Lighting a creative fire through the Fusebox Festival
Hybrid Austin arts fest takes on big ideas but also deals in discovery and delight.
There really isn’t anything else quite like the Fusebox Festival.
First, admission is free. You could stop right there. How do they do that?
(Answer: A combination of gifts, grants and elbow grease.)
Further, the hybrid Austin gathering, which returns April 12-16 to multiple locations, doesn’t just present vanguard artists from here and around the world. It urges them to engage with their audiences around the big ideas of the day.
For instance, this year multiple acts will dig into border concerns, and others will explore the state of community health. That’s the kind of thoughtful strategy you would expect from something like the Texas Tribune Festival, but it might surprise some to see it at an offbeat arts fest.
“We’re very aware that other organizations are much better equipped in this moment to tackle different parts of the border issue,” says Fusebox founder and captain Ron Berry. “This is true of any issue. We do think the arts are uniquely positioned to foster cultural exchange and collaboration; to engage our imaginations and create out-of-the-box thinking and possibilities; and to hold multiple viewpoints simultaneously.”
It should be noted that Fusebox is not just about big-brain ideas.
“For me, one of the things I’ve always loved about festivals is that they are — or can be — places for discovery,” Berry says. “Sometimes that’s simply hearing a new band that you didn’t know anything about. … I get such a jolt when I learn about a new artist that excites me.”
“With the proposal of a new border wall, issues around immigration are certainly front and center at the moment,” Berry says. “Particularly in Texas because of our geography. The festival is an opportunity to look at our shared history along our border from both sides.”
Berry became interested in the repeated suggestion during the presidential campaign of a bridge instead of a wall. In his typically exploratory fashion, the bridge, in his mind, became instead a vast network connecting different artists and projects.
“There are real lives at stake,” Berry says. “But we also wanted to do something positive about it. Create. Connect. Share. Make things together. And celebrate what’s wonderful about our shared culture with Mexico.”
Some of the border-related projects featured in this year’s festival include the new opera “Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance”; “Tijuana and Yanhuitlan: La Democracia en Mexico (1965-2015),” a look at Mexican democracy from theater collective Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol; “Boom! Boom! Whamm! Swoosh!,” a public ritual by Ervin Morazan; and “Chulita Vinyl Club,” a little extra music at Al Volta’s Midnight Bar.
“What if festivals were not just these ephemeral things that pop up for X number of days and then vanish?” Berry asks. “What if we used the platform of a festival to look at something together as a city and then used that opportunity to make something together?”
For some time, the minds behind Fusebox have talked about the reality of Austin real estate.
“As we experience rapid growth, could we imagine a different, more responsible way of developing real estate that is driven by community and that is simultaneously forward-looking while still honoring the history and culture of our city?” Berry says. “This year we are continuing this work by looking at issues of community health and food access. All over East Austin, new restaurants and cafes are opening up — which is great and wonderful. However, most of these new offerings have little to no connection with the history of East Austin, and most of them are not particularly affordable, especially for many of the area’s working-class families.”
The Fuseboxers quickly expanded this larger conversation to address health. A community cafe on April 15 will feature healthy, affordable food created by chef Gabe Hernandez, health screenings in collaboration with the University of Texas School of Pharmacy, fresh produce from the Sustainable Food Center, artwork by Matt Rebholz and Kate Csillagi, performances by students and discussions about new strategies to address community health.
“We saw this as an opportunity to engage with the new UT Dell Medical School, which has a specific interest in exploring issues related to community health,” Berry says. “Specifically, we’ve been partnering with the Design Institute for Health, which is a unique collaboration between the Medical School and the College of Fine Arts. We are also working with the fabulous Sustainable Food Center.”
The project is guided by local artists Jason Phelps and Zell Miller III and led by students from Eastside Memorial High School and East Austin College Prep.
“For us, this work stems from a deep belief that the arts are not this thing separate from life,” Berry says. “They are inseparable from life. And so when we talk about a community’s health, arts and culture need to be part of that.”