I bumped into the Dallas Arts District’s Catherine Cuellar outside City Performance Hall during the last hour of Friday’s nights Aurora event, a massive art exhibition dedicated to light and video art. She said the police were estimating that Aurora had drawn a sustained crowd of 35,000 throughout the night. Looking around at the packed street and seeing the entire length of Flora — as well as every green space in and around the venues — filled with people, the attendance estimate sounded reasonable. There were a lot of people there. But then, the hard numbers didn’t really sum up the feeling many people had while wading through the crowds.
When I was walking up Flora St., Christian Yazdanpanah, a young civic activist who has poured a lot of sweat and energy into organizing events built around community and urban projects through the years, ran up to me. He wanted to know what I thought led to the incredible turnout. I shrugged. I couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t figure it out. We could list off things – sponsorship ads, Facebook, word of mouth, the momentum of the prior years’ events building on each other, the shear spectacle-promising scale of the thing – but none of these things could quite sum up how Aurora had, for a few hours, transformed the Dallas Arts District into the very bustling city center everyone always dreamed it could be.
There was an energy and excitement just walking about the 90-odd scattered installations. In the Dallas Morning News, Michael Granberry spoke to some visitors from Barcelona who were duly impressed. Aurora, the brain child of artist Shane Pennington, was always conceived as a European-style “White Night” event. And it seemed to have achieved that oft-sought quality in Dallas programming: making this city feel like somewhere else.
Aurora’s achievement was itself. It was a festival, a spectacle, and a wonderfully effective way of drawing so many people together at one time – always commendable in this sprawling, car-bound city. As an art exhibition, the results were more mixed. Works that succeed at an event like Aurora tend to be theatrical, whimsical, and entertaining. I was particularly enthralled by Peter William Holden’s AutoGene, an installation of black umbrellas arranged in a circle on a white board, like a giant clock. When visitors pressed a button, “Singing in the Rain” began to play and an electronic mechanism opening and closing the umbrellas stirred them into an Fred Astair-inspired “tap dance.” In the center of Annette Strauss square, John Barker and Waterfalls’ Cloud Pavilion presented thick fog engulfing a series of blue lights, while a single light bulb swung out from the stage and over the grass yards. The scene had the feel of a David Lynch dream sequence, orchestrated, participatory surreality. And heck, who hasn’t wanted to pretend like they woke up inside Lynch’s head?
Some of the strong video works, however, were lost in the visual melee. Timothy Harding and Gregory Ruppe’s Untitled (Long Play A 18:55) is a heady, epidemiological study in time and video medium, but during Aurora it was improvised by attendees into a far-out backdrop for plenty of cell phone selfies. Just outside the front doors of the Nasher, Erik Glissman, Scott Horn, and Nicole Cullum Horn’s DATA FLOW consisted of a complicated series of ramps that dripped a mysterious, magical green liquid through a black light-lit haze. The piece gathered a crowd, even if it was more of a trippy exercise in dorm-room-imagination run free, and not quite a work of art worth noting.
But these aesthetic concerns almost felt beside the point at Aurora. What the event is about is looking up at the Wyly and seeing it covered with a dazzling dancing, projected light skin. Or watching a 12-year-old walk up a red carpet to a tiny camera and see their face suddenly projected mega-sized on the side of the City Performance Hall. Aurora is part art show, part street festival, and part outdoor museum of science and history. It is an exciting, engaging, and effervescent event. On Friday it did what none of the high- or low-art antics in Arts District have yet been able to achieve, and that is bring out such a broad diversity of people into the city. It’s a necessary, temporary playground, and one I look forward to seeing evolve in years to come.