How to keep a festival fringe? Turn viewers into participants

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How to keep a festival fringe? Turn viewers into participants

If you’re looking forward to an exclusive, aloof event with Zen-poem-citing indie-film-loving hippies and grungy artists expounding on the evil of all things commercial, don’t bother with this year’s 9th Seoul Fringe Festival. Although the festival, which is aimed at embracing Korea’s independent art movements and artists, hopes to keep its “fringe” factor intact, the organizers are looking for ways to reach a wider audience and make the event more interactive by using music, dance, theater and art.
“This year, for the first time, we will be including pre-festival events,” said Choe Suna, a co-director of the Seoul Fringe Network. The network has been holding the Seoul Fringe Festival since it first appeared in 1998, when it was called “The First Indie Festival.”
The emphasis for this year is turning spectators into participants. For instance, in the “Arts Playground” segment of the festival’s preliminary stage, residents who live in northwest Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood, in which the festival will take place, are able to participate in an event with family members or friends making recycled goods into artistic or useful objects. The event, which started on June 25, has been held every Sunday; this Sunday will be its last day.
The festival has also chased after the crowd ― literally ― in the “Door-to-Door Fringe Delivery Service” section of what is labelled the “pre-festival,” in which a five-ton truck carrying a small-scale street performance cruised through the streets of downtown Seoul on July 25 and 26.
Given that Korean society is still relatively conservative, the Seoul Fringe Network views the ninth festival as a milestone to be proud of ― many smaller-scale, independent festivals in Korea struggle to get started, and struggle even more to keep going. The festival started in the Daehangno area in 1998, with 84 artistic groups and individuals performing in 10 venues in the area and drawing an estimated 50,000 visitors.
In 2001, it changed its name and moved to Hongdae. “That was the hardest year for the fringe network, because we had to arrange the festival in a different way. Although the festival started out with a lot of interest from cultural organizations and artists, as well as the general public, there were limits to what we could do in the Daehangno area as a festival that included independent, experimental artists,” Ms. Choe said. She added, however, that the number of visitors shot up to 80,000 from 50,000; the number of participants also rose (184 groups and individuals to 421). Those increases she said, “made our hard work worthwhile.”
This year’s slogan is “Indie-odyssey,” which, according to festival organizers, means exploring the boundaries of art. “We wanted our audiences to find enjoyment and celebratory things for themselves, to dive into this festival without prejudgments,” Ms. Choe said.
The 17-day event starts in earnest today (though the “pre-festival” events, such as “Arts Playground,” have been going on for weeks now), offering a contemporary mixture of performing genres, including a punk rock musical, modern gayageum (a Korean zither) and musical mono-drama (a one-person performance) alongside the more typical forms of musical performances and contemporary dance.
There will be four main parts to the festival: the Performing Arts Festival, Street Festival, Music Festival and Visual Arts Festival. The Performing Arts Festival will feature such acts as a violin performance by Trolle, a musical theater group; the performance “A Rocker’s Confession in His Pants” by the group Normal Picnic, and the single-actor drama “Love Songs,” performed by Cyril Wong, from the independent cultural organization Substation from Singapore. The music festival will include acts from each of the 15 live-music clubs that the festival network uses as venues, including the clubs Rolling Stones, Bbang and Geek Funk Funky-House.
The visual arts segment uses nine alternative spaces and galleries to showcase art from young, up-and-coming artists.
The art has a wide range of influences, including Andy Warhol, Picasso, Monet and Lichtenstein. In an exhibition titled “Psycho Diary” at Gallery Skape, 22 artists show off work delving into the state of mind of the modern urbanite ― and judge it delirious. In “Fantasy,” also showing at Gallery Skape, the six artists guide visitors through a dark, fantasy-like environment populated by dolls.
The street festival, one of the most important parts of this year’s event, revolves around the “fringe street,” a stretch of road through the Hongdae area that will feature small concerts by indie musicians, mimes, short skits and dance performances. Eighty-four groups will put on about 310 performances.
The organizers say they also hope exchanges with independent cultural organizations in Asia contribute to the festival. “From 2001, we have been trying to have active exchange programs with other fringe festivals in Asia,” Ms. Choe said. There are more cultural exchanges this year, she pointed out, than before. This year’s festival features the dance theater company Step Out, from the Macao Fringe Festival, and the Hong Kong artist Kum Chi-keung, among other acts.
With all these international exchange programs and plans for expansion, how will the festival retain its independent spirit? “The festival was not intended to be a ‘mania festival.’ It just started as a festival to give a voice to both young artists trying to do something new and independent, and to audience members who were thirsty to see something unique and experimental,” Ms. Choe said. “We don’t want to exclude anyone from the festival, which is why we set up the art market and door-to-door truck event as a way to promote this inviting image. We want everyone to feel welcome and be able to mingle with the crowd.”

by Cho Jae-eun
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