Wassaic, New York
This weekend I journeyed into the rural unknown, as far as Metro North would allow me, and struck out into the wilderness for a weekend in celebration of the arts. As it would turn out, a decent portion of Brooklyn did the same. This weekend marked the fifth annual summer exhibition of the Wassaic Project, an artist-run multidisciplinary arts organization located in a renovated mill in the hamlet of Wassaic, New York. The title of the exhibition was Return to Rattlesnake Mountain, and lets just say, they had me at “rattlesnake mountain”.
My travelling companion, Alison Barton, and I arrived on Saturday afternoon and eagerly sought out a camping location. An open field adjacent the festival provided lodging and recreation grounds for festival goers for a modest fee (ahem, register early). Alison made camp while I, like any good travelling partner, wandered off to photograph goats.
With our outpost established, we followed our ears to the sound of some throbbing tribal music, like what you would hear in a yoga studio (I think). We arrived to find a vibrant grass amphitheatre filled with hundreds of locals, hippies, families, and Brooklynites alike enjoying the overcast afternoon.
Weary from our travels, we made our way to the Maxon Mills building where we found food concessions and prepared for the evening ahead of us. The first stop in our multidisciplinary artstravaganza was a series of short films screened in a charming former cattle auction ring. Some highlights from the short films included a quirky documentary, The Vacuum Kid , about a pre-teen vacuum connoisseur (trailer below), and Sundance winning Fishing Without Nets followed by a live (via skype) Q&A with director Cutter Hodierne. It was clearly the first time he had skyped with a cattle auction.
As the evening progressed and the musical acts took the stage, we found ourselves at the food tent yet again. Equipped with a plate of fried dough, a fifth of Jim Beam, and a straw, we were in a good position to make friends. We soon met Canadian midwife, a polaroid camera technician from Queens, and a few other artist types and headed back for the stage. The Suzan, an all female Japanese indie-rock quartet was a clear favorite, along with The Stepkids who not only got us dancing, but were considerate enough to bring their own video artist.
As the Jim Beam seeped in, and the crowd migrated to the local watering hole for late night entertainment, we elected to remain sedentary and watch a screening of Klown , a weird danish comedy which apparently Todd Phillips has bought the remake rights for. I’m not sure why. We headed for the tent.
Morning came quickly, as our tent was not long enough to accommodate my lanky frame. The local firehouse hosted all comers for a pancake breakfast, adding a distinct local charm to the festival environment. We took our sweet time in the wood paneled, American flag clad gathering hall of the Wassaic Fire Department, happy to nurse our hangovers in the comfort of air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and unlimited coffee. Finally, the clock struck 11, and it was the moment we had been waiting for; the main gallery was open, and we were about to get our visual art fix.
Return to Rattlesnake Mountain, the main exhibition, is housed in the Maxon Mills, a towering grain elevator turned exhibition space. The show included numerous impressive installation works, including interactive projections on the ground floor, and Jackie Mock’s installation of ephemera and artifacts of Americana on the top floor reliquary. I was delighted to see the works of Artsicle artists, such as Amanda Valdez (far right) and Ultra Violet (left), woven throughout the seven story exhibition.
The show’s curators, Max Bode, Kat Cohn, Jessica Allen, and Wassaic Project Co-Directors Eve Biddle, Bowie Zunino, and Jeff Barnett-Winsby made skillful use of the mill’s unusual architecture to create a compelling and complete visual experience. Integration of existing structural elements of the mill, such as conveyor belts spanning multiple floors, doorways, vaulted ceilings, and open stairways, added to the intrigue of the exhibition, and contributed to the objective of challenging the white walls of conventional exhibition spaces.
Some of my favorite works included a series of collages by Man Bartlett, Ghost of a Dream’s model delorean crafted out of spent lottery tickets, geometric works on panel by Karl LaRocca (aka Kayrock), Jackie Mock's reliquarium, and Amanda Valdez’s contributions to the show (no surprise there).
Like any proper multidisciplinary art experience, the day ended with some contemporary dance that I didn’t fully understand, though I was thoroughly impressed by Toni Renee Johnson's Maverick Dance Experience's performance.
Also, as someone going through a serious Netflix binge on Friday Night Lights, this piece by Sarah Sandman & Carmen Osterlye had a special resonance with me:
All in all, Return to Rattlesnake Mountain, and the festival as a whole was a great success. The balance of celebration and art had a certain restorative quality. The festival doesn’t attract the hoards of Bonnaroo, or the dozen other frat-boy music festivals, but this is a choice. The Wassaic Project sets out to create an environment where artists and non-artists alike can engage in a thriving arts community, not to sell expensive tickets. People who are only interested in seeing a hologram of Tupac on the main stage stay home, and everyone else enjoys their weekend.