At dusk on the autumnal Equinox, Valeska Populoh watches as two African-American men wearing lanterns on their heads sit high up on big-hooved horses. She turns back toward the crowd as the horses start to walk, turning to follow the shiny black buggies, drawn by horses and done up in what comes across as a Victorian splendor, making their way through Tyson Alley behind Current Space toward Saratoga Street. In all there are about eight Arabbers on horses or in horse-drawn vehicles. They're riding along with several motorized vehicles outfitted as floats with luminescent paper sculptures on their roofs—an owl, a dodecahedron, and a strange three-sided figure.
Daniel Van Allen, who is the president of the Arabber Preservation Society and an organizer of the Transmodern Festival (and happens to be dressed like the board-game rabbit Uncle Wiggily), made the floats and brought the Arabbers to the Love Parade—this year called the Twilight Parade, organized by Fluid Movement, Laure Drogoul, and Populoh, who is presently telling the couple hundred people bedecked in masks, feathers, hats, balloons, and flashing lanterns which they have constructed through the day, to walk to the left.
"The horses will be on the right in the alley," she says. "Try to stay on the sidewalk." I stand beside her a moment, trying to imagine what she sees as the floats, and the horses, and the darting, weaving lights atop Merry Prankster-looking costumes bob their way by the hundreds through the evening light of the alley, as the Barrage Band starts with a marching song that swings like New Orleans, all of it poised in the precise moment between day and night, summer and fall.
"Transmodern's always been in between," she says. "In between genres, in the between spaces, in between states, and it seemed like a perfect in-between time to have the parade." It also fit the year's Underworld theme.
Transmodern, now in its 11th year, has in recent years been celebrated in the spring—last year's parade played on the name of the decrepit but beautiful Mayfair Theater across the street from Current Space and ended with a Maypole dance in the gallery's parking lot.
Not only has the festival moved to the fall, it has also extended over the course of an entire week, instead of only a weekend, with the Twilight Parade kicking it off instead of ending it, and events continuing through this Saturday night. The parade feels festive, though, coming on the heels of the High Zero Festival, which concluded barely 12 hours earlier with a dance party in the H&H building right across the street from Current Space, there was a bit of concern that people would be burnt out.
In many ways, the schedule change is a return home for the Transmodern Festival, which, according to founder Catherine Pancake, grew out of the High Zero festival and specifically its early reluctance to embrace performance art. Drawing on many of the same kinds of performers as High Zero, Transmodern was able to create an important role and identity for itself as a cutting-edge festival of all things experimental, but especially radical performances (For an oral history of Transmodern see "An inside look at the festival that transformed Baltimore's arts community, from the people who built it," Feature, May 1, 2013). And if there was a fear of avant-garde fatigue in moving the festival on the heels of High Zero, it seems as if the opposite happened as the illuminated parade of energized enthusiasts wraps from Saratoga onto Euclid Street, where it occupies more than a city block with ecstatic dancing, while Fluid Movement's brigade of yellow-haired fraulein-esque crossing guards stops traffic with "YIELD LOVE" signs.
Laure Drogoul, the festival's primary organizer, walks up beside artist Lania D'Agostino, who is wearing a parade marshall's hat, and a young woman wearing a skirt made of Barbie dolls as the parade halts at a red light. "We're always cobbling and working and tinkering and creating a cultural infrastructure," Drogoul said a couple days earlier at a Mount Vernon coffeeshop. "Though you may have galleries at mainstream spaces, at Transmodern we like to celebrate between the cracks."
Transmodern's expansion comes at an appropriate time for the increasingly ambitious Bromo Arts District, within whose boundaries the festival takes place. Though Station North has been such an important part of the arts dialogue over the last couple years, Transmodern, which will occupy Current, SubBasement Studios, EMP, and the 14Karat Cabaret in MAP's Saratoga Street building, could act as a flagship to attract far more attention to the Bromo District, whose director, Priya Bhayana, is also one of the organizers of the festival. The Bromo District and PNC Bank helped fund this year's festival with a $10,000 Transformative Arts Grant, making the expanded programming—and payment for artists—possible.
Though the Bromo District wants to help the festival as much as possible while also using it to engage residents, Bhayana is reluctant to take too big a role. "There's a delicate balance of not wanting to ruin a perfectly wonderful, uniquely Baltimore thing by trying to make it something that it isn't," she says. "That's a delicate balance that arts districts face in general. Promoting, but not affecting, the unique level of artistic production that happens with something like Transmodern."
Before the parade, as people made the masks and hats and costumes and lanterns with which they are now marching, Anna R-G and Ruby Fulton (with whom, full disclosure, I have often collaborated on music projects) led groups of festival-goers around the Mayfair Theater with radios that pick up recordings they made of passersby, Billie Holiday songs, and interviews barely a block north of the three buildings at 408-414 N. Howard St. which several theater groups, including EMP Collective, will soon begin to renovate, bringing a lively theater scene back to Howard Street.
Listening to Billie Holiday's voice crackle over static-filled radios, it was difficult not to think of the festival's Underworld theme: It sounds like ghosts trying to break through all the electronic static of the modern world in a physical space suspended between two times.
Drogoul was thinking of the transitional nature of the area when she came up with the theme. "Also I've been working on a shadow play [called 'Penelope'] with Lurch and Holler," Drogoul says of the theme. "There's a section in Hades, so I was really interested in that state of consciousness, unconsciousness, like is it hell? It really is this limbo state, which is of course a state of chaos, turmoil, disruption. It's like molten lava, it's never earth. So I thought the underworld worked."
In addition to "Penelope," there are dozens of other otherworldly performances this week, including Sophia Mak's exploration of speech "Tongue Tied," dance performances by Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren, and all sorts of unclassifiable, interdisciplinary performances by both local and international artists, such as Carrie Fucile and Dan Zink, Paul Shortt, Theresa Columbus, and others. Local artist Megan McShea is hosting literary performances and CP columnist Lexie Mountain will present "The Christopher Hitchens Memorial Comedy Night and Ice Cream Social."
But, for many, the parade is the focal point of the festival, its free "all ages show" as Drogoul puts it, which can engage with people who are not part of the Transmodern community. "I read a book this summer that I shared with Laure," says Populoh, who, along with Drogoul, hopes to make the parade much larger in the future. "The Barbara Ehrenreich book 'Dancing in the Streets,' which is about collective joy, which cuts right to the core of why this is so important. It's a way for people to gather and to celebrate using music and motion of their body to transcend their own little moment of their mortal coil. Collective ecstasy."
The city, however, denied Transmodern a permit for the parade, which, though blocking the sparse traffic on Eutaw, is receiving enthusiastic support from people lining the sidewalks.
"When the street permit was denied it seems emblematic of what we're celebrating," Populoh says. "It seems so strange to me that in a city that has language around how to build the cultural fabric of the city and how to have arts in the city would deny a permit to a community-artist-organized parade on a Sunday afternoon that is taking place in a part of the city that isn't heavily trafficked."
"They sort of denied it," Drogoul adds. "They just said they couldn't do it because they didn't have the infrastructure of the security."
"Even working with the Downtown Partnership, I still don't understand why we didn't get that permit," Bhayana says. "It did prohibit the curators and artists from thinking even bigger."
Still, as the parade takes up over a block on Euclid Street, as the revelers prepare to turn onto Baltimore Street by EMP, the police pull up—and instead of breaking up the parade, they help direct a bus between the Barrage Band and various marchers and another car stopped at the light.
A few moments later, people are flooding into the collective's old bank building where the band is joyously blasting 'This Little Light of Mine' and a woman on stilts dances.
"We made it," Populoh, dressed in a blue hat, says to Drogoul standing outside."It was a lot of people, a long way without a permit."
"I thanked the cop," says Drogoul in her long blue dress and tinfoil hat.
"I did too," says Populoh. "I shook his hand."
And, in fact, the officers are still sitting in a car across the street, watching, as one of the Arabbers waves while his tall white horse does a trotting dance and prances off after the other horses and the carriages as they disappear into the darkness of autumn.