Well, October has came and went with but a peep from Conflux Festival Director, Christina Ray. The psychogeography festival has been exploring how the physical environment affects our emotions and behaviors since 2003. But this year, it was quietly announced as a private brunch with a small selection of past participants and friends. The official word:
…it’s becoming clear—as creative conferences and festivals proliferate and many of us become overly-engaged with projects and commitments—that there’s a desire to simply relax and connect with other practitioners minus the highly structured format that a festival demands. In considering this atmosphere, we wondered again (as we did eight years ago): what if we just invited some like-minded friends to get together and engage in psychogeography? With this question in mind, we made a tough decision to scale down the festival into a smaller, think-tank-type session—and we expect it will be very refreshing.
On the one hand, who could complain of the absence of Conflux public events as one of the most exciting public space occupations of recent years is going strong on Wall Street, across the country, and beyond. As if that is not enough, Performa 11 looms to take art fans hostage with twenty straight days of events, each culminating at the after hours bar. But this is to say nothing of the irony of holding a private brunch in the name of psychogeography– that Ray could pass off this maneuver as an update to the format certainly deserves a raised brow. Since not much has been shared about the “think-tank-type session,” one can only deduce that Conflux was effectively canceled. The loss of those urban weekend strolls and interventions that had made Conflux one of the most uniquely exciting art festivals in New York is truly unfortunate.
Over the past 7 years, Ray and co-founder Dave Mandl have created an pop-up institution. The festival has grown in scale and prestige since it’s first incarnation, reflected in each year’s level of branded polish and headquarters selection, starting with ABC No Rio and last year being it’s very own Conflux Cafe at New York University. Yet, festival directors have always managed to lighten their load while scaling by inviting participants to help facilitate in various ways including assembling curatorial teams, inviting greater partnership, recruiting volunteers, and one year, even switching to a user-generated format.
While the festival on the ground has always felt intimate and community oriented, Conflux’s web presence has ballooned. Since 2006, Confluxfestival.org has become a bustling virtual hub for public art, linking not only to hundreds of participants and projects, but also to many of the city’s most active art institutions. In fact, one of the strongest contributions Conflux has made to psychogeography as a line of critical inquiry is the fusion of public space on the street with the internet. This is not only evident in the festival materials, but also in the projects themselves. In 2007, one of the most talked-about pieces, Lucas Murgida’s 9/10 took place live on the street and on Twitter simultaneously. It seems we are almost incapable of separating these spaces when imagining what it means to be in public.
This year, Conflux has not only downsized operations and closed it’s impromptu doors to the public, but the website is also inadvertently thwarting it’s own web presence– links to past years’ archives are now serving up 404 errors, leaving visitors to scour the web for back-doors and remaining traces. To be fair, the ephemeral nature of the ad hoc psychogeographer may have always been coupled with a certain malaise about documentation and archiving.
No longer! I’ve staked out this period of festival exile to assemble resources, review past works, and take stock of contemporary psychogeography as Conflux has presented it. Feel free to jump in at any time in the comments section.
2003: PsyGeoConflux, ABC No Rio
I was not in attendance (having moved to New York in 2007), but am pleased to have found this lovely introduction to the event here on Year Zero One, which led to the festival website via the trusty Way Back Machine. Conflux began as a fairly straight-forward twist on Guy Debord’s concept of psychogeography from the 1950s. Ray and Mandl explain in their Year Zero One piece,
Our intention was to explore the various ways in which artists, writers, and theorists are interpreting the idea of psychogeography today, at a time when the paper maps used in early dérives have been supplemented by mobile phones, GPS systems, and advanced field-recording techniques.
The event included a plethora of urban appropriations: of people, an outdoor human-scale chess game; of sounds, a concert composed with field recordings; of garbage, a marching band with instruments crafted from found objects; of infrastructure, walking tours with rules defined by conditions like the levels of exposed sunlight between buildings, the presence of security cameras and graffiti respectively.
To hear street artist Swoon tell it, the event literally stopped traffic as her collective Toyshop and festival participants paraded down Houston street, banging on instruments made from the city’s refuse. She says,
It was a small-scale takeover of the Lower East Side, at one point filling up all of Houston Street–no other traffic going in our direction. People poured out of bars to watch it go by, and some even heeded calls to join us. It was a giant participatory junk band; it was loud and gregarious but very beautiful.
Poignantly, Bryan Zimmerman of the Village Voice framed the event within a post-9/11 dialog, citing Conflux as exhibiting the potential to, “even subvert the war on terrorism’s often divisive and fear-inducing projections on the cityscape.”
2004: PsyGeoConflux, Participant, Inc.
Conflux continued with their mission of bringing psychogeography to modern New York City with more of the same kinds of projects: walking tours, human chess, public interventions, street art, etc. Participants included Wooster Collective, Toyshop, Steve Duncan, Marc Horowitz, and several more. In an interview posted on Gothamist, Ray and Mandl explain that psychogeography is about trying to discover or create life-affirming environments, and recognizing freedom in resisting the human tendency toward routine. Filmmaker Zack Whinestine, who apparently “generally hates lectures,” gave a lecture and facilitated discussion beginning with the question, “Can Psychogeography Change the World?” wherein he questioned, “why despite 50 years of psychogeographical activity the built environment remains overwhelmingly banal.” I’m curious as to the direction of the discussion that followed.
In 2004, Ray and Mandl also created One Block Radius, a compilation of media and data about the location on Bowery upon which the New Museum would be built. Unfortunately, the project has not been publicly archived or preserved adequately, a problem of psychogeography, since almost all meaning lies in the subjective experience that results from stated intentions, as I mention in the introduction above. In this case, we miss out on what Jonah Brucker-Cohen says, “could be the last collective reminder of a neighborhood in temporal and physical transition.” I hope the New Museum and Christina Ray will make the effort to get this project back online.
2004-2005: ProvFlux, Providence, RI
The Providence Initiative for Psychogeographic Studies (PIPS) kicked off ProvFlux concurrently with New York in 2004. In 2005, the two cities appear to have consolidated efforts in Providence with a keynote address by Ray and Mandl.
2006: McCaig-Welles Gallery
It must have been exciting to move a festival from Manhattan to Brooklyn and actually see it become bigger and better than ever. Conflux 2006, which was the first to adopt the branding and web presence that today characterizes the event, felt like a heavyweight not only in the volume and sophistication of projects presented, but also in the level of critical coverage by bloggers and journalists. Regine Debatty (We-Make-Money-Not-Art.com) wrote several pieces about Conflux 2006. Most memorably, she gushed,
Sometimes you’d go to a conference to listen to someone whose work you admire and the experience turns out to be quite disappointing. But once in a blue moon, you listen to someone else’s words and feel like you’re falling in love. That’s what i experienced a week ago when i heard Sara and Marc Schiller from Wooster Collective talk at the Conflux festival in Brooklyn.
2007: The Change You Want To See Gallery
The move to Williamsburg also brought with it an expansion of content toward economical and environmental issues of direct local consequence. The Change You Want to See Gallery, now defunct, was an apt choice of headquarters, as this shift aligned Conflux with the mission of the gallery’s managing collective, Not an Alternative. Art Fairs International elaborates:
In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of projects that tackle the themes of ecological preservation, ubiquitous computing and the constant re-negotiation of public and private spaces in the city. In 2006, many of the discussion panels and lectures repeatedly referenced the ongoing debate surrounding development issues in and around Williamsburg. Director Christina Ray explains that one of the lessons learned from that experience was that Conflux can provide a forum for a collective discourse about social and political issues that are both timely and of great importance to the public. When speaking about the submissions for the upcoming festival, Ray notes that there will be more environmentally centered projects than ever before, revolving around topics such as collection and creative re-use of found materials in the urban environment, urban gardening, climate change and global warming. A number of these projects will focus specifically on current redevelopment plans for the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront area.
Also present this year were a host of new partners, an expanded curatorial team, and four nights of live music at Luna Lounge. The New York Times covered the event, noting, “Technology, unsurprisingly, showed up everywhere,” and in one of the greatest compliments paid to the breadth and relevence of Conflux, “At times Debord felt so marginal that you could forget all about him.” Those statements were likely evident in Marisa Olsen’s panel discussion of Sousveillance Culture with Amy Alexander, Jill Magid and Hasan Elahi.
For more editorial on Conflux 2007, be sure to read Abigail Doan’s coverage here.
2008: Center for Architecture
For the festival’s five-year anniversary, Conflux moved back to Manhattan to the Center for Architecture and was curated by a large team of 17 art world professionals, including Eyebeam director Amanda MacDonald-Crowley, Not An Alternative‘s Winnie Fung, scholar Jonah Brucker-Cohen, street artist Ellis Gallagher, and Michael Sarff from the artist collaboration MTAA.
In one of the highest profile instances of Conflux yet, it seems the web traffic likewise soared. My strongest memory of this year’s event was the live-tweeted performance piece 9/10 by Lucas Murgida, who interrogated the boundaries of private and public space when he hid inside a cabinet on the sidewalk for hours, waiting for someone to claim it and bring it back to their home. (In 2007, Murgida’s The Locksmithing Institute of Conflux was also a favorite.) Artist Jamie O’Shea (full disclosure: my partner) slept through some of the weekend in his Vertical Bed, and afterward commented that his work did not receive much attention in person, but has since gained international exposure via a number of channels presumably due to it’s inclusion in Conflux.
Highlights of the weekend were covered by many blogs: Patrick Ellis (Rhizome.org) enjoyed works such as Liz Kueneke’s Manhattan’s Urban Fabric but wondered why Conflux couldn’t go bigger and dye the East River, Erin Riley-Lopez for Art: 21 mentions Maya Suess’s Helmut Piece, while Regine Debatty and Abigail Doan, both festival participants, covered a range of projects.
Abandoning curation and headquarters altogether, 2009 became the year of the user-generated festival, complete with Google Map collaboration. The event was captured in a highlights reel that features clips of some of festival participants discussing the importance of occupying public space (note: it’s not clear if the reel is exclusive of 2009 or if it also contains works of 2010 and other years). In it, Dave Mandl describes the Conflux mission with more dynamism than mentioned in 2003′s initial statements:
We’re combining art making with activism, political science, and cultural studies, just trying to really take back the pseudo public spaces that exist in New York City and I think it’s a really valuable contribution to our understandings of the city itself.
A Drill For Reimagining Wall Street was a project that was meant to be a sort of experimental parade on Wall Street, just after the financial collapse, that included possibilities for other ways to imagine an economy. The problem was that it was part of a large festival of pieces that were scatted all over New York City, and even though I tried to promote my event as much as possible, only 3 people showed up (they were also my friends). The “parade” was more an awkward intervention that anything else- we stood at the old market building and I took video of my friends showing the signs that we had made in a nearby park. Tourists watched, but only because they were waiting for us to get out of the way so they could take photos of themselves.
What, too soon?
In scanning the project index, I was immediately charmed by The World’s First, Possibly Only and Probably Last iPhone Drum Circle by MTAA and Mike Koller. The title is clever, considering it has to stand out among hundreds of others in the listing. Video documentation of the event shows a picnic of blase hipsters tapping away on their phones as if texting last night’s hook-ups. Evidently, they are drumming along with the Bongo Bongo app, their devices all plugged into amplifiers.
If the prospect of scouring the user generated project index sounds daunting, browse the News Archive from 2009 to read digestible bits about featured work, including projects by Reverend Billy, Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe, and Sal Randolph.
2010: New York University
In the ever-evolving festival infrastructure, 2010 introduces two new ways to experience Conflux: first, without even leaving your house via Ustream and Artlog’s live feed, and second, through a little community service.
The requisite festival preview was published by Urban Omnibus, but there is notably less press on Conflux 2010, as the event was overshadowed by the simultaneously occurring Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice, addressing similar themes as Conflux has come to encompass. Particularly relevant to psychogeography was the Creative Time commissioned Key to the City, by Paul Ramirez Jonas. The artist set up a booth in Times Square and handed out 35,000 keys, with maps to their corresponding locks, expecting participants to gift the key to a friend or loved one. Here, he exchanges keys with art critic Claire Bishop, before they discuss the work and visit the sites they have unlocked.
By 2010, it has become clear that Conflux has been instrumental in the awareness of contemporary psychogeography, a line of inquiry which has conflated with many other contemporary approaches to art-making and the practice of art/activism. It is even possible that through the sustained expansion of ideas around psychogeography evident in the evolution of Conflux, the festival itself has completed it’s mission of facilitating a take-back of New York City public space, and has become redundant in the context of the city’s most active artists, scholars, activists and institutions. Still, I hope that Conflux will return next year, and welcome any twists director Christina Ray will bring to the format, provided I get to participate!