Plex Arts Fest Brings Delight and Chaos to the Old North End | Visual Art | Seven Days

click to enlarge "Suspended" by Renee Greenlee (detail) - COURTESY

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  • “Suspended” by Renee Greenlee (detail)

This Saturday night, May 25, Old North Enders in Burlington can see something lighting up the horizon. No, not the aurora borealis but an event that promises its own kind of spectacle: the Plex Arts Fest.

Some 120 indie artists will present art, film, video, installation, music, performance and interdisciplinary works from about 5 p.m. until after midnight. The festival’s venues around Archibald Street and North Winooski Avenue include Junktiques, Tank Recording Studio, Despacito Bar and Kitchen, and the parking lot of Ratsmission; part of Archibald Street will be closed to traffic for the event.

The Plex fest, which debuted last year, was born out of what organizer Sam Kann and others thought was a lack of venues for emerging artists to show experimental work in Burlington. In 2018, Kann cofounded Nocturne, a now-annual event at Middlebury College she described as “a night for the weird kids that also welcomed in everyone.” Both Nocturne and Plex are inspired by Nuit Blanche (White Night), which began in Europe in the 1990s. Those citywide events typically involve all-night access to arts venues, outdoor projections and performances.

Envisioning something similar in the Queen City last year, Kann asked Paddy Reagan, a cofounder of Winooski’s Waking Windows music festival, for advice. Reagan thought the arts fest sounded like a great idea. He connected Kann with Old North End business owners including Junktiques purveyor Phinn “Jamba” Sonin, who will participate again this year. A neighborhood fixture himself, Sonin enthusiastically supports the creativity and energy artists bring to the Old North End.

Last year’s Plex “was just amazing,” Kann said. “The festival went even better than we had planned, in that we had 440 people come and it was really alive and just, like, super joyful.”

click to enlarge Pia Zapata - COURTESY

Because of that success, Plex organizers received more applications this year and have added venues, but they’re staying true to their roots as a DIY contemporary art festival. In selecting projects, they tried to prioritize work that isn’t suited to typical galleries. “A big priority for us is platforming arts that wouldn’t otherwise have a space in Burlington or Vermont,” Kann said.

Plex 2024 will include some well-established artists, such as Renee Greenlee and Lydia Kern. Greenlee’s piece, titled “Suspended,” is a cyanotype of water on silk. Kern’s sculpture “Double Sorrow Double Joy” incorporates a sunflower planted after last year’s floods. The Burlington sculptor was recently awarded the Diane Gabriel Visual Artist Award.

Musicians include Chilean singer-songwriter Pia Zapata and Lincoln-based Michael Chorney’s psychedelic jazz-rock band Freeway Clyde, which plays “soundtracks for films that have never been made,” according to Chorney’s website.

Some of the most intriguing work may be the least expected.

Linus Owens, an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College, will play a washing machine. Aidan Lodge will show “Bogwoman,” a sculpture investigating trans ecology that contains and projects sounds from a bog. C. Green will present “I Promise Never Again to Write Plays About Asians…”, a reading of a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins filmed like an Instagram apology video.

click to enlarge Kevin Donegan - COURTESY OF NAT CAMPBELL

  • Courtesy Of Nat Campbell
  • Kevin Donegan

Katie Gorson and Betsy McGavisk will present an interactive, glowing jellyfish that viewers can walk underneath. Kevin Donegan, pushing a cart, will wear a white suit and invite visitors to paint him. Marek Zajac’s project honors the first 25,000 victims of the war in Gaza, creating a sculptural landscape with their names.

While much of this work hasn’t been created yet — or even started — one already complete showstopper will be part of the festival’s infrastructure: Fluffy the Floating Cloud Bank. Made for the Burning Man festival by some 100 Vermonters, Fluffy is a bus featuring a flamethrower, 14,000 colored LEDs and 70 welded cloud forms. It has its own sound system and stage and, parked at Ratsmission, will provide a venue for some of the performances.

Visitors may see some pieces inside the former Ahavath Gerim Synagogue. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is under renovation by new owner Kitter Spater, but he has offered it to Plex as a rain space or a venue for some quieter works. Visitors will have the opportunity to admire the building’s stunning pressed-tin ceiling, beautiful light fixtures and remaining stained glass.

click to enlarge "Bogwoman" by Aidan Lodge - COURTESY

  • Courtesy
  • “Bogwoman” by Aidan Lodge

At a recent planning walk-through of venues, festival organizers clarified details including working electrical outlets, structural stability, the location for food vendors, and balancing sound and lighting needs among different stages. Tank Recording Studio will host some indoor installations, as well as performances that visitors may want to watch from beginning to end. The Junktiques outdoor stage will be festive, encouraging visitors to drop in any time.

Visual art will be on view in Despacito, Junktiques and outdoor sites. And festivalgoers just might see performances on the roof of Ratsmission (a former auto shop for which Sonin said he has great plans).

An online Plex program will be available before Saturday, and on-site signage will orient visitors to performances and to wheelchair-accessible locations.

Planning aside, Plex organizers recommend that visitors just remain open to the immersive experience. “The idea is, you can wander and discover new things along the way,” Kann said. Plex is less a curated collection than a collage, with “chaos as the frame.”

Last year’s festival covered some costs with a $400 grant from the Wards 2 and 3 Neighborhood Planning Assembly, but organizers decided against applying for outside funding this year. The goal is to preserve artistic freedom.

click to enlarge Vincent Goldmine at Plex 2023 - COURTESY

  • Courtesy
  • Vincent Goldmine at Plex 2023

“We really believe in having Plex be as outside of capitalism as possible,” Kann said. Festival admission is $15, but those who can’t pay will not be turned away. Events in the Ratsmission parking lot and at Despacito are free for everyone. Ticket sales will help cover costs, and any proceeds will be divided among the artists and organizers.

Plex and events like it help to foster new ideas yet are fleeting. Visitors get to see artwork that can’t hang over their couch, that many galleries aren’t equipped to show and that doesn’t conform to expectations. The festival itself is tenuous, relying on venues that may not be available in the future, and young artist-organizers will likely move on to other things.

“Something I love about Plex is that it appears in an ordinary space and then disappears in this dreamlike, magical way,” Kann said. “There’s a parking lot you drive past every day, and all of a sudden there’s a gorgeous sculpture and a dance piece, and then the next day it’s gone. That ephemerality is really beautiful.”

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