Art vs. Nature: Round Five
Bellows, Bataille, and a Formal Dinner in a Tree House at Smoke Farm
The summer arts festival at Smoke Farm has operated under a variety of obscure names since it began in 2006: Secret of Gold, Pataphysical New Year, Interstitial Heroes. But this year's title, Not to Scale, was both clear and appropriate—scale has always been an issue at the festival. Many of the participating artists are used to making work for bare rooms, where they create and control the environment. But trotting that work out into in a gorgeous Northwest landscape—Smoke Farm is a 360-acre former dairy farm full of meadows, forests, streams, and wild animals—is tough. Too often, the land overwhelms and upstages the art.
But this year's festival felt more mature and complete than the others. It was the biggest so far, with 400 visitors and over 50 installations and performances, ranging from a tiny peephole-diorama in a barn wall to a massive contraption called Potentially Annoying Sound whose huge gears and bellows blew air through the salvaged pipes of a church organ. From a distance, it sounded like a phantom train.
There were even invasive species. Robb Kunz (Degenerate Art Ensemble, Infernal Noise Brigade) hung dark wood boxes with speakers on each end from alder trees. At the top of each hour, they rotated, broadcasting summer sounds—mostly hot-weather insects—that Kunz recorded and brought back from his home state of Oklahoma. "They're sounds from places where they have a real summer," he said, standing in the middle of a shady path, holding one of his boxes.
Further down the path was a less successful piece by Kristin Tollefson, who affixed round baubles to bits of wood. She called the piece Treasure: Jeweled Nature, but it looked less like jeweled nature than logs assaulted with a BeDazzler. Hers wasn't the only piece guilty of trying—and failing—to gild the lily. Up another path, a lady in a sun hat climbed down a riverbank to get a closer look at Kathleen Skeels's Feet of Clay, an assemblage of plastic, foam, wire, and clay figure eights. "Oh," she said when she got there. "From up above, I thought it was garbage in the river."
A few minutes' walk downstream, Sarah Ferreter and Katherine Wimble were finishing up their Chromatic Cobblestones—a large, rectangular spectrum of color (white to orange to red to gray to blue) made of stones from the beach. They said it took the two of them about 10 hours to make their creation. "Lots of sore muscles today," one of them laughed, rubbing her forearm. Chromatic Cobblestones looked like a piece by Andy Goldsworthy—a simple and elegant tribute to the land, rearranging it for human eyes to enjoy in a new way.
Others were more cheeky about their surroundings. The most physically isolated piece at the festival was a 45-minute hike up the river from Cobblestones, where four men—Ryan Mitchell, Pol Rosenthal, NKO, and DK Pan (he just won a Stranger Genius Award)—sat around a table on a rocky spit. They all wore the same uniform—beige shirts and shorts, sunglasses, flat expressions—while they steadily smoked filterless Camel cigarettes, drank rosé, and took turns reading aloud all 200-plus pages of Guilty by French intellectual Georges Bataille. They were aggressively out of place—while people up and down the riverbank swam, picnicked, and drank beer, they scowled around the table like four gloomy students in a Parisian garret.
The day's most exclusive performance was a three-course dinner for 20—ties required and provided—in a large tree house, prepared by the people of Cafe Nordo. Prospective diners had to search the farm for a mysterious and stern maître d' who took $20 "bribes" in exchange for reservations. "There will be beef and there will be heights," he pronounced. He also admonished diners to wear rugged shoes and remain sober until the dinner seating.
After arriving at the designated meeting place, the lucky 20 were blindfolded, bundled into cars, and driven to an undisclosed location, where they were greeted by a "wild man" (who ducked in and out of the forest in a loincloth with a machete) and loud barks and howls from dogs somewhere off in the woods. After a champagne toast and a steep walk up and down the wooded hills, they ascended some stairs to a large platform in the trees, which had been built by Seattle schoolchildren as part of the farm's Fortnight Summer Camp.
There was beef and heights as promised, as well as a frozen granita "salad," zucchini and garlic soup, homemade ricotta with local berries and honey from the farm's beehives, and ghostly serenades from musicians hidden in the forest below. After descending, the diners rejoined the rest of the attendees dancing around a bonfire to a marching band and stumbling around in the dark, looking for light installations.
On the edge of a field of tall grass stood a stick with a walkie-talkie attached. Sara Edwards, who had performed earlier that day, sang into it. In the middle distance, across the tall grass and at the edge of the tree line, a white light pulsed to the rhythm and pitch of her voice. It was a tiny beacon in the night, signaling to those of us wandering through the dark, letting us know we weren't alone.
Full disclosure: Brendan Kiley helps host a lecture event at Smoke Farm called the Symposium. He is not affiliated with the summer arts festival.