Santa Barbara has a rich aesthetic history of alternative gatherings, beginning with the civic arts guilds of the early 20th century, and including the private and religious retreats of Montecito and Ojai, and the Mountain Drive community of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Fishbon, an area collective that sometimes throws elaborate parties, is a kind of 21st century, post-Burning Man version of this traditional Santa Barbara penchant for group art activity.
To know what something like Fishbon is really like, you have to actually do whatever it is they are up to. After speaking with Clay Bodine and Dominique Reboul of the group, it took me a couple of months to find exactly the right event to come in on. I had attended their gatherings in the past, but never fully participated in their costume aspect. On a Saturday just weeks before Christmas, I joined them in celebrating what has now become an international phenomenon, the group activity known as Santacon. Built around the easy availability and relative festivity of cheap Santa Claus suits, the event involves a large group of people dressed either as Santa or a member of his Santourage descending on an urban area for a few hours of nocturnal adventure.
From this Santa’s perspective, Fishbon’s Santacon Santa Barbara was a blast. Los Angeles Santacon specialist Ted Werth came in to help coordinate, and Reds’ Dana Walters and Fishbon’s Corinna both contributed their expertise to the evening, which went off without a hitch and lasted until the small hours. There were many highlights, but it’s impossible to imagine not mentioning the late night carousel experience, with its wickedly distorted heavy metal soundtrack and writhing, red-suited posse of riders. Like all Fishbon events, Santacon was a carefully crafted sequence that went off like spontaneous fireworks. Equal parts black humor, absurdity, vaudeville, burlesque, and sex appeal were blended on ‘liquefy’ until everyone involved was left in a state of total Santasfaction.
Prior to the Santacon experience I sat down with Bodine and Reboul for a conversation about the group’s origins and aims. To experience the next Fishbon, look around. As Reboul said, “If you are meant to be part of it, it will find you.”
How did Fishbon get started?
Dominique Reboul: This was kind of something that happened post-Solstice, which I did for 18 years. It began as a window onto some artist’s studios happening on Wednesdays. : At the same time that it outgrew the spaces, it became more important to the people involved. Finally we were able to obtain the location we are at currently, the Pescadrome. : The original mix was very balanced, artists to engineers, right brain to left brain. And the whole time we kept what we were doing open to the public, but in a way that meant that you had to find us. : We feel that the people who need to find us or should find us tend to find us on their own. They don’t need any help.
What is the big idea behind your events?
DR: I believe there is an actual art to partying. It’s not about consumption of drugs or alcohol, or wearing silly hats. It’s about creating a total environment for the party and really inhabiting it. At least that’s what we try to do.
How about you, Clay? How did you get involved with Fishbon?
Clay Bodine: My background was in theater and art. : What I have found [in Santa Barbara] is a place where I can be involved with the Southern California leaders in this kind of thing-creating incredible party environments for interactive theatrical celebrations-and they range in age from their twenties to their sixties.
Were you ever thinking that this could be a commercial activity?
CB: Not really. We have never been interested in attracting big crowds. It’s an educated group, and that allows us to operate without security issues. And many of our people don’t drink, so there’s not so much emphasis on the bar or the beer garden as you would find at a commercial event.
As far as I can tell, there has never been any advertising or flyers. Is that correct?
CB: Yes. It’s a fragile ecosystem that we maintain because everyone involved is allergic to commercialism. The illusion that we are a true underground is probably one of the most important things about what we do. But it’s also somewhat accurate. Our email list is only about 500, and mostly if you aren’t on it, you don’t know about us.
How frequently do you operate?
CB: We have lots of activities that happen almost every week, like our dance cell and our documentary film cell. As far as the big nighttime things are concerned, typically we do two or three totally sold-out events a year, mostly on the big holidays.
Tell me more about the cells. What are they and what do they do?
CB: They are just small special interest groups that meet often to practice, plan, and prepare. Some of the cells are may even be politically incorrect. The dance cell, the martial arts cell, the fire cell, the electronic and new music cells-it’s up to them what they program. The idea is to create another living room for the people involved. There are cells almost every night, but Friday is reserved for open studios.
Have you received anything that you would describe as recognition from outside the tribe?
CB: Sure. When the UCSB Media Lab wanted to do their final presentations at the Pescadrome, we knew we had something that other people could understand.
How would you define what you are trying to do?
DR: We are part of the not-for-profit community beehive. We feel it is our mission to elaborate the community and export the experience. Everything we do is designed to give people in the community opportunities.
Beyond that, what is the goal of the social part?
DR: We are creating a tribe. It’s a question that has always interested me: How, if you are not born into it, or married into it, do you enter a tribe? That’s what we are attempting to do, the question we are attempting to answer. We are using science, technique, and knowledge to create a community.
Are their social benefits to forming a tribe?
DR: Of course. The thing about it is, once you have cohered as a tribe, wherever you go, you are now a posse. It opens things up a lot to have people with you.
Give me an example of something you have done recently.
CB: On Halloween we created a city at Reds that was built by the participants to surround a giant robot. It was called “Heroes of the Apocalypse.” We danced in the city that we made for hours. The next day we came back and broke it all down. Because we think that all art is inherently a reaction to the environment, we try to provide these cool stages for people to activate themselves. We want there to be no expectations, just possibilities and options to enjoy.
What can we expect in the future?
CB: We are always active around the holidays, but that’s all I can say about that. In the spring we plan to go a little more public than we have in the past in terms of venues. We have taken blocks of time at Center Stage Theater in the Paseo Nuevo in March, June, and October. It’s our first attempt to move into the fully public space, but we hope to maintain our identity.