Brushes with out-of-boxers

Somewhere betwixt the homogenization and packaging of the arts and the sterilization of artistic passion due to apathetic eyes and ears lies a pocket of Orlando dreamers who still believe that something new under the sun is yet to be found and are willing to prove it. These few pioneer past tradition while shunning arbitrary definitions like "avant garde" to push the envelope of their art, not to be trendy, not to be seen by the "right" people, but to grapple with something greater: The ultimate expression of self and the connection of that self with greater concerns -- like the very nature of art and music and the need to manifest it.

Alden Arts Happening
October 23

Lake Ivanhoe shimmers under a pale, over-ripe harvest moon. Past the railroad tracks, a warehouse district frames an alleyway lined with tented booths adorned with hand-wrought jewelry and black-and-white photography. A study of hands recalls Georgia O'Keefe's, framed in the lens of her lover, Steiglitz. There's pottery, paintings, kilted bagpipers, a symphony of "Amazing Grace" filling the chilled air. Youthful blue hair, body piercings, hippie dresses and crazy hats mix with the more academically conservative khakis and Dockers. Rumors have it this will be the first and last "Happening." Bureaucracy? Politics? Money? Indifference? No matter, the artists struggle to knit fragile shreds of support into a stable landscape.

Drums lure the foot traffic to a warehouse parking lot, to loading docks stacked with sound equipment. Here, an angelic voice loops and soars, ancestral Celtic yearnings layering chaotic instrumental improvisations. Primal rhythms awaken the corners of the Happening, a crowd converges under a blue-black sky. Who are they? A man points to an erasable board: "Jehn Cerron" it reads, squeezed under a crossed-off name; "Numb Right Thumb" is right under it.

The music ends, and I introduce myself to Jim Ivy. Tonight he is assuming his current incarnation as the sax player for Numb Right Thumb. Ivy finds it funny that the band keeps getting nominated for local music awards. "I suppose we're avant garde, but that's such a broad definition. It's like saying a band plays rock."

"What did you think of the music?" he asks me. "I don't know," I say, searching for words like melody, groove, form, finding nothing to attach them to. "What did you hear?" he asks. "Well, there's no groove," I answer. He invites me to another performance on Halloween to get a better feel for the music.

I query another man who seems to be overseeing the stage. "Avant garde?" he says, as he smiles wryly and points to a banner that reads, "Apartment E." "I've been here 10 years and I can tell you all about it," he says, handing me a card. "I'm Frankie Messina. Call me. We'll have tea in my laundry room." I smile. Isn't that what the Mad Hatter said to Alice?

Performance Space Orlando
October 29

There are about 600 square feet in this unfinished room wedged between a strip of unpretentious offices. A beauty parlor's in the back. A woman collects money at the door, sporting a headdress like a Fourth of July sparkler. Winnie Wenglewick offers this space to local artists "just because they need a cheap place to perform, and nobody else in town does." Inside, a DJ scratches and mixes over a backdrop of two TVs, a sheet on the wall, a rolling documentary of rockets lifting off and slides of craters on the moon. The audience sits on a handful of metal chairs. Faces are silhouettes, eyes are riveted, bodies prone.

Later, Numb Right Thumb assumes a dark corner, a collusion of skipping, driving rhythms -- drums and tambourines, copper- bottomed cooking pots and wooden sticks, upright bass, saxophone with a vocal-effects box, sampler and delays. Here and there come bird calls, a nose flute. A free-form melody line that never turns around meanders over and around the eerie theremin. The groove is inaccessible. The audience, some kindred artists themselves who know what it's like to struggle with their own art, nod in appreciation and sway to some subjective groove. The dissonance speaks; it's ritualized postmodern pandemonium. Art reflecting life? A specter of the day-to-day cacophony of "white noise?" Visuals offer fiery O-rings in the sky, a flash of Hubble telescope slides. We, the audience, are multitasking.

Tea in the laundry room
November 4

Frankie Messina gives me the tour. The laundry room is a tiny space crammed with six years worth of every Orlando entertainment newspaper that's ever been published. The garage is wall-to-wall with independent films -- Enzian film festival submissions, actually. Introductions are made to the Apartment E mascot, Eartha (after Eartha Kitt), a large, round, circa 1960s leopard-skin-covered chair. Out back sits a stack of montaged tabletops for his dream cafe, where poets can afford a beer, and musicians don't need a press kit and a CD to play.

Messina has a mission: "All that is not given is lost." We settle on cinnamon tea in his knotty-pine kitchen while he ex-plains his Apartment E concept -- art-fueled informal gatherings to celebrate and nurture local talent. Named after an actual apartment he lived in where he struggled just to pay the electric bill, it's symbolic of those whose "passions are being beaten out of them from their jobs, or from just surviving, or money problems." It's also his answer to what he sees as the lack of giving by clubs, galleries and theaters to the local arts culture. Future endeavors might include the re-turn of Light Up Orlando, originally organized to celebrate home-town talent. "I've got a new name for it though," he says, smiling slyly. "Lighten Up Orlando, because if you want to play a kazoo backwards, you should be able to do it."

Snippet of conversation in noisy, smoky, pricey downtown coffee stop

"It's all been done. It's hopeless," she moans, taking a swig of Rolling Rock. "I don't think that at all," he says, from under his stocking cap that matches his loud-plaid wool lumber jacket. He's almost the only one in the place not wearing black. "Really? Why?" she says. "I think at the end of every century we hit a low point. Then in the first 20 years of the new century, something happens that's so groundbreaking, it blows the doors off the art world. Look at Dada, surrealism. Great things have happened in this century. Look at Bob Dylan when he got booed off the stage for using an electric guitar for the first time. So I have a lot of hope." "You sound like a guru or something," she says thoughtfully. "No, I'm a listener. I'm hearing things -- rustlings -- new things coming." "A movement you think?" "Naw. A backlash -- away from all this superficiality -- where the faithful who believe in their art can express all those things in-side them freely. We could call it beatitude." "It's been done," she says dryly, looking for the bartender.

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