Artomatic Demonstrates the Creative Power of DC

Artomatic in Crystal City

Washington is not The Swamp. Nor is it House of Cards. And it’s certainly not the sleepy burg with a couple of cool restaurants that The New York Times rediscovers every few years.

Instead, it’s something different – a sprawling urban corridor that stretches along I-95 from Richmond to Baltimore, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the green forested Appalachians. More than just the nation’s capital, it’s six million people in a megacity that dominates the Mid-Atlantic.

Saturday, while the cherry blossoms were blooming along the Tidal Basin, I crossed the river and went to Artomatic. More than 600 artists, performers, musicians, and creatives of all stripes have converged upon Crystal City for this massive art festival that runs from March 24 – May 6. Artomatic is seven floors of art, along with classes, performances and movies, all taking place in an empty office building just across the Potomac from the capitol. Admission is free.

Artomatic is a non-juried festival. Anyone can participate. Artists that pay a fee and agree to do some volunteer time get space to display their work. Which means that you’ll find stuff you love, stuff you hate, and lot of work that falls somewhere in between.

It’s always inspiring. And I love to see friends of mine in the show. You’d be surprised at how many artists there are in Washington. Lawyers, web developers, government workers by day, they’re painters, photographers and dancers by night. Artomatic gives them the opportunity to shine.

Reach IV by Frank Mancino
Reach IV by Frank Mancino

The 5:01 Project by Victoria Pickering
Victoria Pickering took a photo at 5:01 PM every day for this project.

Artomatic is quirky

And where else but in the Washington megacomplex could you have a massive, open festival like Artomatic? Only here will you find the ingredients necessary for this unique happening:

  • Space. A lot of it. Thousands of square feet of space in a building soon to be redeveloped, opened or torn down. Artomatic began in 1999 when a developer donated space in an old building. Artomatic typically takes place in transitional neighborhoods, where space is being converted from use to another. Military offices have moved out of Crystal City and their space is being redeveloped.
  • Artists. A lot of them. The 2008 show featured 1,540 individual artists, including painters, sculptors, photographers, dancers and poets stretched over ten floors in a new office building in NoMa. The artistic community is large in the region, featuring moonlighting professionals as well as graduates from local universities.
  • Audience. The memorable 2008 edition of Artomatic hosted the biggest audience ever, drawing 52,000 people. When I visited on Saturday, the halls were full of friends and family of the artists, as well as the culturally curious, drawn to see something new.
  • Organizers. Artomatic ain’t easy. The festival requires talented event planners to acquire the space, recruit volunteers and manage the event. Smart, well-organized, Type-A people, something DC specializes in.

Only in DC will you find this combination of arts, audiences and organizers. Washington isn’t the city you see on CNN. It’s more than just marble columns and endless arguments. Artomatic demonstrates the creative power and vibrancy of a city that few in America truly know.

Imperfect Art is Better Than No Art at All

Artomatic, 2008
Artomatic, 2008

Artomatic is ten floors of bad art. Held every couple years in an abandoned office building, it’s a multi-week, multimedia arts event held in the Washington, DC area. Artomatic is non-juried. Pay a small fee and you’re given a section of wall to hang your work on. Like some sort of bizarre department store, Artomatic is home to thousands of square feet of slapdash painting, crude sculpture and out-of-focus photography. Added to this joyful mix of mediocrity are garage bands, freelance DJs, teen dance crews and deeply personal works of unwatchable performance art.

It really sucks. But that’s the key to its success. There’s an undeniable energy to the experience that you won’t find in some staid museum. No curators organized the art for you. The lighting is harsh. There is no audio tour. And around the corner could be anything – photos of Keds, a male nude or some impressionistic take on your home town that you fall in love with.

Artomatic celebrates the artist. It is about the messy process of art, as you struggle to achieve perfection with the most imperfect of materials: yourself.

As the author of two novels, I’ve met plenty of people over the years who say they have the perfect idea for a book. It’s so brilliant that they hesitate to even tell me about it. Maybe it’s the next War and Peace.

But we never find out because they never write it.

There’s a great chapter in The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle about writers, procrastination and the fear of failure. We put off work because we’re afraid that our work won’t be perfect. We have the perfect manuscript – in our heads – but in writing it down, it will inevitably be corrupted by our imperfections, ending up like one of the misbegotten pieces hanging on the walls of Artomatic.

Yet, despite the psychological peril, writing gets done. Novels are written, screenplays drafted, poetry composed. Why?

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

McArdle has her own advice for writers: you have permission to suck. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be terrible. But get it done and get it on the page. You can fix a bad first draft; you can’t fix nothing.

Letting go of perfection is freeing. Tom Wolfe’s career began with a case of writer’s block, after being hired to write an article for Esquire:

I was totally blocked. I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s a rarer form. In this case I suddenly realized I’d never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Well, Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting… so that some competent writer could convert them into a magazine piece. I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. It became very much like a letter that you would write to a friend in which you’re not thinking about style, you’re just pouring it all out, and I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning to Byron at Esquire, and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, Well, we’re knocking the “Dear Byron” off the top of your memo, and we’re running the piece.

You have a unique story to tell. But only if you share it. Let go of perfection and write it down in all its messy glory. It’s not going to be the idealized version in your head. It’s going to have rough edges and jagged corners. It might lack supporting beams and doors and windows. All of these problems can all be fixed – but only if you have the raw material to work with. You can’t reshape illusions.

Your work may be as flawed and imperfect as the art hanging on the walls of Artomatic. But it will be real. It will exist in the world. And imperfect art is better than no art at all.

Friday Photo: Occupeeps Edition

occupeepsA movement that promised revolution is now reduced to globs of sugar. There’s something truly American about that. We’re not Europe, with class-based parties flooding the streets in protest. We distrust mass movements and frequently respond to strident appeals with mockery.

The Occupy movement made for good theater, but little more. That they find their end in Peep form is about right.

The Occupeeps are part of a whole series of Peeps dioramas on the ninth floor of Artomatic. Check ’em out!

New Article: Ten Tips for Your Artomatic Visit

Artomatic is back! Billed as DC’s biggest creative event, it’s a whole building filled with art in Crystal City. With more than a thousand artists exhibiting, plus music, dance, film and bars, the experience can be overwhelming.

With an event this big, you need a plan. And comfortable shoes. Here are my ten tips for enjoying your Artomatic visit.

The New DC Art Scene is Open to All

skateboarder at fight club 
Preparing to take off. A skateboarder at the Fixation Show.

Has the DC art scene really left the underground and emerged into the light of day? That was the premise of an article in Sunday’s Washington Post. According to the piece:

Washington has a vibrant, under-the-radar art party scene that has long been visible only to those in the know. 

While I’m no porkpie hat wearing hipster, I’ve lived in this city for a while, and am friends with artists and arts organizers. In other words, I’m “in the know” and I don’t believe that there was a vibrant art party scene that was only available to the initiated. Continue reading “The New DC Art Scene is Open to All”