Whether they are performers or attendees, people looked a tad bit eccentric. Photo: Eric Poole
Haus Party 10: A Hipster Douchebag Attends the The Tenth Annual Dark Arts Festival
I have seen way too many B-grade horror films to be totally okay with walking down a flight of rickety wooden stairs into an unfinished basement which looks like it could double as Cameron Hooker's sex dungeon away from home. But I'm hoping that if I survive to finish the article, SLUG will compenstae me in bar bucks. Is it grounds for matriculation into an Alcoholics Anonymous program if you are completely willing to put yourself in apparent peril for the faint possibility of getting 25 free PBRs from Burt's Tiki Lounge? If I leave this interview with Alanja Oliver alive, I'll have to ask my local pastor. For now, I'm here to check out the 10th and final Dark Arts Festival – at least it is the final festival spearheaded by Utah's Dark Arts Foundation. The future of the festival is uncertain, but it is said that Area 51 will take over next year, and local scenester Aaron Shea will attempt a festival of his own in 2012.
Alanja Oliver furrows her brow. “My favorite memory from Dark Arts over the last decade – and it's hard because the festivals are always such fun – is probably when Apocalypse Theatre set the stage at Sanctuary on fire. They had a guy playing a metal drum barrel and they lit it on fire. Well, it ended up spreading all over the stage. They felt horrible, but the show must go on.”
In its most embryonic form, the Dark Arts Festival started as “Nightmares” a weekly Saturday-night party at Oliver's house. “We'd ask a 5 dollar donations and we started bringing performers and bands in from out of state – the kinds that normally don't come through Utah.”
Eventually, Oliver and another active member of the scene joined forces and began the Dark Arts Festival. Things started moving forward. A non-profit was set up in 2003. “In the first year we had four people on the committee. A few years later, we had twenty. Then we got back down to nine, which is a respectable number. I think most of the kids that were in that group of twenty were afraid of work.”
And work it was. For the past decade, Oliver and the rest of the Dark Arts Committee have toiled yearly to bring music, performance, and fashion to a relatively small but devoted scene which has been thriving here in the harsh wastelands of Zion. And not with small results either. In 2003, David J. of Bauhaus graced the Festival attendees with his presence. In 2008, London After Midnight came. In fact, it would seem that the Dark Arts Festival has garnered no small amount of respect from Goth kids not only in the state, but in the outlying areas as well. “It's sad that this will be the last Festival we run as the Dark Arts Committee,” Oliver says. “We thought that, by now, new blood would have entered the scene and taken over. It just didn't happen.”
But let's flashback a few hours. As I walk to Area 51's entrance, I notice that the venue shares the same general corner as a local homeless shelter. Already, it's getting interesting. You combine a gaggle of hobos, sucking down their Gold Coast 100's, about to enter dreamland on one cot in a row of hundreds and a bunch of young girls dressed in corsets, leggings, frilly panties and way too much make-up and the consequences are going to get at least amusing, if not downright bloody. One man, bald and large like King Kong Bundy, is peddling his unique brand of desperate, sweaty love to every thing in a skirt which passes by. I notice a few Adam's apples in that mix, but I've always found it easier to let a fool dream than to rock the foundation of his worldview.
All the while, the sun is still shining mercilessly. I won't delve into obvious irony, but I will say that it is both funny and sad to watch a legion of goth kids opt to hang out in a dark club all evening when Mr. Sun is still hard at work giving us this beautiful day. I wonder if maybe I should ask any of them if they'd rather go for a round of Ultimate Frisbee at Pioneer Park, but, like everyone else, I assume that Goth kids as lacking in a sense of humor as they are in skin pigmentation and little league trophies. Especially after the first event on the roster, a rousing session of spoken word.
Unless your name is Eric Bogosian or Henry Rollins, spoken word is as awful as anything you might find in a film by Dario Argento or David Lynch. In fact, I would rather be pseudo-raped by an oxygen huffing Dennis Hopper every night for a year than listen to most people's observations read aloud. Be ye a hipster, a rapper, a cowboy, a drag queen, or whatever, your poetry, or whatever you call it, probably sucks. I'm sorry that you don't have anyone in your life who is good enough of a friend to tell you. I'm sorry you have to read it on the website for the local underground mag, but there it is. And don't think that Goth kids are immune to that sort of poetic mediocrity, either. I saved them for last because they are the most famous perpetrators. The only thing I can think, as monotone recitations garbled through a mid-level P.A. receive polite, but subdued applause is, Congratulations, you Would-Be Allen Poes – you have truly captured the agony of death in verse. At one point, a woman apathetically announces the title of her next poem - “Half-Butthole.” I begin asking people next to me where I can find the bar.
But it turns out, stereotypes aside, not all Goths are so painfully humorless – just the poets. One gentleman I meet, Zac Holm, has come all the way from Colorado to screen his “insolent comedy films” here at Dark Arts. Of the two he'll be showing tonight, the most memorably-titled one is My Life in Poo, which Holm describes as “a series of autobiographical vignettes involving myself and poo.” Good thing he clarified, because I thought it might be a symbolical title.
“We've always been welcome here,” Holm says. “The scene here is very friendly.” He informs me that back in Denver, there is a poor imitation of Salt Lake's Dark Arts Festival. Hence he comes here, where it is nice to know that his films about human waste are welcome. Still, base scatological tendencies aside, Holm is refreshingly good-humored. “Some people are able to laugh at themselves, but that stereotype of the humorless Goth exists for a reason. There are people who take it way too seriously.”
He's also one of the few friendly faces I've met thus far. The goth kids, like any other clique, have been able to quickly identify my outsider's scent. I'm not even the only yokel standing around in Levi's and Chuck Taylors - although I had imagined being completely submerged in a sea of corsets, smudged eyeliner, and more chains, collars, buckles, and zippers than would be used at Arkham Asylum and the Bastille combined. Still, it is crystal fucking clear that I am not one of them and the ones that will glance in my direction give me a pretty wide berth. This might be a little empowering for them – in the daylight world, it's usually the other way around. Truly, I am a stranger in a strange land.
I head to the bar for a drink. Again, more staring at my thoroughly bearded, eyeliner-free visage. I strike up a conversation with a girl at the bar, Crystal. Crystal has been coming to the festival for four years now and is excited to see the belly dancers and the burlesque shows. When I ask her what keeps bringing her back year after year, she says “It’s not as common to see industrial bands here in Utah, or really any of the kind of artists we have here.”
There is some merit to that. Unlike most locally-run festivals, which only serve as one giant obligation for the friends of anyone in the city's music scene, this year's Dark Arts Festival offers three days of fire-eating, fashion and hair shows, cake-eating contests, films, and art in addition to music. At one point, I meet Skye. Skye has been a member of the Dark Arts Committee for six years, and volunteered for two before that. “After working on this for the better part of a decade, how do you feel about the Dark Arts Festival no longer being the labor of the Dark Arts Foundation?” I ask.
“Obviously, it's a little sad,” she says, “But I think it'll end up okay, especially with Aaron and Area 51 both kind of keeping it going.” Skye is apparently not worried about the schism between Area 51's Dark Arts and the one run by Shea. “The scene is big enough to support both,” she says.
I have so far not seen any bands. A fashion show has taken over the stage from the spoken word kids. About half the models, with their ample frames shoved into their corsets and frilly skirts, invoke more images of Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities than some mistress of the night. In fact, the only thing I’ve seen more of than Defarge doppelgangers are people with unnecessary eye-patches. The other half of the models are definitely men. It seems that chokers are always in vogue for people who need to keep their Adam's apple a secret. This fashion show is surely one of those affairs which I fear to witness, yet cannot bring myself to turn away. One of the heftier women has begun belly-dancing. Be still my gag reflex.
Fire dancing makes up for it, though. And not just because there is fire, which is thoroughly awesome. But also, Andrea and Lara, the two pyromaniacs who make up Beauté Dérangée, are skilled at what they do beyond anyone's doubt. As they repeatedly shove flaming batons into their mouths, and rub fire all over their bare arms and bellies, I am completely transfixed. For the first time all night, someone has finally achieved the goal of performing – to entertain the audience. The best part of the act is of course when one of them steps off the stage and into the crowd. All of a sudden the flock of photographers who have congregated just off the lip of center stage disperse quickly, like frightened pigeons.
First-timers at the Dark Arts Festival (aside from myself, for the most part) seem pretty pleased with the evening's offerings. At a merch table featuring the most schizophrenic array of trinkets imaginable (fairies, a bust of Nefertiti, dragons, and action figures from Coraline, V for Vendetta, The Princess Bride, and Harry Potter), I meet one kid who doesn't really look the Goth part. His denim jacket and punk rock buttons tell me that perhaps coming here was not his idea originally. Still he's enjoying himself. “So far, so good,” he says. Maybe that's the thing I can like about this, I decide. While wallowing in despair and obsessing over death are definitely my kind of things, I always sort of approached it from more of Townes Van Zandt perspective than, say, This Mortal Coil. Did I come to this Festival sort of begrudgingly? Yes. But, did I learn that watching any subculture have fun, even one which is normally laughable to me, is sort of infectious? Absolutely. It turns out that while our stereotypes about Goth kids might be mostly accurate, what we maybe have not taken into account is that they have a lot of fun being living embodiments of other people's snarky observations about Robert Smith and pre-Twilight vampire movies.
Down in the dank, unfinished basement of Area 51, which I had feared would be the setting of my Cormac McCarthy-style demise, there is a couple admiring each other's powdered wigs. One guy, whose lower jaw and mouth are completely entombed in black make-up, politely asks if he can sit with Oliver and I. People are laughing and smiling, even though this will ultimately be the last time this Festival happens at their hand. Its nothing you would find in the album art of a Cocteau Twins effort. But in any clique, even those founded on an unnecessarily bleak world-view, there's a cool Cheers kind of vibe. Like, sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and sometimes that place is a dank catacomb or a graveyard at night. No doubt the Dark Arts Festival will live on. But, in some ways, its definitely dying. Or, at least, changing dramatically.
Still, against any predictions, Oliver is pretty optimistic. Asked if she will continue to be as active in her scene now that her committee is disbanding, she laughs. “The only thing I'm looking forward to right now is not doing anything. Besides drinking.”