Posted by: Justin Hopper | September 15, 2008

Who’s On Firsts: PIFOF and You

Apparently there’s a bit of a disconnect regarding the last word in that title we’re dealing with here, this ‘Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.’ So let’s set the record straight: PIFOF is not about the first drive-in filling station (1913, near the Sharp Edge in Friendship) or the first Nickelodeon (1905, Smithfield St., Downtown). And while we’re glad for ‘em, we’re not even too concerned with the Salk Vaccine, or even (lord forgive me for saying it) the Immaculate Reception.

While all that stuff’s important – in some cases (ah-hem, Salk) really quite important – there’s something more subtly, culturally vital going on in the PIFOF. Eight performances by eight different artists and groups, each being enacted for the first time ever on U.S. soil – or, in a few cases, for the first time ever.

The irony, of course, that this is actually the second Festival of Firsts – launched in 2004, to coincide with that year’s Carnegie International show, just as this one coincides with Life On Mars. But the hopes and dreams of the Festival remain the same: To bring to audiences in Pittsburgh the same kind of opportunities usually reserved for London, Berlin, or New York – the opportunity to lay claim, and decide for ourselves what an artwork’s presence means.

Perhaps it’s simply seeing your personal world in a new light: I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Carnegie Museums this year alone, yet I cannot wait to see it through London artist Peter Reder’s eyes on his Guided Tour. And perhaps it’s something more vast: Just thinking about Teatro de los Sentidos‘ show, El Eco de la Sombra – theater composed of Byzantine architectural structures rather than an actor’s script – makes my head spin.

But maybe – just maybe – we’ll see something that spawns a new dynasty, or even a new artistic form. Like the distinct interaction between pop/rock music and canonic American 20th-century artwork in 13 Most Beautiful. Underground music legends Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips have concocted a series of pop songs written as soundtrack to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, the four-minute filmed portraits of celebrities and Factory-bums who passed through Warhol’s life. Is this the year that American popular music shakes hands with contemporary art as its equal and partner?

I like to think of PIFOF with the same subtle cultural weight as another Pittsburgh first. At a dance marathon in 1958, the story goes, Ray Charles ran short on material, and roared into a gospel vamp, producing a call-and-response around the words, “What’d I Say.” Not a moment that shook the world, but in some people’s minds the first time – the first – that the music now known universally as “soul” occurred.

We live in an age when “firsts” tend to be technological and scientific: As though the only ground left to break is on the right side of the brain. Maybe I’m a romantic, but I like to think that this kind of “first” moment can still happen culturally. To be first, in this cultural sense, is to have your mind exposed to new ideas untarnished by the communications whitewash that envelopes us in today’s world. It’s a rare chance for discussion before ubiquity; to develop ones’ own ideas in that brief, unique space between an artwork’s creation and its assimilation.

These blogs provide just such a space. Read ‘em; use ‘em; love ‘em. Everything we’ll be seeing this October is new to all of us – there’s no consensus, no cultural “right” or “wrong.” It’s up to all of us to decide what “we” think, and we want to hear from you!

The Comments are “on”: our phone lines – as they used to say – are now open.

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