Elizabeth Reiss was thinking outside the box. But first she needed some boxes -- 10 really big ones.
Reiss, executive director of the Three Rivers Arts Festival, was stung last year by accusations of censorship after a video, by artist Carolina Loyola-Garcia, was removed from a window display at Two PPG Place because it featured female nudity. The work was yanked by the building's management, and the festival had no say on how the donated, privately owned venue was used. (The video was subsequently relocated to the festival's own Downtown gallery.)
Reiss chose not to respond publicly to criticisms from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the local arts community. "My response will be seen in the contents of next year's arts festival," she recalls telling festival staff.
More accurately, her response is visible in what's containing those contents. The biggest innovation in the 2008 festival, which opens Fri., June 6, is 10 shipping containers -- the modules used for transoceanic, rail and truck transport. Reiss has seen them housing art at the huge Art Basel Miami festival, as well as a theatrical performance at Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The containers are gray and metal-skinned, 40 feet long by 8 feet deep and 8 feet wide, and they bear the corporate name "Yang Ming." Collectively, they're the venue for the festival-centerpiece exhibit called Contained.
The containers, which line part of Market Square and Forbes Avenue between Market and Stanwix Street, weren't cheap. Even with donated services including transport from Cleveland by Pitt-Ohio Trucking, acquiring them cost about $90,000 -- no small part of the fest's $1.3 million budget. Reiss calls the initiative "a massive risk."
But the approach has at least one big upside. Unlike space borrowed from a private owner, "It's my space," says Reiss: The artists alone will determine what goes inside.
The 10 artists in Contained, co-produced with Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, include such local names as Pati Beachley, Adrienne Heinrich and Robert Raczka, and emerging artists including Joshua Space. The artists were chosen from an open call -- a conscious switch from the festival's typical curated approach. The containers will also serve as the setting for a site-specific dance work by Attack Theatre, five performances of "The Heist."
But ironically, given the concept's origin in a free-expression controversy, the art itself is more likely to inspire contemplation than shock. Raczka's photo essay, "Time Sequence," consists of 100 prints of images made at night in Market Square. Ryan Keene's contribution is based on technical drawings from an old U.S. Steel Building, amended with original artwork and sound; Anna E. Mikolay offers a Zen tea garden. None of the work, says Reiss, is explicitly political. Is that a sign of the times? "There's all this retreat," says Reiss. Moreover, she jokes, "Nobody wanted to be naked!"
Nudity, however, is part of Take Me Out, the award-winning baseball coming-out drama that is TRAF's biggest stage production ever. (See preview, page xx.)
Otherwise, the 49th annual fest will resemble what attendees saw last year. The event's longtime home in Point State Park will once again be off-limits due to ongoing renovations -- one reason Reiss cites for last year's significant drop in attendance, from an estimated 600,000 to 450,000. (Another likely reason was construction on I-376, which is why the festival is promoting public transit more than ever.) But thanks to the rescheduling of Port Authority construction work, the TRAF main stage returns to Stanwix Triangle, where it will showcase music acts including Maceo Parker, New York Dolls, The Holmes Brothers, Shelby Lynne and closing-night headliner Alejandro Escovedo.
Market Square, meanwhile, features live music too, plus such attractions as artist Nathan Green's interactive-playground creation "Dream Machine" and a June 21 staging of Tom Sarver's Art Olympics.
The festival is also getting greener, with stepped-up recycling efforts for stuff like water bottles, and all-compostable food-service waste. In a year when organizers are already testing a new way to exhibit art, that will just add to the challenge. "We've kind of gone insane," says Reiss. "We went for broke this year."
Three Rivers Arts Festival Noon-9:30 p.m. daily (performances); and noon-8 p.m. daily (artists market and indoor exhibits), Fri., June 6-June 22. Various venues, Downtown. All outdoor and most indoor programs are free. 412-281-8723 or www.artsfestival.net