October 13, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

It’s sometimes said that music represents the intersection of art and commerce, or simply art as commerce. But notice which of those words comes first in that phrase: art. Current technology has yielded new and easier, though arguably far less personal or affecting methods of music distribution, making the art often feel secondary to the commerce. It’s old hat to mention it at this point, but the act of opening up Spotify and typing a band or album name in the search bar doesn’t quite carry the same weight or warmth as sitting on a bedroom floor on a Saturday afternoon and thumbing through LP inserts, poring over lyrics, and staring at album art. Maybe it’s not an end-all-be-all solution to the problem, but Saturday’s Call + Response event in Washington, D.C. sought to and succeeded in merging music with words and visual art in a unique setting.

The musical element, the “call” in this case and new to C+R in its fourth iteration, was supplied in the form of an exclusive 12-minute instrumental track by Restorations titled “Alright boys, when we get to the airport, there will be absolutely no place to land.” Local writers were supplied with the song and penned short stories or poems, the “response,” based on whatever emotions were conjured up by it (which was then packaged with the song as an elaborate 7-inch). Then, visual artists created original works based on those words. It all culminated in a packed event at Hole In The Sky, a collective art and live event space nestled in a light-industrial neighborhood of the northeast quadrant of the nation’s capital. Considering C+R’s history—past events had been held in the far more traditional Hamiltonian Gallery—and the slight shift in participants, the venue change seemed more aesthetically appropriate for this year’s iteration of the show. Organizers, volunteers and residents of the collective, not gallery employees, constructed makeshift walls, hung pieces of art and writing from them with box nails prior to doors opening. It felt, in the best way possible, like a punk rock show.

Leading up to the opening, the organizers were embracing the challenge. “Getting to plan a show like this is an awesome experience. Pairing the writers and artists was kind of like setting up friends on blind dates,” explained co-curator Dillon Babington. “You’re trying to find commonalities among the two people’s work, but also looking for enough discord so the result will be a mixture of mutual interest, chemistry, and a little tension to keep it interesting.”

“The unofficial mantra of the show remains to simply bring together creative communities,” added co-curator Kira Wisniewski. “I know we’re not the only ones trying to do this, but I hope our show continues to play a role in bringing together music, writing and visual art in a very accessible way.”

The visual artists and writers involved in the show see Call + Response as a testament to the evolution of D.C.’s scene. “There’s a kind of creative renaissance going on in D.C.’s DIY scene at the moment and Call + Response feels like an emblematic pinnacle of that,” explained Matt Cohen, one of the participating writers. “Not just because it’s a really great convergence of artistic mediums—visual art, writing, and music—but that it’s happening in such a climate that allows things like Call + Response to happen regularly. There’s a lot of extremely talented creative people in D.C. right now and it says a lot that we’re all able to work together and make things like this happen. It’s truly something special.”

“It was a fascinating process and thought exercise—so different from the way I usually work,” said Rob Shore, another participating writer. “I put on headphones, played the song, closed my eyes and free associated on a scratch pad. What came out of that is maybe more interesting than even what I made from it. Just a garbled series of imagistic flashes, character sketches, disconnected bits of dialogue. I read it over a couple of times and tried to pick out some of the strongest images and characters and drew some lines between them. It was an exercise I’d like to work into my creative process more broadly.”

Indeed, it seems that music, writing and visual art doesn’t often converge in such a way. Call + Response stimulated these artists in a new and exciting way, and what creative person wouldn’t want that?

Further down the want list of many artists from interesting stimuli is some form of validation of their work. C+R seemed to offer just that. Not long after the doors opened at 7 p.m., Hole In The Sky was packed wall-to-wall with people quickly imbibing complimentary beer from local brewery 3 Stars and slurping bowls of ramen while reading new stories and participating with new pieces of art. The only air of stuffiness at this particular art show was palpable body heat from the sheer amount of attendees. Restorations, set up at the end of the room opposite the art, played on the floor through amps—no PA, no microphones. After some light deliberation and because their upcoming tour in support of new album LP3 rolls through D.C. on October 25, it was decided that the band would only play “Alright boys, when we get to the airport, there will be absolutely no place to land.” at C+R. Most bands wouldn’t trek three-plus hours through some of the traditionally worst traffic in America to play one song at an art show, but Restorations simply aren’t most bands. They seem to recognize the value of music’s symbiotic relationship with visual art far more than many of their contemporaries and were genuinely excited about the opportunity to write and perform that song in that setting. And even though C+R had a punk show feel, it was just that, a feel. Not everyone in attendance was necessarily a punk fan, though you’d never know it by the attention the band demanded, and the rousing reaction they received, when they performed that song. It was hard not to feel immediately inspired and maybe a little less cynical about where music as an art form and not just commerce is headed.