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InLight Richmond Looks to a Famous Carnival More Than a Century Ago

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Inspired by the night pageants of Mardi Gras, Richmond's Electric Carnival of 1901 featured at its center an Eiffel Tower replica edged with incandescent lights with another 10,000 lights strung for half a mile across Broad Street.

From that magical event, which the Richmond Dispatch noted was "black with people and throbbing with life, music and weird noises," the 10th InLight takes its inspiration for this year's exhibition of light-based art and performances. For the third time in its history, the event takes place along Broad Street from Belvidere to Foushee, though not the same Broad Street of 2008 or 2012, much less 1901.

"It's a public space but full of private spaces," says Emily Smith, director of 1708 Gallery, the event's organizer. "The space is open, but illuminated from within. There are lots of interior spaces so we wanted the artists to think about how the neighborhood functions."

Nat Trotman, curator of performance and media at the Guggenheim Museum, was selected as the event's judge, tasked with choosing 22 proposals from a range of submissions. "He was looking specifically to get different types of light-based work," Smith explains, resulting in a mix of artists just out of undergraduate programs with more seasoned practitioners.

When InLight was held in Monroe Park, many pieces felt dwarfed by the park. So one thing organizers have learned, Smith says, is that InLight benefits from being seen as part of a fairly visible mass of people, as it was when held along the Canal Walk.

Chalet Comellas, Mark Baker and Clinton Sleeper work as a group on art projects that fall somewhere between sound, video, social practice and coded works. Their work draws on influences ranging from history and politics to early animation, most notably the zoetrope.

The interactive work depends on the presence of viewers and translates complex audio and video collages into semi-immersive viewing environments that scroll in front of viewers like rotating zoetrope machines. As viewers experience the work, they become collaborators, and the audio collage and pacing of the video shift.

"This delves into the political potential of the carnival, postulating a condition where a critical mass is gathered and the pace of the video becomes simply too fast to comprehend," Sleeper explains. "In that moment, the meaning of the image is lost. Instead, it means everything that we're here together."

"Periphery" by the artist known as Graehound is her first light-based work. It reflects the Electric Carnival theme by enveloping the viewer within a larger-than-life display of confetti-colored individual drawings dynamically lit from behind sparkling glass domes.

Informed by her own partial range of sight, the structure emulates a tool ophthalmologists use to diagnose whether a person can detect arbitrarily lit areas across the field of vision. She explains, "My biggest hope is that despite the many layers of rigorously academic content supporting the decisions within the work, anyone can sit with it and be present in a moment of personal contentment."

Rumput is a collaborative performance group combining traditional music and visual storytelling. Crankies, or moving panoramas, and shadow puppetry are accompanied by string band traditions from Indonesian or Appalachian folk music. Crankies were a ubiquitous entertainment staple often used at carnivals and world fairs. After his escape, Richmonder Henry "Box" Brown went on to make moving panoramas for audiences in the northern United States and Europe — these have seen a recent resurgence in folk art communities.

"Rumput unites the diverse origins of these art forms into a narrative experience that highlights the universality of song and story," says Rumput member Beth Reid. "We applied to InLight because the visual aspects of our performances have always been light-based, just like the traditional storytelling we're inspired by."

With each year the event's popularity seems to increase, almost rivaling the Folk Fest as a must-do happening for Richmonders. The early hours tend to be mobbed, while the last few are lively but attract fewer strollers and children.

But as it has been every year since the first, InLight is a gamble. "There's no dress rehearsal," Smith says with a knowing smile. "If a piece isn't the size we expected, oh well. It just is." S

InLight Richmond 2017 is held along West Broad Street from Belvidere to Foushee on Friday, Nov. 3, from 7 p.m. to midnight. 1708gallery.org.

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