The Art Festival BOOM Charlotte - Scale Architectural and Design Magazine

The Boom in Your Living Room

The Art Festival BOOM Charlotte goes online to rally acts of survival.  By Amiya Hisham

Pic Courtesy Kevin Patterson

Every spring since the last four years, Plaza Midwood, one of those last ‘neighbourhoods’ in Charlotte, North Carolina explodes in a 3-day art fete, with music, art, installations, theatre, and performance. By mid-March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had displaced all known complacency and quarantines seemed here to stay. Excitement had given way to apprehension and dismay as all large scale gatherings were being cancelled across the country. Plaza Midwood stood frigid in anticipation of the 5th annual BOOM art festival.

Charlotte, one of the ‘Queen Cities’ of America was founded by a large group of colonists who were ‘loyalists’ to the British Crown. They named it Charlotte Town, after Queen Charlotte who maintained the title for nearly 60 years and was known as a philanthropist and supporter of the arts. However, the city Charlotte itself has historically shied away from artistic indulgence of any kind. In fact, it has had its own history of segregation, with silo-ed in talents and lack of socio-cultural diversity. But all this had changed in the last decade, as a nascent art scene here gently hummed and buzzed into a vibrant, full-fledged one.

Manoj Kesavan, the founder and executive director of Que-OS - Scale Architectural and Design Magazine

Manoj Kesavan, the founder and executive director of Que-OS. Pic Courtesy Sean Pressley

“What keeps artists in a city is the presence of others like them,” says Manoj Kesavan, the founder and executive director of Que-OS, the non-profit collective of artists who runs BOOM Charlotte. He holds a Master of Architecture degree from Kansas State University and a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Kerala, India. For Manoj, architecture and design have expanded in meaning, that is from being able to merely conceive buildings to be able to construct a different kind of space for the community.  He likes to see himself as a conceptual artist engaged in social practice and believes it is this presence of a collective of artists that precedes any patronage or power in a city.

Creative Collectives as a Natural Response
In 2011, the world over felt a wave of anarchist forces following political turmoil across the globe, ensued by a natural weakening of faith in the institutions that were meant to uphold the welfare of populations. The traditional functions of public space ebbed away, migrating to a newvirtual space. All the social capital built on trust, friendship and collaboration was regained here on a thriving online space, via social networks. Optimistically, according to Manoj this is a “going backto [the social dynamics of] an old village.”

The Art Festival BOOM Charlotte - Scale Architectural and Design Magazine

Dance Project Threads and Shadows. Pic Courtesy Taylor Jones

At the heart of BOOM is a group of local artists brought together by Manoj, who have built and grown together as a community through several initiatives preceding BOOM such as the Point 8 Forum, Pecha Kucha and the non-profit art collective Que-OS also founded by Manoj. The team behind BOOM was officially formed in 2012 through such interactions. Charlotte had historically been lukewarm to risk. Where corporate-funded art had tried and failed, BOOM succeeded, being completely artist-led, without any governmental or institutional support, delivering the community the much-needed cathartic rush.

Unlike in the bigger planned cities, Charlotte still has “crevices and corners and other leftover spaces.” BOOM occupies this kind of void. When the first edition was launched in 2016, it took place in Plaza Midwood, one of the last neighbourhoods that had survived the onslaught of gentrification and it would continue to be the place for BOOM for the coming years, that is, until now.

Experimental, Fringe, Inclusive, Curated?
The creators at BOOM eschew the term ‘curated’ to deliberately disassociate from the traditional connotations of exclusivity. By keeping the selection panel diverse and refreshed each time, and only impeded by the constraint of time and space, the organizers of BOOM try to avoid being gatekeepers of any kind as far as art is concerned. Although BOOM references one of the oldest and largest fringe festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, its content itself is not restricted to the alternative theatre and performances that ‘fringe’ has come to mean. It rather embraces a broader tag of ‘experimental’ and is by default ‘contemporary’ by nature. Over the years, the group has drawn out and brought together a variety of talents. In the past BOOM has had collaborations with several local artists and groups including Taproot, XOXO, Janelle Dunlap,and Quentin Talley to name a few.

The Plaza Midwood neighbourhood has a string of supportive local businesses and the weekend festival usually has a multi-venue format with close to 80 shows. The programme is chunked into different components like BOOM Fringe, BOOM Film and BOOM intersection. Most of the events are free and the small number of ticketed shows ensure the earnings find its way to the artists themselves. Artists who had to previously travel to other cities to showcase their art now acknowledge that BOOM has created a local opportunity to be seen, to connect and collaborate.

Learning from BOOM
By March 2020, it seemed Covid-19 had pushed Manoj Kesavan to pull the plug. However, BOOM did not remain choked or anemic for too long. Since the end of May, following the killing of African American George Floyd, civil unrest ensued. In a matter of weeks, distress and outrage had corralled the American public to the streets with the rallying cry ‘I cannot breathe’. BOOM reemerged in the thick of this very sentiment. Survival is coded into its DNA because of its autonomous grassroots nature. “Unlike [other] organizations that are set in what they do, we are able to adapt quickly,” says Kesavan.In a deft shifting of gears, the event sprang to life on the online space with an open call to create with the tagline BOOM in your Living Room. In a way, although the traditional venue had to be abandoned, the festival became ‘open’ to a public that Plaza Midwood could never hope to contain.

This year, the online BOOM edition has collaborated with BLKMRKTCLT, Charlotte is Creative and The Roll Up CLT, to present the ACT NOW Series in light of recent Black Lives Matter(BLM) protests that continue to sweep Charlotte and the rest of the country. The ACT NOW series comprises 3 parts featuring a number of black artists. Interestingly visual art, spoken word, and other new media saw new light at BOOM online year. In a rare moment in history, transcending the adversity of the times, both viewer and performer engaged with one another from the new locale of their homes.

BOOM displays a certain temerity in reclaiming a space that is not simply material or artistic, but also one that is social, creative and political all at once. One must observe the relative agility and sense of autonomy of young creative collectives such as BOOM, especially in times like these, in that they remind that art is perhaps no more for art’s sake but an act of survival.

To learn more about BOOM and this year’s line up visit: BOOM Charlotte

Pic Courtesy: Dick Costa

Cover Image: Pics Courtesy: Lady Latimore