Tuesday, April 27, 2010

putting humans in the human rights art festival

Last weekend was the first-annual Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival, taking place at some forty venues around Downtown Silver Spring. I was pretty convinced that it was going to be a "big effing deal"; on Friday, I puzzled over the nine-page schedule found on the festival's website, unsure how to plan my visit.

Of course, when I got downtown the following day I realized I left it at home, and I was left to wander the streets looking for signs of activity, of which there were little. Yes, it was raining on Saturday. Yes, almost all the festival events were indoors. But there was so little information about what was going on once you were in Downtown Silver Spring that anyone who didn't know where to look couldn't find anything.

Compare this to other local, indoor art festivals. Art-O-Matic in D.C. is held inside a single, easy-to-find building. Baltimore's Artscape takes place across several indoor venues, but they're connected by an outdoor street fair. These set-ups have the benefit of extensive advertising, but they also create a physical presence in the communities they're located in.

Human Rights Art Festival (3)
The festival did include musical performances on Ellsworth Drive, including cover band the Melonheads (pictured). A few steps away, there are painters working on canvases somewhat oblivious to what's going on. Volunteers were asking people to sign petitions, and there were tables for Amnesty International.

Human Rights Art Festival (2)
Overall, it didn't look all too different from a normal Saturday. I ran into one of my old high school friends, and neither he nor his friends even knew that there was anything special happening last weekend.

Human Rights Art Festival (4)
Out on Georgia Avenue, you'll find hand-written flyers. Note that this one points to three different locations but no specific events or times, meaning it's only useful if you already have the schedule - or you're looking for some coffee, in which case Kefa Cafe is right around the corner.

Human Rights Art Festival (7)
So I walk to Strawberry Field (also known as the empty lot that will eventually be part of the new Silver Spring Library), humming the Beatles song. It was empty. Checking the schedule later, I can see that there was a Ghanaian drum circle from 2 to 3, which I would've enjoyed, but I've already missed it.

Human Rights Art Festival (6)
Across the street in the windows of Mandalay, meanwhile, was a photo essay by the "Borderland Youth Project," which uses art to "reflect upon the rich cross-cultural, human experiences within the US/Mexico borderland region." It was an eye-catching installation, and one that caused people walking by to stop and look. I wish I'd seen more displays like it across Downtown Silver Spring to draw people into the festival.

Human Rights Art Festival (5)
There were people and cameras (and lovebirds) gathered outside Pyramid Atlantic across the street, but it wasn't clear what was going on. However, a guy did pull up to me in his car, asking if "this was the Art Festival, and where was Moorenko's," one of the venues. I knew I wasn't the only one trying to find something to do.

Human Rights Art Festival (8)
On the door of City Place Mall is another hand-written sign advertising a Sculpture Garden. If you followed the Sharpied arrows into the mall and up the escalator to the fifth floor, you'd have gotten your first (my second) chance to see the old AMC 10 Theatres since it closed in 2004, being used for the weekend as a gallery.

I actually enjoyed this exhibit. Though, much as City Place Mall has struggled to bring people in off the street and up five floors to shop, I wonder how many other people saw it.

The Human Rights Art Festival was in planning for the better part of a year, and the fact that its organizers were able to pull together dozens of venues and hundreds of participants was a success in itself. If it returns next spring, I hope it can be more of a presence in Downtown. Banners across major streets. Sidewalk installations and performances. Actual signage and wayfinding.

This is a great event for our community and an even better cause. Next year, let's make sure people know how much it means to us.

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