New CounterCurrent Festival Makes Waves in Art World

Interdisciplinary city-wide festival features 11 multimedia performances

By Michael Hardy April 7, 2014

Jonah Bokaer, ECLIPSE

April 9–13
Various locations and hours; check website

Houston writer Lacy Johnson earned her Ph.D. from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program in 2008 after creating what she describes as a “multimedia, multigenre, interdisciplinary web installation”—the first digital dissertation to be submitted to the UH College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—and has published two memoirs. Johnson’s husband, Josh Okun, is the executive creation director of advertising agency The Company of Others.

Although they’ve worked together in the past, the husband-and-wife team has never done anything like Invisible City, an interactive multimedia project debuting this week at the first annual CounterCurrent art and performance festival, sponsored by UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and running from April 9 to 13. The project is a combination scavenger hunt and choose-your-own-adventure, allowing people with GPS-enabled smartphones to go to different locations in Houston—the downtown tunnels, a city bus, a kayak on the bayou, and dozens more—to unlock different parts of three unfolding stories, all by local Houston writers. Only when someone is within range of the correct GPS coordinates can they access the next chunk of the story through the project’s website app. The goal is to use technology to force people to pay more attention to their environment, the artists told me.

"We were interested in breaking down the walls of the digital world and the real world," Okun said. "You go into any retail store today, or watch people sitting in a restaurant, and everyone is totally separated from the real world because they all bury their face in a mobile device. They don’t communicate with each other the way they used to, they don’t look at each other the way they used to. So I was curious about how you could shift that a little bit, to create a relationship with a place."

Suzanne Bocanegra, Rerememberer

"Shifting things a little bit" could be the tagline for the new CounterCurrent, which was organized by Mitchell Center for the Arts director Karen Farber. The Mitchell Center was founded in 2003 to promote interdisciplinary work like Invisible City, and brings together five UH departments: the School of Art, the Moores School of Music, the School of Theatre & Dance, the Creative Writing Program, and the Blaffer Art Museum.

The 11 projects included in CounterCurrent reflect the Center’s emphasis on collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and cosmopolitanism. In addition to Invisible City, there will be a collaboration between New York choreographer Jonah Bokaer and British video artist Anthony McCall; a piano concerto by Seattle composer Byron Au Yong; a documentary play by Mexico City theater company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol; and a multichannel sound installation in Hermann Park by UH art professor Abinadi Meza. Farber said she hopes to create "a groundbreaking event in the same genre of first-class arts festivals around the world, from Europe to Mexico City, New York to Portland." 

Although Invisible City is debuting at CounterCurrent with three Houston-based narratives, all of which require travel only within the Loop, after the festival the creators plan to allow people anywhere in the world to submit a GPS-based story to the website.

"We’ve been joking that you could create the most expensive novel in the world," Johnson said. "From New York you could be instructed to buy a plane ticket to Iceland to get the next part of the story. And things could just go from there."

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