A few weeks ago, I went to the Walker Art Center on a very busy night. A few new exhibitions had just opened; the Fritz Haeg residency was coming to an end; there was a live DJ; it was only the first snow of the season and the roads were still clear; admission was free. I walked through hundreds of people dancing and drinking to the pulsing DJ set. I elbowed my way through a crowd to see Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s work. When I finally made it up to the real reason I came, the Lucky Dragons immersive/participatory experience/performance on the crocheted rug at the heart of Fritz Haeg’s At Home in the City, it was quiet. People spoke in hushed tones, looked and read intently, gathered on the rug to crochet scarves and sweaters and commune over what they had brought. A small circle at one side of the rug sat with ribbon-like instruments, holding them to activate various sounds that morphed as you touched another person, formed chains with the others holding the ribbons, alternated who held the ribbons and where they were in the circle.
I had a great time at the Walker, but there was something missing, something that I had experienced the last time I saw Lucky Dragons. At that time, I was immersed in a basement full of people completely in sync with one another, aware of our bodies without speaking as we shaped the immersive sound and videoscape that enveloped us. Lucky Dragons eliminates the line between musician and audience, yet the people playing on the crocheted rug were not completely present. They were transient, ready to move on, to be pulled in the hundreds of other directions the busy night offered. Even the people who lingered the longest, who invited onlookers to join the circle, to commune with touch and sound, to experiment with creating the atmosphere of the room, could not make the circle hold. The Walker was incredibly successful at drawing people in to experience the multitude of events that night. The engagement I had hoped for, however, was pulled in the many directions of those events, and I was left wanting to find it in other ways.
I went to the Artists’ Quarter last weekend to hear Happy Apple. The crowd had braved subzero temperatures for a standing room only show, and Happy Apple delivered what we had come to hear. They were in their stride before they began and ran further and faster than we could believe. They drew out their songs, opening doors through even their most bombastic pieces into quiet, minimal moments that never ended. They defied time, asking us to make the fleeting minutes we were together last all night, embodying the desire of everyone jammed in the tight, dark basement to keep that basement open forever. As we slowly peeled away at the end of the night, we knew we could not stop the Artists’ Quarter from closing at the end of the year after decades of supporting young, experienced, local, and touring groups, but we were united in a joyful, music-filled affirmation of its power and importance.
Dave King, the drummer for Happy Apple and many other groups, recently spoke about the importance of quiet in music venues, the difficulty of playing and listening over the clank of caesar salads and clumsy servers, the noise of crowds and busy bars, the incessant distractions of large venues. The Artists’ Quarter, however, provides “the environment to hear and play [...] music without those interruptions.” Every show I have seen at the Artists’ Quarter has been quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Everyone from the front of the stage to the back of the bar is there to listen, watch, completely engage with musicians. It is powerful and humbling to see musicians and audiences connect so deeply.
At the Happy Apple show, in that basement with no distractions, with nothing else pulling the crowd away, I found the engagement that I missed at the Walker. Everyone left the Artists’ Quarter energized, amazed, and lamenting the loss of a great venue, an invaluable resource for artists and audiences, a place that will be sorely missed not just because it will be harder to see the musicians they supported but also because the loss of any arts venue is a loss to the entire arts ecosystem. King reminds us, “Whenever a place for art outside the commercial paradigm is lost, it becomes harder to sustain the more progressive stuff found off the straight and narrow.” We all know that to be true, but we must sometimes be reminded. We can only hope that reminder does not come too late.
Go to the Walker, support its programs, but go to the Artists’ Quarter too. We need both big and small art institutions, places to hold thousands of people and others to allow for moments of intimate engagement, venues where everyone can find something and others where a few can find a once in a lifetime experience. The Artists’ Quarter has shows through the end of the month. If you are not in Saint Paul, go to your own local arts venues big and small; they need your presence too.