This weekend I flew into New York to visit the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival (aka the BCGF) for the second time. I loved it the first time, so I had high hopes. Things went wrong right from the start, though. My hotel, down in the Meatpacking District, had been flooded. Although they had light and heat, the elevator and the wifi were still out. The former was a drag (especially after long days spent on my feet), but the latter was crippling. I was expecting to be able to post from the road, and now I couldn’t. I had lugged my heavy lap-top all the way to New York for no reason. My mood was soured.
I got in Thursday night and spent all day Friday gallery-hopping with a friend, first in Chelsea (the Trenton Doyle Hancock show was a standout—I’ll have more to say about it later), then over to Brooklyn to check out some of the shows associated with the festival. But we didn’t look at the schedule closely and realized we were early for two of the exhibits. They were still hanging work when we showed up.
B.ü.L.b. at Beginnings Gallery
The B.ü.L.b. show at Beginnings Gallery, however, was up, but disappointingly contained no original art. The visuals were mostly uncut sheets from their various publications.
B.ü.L.b. is a design studio/comics publisher from Switzerland. Their website is in French, but you can read their manifesto in an approximation of English here. One thing they create are little boxes with several tiny accordion fold comics in each. These comics, the 2[w] collection, are done by the very best art comics artists all over the world and printed by silkscreen. They are lovely objects. The boxes started with “A” in 1997 and they have been heading steadily toward “Z”—they are on “Y.” I propose that they continue the 2[w] series employing other alphabets—Greek, Russian, Arabic, etc.
I think the satellite art exhibits were new this year. Working with galleries in Brooklyn, the BCGF arranged to have several solo and group shows for a variety of the guest artists. The tricky thing with something like this is timing. If you have all the openings on the same day as the show, it is impossible for visitors to attend them all. But if you spread them out too far, it may be impossible for artists to attend both their opening and the festival. Also problematic was that the gallery spaces were spread out pretty far. It wasn’t convenient to get from one gallery to the next. I suspect that if you are from the neighborhood, it’s not too bad, though. My lack of familiarity was a handicap here.
I got back to my hotel Friday night dead tired, but happy having had a very entertaining day looking at art. The one bad thing was that my dogs were barking. Twelve hours of walking had done a number on me.
The festival opened its doors at noon on Saturday, but the panel discussions started at 11 am. Instead of having the panels at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, they conducted them several blocks away at The Knitting Factory, a well-known music venue. But it turns out that the Knitting Factory is quite small. It was completely packed for a discussion between Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Richard McGuire (whose story “Here” Chris Ware claimed changed his life). The Knitting Factory seemed far less spacious than the big open floor of the church where these discussions had previously been held. But that space was no longer available. There were now two floors full of exhibitors.
You could see how popular the BCGF was by noting how many people were hanging around outside the church.
Just some of the people at BCGF
I felt like an old fuddy-duddy compared to these hipsters. But I'm resigned to that. I entered the church and the cool air of outside instantly turned palpably warm and humid. The crowd was so dense that the air was stagnant and redolent of sweat. This is the kind of atmosphere one associates with mainstream comics festivals, with their immense numbers of nerdy fanboys. I was surprised to encounter it here.
Don't yell "Fire!"
I have been to several alternative comics festivals in the past, including the BCGF two years ago, and I had never seen one this crowded (and hot and sweaty). Even with twice as much space devoted to exhibitors, trying to move around was next to impossible. Browsing was a completely unpleasurable experience. I was interested in buying original artwork, and I saw some for sale--for instance, at Lisa Hanawalt's table--but the environment was unconducive for that kind of purchase. I want to spend a little quality time with a piece before I buy it--spread out the artist's portfolio and carefully flip through. This was impossible.
Now I'm being totally subjective here. If I put myself in the shoes of an exhibitor, I imagine the festival was an exhausting but utterly rewarding experience. I suspect tons of books, comics, mini-comics, and pieces of original art were sold over the course of the day. Exhibitors who traveled to be here (and some traveled all the way from Europe) might have made back their travel costs and even made a profit. Likewise, the people putting on the festival must have been thrilled by the crowds. But they ruined the experience for me. I bought some books, some of which I may review later after absorbing them a bit, but I did this as quickly as possible and got out of there as fast as I could. I returned later in the afternoon to see if the crowds had thinned out, but if anything, there were even more people.
Consequently, I spent most of the day at the Knitting Factory. The festival had a series of interviews and panel discussions there. A discussion on sexuality in comics was marred by inarticulate panelists (to the obvious irritation of the moderator, Karley Sciortino). However, that was followed by a completely delightful Q&A of New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast conducted by Richard Gehr. People who are funny on paper are not always funny in real life, but Chast was an exception to this rule. She commented on the differences between hip Brooklyn today versus the resolutely unhip Brooklyn she grew up in.
Tom Spurgeon, publisher of The Comics Reporter and former editor of The Comics Journal, was moderating a panel with Tim Hensley, Charles Burns and Anouk Ricard called "The Narrative Collage." He confessed to me that he had no idea how to approach this subject with these artists, and asked for advice. We discussed it a little bit, then went in. The place was again packed--all the seats were filled, and many people were sitting on the floor or standing.
Even Gary Panter was forced to sit on the floor. As the panel began, I realized that Spurgeon had been having me on. He was very well-prepared, and had a series of questions for each of the artists that related their work to the central theme. The artists, on the other hand, were not quite sure how to approach the subject. Cartoonists are often reticent about their own work, as if there is something slightly vain about talking about your work. I often decry artists statements in this blog, but one thing they do is force an artist to develop a way of speaking or writing about what they do. Cartoonists, who exist largely outside the world of grants and residencies and who therefore rarely have to write any kind of statement about their work, end up being relatively inarticulate.
Tim Hensley, Charles Burns, Tom Spurgeon, Anouk Ricard
I was particularly disappointed in Tim Hensley, an artist whose work I perceive as being fiercely intellectual, marrying modernist literary concerns with post-modernist strategies of appropriation. See his book Wally Gropius: The Umpteen Millionaire, for example. He was unable or unwilling to address the complexities of his work, coming across instead as a naive artist who wasn't totally aware of the effects he was achieving. But I don't believe that's really true. I suspect he wasn't comfortable discussing the work this way.
I had an invite to an after party, but I was too pooped to go. Over all, it was not a great festival for me. I attribute 75% of this to my own personal circumstances--I tried to cram too much stuff into the weekend and ended up exhausting myself (and reminding myself that I'm not 25 anymore); I was staying at a terrible hotel that was too far from the festival; by the day of the festival, I had walked so much that my feet were aching; etc.
However, the crowding is a real issue. The festival has outgrown Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. It needs to be in a location with larger floorspace (and wider aisles) and better climate control. The panels need to be held in spaces larger than the Knitting Factory so that Gary Panter can watch one without being forced to sit on the floor. The problem is that larger spaces cost more money. But I think that problem can be solved by charging a modest admission to the fair. Given the enormous crowds I saw, the demand is there.
Why is this festival so crowded? Spurgeon told me that all the alternative festivals are crowded these days. This kind of comics--"art comics," broadly speaking--have a large devoted following, but bad distribution. Some of them make it into stores--cool comics stores like The Beguiling in Toronto or Austin Books and Comics, and alternative bookstores like Quimby's in Chicago or Domy in Houston and Austin. But none of these venues carry the selection that I saw at the BCGF. These smaller alternative festivals provide an alternative distribution route for many self-publishers. And for fans, a show like this is the only time they will be able to see a lot of this work. That BCGF is so popular is a great achievement. But the next step for the BCGF should be to improve the experience for the average visitor.
(For a far less sour and more complete report of the festival, read Tom Spurgeon's post.)