FOTA-synthesis: Annual arts festival blooms anew

It’s hard to get away from the University of Chicago’s vaunted devotion to academics. From the sneering gargoyles to the campus-dominating Brutalist library, one can be forgiven for occasionally worrying that the life of the mind is the only life around here. Of course, as the rows of freshly-planted tulips outside the Reg or Frisbee-tossing kids on the Midway show, Hyde Park does bustle with life, if you’re willing to go out and find it. Even more visible than the just-planted turf on the quads is this year’s Festival of the Arts (FOTA), a weeklong exhibition of student work that aims to enhance the life of the mind with the life of art. Since 1963, FOTA has fostered student creativity by providing funding, equipment, and exhibition space. Just as important as sewing machines and easels, though, is the exposure. As third-year senior curator Zoe Samels explains, FOTA “brings art to new audiences and new audiences to art” by making it an integral part of daily life. With exhibits in and around almost every major building on campus and performances most days of the Festival week, it seems they’ll succeed.

FOTA’s board is excited about the quality of this year’s works, although there are fewer than in past years. Some of it is unmistakably Uchicagoan, like Christina Dennaoui’s The Schema of Mass Arab Culture, a meditation on works by Edward Said and Theodor Adorno, and located (where else?) in Cobb Hall. Others, like the papier-mâché legs jutting out from lecture halls in Amanda Miller’s “Wicked Witch of the Midwest,” are more playful. Another highlight is Victoria Liu’s “If This Picture Could Stalk,” which combines photographs of the artist’s perception of students with their written responses. This year has also seen a shift towards drawing, photography, and ceramics, with fewer large installations. Nevertheless, the nineteen-foot balloon outside Pick Hall will be hard to miss. In addition to the twenty-three FOTA visual arts installations ranging from photographs, a variety of connected projects and events will take place under FOTA’s banner, including the annual fashion show and a guided tour of the Renaissance Society.

Collaboration with a wide range of other University organizations is another important part of Festival of the Arts. This year, Fire Escape Films holds the Single Script Festival, where several student filmmaking teams each interpret the same script, while University Theater plans a number of special performances. Even DKE is involved, hosting a charity Battle of the Bands on the Bartlett quad. Adding more formal training is the Division of Visual Arts, whose graduating seniors will show their culminating works in a one-night show at the Reynolds Club. It’s all part of FOTA’s overarching philosophy, which is to integrate art into the Chicago atmosphere, or as fourth-year executive director Kristine Khouri puts it, letting students “find art in places where they don’t expect it.”

FOTA’s emphasis is still mostly on individual students, who often lack the resources to implement their ideas and the venues to display them. As fourth-year director Hannah Kushnick says, “We root for the underdog.” It’s a tough battle. As the dozens of student literary magazines piled in the lobby of the Reynolds Club can attest, certain forms of expression have a plethora of outlet. However, FOTA is the only major outlet for student visual art. Recognizing their importance in that role, they’ve expanded their activities for both promoting and displaying art on campus. In 2007 alone, they’ve screened a documentary on Andy Warhol, hosted an open mic night in Hallowed Grounds, and supported an installation on the quads.

Entry into FOTA is still a competitive process: this year, they received more than 100 submissions, narrowed down to a much smaller number of funded works by feasibility, resources, and quality. Organizing the event is a more difficult task, requiring the coordination of artists, RSOs, and building staff. It starts in the winter, as applications are submitted, and the first of many long meetings about which works to choose and the logistics of the Festival begin. Despite the organizational hurdles they face in arranging one of the University’s most visible events, Kushnick says FOTA is “actually a very fluid organization. Our board has only ten members,” a fact that would be hard to guess from the impact FOTA has campus. Of course, as any of the artists involved would tell you, zeal and ambition go a long way in fostering creativity.