Mount Tremper Arts Festival begins

Mount Tremper Arts Festival founders and directors Mathew Pokoik and Aynsley Vandenbroucke. Photo by Dion Ogust

Imagine witnessing a mindbending performance or dance piece in the making, then hanging out with the artist and performers around the campfire under a sky brilliant with stars. The experimental, collaborative nature of paradigm-changing artmaking hasn’t been completely snuffed out by the global, excessively commoditized art market, and one of its leading venues is right here in the Catskills.

From the get-go, the Mount Tremper Arts (MTA) Festival has attracted attention: Its very first event was covered by The New York Times, and it has been written about in Artforum and in The New Yorker. Now in its fifth season, the MTA Festival takes place over the summer in a barnlike building on a former farm on the slopes of Mount Tremper. Far from the stresses of the city, some of the artists take up one- or two-week-long residencies, living in an adjoining 19th-century farmhouse, with the results presented to an audience of 75 or so people on weekends in June, July and August. Some are still in progress and others are world premieres of new works. The 2012 season represents “a culmination of what we’re trying to create, in the degree to which it’s multidisciplinary. It’s like putting things in a container and shaking it up,” said executive director Mathew Pokoik.

Here are a few samples: In Kimberly Bartosik’s You are my heat and glare (June 23, 7 p.m.), voice artists collaborate with dancers and a lighting designer to investigate the complicated layers of desire and violence underlying intimate relationships, resulting in a piece of sublime theater that’s both conceptual and visceral. Or, on July 27, also at 7 p.m., excerpts will be presented from The Xenotext, a bacteriumlike conceptual device designed for storing a poem encoded in its genome, thereby ensuring the perpetual creative life of the literary work, by poet/conceptual artist Christian Bok. Described in The Utne Reader as one of “50 visionaries who are changing your world,” Bok has created artificial languages for two television shows and has read the dictionary from front to back three times as preparation for some of his works. Then there’s This Clement World (July 28, 8 p.m.), a live documentary in which Cynthia Hopkins, who simultaneously gives off the vibes of singer/songwriter, conceptual artist and rock star, combines footage of herself on an Arctic expedition with folk opera and storytelling by three fictional tour guides, collectively crossing the frontiers of space and time, in an imaginary exhibit about the wonders of a world perched on the edge of destruction by climate change.

Pokoik, who founded and runs the Festival with his wife, Aynsley Vandenbroucke, describes MTA as “a laboratory space. It’s meant to create community and discussion,” which he believes fosters artistic innovation. “There’s a whole spectrum of work in different stages,” said Pokoik. “It’s really alive. Things are changing, and as curators, sometimes we have no idea what will happen. At the same time, fully finished realized work is also represented.”

The couple, who are both working artists – Pokoik is a fine arts photographer and Vandenbroucke is a dancer and choreographer – were searching for a way to sustain their careers as artists and preserve the sense of community so important to their creative life when they purchased the property in Mount Tremper. In 2005, they renovated a fixer-upper on the land and built a studio and performance space. “The magical thing about the performances, which in some cases are by really major artists, is that the studio experience is so intimate,” said Pokoik. He’s particularly excited by the performances by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE): The 33-member ICE, which is headed for Lincoln Center after its stint at MTA, will perform new commissioned works by four Brazilian composers on July 20 and a chamber-orchestra-meets-experimental-jazz piece combining the work of Franz Schubert and George Lewis on July 21.

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