The Brand New 'festival:festival' Is Aiming to Foster an Intersectional and Accessible Arts Community

Plus: a conversation with UW biology professor Jennifer Nemhauser on bridging botany and art
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On the surface, this weekend’s inaugural festival:festival looks familiar if far from typical. There’ll be music: a triple bill from Bremerton rapper Guayaba, soul musician/sound designer Goodsteph and Olive Jun, who performs “bedroom-centric electro-pop” under the name Lushloss (Lovecitylove, 9 p.m. Friday). There’ll be film: shorts by young filmmakers Hanan Diriye and Kamyar Mohsenin (Northwest Film Forum, 1:30 p.m. Saturday). There’ll be theater: a piece by dance artists David Rue and Randy Ford inspired by Black Dandy fashion and culture (Lovecitylove, 5 p.m. Saturday)—plus a vendors’ market, a photobooth and more, all free.

But here’s one big difference: Festival founders Juan Franco and Carl Lawrence and curators Mario Lemafa, Sara Porkalob and Amina Maya—who themselves work in a wide spectrum of art genres and inter-genres—are here prioritizing support for artists exploring intersectional identities and from historically exploited communities.

And here’s another: Its ambitious and laudable mission—“to create vibrant spaces through creative frameworks of empowerment, healing, and intentionality with the goal of building a sustainable and accessible arts community”—is also part of a move by one of its two hosting venues, Northwest Film Forum, to expand its scope (it’s turning into an even more wide-ranging arts hub—a more “vibrant space”— on a rapidly gentrifying Capitol Hill that’s pricing out its artists).

As for the “healing” aspect of its mission, that’ll be represented by what is probably the festival’s most surprising and unusual offering: UW biology professor Jennifer Nemhauser’s workshop called Germination Necklaces: an opportunity to create your own plant-based wearable art. She and her lab assistants (the “Nemlings”) research plants’ ability to respond to their environment via cellular receptors and chemical signals—plant behavior, if you will. We asked Prof. Nemhauser about her workshop, what plants can teach us and how she built a bridge from botany to art:

Could you let us know how you got involved with this festival?

Mario Lemafa is one of the curators of this year’s festival [and] he was an artist-in-residence in my lab last winter. While we were meeting to discuss the installation of a piece inspired by that experience and an accompanying talk (both taking place in October this year), Mario was telling me about festival.festival, and his intention to curate on the theme of restorative and healing tactics. As one of Mario’s major interests while in my lab was on indigenous science practices particularly around medicinal plants, our conversation turned to the ways modern urban life can isolate people from plant life and the consequences of this alienation. This led us to the idea of the Germination Necklaces workshop. I think of it as an activity that sits at a blurry intersection between art and science. 

Is this a workshop you’ve offered elsewhere before?

I have not offered this workshop before, but it is based on something that a former trainee of mine (now an Assistant Professor at Whitman College) developed. Dr. Britney Moss and I are part of a larger consortium of five labs across the country (two in Missouri and one in New Jersey) that are working on understanding the development of corn ears and tassels. As part of this effort, we are developing a suite of scientific outreach activities that we use with elementary school students, undergraduates, science enthusiasts and basically anyone who will stand still long enough for us to have a conversation! 

I recently heard a quote from Alan Alda that when scientists talk to the public, it should be more like a game of ping-pong than a game of darts. I really love that idea of a back-and-forth, and would love it even more if we could think of some activity where there was no score and everyone walks away feeling like they have both contributed and learned something. 

What can a person attending your workshop expect—what sorts of plants will you use, and what benefits/effects will participants accrue?

We are using a variety of beans for our workshop. My graduate student, Romi Ramos, picked beans because they are a major source of calories for many subsistence farmers all over the world. They are also among the most vulnerable crops—they are being hard-hit by droughts and higher-than-normal temperatures. To accelerate the germination of the beans, participants will be asked to incubate the necklace near their heart for at least an hour a day. We will encourage people to spend that time thinking about the plants they depend on every day for food, fuel, building materials, medicine, clothes; our incredible good fortune in living in the beautiful green refuge of the Pacific Northwest; and of the interconnectedness of all life on our planet. 

I personally also like to think about what it must be like to be a plant—it would be such a completely alien experience. I think if we can find empathy for a seedling, perhaps we can also find more for one another.

What is the takeaway for festival attendees?

I guess I think that last bit is the most important to me. Plants can be beautiful or gnarly, delicious or poisonous, enormous or microscopic. We are completely dependent on them, but they would be just fine without us. Most of us, most of the time, don’t even see them as we go about our busy lives. This workshop is meant to encourage participants to take a moment to notice and to care and to start asking questions. And to reach out to a local plant biologist to continue the conversation!

Germination Necklaces will be held Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at LoveCityLove, Capitol Hill, 1406 E Pike St.; lovecity.love. Other festival performances and events—all free—will take place at Northwest Film Forum, Capitol Hill, 1515 12th Ave.; 206.329.2629; nwfilmforum.org. For the festival:festival full schedule, see facebook.com/festivalfestival2018 or www.festivalfestival.art.

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