One pleasure of covering the arts in Santa Barbara comes from glimpsing the talent operating behind the scenes, in particular in the area of programming. For every interesting show you see in town, there’s a brilliant person — often a team of brilliant people — hard at work finding the artist, matching the performance to the venue, and hustling to raise the resources required to make it happen. And while the majority of these programming heroes are familiar faces — Celesta Billeci, Moss Jacobs, Roman Baratiak, Patrick Posey, David Asbell, Jonathan Fox … the list goes on — occasionally someone new pops up who shows that same knack for creating essential nights of performing art.
Heather Jeno Silva, the director of Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Santa Barbara’s upcoming On Edge Festival, is a classic example. A veteran staffer at UCSB Arts & Lectures, she learned the fine points of the business of booking from the best. As a side project, Silva began working with Miki Garcia of MCA Santa Barbara on a monthly performance-art series that went by the unassuming title of Forum Lounge.
Forum Lounge was Silva’s DIY idea for invigorating the younger division of the city’s arts community with some decidedly strange performances on Thursday evenings in the gallery space at Paseo Nuevo. Word spread quickly, and soon these Thursday-night happenings were the place to be, almost regardless of what the performance was. Dance, puppets, comedy, technology, autobiography, provocation — all the tools in the performance art box got taken out at Forum Lounge and tossed around, often by rising stars who would wind up playing much bigger venues and cities within months or even weeks of their appearances at MCA.
When she felt that Forum Lounge had reached its peak, Silva leveled up by transforming her monthly events into an annual festival. Thursday-Sunday, October 15-18, the new operation, now known as the On Edge Festival, will take place at a variety of venues, including not only the MCA gallery space but also the Goodland Hotel, Center Stage Theater, the Davidson Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and even the Ablitt House at 13 West Haley Street. Engineered to feed off the youthful energy coursing through our streets during New Noise Music Festival, the 10 separate performances are free, open to the public, and off the hook.
Thursday night’s opening party features Luke Savisky, who has developed an elaborate set of digital techniques for transforming the facades of buildings into giant interactive video installations. You will never look at the Ablitt House the same way again. You may not even recognize it. On Friday, there will be contemporary Native American dance and film at the MCA, and on Saturday, Quindar takes over the Goodland with an avalanche of images gleaned from the NASA archives and set to dreamy electronica.
When I asked Silva about the mission of On Edge, some most interesting insights came out. Far from being proud of how “sick” or “weird” performance art can sometimes be (e.g., Sunday night’s festival closer, the ever outrageous Dynasty Handbag from Portland), Silva sees her role as primarily oriented toward audience development. “The goal is to create opportunities for larger conversations about culture to take place” she said. “This year we are working on how to make the works feel relevant to the average person. I know resources are not infinite, and I try to be sensitive to the moment.” Looking forward to the festival, it’s easy to see why they have chosen the following as their slogan: “This is (a) happening.”