It doesn’t take long for Paint the Town Red event chair Scott Pierce to summon up at least one good reason why the outdoor digital art festival held each year in downtown Birmingham is special.
“We have art that’s 40 feet high,” Pierce says. “To see these pieces, you have to stand back, crane your head and look up. You’re almost engulfed by the color and the sound and the lights.”
About 3,000 people went downtown in 2011 to check out this intriguing spectacle, which features digitally created art, animation and experimental film projected on the exterior walls and windows along Second Avenue North in the Loft District.
PTTR – a fundraiser for the Jefferson Shelby Chapter of the American Red Cross – returns for a fourth annual installment this Saturday, April 14, from 5 p.m. to midnight.
Among the participants will be about 25 digital artists, including amateurs, students and professionals, who will use trees, streets, buildings, temporary structures and even automobiles as canvases.
In addition to compelling visual images, PTTR will offer DJs, bands and other street entertainers, as well as food and arts and crafts vendors.
The idea for PTTR came from Kevin Burke, who worked in fundraising for the Red Cross in Birmingham and is now the agency’s chief regional support officer. He was inspired after attending the Digital Graffiti Festival in Alys Beach, Fla., an event which its organizers tout as “the world’s first projection art festival.”
The technique of projecting images on available surfaces in urban environments is often referred to as “photon bombing,” “guerrilla projection” or “urban projection.”
Artists have used the technique for more than a decade, but PTTR is among the few events in the world to showcase it.
The judges at PTTR select work that has been submitted to the festival in three categories: animation and digitally altered experimental film (moving images); digitally rendered images, graphic art and digitally manipulated photography (still images); and site-specific installations, including projections on non-traditional surfaces, such as water or fabric.
The event seems to be gradually attracting some attention for Birmingham in the digital art community nationally and internationally, according to visual arts chair Celeste Laborde. “Thanks to the Internet and Facebook, word is slowly spreading, and I think we’re growing each year,” she says.
Artists will include Alessio Rutigiano from Italy. His entry, “Leaving Home,” is a “non-linear, digitally manipulated short film,” according to Laborde. “It’s kind of done in the style of an old silent movie with a very modern visual twist,” she says.
Jamie Walters from Pittsburgh, Pa., has two entries. “Culture as Commodity,” according to Laborde, is an “animated kaleidoscope loop” that was exhibited in the Internet pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious contemporary art exhibition in Italy.
Walters’ “Space Odyssey” is a digital video piece that Laborde says is reminiscent of the film, Planet of the Apes, and features a Neanderthal man beating a pig skeleton. But the distinctive feature of “Space Odyssey” is the way it tricks the viewer, according to Laborde.
“To watch the piece, you think the computer is buffering, because the buffering timeline will pop up, but it’s really not,” she says. “It speaks highly to how dependent we all are on technology.”
David Montgomery of Fernandina Beach, Fla., will show “Zombie Dragonfly Discotheque.” According to Laborde, the artist calls his entry a “reanimation of green dragonflies” that passed through northeast Fla. and says it was inspired by a childhood spent collecting insects and by such cartoons as Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
Two students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh – Laurie Shapiro, a mixed-media artist, and Daniel Sabio, a musician – will present an installation titled “My Grandmother’s Womb.”
Local artists will include Karen Graffeo, Randy Gachet and festival regular Jean-Jacques Gaudel, who is collaborating on no less than three installations with Randy Crow. “They are awesome and crazy, and I love their dedication,” Laborde says of Gaudel and Crow.
The pair will rework a piece they did at PTTR in 2011, a projection that perfectly mapped the contours of a large building on Second Avenue, as well as offering sophisticated 3-D map projections on two automobiles – a Honda Odyssey and a Mini Cooper.
According to Pierce, who is also director of technology at Intermark Interactive and curator of the WhyBHM web project, “We’re actually pushing the boundaries – not just huge, flat surfaces, but we’re taking different surfaces and experimenting and playing with them.”
All of this boundary pushing carries some risks for the artists, especially given some of PTTR’s built-in logistical challenges. According to Pierce, artists design their pieces inside computers, and the night of the event may be the first time that the artists are able to see their pieces at full size. “It makes for some nervous artists, but also some really amazing art,” he says.
“It’s hard because [with] digital art there’s such a wide range of things that people can do, and it’s all so new,” Pierce says. “There’s not a lot of history behind this form, this medium. A lot of people are trying to figure out how to make it work and how to connect with people.”
The heart of PTTR is found in a 44-foot-tall geodesic dome with over 1,500 square feet of space. The night of the event, the dome becomes a gathering spot and the site of a dance party, with DJs spinning funk, drum and bass, and other genres. Also appearing in the dome will be Birmingham hip hop group Green Seed, which is beginning to receive national attention.
PTTR recently announced that a phenomenon called “silent disco” will be part of the activities in the dome. Beginning at 10 p.m. Saturday, PTTR – in order to reduce the event’s noise level in the Loft District – will offer attendees the chance to dance to music broadcast by DJs to wireless headphones.
Pierce says on the event web site that he first witnessed “silent disco” at the Bonnaroo music festival and tells Weld he is looking forward to seeing it at PTTR. “Part of me wants to get headphones and dance, and part of me wants to sit back and watch 100 people dance in silence,” he says.
The dome will also serve as a place to see more digital art, including projections by Katie and John Gaiser. “We project inside the dome and so it’s really an immersive experience,” according to Pierce, who says that he found the dome to be perhaps his favorite part of PTTR in 2011.
“To go into the dome and be surrounded by this atmosphere of music, color, art, kinetic energy… It’s almost a sensory overload that really hooked me into the event overall. This year, in planning this and trying to take it to the next step, I hate to use the word ‘assault,’[but] we wanted to give a sense of sensory overload. Every sense should be touched.”
PTTR will also feature nearly 20 other musical acts, including funk, hip hop, indie and progressive rock, and singer-songwriters, from 7 p.m. to midnight. Performers will include Terry Ohms (a side project for Wes McDonald of the band Vulture Whale), The Clay States, Jesse Payne, The Cancers and Pyrite Parachute.
There will also be about 15 art and crafts vendors.
And the money raised at the festival stays in the Birmingham area to support the operations of the local Red Cross, Pierce says.
The agency, according to its web site, provides blood services; disaster relief, including help for families affected by such events as house fires; health and safety classes; community education, including fire safety and disaster preparedness workshops; and workplace safety training, including first aid and CPR training.
“The range of services they provide is just astounding,” says Atticus Rominger, former chairman of PTTR. For example, he says the Red Cross can serve as a link during emergencies between people serving in the military overseas and their families stateside.
PTTR 2012 has a special significance for the Red Cross as the state of Alabama approaches the one-year anniversary of the horrific storms last April, according to Rominger.
“This is an opportunity for the Red Cross to reach out and re-engage with the people who came out in full force last year to help their neighbors,” he says. “The needs were great, but the needs are great everyday with fires and things like that. It is a way to re-engage and get people involved again.”
According to Rominger, while other Red Cross chapters do fundraisers called Paint the Town Red, none of them use the innovative mix of music, performance and digital art featured here. “This is an event that was dreamed up and born right here in Birmingham,” Rominger says.
Is PTTR becoming an established event locally? “We’re enjoying a lot more name recognition,” Rominger says. “Every year we have a much larger base of people who have been to the event, and they get it.”
Pierce says that the event’s uniqueness can make it a bit of a tough sell initially.
“I’m not sure that there’s anything else quite like it,” he says. “It makes us a little bit difficult for us. It’s not something that everybody knows about, that’s part of the mainstream consciousness. We have to do a little explaining. But once people come and see what it’s like, they come back the next year.”
Paint the Town Red, a fundraiser for the Jefferson Shelby Chapter of the American Red Cross, will take place Saturday, April 14, from 5 p.m.-midnight, on Second Avenue North in the Loft District downtown. Admission is $15. Ticketing and the main entrance will be located on 23rd Street, between Second and Third avenues north. For more information – including details on participating artists, musicians and vendors, as well as performance times and venues – visit www.paintthetownredbham.com.