Thursday, April 27, 2006

Plato, Derrida, and the Mountainair Sunflower Festival - Updated

What is a festival? What is a Sunflower Festival? What is the Mountainair Sunflower Festival? Now that it has been renamed to something other than “festival,” will it still be the Sunflower Festival or will the name change turn it into something else? Why does this question or answering it even matter?

Ask people to imagine a chair: nobody will see Plato's ideal chair (the transcendental signified). Everyone will see something different, depending on context, i.e.: a kitchen table chair, an easy chair, a rattan Papa-san chair; a camp chair; a folding chair; an office chair, a Chippendale chair, a Swedish Modern chair, etc. To the extent that the transcendental signified, in this case “chair,” escapes us, the word chair is a floating signifier. Advertisers try to sell us Plato's chair by manipulating the definition. Ultimately, according to Derrida, while we are always chasing the transcendental signified, we can never get to it.

If the definition of "chair" can be difficult to pin down, abstract words are infinitely more so. Everybody’s individual, personal, and idiosyncratic understanding of abstract concepts cannot contain the idea of individually presumed components within itself. These are synthetic judgments "a posteriori,” grounded in context and individual experience.

Likewise, various interests, whether hustling the arts or more mundane transactions, manipulate (hijack) sunflower’s definition to present the event as something that will sell art, promote the town, and most especially bring visitors and their money to town. Each interest attempts to superimpose its own synthetic definition that lacks authenticity or grounding in collective local experience.

“Sunflower Festival” is not abstract in the same way as words like honor, liberty, responsibility, etc. yet lacks context to ground it, nail it down to a single agreed upon definition or description. There are so many Sunflower Festivals, all different. “Festival,” as a general category rather than a specific event, is more abstract but still refers to an event rather than a slippery concept. The Mountainair Sunflower Festival, anchored in time and space, seems sufficiently specific but floats too. “Sunflower” is specific, grounded in context, and shared experience. We all know what sunflowers are, what they look like, and when they take over the East Mountain roadsides and yards. We can even tell the difference between local varieties and the 60 kinds of sunflowers listed in the USDA database. Experience and grounding do that.

Why then does the Mountainair Sunflower Festival float? The referent, sunflower, is concrete, easily recognized, and anchored in time and space: the last weekend in August in Mountainair NM. Where then is the floater? It’s the word and event category, Festival. According to folklorists, cultural studies wonks, and chronic but discerning festival-goers, festivals are bigger, more important, more heavily scheduled than a Day or Celebration. The name implies more. It sails upstream, spawning hype. The Mountainair Sunflower Festival drifts on the ebb and flow of local volunteer energies.

Local residents, not exclusively art folk and other outsiders, enjoy the Sunflower Festival. They decorate sunflower hats, dress funky, look forward to seeing children’s sunflower in storefront windows around town, listen to live music, catch a few demos, check out art exhibits, rummage through the offerings at the library book sale and yard sales about town, and listen to readers at the Poets & Writers Picnic. They do not think of either themselves or the day as existing solely to promote art, galleries, or the town.

For example, each year I add more sunflower accessories to a sunflower shirt commissioned several years ago for festival wear and do as much of the above as I can before the heat drops me. Nor am I alone. Others turn out to wander the streets in varied and often sublimely inspired (sometimes even by sunflowers) attire. Elementary school students make Sunflower Art Projects that are displayed in storefront windows all across Mountainair’s 2-3 block “downtown.” Local artists and artisans turn out sunflower inspired work. Listeners assemble in the shade of the Shaffer Hotel garden to listen to regional and local poets and writers. It’s no coincidence that Dale Harris’ poem, “Manzano Sunflowers,” naturally emerged as a keynote for the occasion, be it festival, fiesta, day, fest, celebration, whatever. Why not just call it “Sunflower” (the day formerly known as a festival)? Let’s speak of “sunflowering,” definition to float, perhaps evolve, and see where it takes us.

Over the past eight years, the name has changed from Sunflower Arts Festival to Sunflower Festival to Sunflower Music Festival, back to Mountainair Sunflower Festival, and, most recently, to Sunflower Folk Art Festival. Only “sunflower” and, by implication, “Mountainair” remain constant. Children’s Sunflower Art, the Poet’s and Writer’s Picnic, and varying degrees of sunflower themed art remain constant as well. Even the sunflowers themselves, real flowers not signifiers, cannot be depended on. The weather may have been wrong and sunflowers peak before or after the festival. More than once, the highway department has cut the roadsides the week before, removing the event’s best natural advertisement. Visitors may take sunflower aporia and erasure as personal affronts, but locals shrug and accept this as just another “Mountainair moment.” It’s still Sunflower after all – whether or not the sunflowers show up.

Name changes add to signifier float, each a layer in the palimpsest. The fault lies less in Sunflower than in persistent efforts to name, own, and promote it as something it is not. Despite hype promising a unique experience, daytrippers may not find advertising sufficiently motivating to warrant a hot, August day trip to Mountainair. Or, if they do, they can be disappointed when the event does not live up to its hype. Residents, old-timers, long term, and transplants, however, enjoy the day: their day, their festival.

Sunflower may not fit the definition or meet requirements implied in the word, “festival.” Many support Sunflower yet agree with widely voiced concerns about appropriating the word festival to add meaning and dimension not inherent in the event – and then advertising to match an ideal, perhaps mythic Sunflower Festival, rather than promoting the reality. The practice promises more than the Festival has, in past years, delivered. Daytrippers go home and tell their friends. Next year, past and potential daytrippers tune out sunflower hype. There may as well be a ripple effect: tuning out other Mountainair events.

No doubt, Sunflower’s persisting informality owes much to its ad hoc origins. Initiated in 1999 by local resident, Adolphine Carole “just because,” Sunflower 1 celebrated the opening of Art Alley. The original event was more happening than organized event. There were no committees, no sponsoring organization, no titles, no formal schedules, no flow charts, or anything smacking of institutionalization. Everybody had a good time; it filled the gap between Jubilee and fall holidays. Everyone agreed: the Sunflower Festival should become a regular event, “improved” by organization, formal structure, and systematic promotion.

The following year, more money and promotion poured into the mix. The controlling idea was to advertise heavily and turn it into a money making music festival. It was still fun, if not either a music festival or quite the success imagined by its handlers and self-appointed promoters. After a few years, the Chamber of Commerce took over official sponsorship, this year dropping it as they had last year’s hot potato, Firecracker Jubilee.

Despite being passed from hand to hand like an unwanted child, somehow Sunflower, like its hardy sunflower namesake, survives.

Whose festival is it? Who owns it? Can any person or entity even own a festival, especially such a floater, with so many versions? The original event had a midwife but no owners. Individuals and organizations assumed, if not custody, then proprietary rights after the fact, usually without consulting festival users or contributors. Now, in the wake of an undiscussed or voted on backroom handoff by the Chamber to the Manzano Mountain Arts Council, Sunflower continues to have many absentee owners (sponsors, exploiters, followers, fans - and just those relishing an occasion to put flowers in their hair, on their hats, and elsewhere). Blissfully unaware of Derrida, floating signifiers, and possibly even Plato, maybe it’s time for the true owners to take back their festival.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Dribblings, more excuse making than update...

In keeping up and alive the more public voiced Mountainair Arts, I've been neglecting MM. Not that there aren't projects underway... notes in files and drafts started. I must remind myself that rough is the operative word for taking drafts for test drives here.

The arts thing got me thinking about a number of topics. Local & wider considerations on art/space & power. Cultural capital and applying Bourdieu to Mountainair (why stop with Habermas?). From there, I backtracked to social capital, which sheds more than a little light on overlapping groups here interact - and don't. Finally, "What is Art Anyway?," perhaps more suitable for here than its originally intended destination - on the other M blog.

Mostly unrelated to Mountainair, I've also been thinking a lot about education, - systems, corporatization, (exploited) labor, and camoflauged censorship. This last area I am probably too close and, consequently, bitter about to step back & way from rant mode. It does relate to social and cultural capital. Good therapy maybe - sloppy writing.

I also can't help thinking more these days about aging, caught up in the process as I am, with a ringside seat. Staying interested in a lot of things keeps the mental end up, except for those increasingly frequent occasions that forgettery outstrips memory and brain fog takes over. The physical end is less susceptible to mental shlock therapy jolts.

Friday, March 10, 2006

More thoughts on a town square, public space, its use, and mental mapping

The tone on this one may run too much to the academic for most tastes (mine included), but grad school habits die slowly. I'll try to infuse more juice and life into it on succeeding revisions.

I can't resist the intersection (and thus its stylistic pitfalls). After all, it's not often (what about NEVER?) my dissertation research (space in literary representation of cityscapes – from Vergil’s Troy, Rome, and Carthage to Baudleaire’s, Balzac’s, and Flaubert’s Paris, Dicken’s London, and Fuentes’ Mexico City) applies to Mountainair. The town may be a "gateway to ancient cities" (why that & not "Geronimo's raiding path"?), but that slogan is the only thing even remotely urban about it. Even the transplants gravitating here lean to the provincial (despite self-images to the contrary).

Space is space. How used and by whom shapes its nature and our perceptions of it. Urban space gets the long look because of population density - more people using it, imagining it, defining it, contesting how it should be used. Yes, small town space is qualitatively different, perhaps a liminous space between symbolically loaded spaces of city and wilderness.

Yet a number of urban design principles apply here as well. Although research and findings by urbanist William H. Whyte, architect Kevin Lynch, and the Project for Public Spaces focus on urban space, their findings also apply to a Mountainair Town Square project. Whyte's studies and work by the Project for Public Spaces offer proven techniques for measuring how people use public space, which and what kind of spaces attract users, which repel them, and which invite the most interaction among users. Armed with cameras, William H. Whyte tracked the use of small urban parks and plazas. He then mapped the specific amenities and seating available at each park and charted the patterns of use. Whyte asked:

  • Where did people sit, and what places did they avoid?
  • How were their movements affected by sun, shade, water, flowers, trees, food, and types of available seating?
  • What kinds of seating did they prefer?
  • How did use patterns change over the course of the day?
  • Did people use the space as single individuals or in groups?
  • What elements of design invite them to move into the public space?
  • What moved them to interact with others using the public space?
  • Would they move out of the path of foot traffic to conduct conversations, and if so, would they move to quieter, more out of the way spaces?
  • How did these public spaces relate to the commercial and civic buildings around them?
  • Did they have a cross-fertilizing effect, generating foot traffic and more business, which might in turn generate users of the public spaces?
  • If they were relatively unused, or used for undesirable purposes, did they cause people to stay away from the entire neighboring area?
Based on this - not to mention plain old common sense - a Town Square not only needs to be attractive and inviting but should also have scattered but ample seating - maybe even areas with tables, quiet visiting or just sitting and reading/people watching spaces, shade areas, water (so they don't leave when they get thirsty), etc.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Not Mountainair and not even New Mexico - but relevant & highly recommended

Writer John Clayton, originally from Massachusetts, now lives in a small Montana town, and writes about small town life, Western history, environment, and literature.
More articles by Clayton

Monday, March 06, 2006

What would Habermas have to say about Mountainair?

According to sociologist Jurgen Habermas, the “public sphere” is a virtual or imaginary community, not necessarily existing in space. Ideally it is "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state" (176). What would Habermas make of Mountainair?

The public sphere in Mountainair is the grapevine – rumors and all. The street and the post office constitute public space. The public library is not truly public space because a) it is closed more often than open, and b) the librarian not only holds good books and intelligent reading in low regard, but, according to some library patrons, them as well.

The Chamber of Commerce, in one of its rare bright moments, proposes sponsoring the creation of a town square by closing the block in front of the Town Hall and the Dr Saul Community Center to traffic. The street is already extra wide in this block – wider than the blocks leading into it. The space is already a town square in the imagination, just waiting to be given life.

The resulting space would then be garnished with trees and shrubs, possibly paved with locally quarried stone slabs. Voilà – public space, a town square near the village “core,” complete with trees, benches, and pushcart vendors, hopefully some provisions for shelter from the elements, shade in the summer. A call for public art by local artists comes to mind. It would also provide a central location and focus point for events. This square would also front on the library – no telling what the librarian will think of having so much public just outside the door.

Public spaces have played a fundamental role throughout history. Ever since humans first defined private spaces, public spaces have served as places where people meet, by chance or on purpose, to exchange ideas. From the ancient Greek's Agora to the Middle Ages' Commons to early 20th century American streets and parks, public spaces have been centers for free speech and public discourse.

Most discussion and writing about public space focus on urban public space, not small town public space. Historically, the public spaces of cities have been centers of diversity. Even when housing was segregated, people from every background possible met and crossed paths with one another in public spaces. City streets, parks, and public transportation were melting pots of cultural differences, places where one would encounter people who dressed and spoke differently, hear people expressing opinions that one would never hear amongst their "peers," see people engaged in activities one had never seen before. The diversity that people were exposed to in these public spaces was eye-opening, and led them to new ideas and to see beyond their insular world.

In small towns, the perception is that diversity does not exist and insularity rules. Yet, diversity does exist, albeit in a more limited form – lacking the scope of a cosmopolitan urban center. However, the tendency to insularity lurks at every turn, taking center stage in many encounters. The outside world intrudes – new people from other places move in, the Mountainair-born move away and come back, economics force residents to seek work outside town, people travel more, experiencing diversity and then bringing those experiences back with them. Finally, there is the globalizing effect of media and the internet. The “other” and other ideas are there for the surfing.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are ideas to share in Mountainair. The problem is less in the ideas than in cultivating a zone for sharing them – then facing them instead of politely ignoring them as we would political or religious views that we do not share with our neighbors. Rather, the question might be: “Is it safe to share them in a town dominated by fundamentalist churches, a library stripped – with official blessing – of the ‘wrong kind of books,’ and a population of less than 1,200?” There is no question that Mountainair would benefit from a town square, but can that precious space live up to historical traditions of agora, public forum, commons, and the participatory New England town meeting held in public space?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Part II of Perils and Pitfalls of Small Town Event Planning

Jubilee updated: the Town of Mountainair is now the “big dog” putting on Jubilee. Informal accounts suggest that the effort is already falling into the usual event pits: interminable meetings that accomplish nothing; territoriality; and so on.

Is then the Town of Mountainair getting into the event game? This past winter, the town sponsored (took over) the Christmas Crafts Fair abandoned in the snows by the Arts Council as too much to keep doing, drawing locals rather than daytripper arts spenders, and besides too craftsy - not sufficiently artsy. The town added a last minute all but impromptu parade that was small but fun – with the proverbial good time to be had by all. The same could be said of the crafts fair. Neither was well promoted or had sufficient lead time for more than the ubiquitous town flyer – still the most effective local promotion strategy as long as the print is big and the vocabulary small. I learned of them only accident and was surely not the only one. Others learned of fair and parade only afterwards. Still, the event survived because local residents wanted it. There is an important message – and clue to event viability – in that simple detail.

Although comparing events and bones could strike a dissonant chord, the analogy is more apt that not. Events become bones of contention. There will be as many dogs as there are mangers or committees within an event. Already turf wars are springing in both Arts Tour and Jubilee committees over bone management rights. So far, Sunflower is safe from these doggy conflicts, but it is early yet.

Sunflower won’t even be up for discussion until next month, at which time it may come as a surprise to some arts council members. Burying bones (secret decision making and not sharing information) in so competing dogs (other committees) can’t find them is more canine behavior that interferes with event production.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Welcome to another Mountainair spot on the web.

I got a bit ahead of myself - warming up to grouse about event planning and organization politics and games and forgot about welcoming visitors. Take a look around.

I complain about foibles and frustrations and crave venting from time to time, but the place and the people have become very dear to me. Why else would I build Mountainair web pages and put myself in the line of fire by volunteering? So I bite my tongue - maybe not as often as I should - and put a moderately nice public face on official exchanges and site, the public persona. A blog does not exactly hide the persona - it's public but as my private self.

Here's the main drag - Broadway, US 60, coming into town on US West from points north and east (Albuquerque, Belen, Los Lunas, I-25).


The Post Office, neutral ground, is the brick building on the left. Cibola Arts Cooperative is two doors down, and the Mountainar Grocery is across the street from the Post Office. The grocery, along with Uncle Walter's and Gustin's Hardware are the heart and pulse of traditional Mountainair. Cibola represents the art community incursion - here to stay, however tenuously. Although somewhat accepted it remains more apart than part of Mountainair. Abo Trading - further down the street is even more apart, despite - or because of - its contrived "local" atmosphere. It is a manicured simulacum plopped down in the midst of gritty authenticity.

Overall, the grocery, Uncle Walter's, Gustin's, the Weaver Hotel, and any number of crumbling, ill-maintained buildings are more interesting and authentic than either Abo Trading or Cibola.

Mountainair Snapshot gleaned from the 2000 Census

Mountainair is less prosperous than it was during its years as "Pinto Bean Capital of the World" but essentially the same town. The gas is source is different these days... urban refugees nurturing the fantasy that Mountainair will become another neat, tidy New Mexico art-kitsch burg.

Old Mountainair Postcard

And, finally, a brief history of Mountainair by Biddie McMath before you leave town, retracing Geronimo's raiding route through the Abo Pass.

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Perils and Pitfalls of Small Town Event Planning

February may be a winter month. Summer seems far away. Yet event organizers in Mountainair – and small towns all across the state – are stirring. The careful observer can see signs of life in meetings, phone calls, e-mails, casual conversations, event calendars. For some, visions of daytrippers dance through their heads. Others are moved to recreate and maintain remembered spring and summer holidays. All face similar obstacles in the sometimes trajectory from planning to execution: effective (if not always equitable) distribution of limited resources; too few people wearing too many hats; a natural human loathing of meetings; organization politics; a shortage of untapped, willing volunteers; and its corollary, volunteer burnout. The perils and pitfalls of putting on events in Mountainair is undoubtedly representative.

Firecracker Jubilee Parade, 2000

Mountainair’s event menu has changed in recent years. Several years ago, long-time Ranchers Day bit the dust. Firecracker Jubilee survived Chamber of Commerce dumping by the skin its teeth when Rotary took it over. The Sunflower Festival in August may seem robust by small town event standards but now faces Jubilee’s fate. The Chamber, determined to limit event organizing involvement, handed Sunflower over to the Manzano Mountain Art Council, not unlike downsizing or even passing unwanted orphans onto another family member - and without mention appearing in the minutes of either group. Will the Manzano Art Council, hemoraging burnt out members after the massive but exhausting effort of last year’s Studio and Gallery Tour, be up to the task of an Arts Tour in late May and the Sunflower Festival in late August? How many events can a small town reasonably support? What other questions does this pattern raise?

Sunflower Festival Emblem:
Sunflowers in Art Alley (R.I.P.)
(gone the way of Ranchers Day)

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