Serendipitous Organization, Jim Strong reflects on Human Festival 01 and anti-curatorial curation

Catherine Rush attends Human Fest 01 at the Icebox and interviews its creator, and budding performance impresario, Jim Strong. Though the events he improvises often playfully defy description, Strong, who also paints and makes musical instruments, has built a solid reputation as a connector of people through his unwavering commitment to openness and generosity.

Video of a domesticated wood, punctuated by the occasional distant suburban passer-by, activated two walls of the Crane Arts Icebox Project Space during Human Festival 01, a “wide-view compendium of contemporary practices at the intersections of Experimental Music, Performance Art, Dance, Publishing and Visual arts; both Nationally and Internationally.” The creator of the October 21st event, Jim Strong, shot the footage that morning near his home in Narberth and selected it for the central installation just before the start of the event.

“I wasn’t happy until that last moment,” Strong says with a small smile, “so people were coming in and I was still playing with things.” He chose this footage both to complicate the feeling of place and introduce attendees and participants to a geography he feels close to. “I also have performances at my house there, so I thought it would be nice to…transpose woods and something really intimate to me in that space to share with people.”

Not only did Strong, who is a multi-disciplinary performer and artist member of Vox Populii gallery and the Impermanent Society of Philadelphia, not spend long planning the Human Festival, but he makes it a part of his practice not to overthink event-planning in general. “I’m…somewhat philosophically opposed to really explicit curation. Largely…we just sort of want to open the doors.”

Performance with Jim Strong and Levi Bentley, "Fish Songs" at Vox Populi 1/28/17.
Performance with Jim Strong and Levi Bentley, “Fish Songs” at Vox Populi 1/28/17.

The Human Festival aims to “hold a space in which art can be intimate, responsive and mischievous; a generous laboratory without partition.” Rather than forcing restrictions to induce coherency, Strong relies largely on chance and the kind of serendipity arrived at through immersion, fluency, and risk. “That kind of spontaneous curation that happens when you’re just trying to accommodate people makes nice bedfellows” he says.

Though he issued no formal call for Human Fest, Strong announced through his personal social networks that anyone interested was invited to perform. Human Festival 01 was jam-packed with contributors and content, featuring Ami Yamasaki, Tavishi, RM Francis, I have been in the tutor, Cameron Shafii, Memory Foam, Antonia, Gabi Losoncy, David Wesley Sutton, Maddie Hewitt, and exhibiting/tabling artists Pomona Za, Maggie Lily, Lane Speidel, and Mark Dilks. MODUS, initially invited to perform, instead released their own 24-hour call for artists, culminating in a book.

A video and fibers artist as well as a performer, Ami Yamasaki used movement and multiphonic vocal work in her piece. Her controlled gestures, combined with dolphin-like utterances that bounced off the walls — alternately cacophonous, delicate and guttural — spun the most organic sonic and visual experience of the show.


“She is almost the archetypal Human Fest artist,” Strong says of Yamasaki, whom he met through a friend and local DJ. “If there is any underlying thing it’s artists that work across many different mediums as almost a holistic thing.”

As Yamasaki’s performance was announced, a man cheering with the room turned to the woman beside him and joked quietly, but not inaudibly, “I’m just clapping for Japan.” Yamasaki addresses this impasse of exoticization in an absurdist fan-fiction-style short not shown at Human Festival but earmarked by Strong in our correspondence as “required viewing.” Interacting ardently with R2D2 through a shop window in an improvised tongue, Yamasaki turns to the camera at the end to ask: “Wouldn’t it be nice if I appeared in the Star Wars series as a girlfriend of R2D2, as just an ordinary woman, without any Eastern Mysticism?”

Emily Shinada, an artist from Providence appearing as ‘I have been in the tutor,’ provided a complex counterpoint to Yamasaki’s piece, and a perfect example of Strong’s laissez-faire approach bearing fruit. Difficult to classify, Shinada’s multimedia work involved an installation of hanging polyvinyl sheets, as well as a video projection sequence including digital artwork, found YouTube videos, and occasional images specific to her reading. Shinada invited audience members to cluster closely on the floor around her as she read off a barrage of prose poetry, both meditative and forensic, contemplating the realities of life under our current dystopian state of near-limitless surveillance and corruption.

Emily Shinada appearing as “I have been in the tutor." Image courtesy of Icebox Project Space.
Emily Shinada appearing as “I have been in the tutor.” Image courtesy of Icebox Project Space.

Strong booked Shinada, “sight unseen,” and, in a synchronistic surprise, found they both showed work in which horseshoe crabs figured prominently. (Strong draws inspiration for his wheel-based musical instruments from these arthropods, which have their mouths in the center of their legs). Discussing their shared love, they discovered each had ventured to Delaware, independently, to view the mating season.

In response to my offering the designation “transdisciplinary artist,” Strong questions the limiting capitalistic impulses implicit in that language.

“I would say…that is the base artist — to be transdisciplinary. Disciplines are so often imposed by trying to fit a market value. The thing that’s always fun about experimental music as art is that it has less of a pretense for fitting into arts spaces and in that I think it can fluidly and clumsily address many different concerns in form or in content.”

Although he plans to hold another Human Festival, Strong is characteristically not tied to the name, place, or any other specifics.

Encouraging anyone interested in performing at similar future happenings to contact him, ( Strong emphasizes that reciprocal and supportive networks of collaborators and friends make it possible to produce events centering the art and music of those feeling estranged from or strange to the gallery system.

“You can have your eyes set on a large vision for something with very little planning,” Strong maintains, “if you have generous people around you and everyone is sharing that generosity.”

artblog sick engine jim
Jim Strong standing with his sculpture, “Sick Engine.”
Antonia performing at Human Festival. Image courtesy of Icebox Project Space.
Antonia performing at Human Festival. Image courtesy of Icebox Project Space.
David Wesley Sutton performing at Human Festival. Image courtesy of Icebox Project Space.
David Wesley Sutton performing at Human Festival. Image courtesy of Icebox Project Space.