Take an art show comprised entirely of works found in the trash, a soapbox derby, countless bands, guerilla theatre interventions, conceptual art pieces, picnics in strange places, video screenings and parades and you get a pretty interesting festival. Remove participation fees, unethical sponsorships, a heavy corporate presence and any form of censorship and replace those negatives with an inclusive community-based approach to the arts and you get the International Infringement Festival.
Created in Montreal in the summer of 2004 and thrown together in just a few months, the festival has managed to survive long enough to enter its seventh year and spread to various communities around the world as varied as Bordeaux, France and Ottawa, sometimes planting roots and continuing. This year, there are four stops on the Infringement circuit: Brooklyn, which already happened in May; Montreal, which gets underway in late June; Hamilton (for the first time) in early July; and Buffalo in the end of July and early August.
“When I first conceptualized this festival it was as a culture-jam against the now-trademarked Fringe Festival,” says Donovan King, still an active infringer in Montreal, “I had no idea whether it would be a one-off or if it would take on a life of its own. I am pleased to see that it has, which means there is a need for this type of critical arts event.”
In its birthplace, the festival is gearing up for another event. This year the fest will feature a Dumpster Dive Art Drive where found objects are turned into works of art while wine is served from a brown paper bag in an alley, a series of picnics in unusual places, the now-infamous street theatre experiment Car Stories (whose getting kicked out of the Fringe prompted the creation of the Infringement) and more traditional indoor music and theatre shows inside established and not-so-established makeshift venues.
While giving various artists a platform to express themselves politically or just plain perform and have a good time regardless of their notoriety or economic capacity, the Montreal fest also has a culture-jamming cell that carries out direct guerilla theatre interventions. In the early years, most of this theatrical critique was directed at the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe and their policy of charging artists, though since 2007, the cell has focused more on other targets like the corporate spam which is sadly now a regular part of the St-Laurent street fair:
This is all possible thanks to the time generously donated by volunteer organizers and a bit of financial support from ethical companies. The festival has very strict criteria as to what types of businesses can and can’t sponsor the event. Those criteria along rules that you can’t charge artists to participate, that you must be run democratically, that artists keep 100% of their box office and that you should try and seek out critical artists with something to say are the only regulations Infringement organizers or would-be Infringement organizers have to follow.
The rest, including the length of the festival, the number of artists that perform, the types of venues provided (if any) and the tone and theme of the event are decided locally based on what the local community needs. The Buffalo Infringement, for example, has a different approach to the hands-on intervention politics practiced by some in the Montreal festival.
“Political issues are tackled by the artist not the fest,” says Jason Klinger, a visual artist and one of the fest’s organizers, “we provide the soapbox, pun intended.”
The pun refers to a soapbox derby open to all artists which the BIF is trying for the first time this year. It is one of what promises to be around 1000 individual performances, up from last year’s rough total of 600.
Many of those acts, if history shows anything, are bound to be politically progressive in nature or at the very least quite unique. I still remember Subversive Theatre’s version of The Exception and the Rule in 2007, staged as a moving street theatre piece and in particular the part where the show had to dodge two other Infringement acts happening in the streets at the same time. The following year, someone named Nobody ran for president at the festival. Nobodys is now the name of one of their more grassroots venues. They’ve also hosted fire shows in the park since 2005.
This year’s slate includes returning infringers The Blood Thirsty Vegans and Anal Pudding, local noteable Eric Starchild and quite a few up-and-coming or unknown artists. Like in Montreal, the Buffalo Infringement has seen its fair share of first-time performers.
Spread out over the Allentown and Elmwood Village neighborhoods, Buffalo is hands-down the largest stop on this year’s Infringement circuit. In what was once a city of millionaires, local independent artists are now breathing new life into a community hit hard economically when the steel industry left town a few decades ago. It is them who welcomed the Infringement with open arms when Subversive’s Kurt Schneiderman first brought it to town in 2005 and it is them who continue to nurture the fest.
“I think there are a lot more artist per capita,” says Long Island native Curt Rotterdam, another Buffalo organizer and infringer since 2006, of his adopted home, “some people left. Artists stayed. Buffalo has a certain charm, maybe it’s the water.”
Klinger adds: “it’s supported because the arts community is very DIY here and they enjoy that about the fest. After all we are the city of good neighbours.”
Just a quick bike ride across the border and down the road a bit from Buffalo, Gary St-Laurent is busy booking bands for Hamilton’s first-ever Infringement to be held this July. While music is generally a large part of any Infringement Festival, in Hamilton, it accounts for the vast majority of performances.
“The Hammer’s a musical oasis and the fest reflects this reality,” says St-Laurent, “so far, only three acts are not musical: Car Stories from Montreal, a dance troupe from Oakville and an Improv comedy troupe from here.”
St-Laurent, also a co-founder of the Infringement in Montreal along with conceptualizer King and the author of this post, plans to bring some musical acts from his former home to town including Ashtray Heart, K-Man and the 45’s, Richard Lahmy and E.J. Brule. They will join local infringers and maybe some talent from Buffalo as well at the roughly 200-capacity This Ain’t Hollywood, an up-and-coming venue that will serve as the epicenter of the festival.
That doesn’t mean it’s the only place where people will be infringing. As luck would have it, the first Friday of the fest coincides with the wildly successful Art Crawl which features vernissages, buskers and a soapbox for political rants. St-Laurent plans for the festival to be a big part of this, much like how the annual College Street Block Party is part of the Infringement in Buffalo.
Integrating with the community and collaborating with other like-minded groups and events is a core part of many an Infringement festival. Rather than employ a top-down approach of festivals having to operate a certain way across the board, each local group of Infringement organizers, provided they adhere to the mandate, are free to tailor their fest to the needs of their community.
Instead of running eleven days or even a weekend, the second-annual Brooklyn Infringement Festival decided to hold a one night only event this past May, which featured local bands and drew about 500 people.
“In a place like Brooklyn there is so much art and music, so many scenes it is impossible to keep up with what everyone is doing,” says Brooklyn Infringement organizer Steve Ferrara, who also performed in a musical capacity, “having said that, Infringement Brooklyn fits right in with Brooklyn’s artists. It is under the radar. We don’t dump all kinds of money into advertisement and PR, it is all word of mouth. Despite this fact, the festival was filled past capacity this year.”
Indeed, the Infringement seems right for just about any community. It is infinitely mutable as long as its basic principles are respected and regardless of the content of any particular festival, just holding one is a political statement in and of itself. Or, as Ferrara puts it:
“Infringement stands for mom and pop art. How can I not love that.”
For more on the 2010 Infringement circuit or to find out how you can start a festival in your community, please visit infringementfestival.com.
Jason C. McLean is a cofounder of the Infringement Festival, and can be found at jasoncmclean.com.