straight: wikipedia artCheck into Vancouver’s New Forms Festival at the Waldorf Hotel 
This article by Alexander Varty appeared in both the online and print editions of Straight

*With wild installation rooms and outdoor light-painting, the interdisciplinary, border-bashing festival takes over the Waldorf*

It’s hard to stay on the cutting edge for more than an instant. In the fast-paced world of media art, ideas come and go literally at the speed of light; yesterday’s conceptual breakthrough is all too often today’s TV commercial. Yet for the past decade, Vancouver’s New Forms Festival has stayed at the forefront of all things interdisciplinary, reliably tapping into an international network of borderless creativity.

“This year, though,” says director and curator Malcolm Levy, “something really interesting has happened.”

Indeed it has. A multimedia festival that was once amorphous, although innovative, has found renewed focus—and an event that formerly relied on various low-rent venues around town has found a new home in an old hotel. This year, New Forms takes place in what’s rapidly becoming an East Van icon, the recently renovated and artist-friendly Waldorf. With everything in one place—artists’ accommodation upstairs, fine Lebanese dining downstairs, three live-music venues, and a bar for socializing—a certain synergy is starting to build.

“What we have is a location where we can have complete control of the venue,” says Levy, on the line from the New Forms office. “The hotel rooms, the music rooms, and the whole outside façade of the building are all being used as part of the festival. So, basically, the goal this year is to make the space itself almost an installation during the weekend.”

For an event that lasts only three days, New Forms has assembled a head-spinning array of audience options—everything from wildly danceable electronic pop to serious discussions about copyright law. With its emphasis on an immersive mix of sight and sound, the event should offer what the poet Arthur Rimbaud once termed “the rational derangement of the senses”: an easily accessible route out of ordinary reality. With multisensory delights that include nighttime light-painting on the Waldorf’s west wall, it also has clear and intentional echoes of ’60s-style happenings. Sometimes new forms are just old ones waiting to be rediscovered.

“There are definitely influences from the ’60s, and from other things like the Fluxus movement, within New Forms,” says Levy. “It’s temporal in nature. You know, it’s happening within the space over the weekend; it’s about coming and being part of that and involving yourself within it. It’s not necessarily a sensory overload, but there’s definitely a chance to take in a lot at one time.”

Levy is especially excited about how festival artists will get to change several Waldorf locations into intimate galleries for the presentation and dissemination of media art.

“There are, I think, a total of 18 rooms at the Waldorf,” he says. “Eight of them have never been renovated, and those are all being used for installations. And then we have artists staying in the other rooms.…That definitely changes the dynamic in a very positive way. It becomes like one big family, in a sense.”

Given that one of the major themes of this year’s festival is the control of information, it’s appropriate that the artists will be able to take part in informal exchanges of ideas—at breakfast, say, or over a late-night drink. And in the more structured environment of the installation rooms, they will also play with notions of who controls what we see and hear.

“One of the pieces I think is going to be fun to see is the Wikipedia Art room, and that’s being done by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern,” Levy notes. “What they’re going to be doing is creating a Wikipedia hotel room; the entire room will be set up with décor based around the concept of Wikipedia art.”

Kildall and Stern have already sparked controversy: intended to flag the ways in which content is controlled on Wikipedia, their original Wiki page was deleted by the popular information site’s administrators within 15 hours of its installation. Later on, Wikipedia Art’s appearance at the 2009 Venice Biennale was shut down by Italian police, apparently due to concerns over copyright violations, in an echo of the legal landslide California-based sound collagists and copyright activists Negativland provoked with their 1991 release of a sample-laden swipe at U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Negativland founder Mark Hoskins will be contributing to New Forms’ more formal aspect, a conference on copyright issues called Art, Revolution and Ownership, and Wikipedia Art’s presence should also help kick-start the debate.

Organized in conjunction with the Artists’ Legal Outreach nonprofit, the symposium opens at SFU Woodward’s today (September 8), before moving to the Waldorf. It came out of Artists’ Legal Outreach lawyer Martha Rans’s concern that the creative sector was not adequately represented in Ottawa during the federal government’s recent overhaul of Canada’s copyright laws.

“I did my spiel and I sat there for two hours listening to however many speakers say what they had to say to the minister—and I thought what we really ought to be doing is talking to each other,” Rans explains in a separate telephone interview. “What the whole copyright issue often devolves into is industry versus user, and many artists have said to me, ‘What does that have to do with me? Neither argument resonates with me at all.’ And one thing that I do know is that in order to get artists to come and talk about these issues, you kind of have to make it about them. Hence the idea of an art exhibition.…I thought this would be a rather surreptitious way of teaching [artists] this stuff by getting them to talk about their work.”

Levy agrees. “You have this interesting two-fold dialectic happening,” he explains. “On one hand, you have people fighting for the opening of all content, this really strong push towards opening up the airwaves, so to speak. And then, on the other hand, you have the very important need for artists to be paid for their work, especially in a time when downloading and access to information is so ubiquitous.

“I don’t know if there is a resolution to that,” he adds, “but I think it’s a good discussion to be having.”

And if things get too heated? Well, there’s always the Tiki Bar.

The New Forms Festival takes place at the Waldorf Hotel from Friday to Sunday (September 9 to 11).