An artistic game of telephone draws together Austin creatives


If you ever played the telephone game as a kid — sitting in a circle, one person whispering a phrase to another until it has run the gantlet — then you know that by the time it’s all said and done, that phrase has shape-shifted. It can be wildly different from the opening salvo, yet the final interpretation often shares some core form of truth with the first. Even if it’s just something that sounds like something else.

Imagine trying to do that with a bunch of artists, across disciplines and cultures, then presenting a big reveal of performances and exhibitions in one night.

“Translating Frequencies,” a showcase to be held May 19 as part of the West Austin Studio Tour, does just that. Curated by Emily Wardell and Megan Flechaus, it’s an ambitious project that’s taken nearly a year to come to fruition.

Involving 12 Austin artists — a filmmaker, a painter, a muralist, a flautist, an EDM producer, a DJ, a dancer and a playwright, to name a few — the event is a “cross-genre collaboration,” says Wardell, with each artist given a prompt to produce a piece during a two-week period; the prompt is the work of the previous artist, and that’s it.

From the outset, each of the “Translating Frequencies” artists agreed to participate knowing that their co-conspirators would remain anonymous to them until a few weeks before the event. Over the past two months, Flechaus and Wardell have unveiled a new artist every few days on social media, but they held off until most contributors had delivered their work.

The surrealists and dadaists would call this a version of the exquisite corpse game, in which images are collectively assembled into one work. William S. Burroughs and the Beats did something similar, but with words. The results can be a train wreck or a thing of sublime beauty. That’s the risk, and that’s what’s so compelling about it.

The initial prompt, Flechaus says, was a painting by Vincent van Gogh titled “Sower With Setting Sun.” From that image, playwright Anna Westbrook took the baton and wrote a monologue, and from her, multimedia artist Praneeth Mandavilli responded with a wordless film piece, and so on. The final two artists, freestyle lyricist Christian Mayo and DJ Madcoins, will improvise their performances the night of the showcase, based on what they’ve seen and heard that evening. As part of the showcase, each artist will discuss his or her process.

“It’ll feel really intimate,” says Wardell, “because some of the artists recorded themselves in their pajamas, doing their piece, and then they passed it on to another artist. … And they’ve never met this person, so they’re getting a peek not only into (that person’s) work and mind, but they also end up peeking into their homes and getting a sense of their personality.”

The project was the brainchild of Flechaus, a songwriter who’d performed at a house-concert series hosted by Wardell, who lives in Janis Joplin’s old place in Clarksville.

“What initially spurred the idea,” Flechaus says, “was me noticing that sometimes when I’m trying to write music, I will look up prompts that are kind of weird and unexpected. Like, I won’t always look for words, I’ll look for maybe a picture or something. And I thought, ‘We’re kind of closed off in our communities here. Like a lot of the songwriters and musicians are all kind of off in our corner, and all the artists I’ve seen at Emily’s events, I don’t really know any of them.’ And I’m like, ‘What are they doing?’ And I thought that if we’re trying to be inspired by each other, why don’t we kind of hand this baton around?”

It’s a gutsy undertaking for the curators, and both agree it’s been a fascinating ride. But neither says they were scared or daunted by the prospect. One could argue it’s very hard to wrangle and create cohesion between anonymous artists across disciplines (or predict the outcome), but to both curators, that’s what it was all about.

“I think it’s really an evening of sharing,” Wardell says. “We’re also trying to bring together artists and some of the big nonprofits that support the arts, like Big Medium, who host the West Austin Studio Tour. … So the showcase is really about people coming in, watching the unveiling of this project, but also about networking and connecting these artists to groups that could potentially be supporting them. We’re trying to create a space where we build community.”

The name of the showcase is also ambiguous and amorphous to some degree, and that, too, may have been an instinctive act.

“We were trying to think of what to call it, because, you know — what is it?” Flechaus says. “But when you create something, you kind of put out a certain energy. And from the songwriter world, there’s a saying that once you’ve written a song, it’s no longer yours; it’s the listener’s. Because they’re going to interpret that energy and that concept in any way that their mind is already set up to seize. You absorb this frequency, and then you kind of change it, and then you pass it forward. … It’s kind of that concept using all different kinds of art — you absorb this idea, you kind of change it in your mind to something applicable to you, and then you pass it to someone else, with that sort of adjusted frequency. And then they absorb that, and pass it forward.”



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