Matt Arnold (matt_arnold) wrote,
Matt Arnold

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Roll With It: FestiFools 2013

This was the most noteworthy of all FestiFools in which I have participated. The differences were pretty interesting, so I'm writing about it. I didn't make a puppet of my own this year, and decided to help out as a volunteer puppet operator.

I went with Adrienne, who some of you may know from conventions and others may know from i3Detroit hacker space. We went to a pre-meeting last weekend. Some of the central organizers for the event are new this year. One of them gave a description for an elaborate choreography that they were going to try to introduce. The very idea of choreography struck me as a bit out-of-place, given that the theme of the event is chaos and spontaneity, which has always been pretty fun. But in reality, the spirit of Festifools is not so much "chaos and spontaneity" as "whatever happens, roll with it, and see what emerges". So I rolled with it.

On the day of the event, we showed up a little bit later for setup than anticipated. After we signed in for volunteering, the organizer had to pause and give some thought to which puppets needed more operators. That was unusual, in that normally they have been starved for puppeteers.

One of the event organizers teaches an art class at the university of Michigan, and this class produces most of the puppets for Festifools. We were directed to what the organizer called "that grid thing over there". The artist who made that grid thing over there was one of the students. The artist was on the phone, and attempted to have half a conversation with us until I suggested that we discuss it when the call was complete.

The grid thing was a cage with a multitude of mannequin arms which were painted brown. After the phone call, the artist explained the message of the artistic thesis, concerning the perpetuation of slavery into the modern day. We were introduced to a paper-mache head that the artist had made to come out of the top of the cage. It was a blackface caricature, with googly-eyes and big red clown lips. To the cage were attached large cartoony paper-mache shackles which we were to wear over our necks.

"Are you OK with your mouths being duct-taped shut?"

"This doesn't look like it's a lot of fun", I said. "Is it intended to be a fun part of the festivities?"

"No, it's not fun. We're going to operate these arms in a way that expresses grieving and desperate fear."

"I'm not sure I know how to do that in a way that would get across your vision. I'm really good at giving a light-hearted or comical performance, but I might not be the right performer for this." I did not also say that I don't want to be guilty of cultural appropriation as a privileged white heterosexual male, pretending to be part of an aggrieved party, while benefiting from oppression.

The blackface minstrel show artist was really cool about it. We went back to the event organizer to see if I could be assigned to a different art project and the artist could recruit a different random stranger to use insulting stereotypes to promote social justice in an April Fool's Day parade.

After being directed to several puppets whose artists told me they were full up, we finally landed in a puppet troupe centered around a performer who carried a huge melting clock. Another carried a replica of the face of Salvador Dali. Each other member of the troupe carried a pole bearing a paper mache blob. I had the good fortune to carry the only other recognizable object: a human ear. The artist explained that when aligned in front of the clock he was carrying, these blobs would form up into a recognizable approximation of a human face, inspired by the surrealist style of Salvador Dali.

We were instructed to keep the pieces separated and show no connection until instructed to assemble. Until that time, this puppet had to be explained to the crowd by the artist shouting at them.



Fortunately, when we performed our Voltron-like assemblage, the face emerged and there was much applause.

One part of this artist's vision was for us to suddenly hand out our parts of the puppet to random onlookers in the crowd. We had been carrying the puppet pieces for about fifteen minutes when he called upon us to do this. "Roll with it", I thought, and immediately held out the pole with the ear, and asked the audience who wanted it. About a dozen hands raised eagerly. Unfortunately, one hundred percent of the hands were that of children. I gave the ear to the nearest child, who was the first to respond. You can guess what happened next. Her parental unit didn't want to be dragged into the parade, and wouldn't let her wander off. I pointed out to the artist that the ear was still poking out of the crowd about a block behind us. The artist thought that was fine.

Adrienne similarly divested herself of her puppet part, as instructed. No one else had rolled with it. The two of us followed our assigned group, not as puppeteers, but just a couple of people wandering through the middle of the parade for no apparent reason. So I took some pictures. I had been a parade participant for probably twenty minutes, tops.

Soon a drum beat started up, and the artist said we should all conga, so I rolled with it. Once again, Adrienne and I were the only ones who followed his instruction. It was as if no one else heard him at all. So we all stopped.

I'm not sure what happened to the choreography that guy planned out for the overall procession. If anyone enacted it, I didn't notice. But that's fine! Each FestiFools is a more vivacious spectacle than the last, and this one was no exception. The lesson learned this year is to once again make my own puppet for FestiFools 2014, or at least, to not be late and get stuck with the last pick of the puppets.
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