Artists hit the streets for the Transmodern Festival

Baltimore's art community showcases talents, oddities

April 07, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

Standing at the corner of Maryland and North avenues, Megan Hildebrandt trained her tiny video camera on the passing pedestrians.

"I'm trying to make you feel safe and secure," she spouted yesterday in a mildly creepy way. "You're under my watchful gaze. I'm on every street corner."

Her outfit completed the project: The 23-year-old performance artist wore a helmet with a blinking blue light, an oversized "Believe" sticker and a Baltimore police shield.

Hildebrandt's turn as the human embodiment of the city Police Department's surveillance cameras was part of the fifth annual Transmodern Festival - the Baltimore art community's showcase of experimental theater, nontraditional creations and performance installations.

There was a man with a suitcase full of Wonder Bread who invited visitors to make sculptures out of the soft, moldable loaves. There was a pair of artists on stilts, wearing ball gowns made of black garbage bags and babbling in French accents as they swept up cigarette butts, candy wrappers and empty soda bottles. And there was a trio of mimes silently playing rock-paper-scissors in an alley.

Giving tours of the various installations in the Station North Arts District were ostentatiously outfitted guides who called themselves the Pedestrian Service Exquisite.

"It's especially exciting to have a street festival like this mixing with people who would not go to an art museum. You're asking people to make great leaps on their way to McDonald's or the Family Dollar store," said Hildebrandt, whose police surveillance camera performance drew strange looks - and more than a few angry outbursts - from people walking through the neighborhood. "It's also nice to know that there's a festival dedicated to performance art that doesn't fit anywhere else."

Yesterday's walking tour revolved around the Load of Fun Galleries on West North Avenue, just a block from the eastern end of the Howard Street Bridge. Within a three-block radius of the gallery building were 25 individual art presentations, as well as several roaming performers.

Almost everyone visiting the art tour began with a stop at the table of Melissa Ultra Sharlat, a 41-year-old singer also known as the "Compliment Fairy." There, visitors picked up a map, a "passport" to collect stamps at the different art installations and, of course, a compliment or two from the woman in the pink ball gown, sparkly tiara and pale purple wings.

"Your haircut is divine," she told one man with a relatively common buzz cut.

"You are striking and wonderful," she told one woman in a red-and-white-striped dress that was, indeed, very striking.

"This is the most delicious bagel I've ever had," she declared of the brunch she nibbled between visitors.

Asked about what drew her to the festival, Sharlat said, "For me, it's coming from a place of love and joy, and whenever you're filled up with that, you can't help but have fun."

Across the gallery, Joe Burton was drumming up some fun of his own.

Decked out in a pair of black-and-white French toile pants, a black, pink and silver-sequined blazer and a rainbow-colored umbrella hat, the 39-year-old federal worker prepared to lead a tour of the art installations.

The excursion started with a quick visit to the Costume Shop, where tour participants decked themselves out in heart-themed regalia, feather boas and crazy hats, including some that were made by stuffing balloons into fishnet stockings and then wearing them like ski caps.

"You need to make yourselves fabulous," Burton coached his group. "You don't want to be ostracized."

The tour then moved to the mimes, an alley hung with colorful curtains, a passport stand at the city's curiously named 19 1/2 Street and an installation where a young woman repeatedly washed and hosed down a hunk of blue carpet on the sidewalk.

Asked why, she responded, "Because it was dirty."

One of the more popular installations was a gauntlet of paparazzi-like photographers who snapped pictures of visitors as they struck poses and strutted down a red carpet.

Just up the block, a Rockville magician offered his bread slices for sculpture.

After incorporating some magic tricks into his show with the ubiquitous loaves of bread, David London, 25, said he "started wondering what else you could do with Wonder Bread."

If his table was any indication, you can also mush and squish and mold it into palm trees, snakes, human figures and large letters that spell out, "Wonder why the neighbors went away!!!"

Designed to showcase works by groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the art world - including women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians and what organizers called the "radical subculture" - the festival attracted artists and art enthusiasts, as well as those simply looking to enjoy a free activity outdoors, despite the chilly drizzle that fell for most of the afternoon.

Susan Barney, a 43-year-old book binder and Spanish-speaking interpreter from Boston, stopped by the festival with some friends she was visiting who recently moved to Baltimore.

"When creative people interact with their city in a way that opens up spaces for diverse voices," she said, "I'm excited about that."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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