible way of developing real estate that is driven by community and that is simultaneously forward-looking while still honoring the history and culture of our city?” Berry says. “This year we are continuing this work by looking at issues of community health and food access. All over East Austin, new restaurants and cafes are opening up — which is great and wonderful. However, most of these new offerings have little to no connection with the history of East Austin, and most of them are not particularly affordable, especially for many of the area’s working-class families.”

The Fuseboxers quickly expanded this larger conversation to address health. A community cafe on April 15 will feature healthy, affordable food created by chef Gabe Hernandez, health screenings in collaboration with the University of Texas School of Pharmacy, fresh produce from the Sustainable Food Center, artwork by Matt Rebholz and Kate Csillagi, performances by students and discussions about new strategies to address community health.

“We saw this as an opportunity to engage with the new UT Dell Medical School, which has a specific interest in exploring issues related to community health,” Berry says. “Specifically, we’ve been partnering with the Design Institute for Health, which is a unique collaboration between the Medical School and the College of Fine Arts. We are also working with the fabulous Sustainable Food Center.”

The project is guided by local artists Jason Phelps and Zell Miller III and led by students from Eastside Memorial High School and East Austin College Prep.

“For us, this work stems from a deep belief that the arts are not this thing separate from life,” Berry says. “They are inseparable from life. And so when we talk about a community’s health, arts and culture need to be part of that.”

FUSEBOX FESTIVAL

When: April 12-16

Where: Various locations

Cost: Free

Information: 512-572-1372, fuseboxfestival.com

THREE TOP PICKS FOR THE FUSEBOX FESTIVAL

“Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance,” April 14-15, Stateside at the Paramount Theatre

This is one we have been anticipating for a long time. A chamber opera composed by Graham Reynolds, it was conceived and executed in collaboration with Rude Mechs director Shawn Sides and the Mexican theater collective Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, which contributed the libretto. Using the biography of Pancho Villa, it plays with the culture and politics of West Texas through the eyes of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

Bonus: Additional lyrics by poet and novelist Carrie Fountain.

“The score is part chamber suite, part rock opera and part cinematic soundscape,” Fusebox founder Ron Berry says. “The influences run from Chavela Vargas and Los Tigres del Norte to Shostakovich and Bartok to the Los Lobos offshoot the Latin Playboys.”

“Meeting,” April 12-16, Scottish Rite Theater

In this piece from Australians Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe, two performers interact with 64 robotic percussion instruments. Hamilton provides the irresistible movement, Macindoe the machine sounds.

Bonus: You have five chances to catch this 50-minute marvel.

“Technically, the dancers are ridiculously talented and rigorous,” Berry says. “The influences range from ballet to hip-hop and breakdancing, particularly popping. Conceptually, the piece is super tight. They take a particular idea and go very deep with it, which I really appreciate and enjoy.”

Al Volta’s Midnight Bar, 9 p.m.-2 a.m. April 12-16, Saengerrunde Halle

“Al Volta’s is especially exciting because it’s a super fun pop-up bar,” Berry says. “The food will be changing every night. It’s also an opportunity to meet other audience members, artists and arts professionals from all over the world. The artistic programming is some of the most fun and diverse in the festival.”

Why sit or stand around with the artists in an old German bowling alley?

“Let’s dissolve that barrier between audience, artist and art!” Berry says. “Let’s all hang out together and talk about the world. And then we combine this with our own love of bars. I spend a lot of time in bars, turns out. Occupational hazard. But I do love a good bar.”



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