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One-Night Stand

Sometimes art shows up in the most unlikely places.


She awaited her public.

As art, it was quite successful, especially considering how cold it was that night, Mark Harris reflects. Harris, now the director of the art school at the University of Cincinnati, was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University two years ago. One of his courses was on artists as curators, and the class culminated in a one-night art show using rented hotel rooms at the Inns of Virginia as a staging ground for various performances and installations.

They called it "I Mean C'mon, Fluff My Pillow." The event's been so popular that it's continued since Harris left for the Midwest. The third annual "Fluff," set for May 10, features 19 rented rooms, with students from six different schools showing work designed to make a statement rather than a sale.

Harris speaks softly but quickly in a delicate British accent. He uses mannered, academic terms in humorous contrast to the rowdiness of the events in question. "Fluff" typically devolves into drunken karaoke at Arthur's, the hotel bar, and then moves to the pool. (Last year, after the dead prostitute had risen, she sang Joan Jett's "I Love Rock N' Roll.")

Still, Harris cautions not to take the event too lightly. He believes the show "really gets to the radical purposes of art-making: How do you want art to change people's experience?" Making an impact on the viewer seems important to most artists, but galleries and museums generally have trouble drawing a wide public audience. "Fluff" aims to create an art event that's like a rock show—something not to be missed.

"Fluff" gets students to draw on the strangeness of the setting and focus their own ideas about curating. In one of the 2004 installations, a student played out a scene where a visitor had just arrived in the hotel room. He surveyed his surroundings, used the bathroom, drank some whiskey and then repeated the same series of activities every five minutes. Viewers were allowed to watch from outside through the window. "The window became a screen," says Harris, and the work was transformed by its setting.

In another 2004 room, visitors could answer a ringing telephone and have a story read to them. "There's a joyful improbability in each encounter that would be tedious in a gallery," Harris says.

It may sound a little unconventional, but the idea for "Fluff" is rooted in an avant-garde tradition going back to Berlin's dada movement in the first half of the 20th century. "The legacy of the avant-garde was to hold out hope of integrating art and social aims," Harris says. He notes that part of that legacy is a string of failures. dada did not enable the rise of Nazi Germany, but it didn't prevent it, either.

Harris' class has been studying more recent examples of avant-gardism, such as collectives in London and New York that would put on quick, weird- but-well-attended shows that were not the least bit concerned with selling work.

Harris says that although "Fluff" is not overtly political, it plays with the politics of the art world by empowering students, instead of dealers or gallery owners, to determine the criteria, location and conditions for the exhibit.

"It's not just social, it's a transformative experience," he says. "That kind of engagement is just about the most you can get" at an art show. S

"I Mean C'mon, Fluff My Pillow … Part Three" takes place May 10, 6-9 p.m. at the Inns of Virginia, 5215 W. Broad St. Karaoke to follow.<

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