Friday, July 20, 2018

Kolaj Fest New Orleans

A sweet wall on St. Claude. 

I’d seen a few things going around the interwebs about Kolaj Fest in New Orleans. I looked through the lineup of events and thought it looked cool. Kolaj Magazine was the main sponsor of the event, a magazine that I’d purchased before and liked. More than a few friends’ work has graced their pages. Since we were taking the week off to go to Nashville for a conference, we impulsively decided to add New Orleans and the four day conference to the end of our trip. I bought a ticket and booked a hotel we liked in the city.

Misty and I got in late on the first day, missing the “meet and greet.” After and eight hour drive from Nashville, I wasn’t up to scurry across town and talk with strangers. I was at the official meeting spot the next morning at 10am. It was at The Istanbul Café on St. Claude, a street I don’t think I’d been on before. Whenever I go to New Orleans I seem to unlock another section of the city. I decided to walk there from my hotel, going down Decatur Street, across Frenchman, up Elysian Fields, and onto St. Claude. That neighborhood (I’m sure there’s a name) is one of those that’s “in transition.” Basically gentrification is taking hold up and down the street, cafes and art centers are popping up, houses are being renovated, and I’m sure a bunch of older residents aren’t happy. Along the way I encountered more than a few pieces of graffiti about the change. The best said something about Air B and B.
No one makes calls from this phone. 
Istanbul Café was in the back of a building with “healing center” on the front. The building contains a lot of small businesses, there was a dog grooming center, a barber, a place for African style dresses, a free library, and a food co-op. All sorts of people were streaming through that place. I gave my name at the door and received a packet of information and a laminate. Thankfully the Café was dark and well air-conditioned. My mile and a half walk had me thoroughly soaked even if it was only ten o’clock in the morning. 
I wanted to go in here. 
Maybe there were thirty or forty people inside, most of them seemed like they were somewhat acquainted with one another. I sat off to the side and watched folks, most of which looked slightly crunchy, slightly punky, or that look you get from being a high school art teacher too long. Things felt pretty good. I was enjoying the scene if I didn’t know anyone there. Well, that’s a lie; while I was sitting I heard my name called from behind. It was the great Allan Bealy. I had traded mail-art with Allan for a few years, had some conversations online, and he even bought something from me. I would have given it to him if he hadn’t offered to buy it. The two of us talked for a few minutes. He even introduced me to a couple folks floating around the room, a pattern that he kept up for the next couple of days. I felt like he knew everyone at the festival. The dude is amazing, I seal from him all the time. 

The great Allan Bealy (NYC).
I sat and listened to people present for the next few hours. Some of the folks had amazing art. My head was swimming with new ideas. I was engaged, I really was, but right from the start I felt a slight tinge of awkwardness. I wasn’t one of these people, not really. The moderator often talked about selling work when he wasn’t talking about collage makers (I don’t think I can write collagists) being the bastard step children of the art world. These two things became a theme throughout the conference and the main disconnect for me. Without these two things, I think I could have enjoyed myself a lot more. The distinction is this; I’m a mail-artist first! Collage maker second.

I was initially drawn to mail-art because it felt like a punk rock to me. I liked that people were making things for no particular reason but to make them. I liked that there was a community that was built based on moving these things around the world without much expectation. The ambition was in the creation, not in the selling. Mail-art wasn’t meant to be sold. Hearing the moderator talk about community in the way of selling put me off since that wasn’t my ambition at all. If the people in the room, I came to realize over the three days, were able to sustain a career making things, it was as a commercial artist. They were doing design work, which is great. The collage stuff seemed to be on the side but tangentially related to how they made their money. Why then we were focusing on selling? I don’t want to be a businessman, I want to make things. If they’re complaining about putting lots of money into what they’re trying to sell, but not selling, then foster a community by giving.  If you do this, you don’t have any money (just like before) but you’re work is out in the world with people that want it.

Art school seems to be a demarcation as well. I heard a lot of people preface their presentations with their art school credentials. Going to art school seems to put an impetus on being a professional artist, and that makes complete sense. It teaches you things and opens doors, exactly what it should do, but it also seems to inflate the ego. Art school implies a want to be successful. I don’t expect success, I’m not ambitious with a “career” in art in mind, and I have no avenues to sell anything I make. Oh yeah, I don’t live in a major city, either. I expect nothing from the art world because I know nothing about the art world. The people that presented were often “professionals” because they went to school, saw the angles, and dove into that world. I’m not that good. I don’t know the angles. I’m ignorant when it comes to how any of this works. I don’t know about galleries. I don’t know all the street names in Brooklyn.

If putting forth the idea of collage maker as capital-A artist was on the agenda, something to be defended with pride, then mail-artist wasn’t in the conversation. I didn’t hear the words mail-art uttered until the second day when Allan Bealy said it onstage. For the ARTIST / collage community, all of this makes sense. I understand if you value your art enough to want to promote and sell it. I understand if you want a return on your college investment. I understand if you want to talk to a specific group of like-minded individuals about commonalties to firm up your base. Being a mail-artist first, I wasn’t of their community and I felt it.

The guy I really connected with on that first day was Kike from Peru. He runs an Instagram page called Canson City where he mixes collage with stories. Kike had a vibe about him. He smiled more than any person I’ve ever known wearing a black metal t-shirt. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. A lot of his art was funny, had a sense of life. It wasn’t mannered in that high-art collage style. He wasn’t a trained artist. When he presented, he spent a lot of time on how much he hated the Catholic Church. Many of his pieces were about the church, lots of pentagrams and images of Satan. Fire and such. While those images and motifs are often used in a cheaply provocative way, I liked that he presented them to that crowd. I loved his populist cynicism.

The days basically worked like this, you met for the initial discussions at 10am. Those ran through most of the afternoon with other talks and physical collage making up and down St. Claude. At 3:30pm everyone came back together at The Istanbul Café before the break at 5pm. At 7pm there was one more speaker. At the end of the day on Friday, Danielle Krysa of The Jealous Curator fame, spoke. At 7pm on Saturday there was a gathering at a local karaoke bar. At 5pm I would meet up with Misty for dinner on Frenchman Street which was in the middle between our hotel and The Istanbul Café. At 7pm I’d catch back up with the collage people. I did this for both days, not missing a single presentation. I was constantly writing down ideas that I wanted to see through. I make shit that I don’t mail, too…sometimes big shit.

I had no idea who Danielle Krysa was. I didn’t know about her blog, her books, or her podcast. Krysa’s talk was open to the public and the public came. The café was completely full. She had a lot of interesting things to say, I enjoyed her. When she stopped speaking I jotted down the name of her podcast where she interviews contemporary artists. I figure I need to learn more about these people if I want to “get serious.” I mean…I know the names of contemporary artists that send me mail, but not those others that show on blank white walls. When she asked the names of important female collage artist during her speech, I thought to myself, “Susanna Lakner” and “Carina Granlund.” Those are my favorite female collage artists!

On Saturday Misty and I went to breakfast and then parted. She went back to our hotel room and I went back to The Istanbul Café. This time I slowly sauntered through a neighborhood that ran right into St. Claude. While I was walking I’d stop and take pictures, I even found a restaurant that I’d heard about for many years. Unfortunately it was closed. 
A New Orleans nap. 
One thing that surprises me about New Orleans is that you’re never sure if you’re in a good neighborhood or not. In every other city in the US you kind of know, you can feel things out, either based on vibe or stereotypes. You know, like there’s a giant hole in the sidewalk with no safety measures to keep people from falling in, that’s a bad neighborhood. Not in New Orleans. That hole will have been there so long giant weeds would be growing around it, dirty water seeping from somewhere. Beautifully manicured houses are directly beside damp and dilapidated structures. Gentrification only seems to do so much in New Orleans, while in other cities it takes over whole neighborhoods. Everything is always a little dirty, a little dangerous. Your head is constantly on a swivel trying to figure out your surroundings. I’m never completely comfortable there.  I often feel that something bad could happen at any minute, something terrible. That feeling is addictive. I notice things more when I’m in New Orleans, I look around, take things in I would normally look past.

I listened to a few hours of lectures Saturday morning but I knew I had to move around. My goal was to make it up to Antenna Gallery at least once. I wanted to see Allan’s exploded boxes and Zach Collins collages and take a look at that part of the city.

It was a long walk to Antenna, probably too far for the middle of the day. Ten minutes in and I started to second guess my decision. When I got to there the bottom floor was locked. I stood outside and laughed for a minute or two, assuming that the whole building was closed. Upstairs I found ten people listening to a guy present about collage in academia. The second guy brought up his PowerPoint and started with, “I’ve only been doing collage for four years.” This sentiment seemed popular, folks only recently discovering the medium or falling into it without much thought. When they called a break I snuck around the corner to look at Allan’s boxes, about eight in all. The mix of everyday trash splayed out into something new, blasts of colors, classic images…wonderful. In the back of my head I thought “We’ll…I’m going to try doing this.” I spun around and marveled at Zach Collins’ work when I heard someone in the background say, “Let’s organize these chairs into a circle and talk for a while” followed by rustling. I got out of there quickly. I’m not a sit in a circle and talk about things kind of guy. I’d end up pissing someone off. 
Allan Bealy's beauties. 
When I was walking the route I had come from just fifteen minutes earlier, I was stopped in my tracks by a guy with a twenty-four ounce beer and a pit-bull on a leash. Normally I don’t stop for folks on the street when someone tries to grab my attention. “Can I talk to you” is never an acceptable conversation starter. Nothing positive is going to start with those words. This dude started with “How many blocks have you walked?” I have never heard that before so I stopped. It was the middle of the day and about ten minutes into my walk so it was obvious I’d been in it awhile. “Where’s the block party” he quickly followed up with. Holy shit! I was happy I stopped. I had information for him. “Oh, it’s just a few blocks up” I told him, having passed it minutes earlier. “Thank you” he said and swiftly moved on.

Directly across from Café Istanbul was a market. On the outside it looked like a nice convenience store in a New England costal town, inside it was filled with small vendors selling all types of food. The first day I had Vietnamese and the second I had Mexican. The place was full both days even though no one seemed to be outside, milling about, or even coming through their doors. It almost looked deserted. Inside you had to fight for a table.

There was a little time before the 1:45 pm session so I sat in front of the co-op making scribbles in my notebook. I was there for ten minutes when Allan showed up and sat down. The two of us talked about a couple mail-art correspondents we had in common, especially guys in New York he had recently met or had known for years. Some of the rumors seemed to be true. The conversation moved to Richard in Illinois and his massive archive and then to some of my writing. It seems that Allan actually reads my garbage about mail-art. I never know if folks actually read what I write. “Do you want to publish” he asked me. I hadn’t actually thought about it. He planted a seed. Now I have to do something with that, I thought later that evening.

We were joined by Joe Castro, a great collage artist who had just finished up leading a group of people making stuff together. Allan introduced me as a mail-artist and since Joe seemed nice, I asked him to write down his address. “I’ve gotten mail-art before but I don’t think I’ve ever responded” he said. One potential correspondence was better that none, he gave me a sticker. I’ll send him something.

After the last lecture of the day, I met Misty for Middle Eastern food on Frenchman. Strangely, it’s a place that we’ve ate at before. After dinner I dragged her to the last official event of the fest. It was at a karaoke bar where folks were “telling stories.” We got there right when it started so getting a drink was difficult. While waiting in line the “man in charge” said a few words directly to me. I misjudged his interest and answered his question honestly. My answer was mostly about the ambitious tone of the fest. Without engaging, he slowly walked away from me as my words trailed off.  When I got up to the bar I bought four beers at once. Folks told stories about Margaret Atwood, places to eat in Wisconsin, and dating Uber drivers. The tone was upbeat and fun, people were trying to get drunk. When the karaoke started Misty and I got out of there.

On Sunday they were a couple of things planned, mostly there was a “collage swap.” My intention was to go and give away my last collab-book to someone, but I didn’t make it. I gave one to Allan and I gave one to the woman from Cut Up Magazine when I purchased her work. Instead of going to the swap, Misty and I had a long breakfast and then played around the city. We sat in Jackson Square and watched people taking pictures in front of a statue honoring a real piece of shit. It was nice, we got to spend some time together.

While the fest wasn’t exactly for me, I think I got a lot out of it. My head swelled with ideas over the next few days. I have ideas for projects that came directly from listening to folks talk about their work. My biggest takeaway was the idea of community that I kept hearing about. Although I have no real interest in supporting other collage artists (not in the way it was implied I needed to) I do have an interest in supporting mail-artists. That Sunday night I had a plan to start a North Carolina Mail Art School. I went with NC just because it seemed like an easier way to corral folks. I put up a message on my makings page and then created an entry letter and a spreadsheet for addresses. I collected 12 names of interested people, some of them I knew and a couple total strangers. A few days later I made up packages with the pertinent information and then I sent them out. I’m comfortable with a mail-art community made up of only NC folks. Some of them would call themselves artists and others might have never made a thing in their life. Let’s see what they send. 
One of my first ADD AND PASSES was made from an image of this wall.


joey Patrickt said...

Liked your firsthand account of the scene.
I was wondering what Kolaj is all about. thanks

xx Jones said...

Great report, you're not only a great mail artist, but a good writer too!

Terry O. said...

I recently discovered Kolaj magazine and Kolaj Fest. In browsing the Kolaj website, I was happy to find an article by someone I "know". :-) Great article, Jon! You have a great writing style. I enjoyed reading the article and especially liked hearing your honest opinion about Kolaj Fest. I suspect I might feel the same if I were to attend as I enjoy making collage for fun, not to sell.

first time on blogger, no blog said...

Years later, second year of the pandemic, I found this written travel collage of your impressions of Kolaj, (just now hearing of that,
having been doing variations of collage for 70 years🤗). I hope you’ve followed up on your publishing. Where could I read more ?
And mail art? Are you on Instagram?