On the morning of the dawn of Artscape, I walk down the middle of my neighborhood streets. In place of cars there are big white tents, closed and wrapped tightly, like presents. Rows of freshly-installed Bobby’s Potties stand at attention, as yet pure and vestal. Workers in neon green vests run around pushing carts, unloading boxes, tending to a fire hydrant that is inexplicably gushing water into the street. A big bright balloon hovers lazily in the sky, the words “WINE” and “BEER” printed in bold blue letters. On my way to the shuttle stop, which has been confusingly relocated, I look at the empty ferris wheel in its splendid array of colors. Down a few blocks, there is this large inflatable thing of indeterminate form, hazy blobs of red and white.
I cannot wait.
two, three, four
In the rivers of people I keep bumping into those I already know, sometimes literally. I flit back and forth between different configurations of friends who have varying levels of tolerance for Artscape crowds. One such friend has already spent all day at the festival, and he just wants to camp inside the Gamescape area. There are all sorts of indie games on display; our favorite was a variant of the Snake game called “Rock Paper Scissors.” After a while of being shut indoors with pixelated screens and nerd-sweat, I get a bit restless, so I leave and glom onto some other friends of mine to consume street art and street food. Until they start to crack and waver, too, and then everyone disperses for the night. Reluctantly, I head home too.
The following morning, I start to head down to the festival, but a torrential rainshower begins and pours for the better part of an hour. As soon as the showers let up, I emerge. When I reach the borders of the festival, already there is a marching band and dance troupe leading a parade of art cars like beauty pageant contestants: painted in lovely colors, studded with shiny objects and bearing inspirational quotes. I follow the inexorable drumbeat of the band. Somehow, I end up with a corn dog coated entirely in French fries in my hand. I eat it, and I do not go into cardiac arrest.
I’m in an indoor gallery looking at student master’s theses shows, and dimly, I catch a whiff of baked bread. It smells homey and evocative of bakeries, and childhoods. It is coming from a glass box with an air vent; inside the box is a sculpture of a bread machine. Next to the bread machine is a diffuser filled with golden oil. I am impressed, and deeply curious as to how one obtains a fragrance oil that smells exactly like bread baking. Do bakeries use this product to lure customers into their establishments? (This tactic would definitely work on me, by the way.)
The undefined red and white inflatable blobby thing is a water molecule, two hydrogen atoms clinging to oxygen. Inside is empty space, an oasis in the throng. It appears as though they have converted a moon bounce into a hip, exclusive club. There is a posh looking bar with water streaming down the sides; a “bartender” stands attentively behind it. The three taps at the bar are labeled: “Loch Raven,” “Prettyboy,” “Liberty.”
“These are the names of the reservoirs that feed into the city’s water supply,” explained the bartender.
“So do you notice any taste difference?”
“Nah, not really,” he said. “Actually they’re all Loch Raven water, because that’s what feeds into the city’s drinking water. These taps are just representational.”
In the artist-run art fair, there is a little room walled with various types of doors. I peek through a keyhole to see through to the interior furnishings: vertical stacks of window blinds suspended over a rug on the ground.
A man with a handlebar mustache and a leather vest sits on a wooden crate, typing at a vintage typewriter. He is offering to write poetry on the spot for a sawbuck. I fork over the cash and buy a poem, themed after this column’s title. He types it out without really thinking, making typos and errors which are not easily fixed due to the medium.
I walk away with my poem and think about how easy this purchase was, feeling slightly guilty. I’m ashamed to say that I’d be more likely to pay for this “poem on the spot,” than to pay the same amount for established poetry written also by someone I didn’t know, but with (ostensibly) greater care. If I were to contemplate purchasing a book of poetry from a bookstore (or, more likely, the Internet), I would have to look up at least three different reviews of the author’s work before considering it. And even then, I might balk at the cost. Whereas this transaction was fairly disposable for both sides, and therefore with much lower pressure to have “good taste.”
At the PNC Bank booth, there is an inflatable tank with a woman inside. Tickets are blowing around, and she’s trying to catch as many of them as possible.
I have tolerated extreme heat, wandered around and looked at art for a very long time. This being my third Artscape, I now have frames of reference to compare things to. Is this year’s Artscape, overall, tamer than previous years? Things seem watered down, so to speak.
Is the enchantment over? Am I falling out of love with Artscape?
I’m in a dark, hot theater inside a gallery, watching a split screen movie. On the left side, a naked woman smears blood all over her body; on the right side, this same woman smears honey.
I wonder how she is going to wash all of that goo out of her hair?
I meet up with a friend who has a kindred exploratory spirit. We go to a hot dog truck and wait in line behind a couple – a man keeping two huge pit bulls on a leash, and a woman with a neck tattoo. They order four hot dogs: two for themselves and two for the actual dogs.
We spot a woman wearing a fruit hat a la Carmen Miranda; she is pushing a stroller. In the stroller stands a regal Pomeranian wearing a sparkly tiara.
Anywhere we happen to look, there is always something worth looking at.
My friend and I head to “Brocean City,” which is the parking lot reserved for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. We sneak into their performance tent, which is overflowing with audience members. It is 1,000 degrees inside the tent. On stage, people are dancing and singing and rocking out in full head to toe rat costumes.
A little boy in front of me watches, enraptured. His mother – all frayed nerves and hair – screams at him over the music. “Are you done yet?! I’M MELTING.” She grabs him by the arm and drags him out of the tent. I feel tenderness for this budding theatre nerd. It gets better, kid! I want to tell him, and hope it’s true.
The slapdash set wobbles and moves in rhythm to the songs, and then suddenly – a large drop sheet falls to reveal a giant singing rat king puppet, wearing giant light up Kanye glasses. Being a person obsessed with rat king lore, I am filled with unrestrained delight and joy. This is what I had come to Artscape hoping to see, without even knowing it.
On my walk home, in the distance, I see what appears to be a man wearing a Christmas tree for a costume. He is emitting some kind of loud and alarming bird noise. Two French poodles, leashed to a railing, look at him in alarm and then away, their motions perfectly in unison.
I catch up with the man. He explains that his outfit is a Ghillie suit, intended for camouflage. But mostly whenever he wears it, he stands out – dense crowds part way for him whenever he approaches. Around his neck are whistles and harmonicas; he demonstrates several bird calls as we walk.
No, he is not working for Artscape – he just wears the suit for maximum ridiculousness. As we stroll along in the dark, the always-active paranoid part of my brain wonders whether I should be concerned about being lured into some kind of homemade dungeon. But no – Ghillie suit guy is perfectly pleasant, and probably the most Artscapey part of Artscape.
Sunday morning, I finally convince my mom to take a break from constant grocery shopping and come down to the festival, at least for a bit. Her favorite part of the experience is our brief time of sitting in Penn Station, where it is air-conditioned.
I go back to the BROS tent to watch the Rat Show again. As well as all the other shows I have missed. When a costumed rat scampers on stage and titters, I do an actual seal clap.
There’s so much to look at and interact with at any given moment that I’m overwhelmed, but in a happy way. It’s like traveling again. For the span of three days, my neighborhood has been transformed into a tiny temporary country that I can tour in depth. The city is at its most vibrant and alive. The sorrows that plague the city and its infrastructure are not forgotten. But another side of the city shows, a side that doesn’t really get represented outside Baltimore. City tourism board campaign notwithstanding, there is some irresistible charm about this city, dagnabbit. There is a genuine, gleeful insanity embedded in the city.
To quote the inimitable John Waters: “I would never want to live anywhere but Baltimore. You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”
While I myself am not from the South, it had not been my intention to stay here when I arrived, a little over three years ago. I’d just been passing through, on my way to get a job on the other side of planet. But I’d become weary of roaming, and anyway I did not feel up to the task of starting completely over yet again.
It was three years ago, at Artscape, that I fell in love with the city and decided to stick around for awhile.
And here I am.
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.