This past Friday night, 50,000 people crammed into the Arts District for the biennial Aurora festival, which bills itself as a showcase of art of light, video, and sound. In the lead up to the festival, I wrote about how Aurora is one of the few events – if not the only event – that manages to take the “largest arts district in the world” and fill it with enough stuff and people to make it feel like a coherent urban space. In that regard, this past weekend’s event was a resounding success. Flora St. was a mob scene. The typically empty Sammons Park was overrun with people. Pedestrians filled up Harwood and Olive as they meandered up to Klyde Warren Park, which was also teaming with life. The garden of the Nasher was packed, as was virtually every corner of the Arts District.
I spent most of the evening wandering about with my hands my pockets, enjoying the rare experience of being surrounded by so many strangers on a Dallas street. I people watched, bumped into friends, and even met a few new ones. I enjoyed chance conversations on city politics, art, paleontology, and baseball. There may have even been dancing in a fountain towards the end of the night, but I’m not sure. At some point you have to stop taking notes.
Moving through the memory of the evening, it all appears as a resounding success. But then, why did I walk away from the Aurora feeling disappointed or somehow hollow? Was it the frustratingly long lines in front of the food vendors? The crowded, low-frills VIP areas that stopped serving too early? The empty after party? The traffic? The sponsors? Or was it the art, the over-saturation of flickering, blinking, strobing, flashing stuff – all the gimmicky light and projection stations that seemed designed purely as stages for Facebook profile photo updates?
Over on the Dallas Morning News, Hannah Wise reports on many of these complaints which seemed to have been shared by at least some of the tens of thousands of people who attended this year’s event. Most of them can be chalked up to growing pains. Aurora has grown exponentially since it launched in 2010 in Old City Park, and it still seems to be figuring out what it is and wants to be. The influx of sponsorship dollars, the partnership with the AT&T Performing Arts Center, and the growth in marketing and visibility of the event are all good problems for an event like Aurora to have. So many of the problems mentioned above – like crowd management and experience perks – can be solved with simple tweaks. And maybe growth affords the next Aurora an opportunity. How about extending the event over a few days or expanding it to a few neighborhoods of the city that are connected by public transit? How about taking Aurora’s bottled up pedestrian energy and using it to help start to map Dallas as a connected, walkable place?
As it moves forward, however, the more difficult challenge for Aurora is the festival’s content — the art. If the next Aurora is going to be a real success, then organizers need to rethink how their event functions as an art exhibition.
I went to Aurora with low expectations for the art, and those low expectations were generally met. It’s not that all the art was bad – quite the contrary. While there certainly were plenty of silly installations and pieces that merely read as displays of high-tech nightclub lighting systems, I did walk away happy to have discovered a few artists’ work. One was Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya, whose Shopping List installation behind the Cathedral de Guadalupe consisted of two structures built out of grocery store detritus and a video showing a performance – a kind of African dance — by the artist with the structures in various public places. Another was Austin-based performer Francine Thirteen, whose mesmerizing staging of her minimalist, semi-operatic musical composition “4 Marys & the King” was provocative enough until it turned downright confrontational when she poured water all over an obnoxious audience member’s head.
These were not the only worthwhile works of art at Aurora, just two of which I happened to take notice. Looking at the map, there were countless pieces I just didn’t see, or missed, or walked by, or didn’t quite linger around long enough to think about or really experience. And that is the problem with Aurora. The crowds, the quantity of work, the large disparity of quality between some of the work, the mood and tone of the event: it all adds up to an experience that is not very conducive towards looking at art. As a result, much of the art, whether it is good or bad, gets lost, overwhelmed, or repurposed.
Perhaps the most illustrative experience of this happened at the Nasher Sculpture Center, where a friend and I watched as a woman tried to whisper into one end of a Giuseppe Penone sculpture. The piece consists of cast tree trunks, four separate sculptures, which stretch in a line across the back patio of the museum. The woman asked my friend if she spoke into one of the branches of Penone’s tree, would someone standing at the end of the long line of sculptures hear her voice?
It was not an altogether absurd question given the context of Aurora. Aurora is an art exhibition-as-a-scavenger hunt, and when you find what you are looking for you expect an a reward. That so much of the art at Aurora is interactive furthers these expectations. At Klyde Warren Park, you could wait on line to get free Warhol-esque consumer objects lit with LEDs and fastened to lanyards to wear around your neck. On Flora St. you could wait in line to past through a glowing tent. On Pearl, you could stand and pose for a photo in between two enormous yellow-lit parentheses. In light of this, it is not enough for Giuseppe Penone to have simply cast a tree trunk. Amidst the buzz of Aurora, there’s no time or space to think about what Penone’s act might mean. Instead, you simply ask, “What does it do?”
Another illustrative disappointment was James Clar’s Pixelated Serenity, a shrewdly simple installation in the Cathedral de Guadalupe that consisted merely of a trinity of glowing lights – red, green, and blue – hovering over a sanctuary space that had been completely filled with smoke. It should – or could – have been a bewildering, disorienting, or even sublime rethinking of the nature and possibility of spiritual art. But amidst all the chatter, laughter, noise, flashing bulbs, and general hubbub churned up by the mob inside the church, the piece merely turned the sanctuary cathedral into a neon-lit smoke filled pop-up dance club.
Clar’s piece might have been saved by a simple sign at the door familiar to any museum goer: “No flash photography in this one, please.” Or better yet, “To enter, shut up.” But at Aurora such prohibitions feel out of place, and so the experience of the art and the cathedral in its transformed state was reduced to mere amusement and spectacle. Too bad.
This past weekend proved that Aurora’s organizers have an incredible success on their hands. As they think about how to tweak the event for the next installment, they should consider expanding out of the Arts District. Aurora’s best quality is that it serves as a powerful tool for leading people through an experience of urban space in a city that provides too few intuitive tools for doing so. Aurora could help build habits of being in and experiencing Dallas, helping attendees learn and read connectivity between neighborhoods.
But organizers also need to take a serious look at how Aurora functions as an exhibition. Perhaps there is too much art. Or, perhaps the experience of the visual art would be more impactful if it were interspersed with music, theater, dance, and other kinds of performance or interactive exhibits. Maybe Aurora can celebrate the kind of art its founders are most interested in if it pays a little more attention to ensuring that each piece is presented within the best possible context.
To me, Aurora’s real value to Dallas is as a festival, and the spectacle nature of much of the art helps serve that end. But because it plays a role in exposing so many people to art, the festival also has a responsibility. It needs to make sure it doesn’t inadvertently reduce the public’s expectation of what art is or can be. It needs to trust in how powerful art is when experienced on its own terms.