Sensory overload

Multimedia events fuse artistic disciplines with fun-seekers looking for the next new thing

Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the cocktail of the moment at Atlanta’s trendiest watering holes is a potent blend of upmarket vodka and Red Bull energy tonic. However, the concoction provides a liquid metaphor for today’s sophisticated nightowls who need to have their familiar diversions laced with a jolt of stimulation.

For a large and growing segment of the city’s social scene, simply ordering up a cold one and conducting an astrological survey of fellow bar patrons doesn’t cut it anymore, if it ever did. Whether a by-product of the MTV revolution, a symptom of our collective cultural ADD or just this year’s fad, parties that creatively weave sound, art, video, motion, textures, speech, performance and interactivity into an evening’s outing have become the new wave in nightlife.

Although they’ve percolated in the urban underground for more than a decade, multimedia events have boomed in Atlanta over the last year or so. On any given weekend, there’s often a selection of lofts or warehouse spaces drawing crowds with a mixture of live music, film loops, slamming poets, belly dancers, paintings, photographs or fashion. And large, well-promoted events can attract hundreds who are willing to pay for a dose of artistic vision and an alternative to the bar scene.

Those on the front lines of the multimedia movement say party-goers’ heightened expectations ensure that the trend is here to stay — and the city’s nightclub community better get hip or they’re going to get left behind.

“Opening up the doors and having a DJ play isn’t enough anymore,” says Bill Kaelin, a Web page designer who helped produce the ambitious Kabuki Theatre event at Midtown’s eleven50 in April.

A former event manager at the now-closed Fusion nightclub, Kaelin is a partner in Universal Culture, a multimedia group that looks to stage culturally themed mega-events every few months. (They plan to tackle India in the fall.)

Drawing its visual inspiration from ancient Japan, Kabuki Theatre offered a smorgasbord of sensual distractions that would have caused a Zen master’s head to spin: ceremonial drumming, bonsai-pruning, projections of live on-site video feeds, a sushi buffet, body painting, dance performances, geisha fashions, a calligraphy and watercolor exhibit, back-walking massages, live theater and, somewhat incongruously, vibrating chairs with earphones — all set to the insistent back-beat of a clutch of featured DJs and lubricated by a busy cash bar.

In the hyper-drive age of the Internet and broadband TV, when boasts how many picoseconds it takes to rustle up a hundred websites and every inch of Philips Arena is filled with screaming banners and banks of video screens, even a social gathering has the challenge of providing constant stimulation to visitors, he says.

“We’re a generation that’s grown up on TV and computers so we need more to ignite our senses,” says Kaelin’s partner, production designer Harmony Boje.

Having helped stage a dozen multimedia events of varying sizes since moving to Atlanta from L.A. in late 1998, Boje has seen the scene expand from small, edgy, word-of-mouth gatherings to increasingly frequent blowouts such as Kabuki Theatre.

“It’s completely exploded in the last year,” she says.

Held on a Thursday night, the event still managed to draw an impressive crowd of 1,200, just breaking even on its estimated $13,000 in production costs, she says.

Like Boje and Kaelin, most local multimedia impresarios aren’t in it for the money but as a creative outlet they can share, ideally, with hundreds of friends and grateful strangers and as a vehicle to gain exposure for themselves and like-minded artists.

Franklin Lopez, a 29-year-old native of Puerto Rico, manages to eke out a modest living as a freelance website designer and filmmaker, but he isn’t looking for a steady job. That would get in the way of his real work as a video artist and a leader of subMediaTV, a loose collective of media artists who pooled their efforts to produce the first luminaCity event in a West End warehouse in October.

To maintain a cozy, underground vibe, Lopez and crew gave only about 50 friends the password to get into the free party and withheld directions until just before it was to begin.

“We didn’t want to invite people off the street,” he says.

But when more than 150 people showed up, Lopez knew they were on to something. At a second event, in December, 350 people paid $7 to party, and a third luminaCity event at a converted warehouse in Candler Park drew another 350, this time at $10 a head, but Lopez was amazed to see very few familiar faces from the earlier gatherings.

“You had a wide variety of yuppies, older artsy types, film geeks, club kids — all being exposed to this underground arts scene,” he says. “I realized a lot of people have grown dissatisfied with nightlife in Atlanta, where you have the option only to drink or hear a band.”

Lopez says he rarely goes out anymore to clubs, which, he says, “are starting to get worried because we’re competing with them.” Part of the reason so many people have embraced the multimedia boom, he believes, is because the parties usually take place in non-commercial, unconventional venues.

“When people go to an alternative space, they drop their defenses and are more relaxed than if they’re at a bar and expected to act a certain way,” he says.

Many clubs are taking the cue and stepping up their artsy offerings — some more calculatedly than others. Midtown’s Nomenclature Museum and eleven50, for example, have embraced local artists and performers from the beginning. At other clubs, the multimedia influence can seem more market-driven, like this season’s replacement for karaoke and team trivia.

Lopez — who has a regular Saturday night gig crafting sound and video collages at East Atlanta’s Fountainhead Lounge — and his subMediaTV colleagues are planning to slow down the schedule and plan larger, more complex luminaCity events twice a year. The next one, boasting the titillating title of Cyberotica, is being organized for the fall.

Another factor in the proliferation of multimedia events is the same one behind the current boom in indie filmmaking: unprecedented access to cheap technology. Off-the-shelf computer software, digital video and advances in editing equipment have made doing it yourself a relative breeze for post-modern, aspiring Warhols.

Ben Lovett, another digital techie, with the Pop Films underground media group, just turned 23 and already has a major event under his belt. In a loft-bound benefit in March for Firecracker, a local arts magazine, he helped gather together a live jazz trio, video projections, an installation of TVs showing a videotape loop, DJs, a hodgepodge of old furniture and more than 150 pieces of art and other “pointless eye candy” to attract a large turnout.

While many organizers take an open-door approach to artist participation, the mother of all Atlanta multimedia events, ArtParty at Nexus (now The Contemporary), always has included a meticulously curated exhibition — but there the seriousness ended.

“You wanted to create a crazy environment. The point was to make it as weird as possible,” says Louise Shaw, the former Nexus director who organized the first ArtParty in 1983 as an intended one-shot fund raiser for the center’s 10-year anniversary.

To set the Nexus event apart from other stuffy donor gatherings, Shaw, who nurtures a wide mischievous streak beneath her deceptively square exterior, opened up the artist studios and Nexus Press for tours and balanced the gallery’s usual visual arts offerings with slide projections, performance art and wild costumes.

As the event caught on and grew over the years, she pushed the boundaries of what is expected from a gallery by bringing in bodybuilders, video installations, interactive exhibits, fashion shows, the famed Sun Ra Arkestra, fortune tellers, live homoerotic tableaus — anything that would keep visitors off-balance and make them question what is and isn’t art. But, mostly, ArtParty was designed to entertain.

“It was the prototype for crazy, wacky parties in Atlanta,” Shaw says. “Eventually, it got so crowded that the hard-core art crowd stayed home.”

The annual fall party became such a hot ticket in the ’90s that it came to epitomize the evening when Atlanta’s arts supporters, fashion hounds and eccentrics came together to see and be seen. Last year’s event drew an estimated 3,500 people — not bad for a party with an average ticket price of $50.

“ArtParty used to be considered avant-garde, but that’s a term that has lost all meaning because now everybody wants to be hip,” says Shaw, who believes one unintended effect of the event was that it was seen as serving to validate the coolness of anyone willing to pony up the money for a ticket.

Perhaps the enduring success of such Atlanta multimedia events as ArtParty and the 6-year-old FunkJazzKafé made it inevitable that the concept would attract entrepreneurs like Chris Baker, a professional event coordinator whose Flavourset Productions will mount its mammoth Science Friction 2001 featuring DJ George Acosta this Saturday.

Having cut his teeth programming social functions for well-heeled visitors to the Spanish resort island of Ibiza, Baker isn’t an artist himself, but if his patrons want to see art, he’ll bring it to them, along with sci-fi film loops, electronica DJs, spacey dance performances, futuristic fashion shows, poetry readings and food from some of Atlanta’s hottest restaurants. Since this is a profit-driven venture, however, guests also can shop at booths manned by corporate sponsors.

The fact that Science Friction takes place in the time-tested halls of The Contemporary is no coincidence, admits Baker, who says the Atlanta multimedia event business has really taken off over the past year. He sold more than 2,000 tickets for last June’s event and finished the year strongly with a well-attended New Year’s Eve blowout at The Abby.

And Baker’s nonprofit multimedia peers believe the trend will continue and grow as technology becomes still cheaper, attention spans shrink, artists look for new ways to show their work and the entertainment stakes are raised for an upcoming generation of party-goers.

Says Universal Culture’s Kaelin: “This is a whole underground scene that’s really become the older person’s rave.”

Flavourset Productions presents Science Friction 2001 June 16 at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. 9 p.m.-4 a.m. 404-577-3579.

Inner Forms, an international multimedia event, will be held June 28 at eleven50, 1150 Peachtree St. Performances are at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. and at midnight. $12.50 in advance; $15 at the door.