How this festival transforms a white town into a colourful, dreamlike world

Video: Digital Graffiti 2015

We chat to Brett Phares, curator of Digital Graffiti - a festival in Alys Beach, Florida that transforms a white-walled town into a rainbow of projection art - about what he's learnt curating one of the most special festivals around. Find out more about more about the art, the winners and the best of the fest

Digital Graffiti Festival turns Alys Beach, Florida, on its head. Most evenings, the exclusive, white-walled town’s noise and light fade without disturbance: the only street light is controlled gas lamps deliberately pointed to the floor; with no sun, sun-worshippers head to bars, restaurants and homes; and the small, vacation-driven community quietens.

But for two nights a year, artwork from global artists is projected onto walls, water, bridges and trees, leading to an explosive pool party ending (this is Florida, remember). Streets become packed with Alys Beach residents –vacationers and the small existing handful of Alys full-timers – eating, drinking and soaking up the art that explodes their pristine town into colours, patterns and weird ideas. 

Video: A long-shot of Alys Beach.

“It’s the Redneck Riviera,” says Brett Phares, the festival’s curator. “It’s a strange place to be going to do an art festival but, clearly when you get here, you can see something different can happen.”

Let me underline, italicise and apply blinding yellow highlighter to ‘strange place’. Designed in only 2003, Alys Beach is a newborn community with barely any history of its own, filled with luxury-and-exclusivity-seeking American vacationers and a culture that’s only just begun.

“To do this stuff – at the number of projectors we use and the scale – is different. And the only way we could do that is because this place doesn’t have ambient light or light pollution. They control light everywhere – so it turns into this natural laboratory. And it’s only on the festival night that it turns into this spectacle – where there’s light pollution everywhere!”

Alys Beach residents love the town’s biggest event, partying under the Digital Grafitti artworks as if they are nightclub lights. “They’re a great crowd!” continues Brett, and I have to agree: kids, smiles and a fresh perspective on artwork normally shown in subdued galleries. 

“They have a knowledge that not many people have. It’s cool to give that to a community.” And it’s equally cool that the artists get to hear from such an unusual audience. Video and photographic artist Katina Bitsicasperformances of mental illness case studies arranged to mimic the floor plan of a Michigan insane asylum attracted incredible attention (if that’s a bit too much of a mouthful, watch the piece, which is beautifully succinct). 

As well as Katina learning that her work looked like a strange, intriguing language from a distance – something she hadn’t considered before – she was also privy to intimate mental health stories from her moved audience. 

“She experienced something odd,” says Brett. “She was almost like their therapist. The artists definitely learn a lot more about their work from this. It’s not like going into a white box, where there’s not much to deal with. An artist can probably be made lazy that way. I think people who are submitting are the artists who want to get involved, and see how they can adjust things.”

Image: Katina Bitsicas' MMPI.  

Now its ninth year has come to a close, Brett looks back at his curation of Digital Graffiti with a critical eye. Even after almost a decade, the unique festival in an equally unique town still demands refinement and thought year-on-year – and night-on-night, if 2016’s projector changes, minor disasters and deep discussions are anything to go by.

When Digital Graffiti first began, it received well over this year’s 250 entries. To cut down the number of irrelevant short films - some over ten minutes in a festival where most people flick their gaze over works in seconds – Brett added a drop-down menu to the submission.

“Just to make sure that artists know that ‘if you don’t fit this, don’t submit. It helped a lot. It took out a third of the stuff I didn’t want to look at.” The categories of art Brett does want to include generative, algorithmic, experimental cinema, animation and video mapping. 

Two cuts later and Brett trims the entries down to a shortlist of 25. Surprisingly to me, he doesn’t find the process particularly tricky. “You look at the basics in terms of technique and idea. But they’ve got to go to unexpected places and have a residue of meaning.”

Though Brett does consider the overall feeling of the festival and how the pieces meshing together in his choices, he mainly demands that “everything stands on its own. If it doesn’t stand, it’s just not going to be in.”

Such an important, but widely applicable requirement means that the uniform town is dressed instead in a bonkers range of styles. “I’ve been told it’s diverse. And I’m happy it’s diverse. When I select pieces, I am thinking about how to vary it up. I’m not trying to make one huge statement. I’m trying to make a few different statements, as has happened off the bat of that drop down menu.”

It gets trickier when fitting the chosen pieces into the assault course of architecture and surfaces without misinterpreting or losing the work's feeling, but showing off the distinctive architecture too - after all, this is a festival of architecture and art. But Brett can boil his complex job down: “I’m really here to make people see it in, if not a new, a refreshed way. If anything,” thinks Brett, “how do you get the curator to listen more? How do you make sure they’re open enough to see what’s out there?” Well, one way is to ask for criticism. Brett is perpetually interested in feedback, probing both me and the artists all weekend. 

Hence why the festival has evolved so much since its beginning, where it was crammed into one massive night, with limited testing and time to spend with the art. This created some, as Brett puts it, “unexpected results.” Though the festival’s high-end sponsors might be against, er, ‘unexpected results’, Brett is cautious to stamp their possibility out completely.

“Some of [the spontaneity] we have to keep, if not encourage more - because graffiti itself has got to be spontaneous. The more we keep talking about the things we didn’t like, the more we plan it. It’s going to potentially lose that soul it had to begin with. It’s a funny idea to think that maybe we’ll have to mix it up with some low-tech.”

Brett is very aware that his curation can change how the art is interpreted. For example, in Katina’s piece, he took the creative lead and "put in a gaslight. It’s designed by me, which is not necessarily the best thing. But I like people thinking beyond the outline the artist has provided. We’ve got the architecture and it needs to relate to that. So that one’s probably a little more overt than others.”

Image: The pool party, where Digital Graffiti ends with a splash.

Some of the artists might be unhappy with how their piece is changed by the architecture - or, in some cases, trees and water. Though Brett is open to comments, he's sometimes at a loss about what he can do to fix it (and whether he should): “When I have to project onto something that’s not a flat screen, I have to make some decisions. How you stage it becomes really important, and definitely goes beyond his normal purview as a curator. The traditional curators get off easy in a lot of ways, but artists are getting more and more demanding.”

Brett's job is not to necessarily listen to those demands, only to be aware of them. “My interpretation is not the artist’s. If there are technical problems – remedying the brightness of a projector is one thing. But putting it onto architecture where it changes the meaning of the work happens wherever it goes: if you put it inside of a book or if you put it inside a magazine. Every time you put a piece of art out in the world, you’ve lost control.

"We’ve been talking about how to make available the elevations for artists download, maybe maps and stuff too. It goes back to the problem of taking away the spontaneity, but it'd be good if we go to a place about artists feeling confident for that expression happening the way they want it to."

Whether or not the future of Digital Graffiti leans towards spontaneity or order, the discussion exists and - beyond the town's strange, beautiful white walls that would better suit Middle Earth than Florida, beyond the incredible range and quality of work, and beyond the now global reach of a small, embryonic town - the resulting openness, willingness to learn and mingling of ideas both inside and outside of the art is what makes the festival light up. 

“[Fesitval-goers] don’t have to subscribe to anything," says Brett. "And maybe artists can take solace in the idea, if not the fact, that their brain is sort of being hijacked. And so of all of a sudden they might get more of the meaning that the artists will ever see in a regular gallery."

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