If you’re in the New England area on June 8th, 9th, or 10th, you’ll want to check out the Thing in the Spring art and music festival in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Here’s a rundown of some of the art, film, and music you can see at the festival along with some of my personal favorites. And if you can’t make the event, I encourage you to check out the work of some of these artists online.
The Films of Jem Cohen
From 12-5 p.m. on Saturday, June 9th festival-goers will have a rare chance to view a selection of films by MacDowell Colony fellow Jem Cohen.
Jem is one of the finest filmmakers working today–a truly original artist using film as a solo medium to create cinematic collages and haunting meditations on memory and place. Along with Peter Hutton and Bill Morrison, Cohen is one of only a handful of contemporary filmmakers pushing the boundaries of lo-fi film in an era that’s increasingly obsessed with digital. Forget your preconceived notions about traditional movie making. Cohen is a rarity even in the independent film world. Cohen’s films, like those of Hutton and Morrison, are works of art–soulful, provocative, anti-commercial, mysterious, unconventional, and beautifully imperfect.
When I look at Jem’s work, I’m reminded of wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in things imperfect, impermanent, unconventional, and incomplete. In the wabi-sabi system, beauty can be cajoled from ugliness and quality lies in the inconspicuous, overlooked details. In contrast to modernism, wabi-sabi values the one-of-a-kind over the mass produced, darkness over brightness, the “crude” over the slick, and nature over technology. If this isn’t a perfect description of Jem Cohen’s work, then I don’t know what is.
Cohen, like his high-school friend and collaborator Ian MacKaye (from Fugazi and The Evens), favors a more direct exchange between artist and audience, one that values connection and authenticity more than a vapid commercial transaction. It is this DIY, punk ethos you’ll see at work in Cohen’s highly acclaimed film Instrument, a film about the band Fugazi that took 10 years to complete.
“Punk is what we made it, and what we make it,” Cohen writes in the liner notes to Instrument. “This sense of punk is something that does not go in or out of style: it has to do with making your own way, in whatever field you find yourself in, outside of what the mainstream dictates, and for reasons other than the sell. That is a meaning that Fugazi and I learned from some of the same sources and it is, I hope, the engine that drives my own work as a filmmaker.”
For Cohen, this DIY philosophy means working with cheaper formats like Super 8, video, and 16mm, even as the rest of the film world embraces digital. “It was constantly carrying a Super 8 camera that enabled me to become a filmmaker,” Jem says. “Super 8 was like the 7-inch single or the home 4-track of the film world…The small format freed me up. Shooting everything around me became a way of life.”
The filmmaker has worked with an array of original musical artists through the years–Patti Smith, R.E.M., The Ex, Gil Shaham, Elliott Smith, Cat Power, Sparklehorse, and the late Vic Chesnutt, who committed suicide on Christmas day in 2009. Jem produced Chesnutt’s remarkable 2007 album North Star Deserter.
Jem says his “production” was mostly about picking songs and musicians and bringing them together in the studio.” It was a way of getting at some things; a discussion about death and life, really,” Cohen writes in the book Signal Fires. “It’s not something most people are willing to to attend to. Vic does. He’s a brave, beautiful fellow, and I knew the musicians I brought him together with would enter that discussion and carry it forwards with grace and abandon. As I said in the liner notes, ‘I thought it might get heavy. It did.'”
Having grown up in a town not far from Athens, Georgia, the music of both R.E.M. and Chesnutt holds a special power for me, not unlike the work of another great Georgia artist, Flannery O’Connor. (I’ve always thought of Chesnutt as O’Connor’s musical equivalent.) I remember those early days when R.E.M. was touring the South in their blue van, reportedly living on a $2-a-day food allowance. The band was a refreshing, raw musical alternative in the throes of the synthesizer-soaked 80s. If you’re the right age, you may remember the original short films Cohen created to accompany R.E.M. tracks like “Nightswimming” and “Talk about the Passion,” both of which will be on view at The Thing in the Spring.
It’s important to note that these films were artistic collaborations in every sense of the word–short films intended to stand alone, and not commercial music videos created as advertisements for MTV. “The union of music and moving images is terribly important to me,” Jem explains, “and somewhere along the line, it got hijacked.” Fugazi and I “had our disagreements, but I never had to re-do anything because someone didn’t like someone’s haircut or the label wanted to see some scantily clad back-up singers or some poor musician couldn’t lip-sync ‘properly.'”
Both Cohen and MacKaye have found a way to pursue their artwork outside the commercial machine. Here is Cohen describing the relationship between art and politics:
“I just shoot things that I see: places that are changing, scenes from car windows or motels, portraits of friends, of people on the street, of musicians making music. By the same token, I believe that when Fugazi plays, that is what it is all about: playing music. Politics and big thoughts and their relationship with the ‘music world’ are entwined but secondary, and thankfully so. There is still a lot of confusion about this. It came as something of a revelation to me that Fugazi’s standard $5 ticket price didn’t just represent a reaction against the $20 or $30 or $40 Rock Show. It had as much or more to do with the band’s insistence on playing whatever they wanted to play how and whenever they wanted to play it, with no obligation to provide spectacle entertainment or even bow to audience demand. This freedom to go where they want with their music is at the heart of every logistical decision they make. In other words, and this is where most of the critics get it wrong, the music isn’t just about politics, and to a certain degree, the politics are about the music.”
Cohen’s work is finally attracting the widespread critical acclaim it deserves. The filmmaker has received the prestigious Independent Spirit Award, as well as grants from the Guggenheim, Creative Capital, Rockefeller and Alpert Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other organizations. His films have been broadcast in Europe by the BBC and ZDF/ARTE, and in the U.S. by the Sundance Channel and PBS. They’re also in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney, and Melbourne’s Screen Gallery. In 2009 a bilingual publication titled Signal Fires: The Cinema of Jem Cohen was published by Gobierno de Navarra.
For the Thing in the Spring, we’ve assembled a first-rate collection of Jem’s music-related films, as well as his portrait of the acclaimed sculptor Anne Truitt. The short film, titled Working, was shown at Truitt’s retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and is a thought-provoking look at both color and the creative process.
Such an extensive screening of Cohen’s work is an exceptional event, not only because these films are too rarely seen, but also because the spirit in which they were created is so seldom in evidence in the film world.
Cohen’s films remind me that we have a choice about how we spend our time. We can seek out those things that are mysterious, unknown, and provocative, or we can allow ourselves to be consumed by the commercialism that repeatedly barrages us in our culture. To choose to spend time with Jem’s work is to choose an alternative. Once you’ve seen the original, haunting films of Jem Cohen, you’re unlikely to forget them.
The Films of Jem Cohen: Schedule
Saturday, June 9th, 12-5 p.m.
This free, special screening at the Peterborough Historical Society is part of The MacDowell Colony’s community outreach program and was made possible with the support of both Jem Cohen and MacDowell.
(Note: Start times are approximate)
12:00 p.m. Instrument featuring Fugazi (115 minutes)
2:00 p.m. Cat Power Live (5 minutes)
2:05 p.m. Long for the City featuring Patti Smith (10 minutes)
2:15 p.m. Building a Broken Mousetrap featuring The Ex (62 minutes)
3:20 p.m. Nice Evening, Transmission Down featuring Sparklehorse (11 min)
3:30 p.m. Anecdotal Evidence featuring Vic Chesnutt (12 minutes)
3:45 p.m. Anne Truitt, Working (13 minutes)
4:00 p.m. Jem Cohen: Music Works (60 minutes total)
R.E.M.-“Nightswimming,” “Country Feedback,” and “E-Bow the Letter” (with Patti Smith)
Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra-Vivaldi’s “Winter” from The Four Seasons
Direct Effect-“Away”-PSA Announcement
Lucky Three featuring Elliott Smith
Jonathan Richman (from the Modern Lovers)-I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar
Miracle Legion-“You’re the One”
R.E.M.-“Talk about the Passion” and “Belong” (live)
Mystic-Messiaen’s “Vocalise” from Concert for Four featuring Myung-Whun Chung and the Bastille Orchestra
The Thing in the Spring Music Line-up
This year’s festival includes a wonderfully diverse range of music. I highly recommend purchasing a $35 weekend pass, which is good for all music concerts (except for the late-night Saturday show at Harlow’s, which is $5 at the door). Town Hall concerts are $18 in advance and $22 at the door, so $35 is a bargain. There are only 100 weekend passes available though, and they’re going fast. You can purchase weekend passes and advance tickets here. Get one before they’re gone!
Friday, June 8
Woods . Mmoss . Daniel Higgs
On Friday, June 8th the jangly, upbeat sounds of Woods and Mmoss will kick off the festival at the Peterborough Town Hall. Also performing is Daniel Higgs, an off-beat, hillbilly mystic partial to Eastern drones, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and unconventional instruments like the Jews harp. The former lead singer of the band Lungfish, Higgs is known for his hypnotic style and onstage shenanigans. The fact that Higgs had the audacity to record an album of 17 instrumental, Jews harp improvisations tells you everything you need to know about the artist’s musical approach.
While the band Mmoss veers toward the psychedelic end of the spectrum, Brooklyn-based Woods is lo-fi, reverb-laden folk rock. Woods sounds more like sun-soaked California than Brooklyn to me (think The Byrds meets the Velvet Underground with a dash of Neil Young thrown in). Jeremy Earl’s quivering falsetto makes this band stand out. Woods’ latest release, Sun and Shade, may be their strongest work to date. You can preview the album right here (or if you’re reading this in an email, click to here to listen to samples and view all videos)
After the show, cross the street to Harlow’s Pub for a free after-party djed by musician Austin Wright.
Doors open at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall. You can purchase tickets for the Friday night show here or save money with a weekend pass.
Saturday, June 9
Nina Nastasia . Brown Bird . P.G. Six
I’ve enjoyed Nastasia’s delicate voice and intimate songwriting for over a decade and look forward to seeing her on stage for the first time. While her style might be considered country or folk, her off-kilter songwriting and band, which includes instruments like cello, viola, and bowed saw, add an urbane twist to her music. Her haunting sound relies on an understated simplicity. Steve Albini, producer of both Nirvana and the Pixies, is a Nastasia fan and engineered her first two records, and famed BBC DJ John Peel described Nastasia’s debut album Dogs as “astonishing.” It’s immediacy and rawness are striking, and the tone of Nastasia’s voice pitch-perfect. Her follow-up, The Blackened Air, with its visceral, elegant tales of rural life, has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for years now, but her newest records also hold their own against these two early gems.
(If you’re reading this in an email, click here to watch the video and listen to samples)
P.G. Six is one of the monikers used by Patrick Gubler, a New York singer and guitar player whose debut solo album, Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites, was released in 2001 by the Amish label to much critical acclaim. As a multi-instrumentalist, he worked in the group Tower Recordings, which released albums on the Siltbreeze and Audible Hiss labels. They were cult icons of the downtown New York scene during the ’90s, with performances that included British folk revival styles meeting Sun Ra-inspired jamming, to all-out noise and improvisation. In August of 2011, Drag City released P.G. Six’s sophomore effort for the label, the very electric, full band effort Starry Mind. Their style might be described as Grateful Dead meets Fairpoint Convention.
The Americana band will pair nicely with Nastasia and P.G. Six. “A cantankerous and drafty two-man ship stationed in Providence, RI, Brown Bird plays original, traditional American music in the best sense possible,” says Professor Charles Booth. “It is music that comes from a context but is not afraid of the context: a living root with a view towards the leaves.” The band warmly layers guitar, banjo, cello, violin, double bass, and more in their their latest full-length effort, Salt for Salt.
The band’s latest release was recorded live to tape in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Booth says the record is the first “to capture the intense energy of the duo’s live show, surging in waves that often swell into high-spirited, foot-stomping madness…[Dave] Lamb and his partner Morgan Eve Swain write simply, and the record is eerily sparse at times – a tambourine, a bass drum and the cello often the sole accompaniment to Lamb’s…cracked, wood-smoke voice…But Brown Bird also know too much to be pure romantics; Lamb’s continual reference to ships clearly come from his years spent working at the shipyard in Warren, RI, just as their arrangements well only from a deep knowledge of the American folk tradition.”
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. at the Peterborough Town Hall. You can purchase tickets for the Saturday night show here or save money with a weekend pass. After the concert, you can cross the street to Harlow’s Pub, where Mail the Horse and Coke Weed will be performing. The Harlow’s concert starts at 10 p.m. and tickets are $5 at the door.
Sunday, June 10
Death to Tyrants . Klessa
The music wraps up on Sunday with an afternoon concert at The Peterborough Historical Society’s Bass Hall.
Many years ago, friends and I crammed into Eric Gagne’s small apartment to listen to New Paltz band L’Hiver jam on their toy instruments. Their light, upbeat sound was enchanting and made the perfect living room concert, so I was excited when Eric informed me that the members of L’Hiver have reformed as the group Klessa. Xylophone, clarinet, and accordion are just a few of the instruments you’ll hear on Sunday afternoon. Klessa’s sound is sprawling, loose, and somewhat unkempt, but what the band may lack in taughtness, they more than make up for with their authenticity and exuberance. These musicians are having fun, and the pleasure is infectious. This is music both you and your kids can enjoy.
Fans of progressive punk band Death to Tyrants will want to be sure to catch Sunday’s concert. Eric Gagne, Randy Patrick, Ben Rogers, Paul Gagne, and Ian Logan haven’t played together since 2006, so this reunion concert will be a treat for fans.
Death to Tyrants and Klessa can be seen at The Peterborough Historical Society at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 10th. Tickets are $7. You can purchase advance tickets for the show here or purchase a weekend pass.
*Broke the Affordable Arts Fair
From 10-4 on Saturday be sure to stop by *broke at the Town Hall in Peterborough, where more than 50 artists will be selling work for under $50. *Broke is a welcome relief from the traditional, tired craft fairs held in basements and church halls all over New England. The work here is more cutting edge than you’re used to seeing at regional fairs, and you’ll find established artists, as well as younger, emerging artists, who have been selected from a wide-range of applicants.
I’ve been attending *broke for several years now and always leave with something unique in my bag. You’ll find everything from letterpress books, terrariums, handmade jewelery, ceramics, photography, collage, handmade retro-aprons (from Sarah Taylor), and much, much more. Artist Mary Goldthwaite-Gagne is the organizing force behind *broke. The quality of the work only seems to improve each year, and the event has become a much-anticipated, regional favorite.
One of the *broke artists I’ve been following with interest is Megan Bogonovich, who turns the familiar cliches of ceramics into unique, whimsical sculptures. I’m particularly fond of her all-white, clay pieces of animals. It’s the perfect blending of medium, humor, and charm. Her work pokes fun at kitsch, while somehow managing to transcend it.
Some of the other work that caught my eye while perusing the line-up include Miss Olivia Kennett‘s striking collages, the handmade work of textile artist and garden designer Emily Drury, Mary Remington’s handmade china cups, and Lillian Helen Graham‘s vintage tin jewelry. Also, for the first time, the Western New York Book Arts Center will be selling letterpress posters and small press poetry books at *broke.
Admission to *broke is free. Stop by the affordable arts fair at the Peterborough Town Hall, eat lunch in town, and check out Jem Cohen’s films next door at the Historical Society while you’re in the neighborhood. *Broke ends at 4 p.m., but Jem Cohen’s films will be on view until 5 p.m.
New Work by Artist Luke Ramsey
Artist Luke Ramsey was last in Peterborough in 2005 for a residency at The MacDowell Colony. In a collaboration between Thing in the Spring and the MacDowell Colony’s community outreach program, Luke is returning to Peterborough with a large drawing he’s created especially for the event.
“I’ve completed a series of 33 large heads, with a focus on their eyes,” Ramsey told me over email. “I gave myself eye strain from a previous mural project, and my eyes were messed up for a week. They are fortunately back to normal now. This piece is about my gratitude for vision. It’s also a nod to the diversity that comes together with the Thing in the Spring Festival.”
Luke has collaborated with over 100 different artists to date and exhibits internationally. In 2010 he completed a giant outdoor mural with Josh Holinaty on the John Howard Society building in Edmonton, Canada, 2010. The mural recently won an award of excellence from The City of Edmonton. “Public art to me is more responsibility to an audience,” Ramsey explained. “Personal is a responsibility to myself. I love public art because it’s an opportunity to communicate a message. Personal works lends itself more to exploration.”
Ramsey is also one of the founders of Islands Fold, an artist residency located on Pender Island, B.C, Canada. “It started out as a free of charge artist residency on Pender Island that has hosted 30 artists so far,” said Luke. “It was inspired by a MacDowell residency I had in 2005, and also a way to bring together my love of art and my wife Angela’a love for health and nutrition. We took a break from offering the residencies. This summer we are starting a new chapter for Islands Fold called ‘Part Time Hermit.’ It’ll be a cozy studio in the woods that is available as an artist’s get away.”
Cartoon Cereal Party & Farm Breakfast
Ruth and Dan Holmes of Sunnyfield Farm have been providing the Monadnock region with a quality selection of grass fed meat, raw milk, eggs, vegetables, and more for many years now. Ruth and Dan believe that their sustainable approach to farming improves community health and connection. Sunnyfield cares for its plants and animals with three inseparable commitments: 1) to improve food value; 2) to insure a healthy and humane life for the animals; and 3) to constantly improve the health of the land and soil.
The Thing in the Spring festival is all about community, about getting friends, families, and neighbors off their couches and enjoying conversation, good food, and camaraderie. So call some friends or grab the kids and stop by Harlow’s Pub between 9-1 on Sunday, June 10th. $12 will buy you a full, farm breakfast made with the freshest, local ingredients from Sunnyfield Farm. For $5 you (or the kids) can purchase an all-you-can-eat cereal bowl with your choice of farm fresh milk, whole milk, skim, or soy. Cartoons will be showing on the big screen, so come support your local farmer and bring the whole family along for the fun.
The Peterborough Picture Show
During the festival keep your eyes peeled for Rachelle Beaudoin and Steve Roberge’s red bus. They’ll be doing an improvisational slideshow in their VW. Look for the red bus around town. To learn more about Beaudoin’s multi-media artwork, you can visit her website.
For More Information
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