After the crowds and craziness of SXSW, many Austinites may feel ready to swear off the festival circuit all together. It's important to remember, however, that all festivals are not created equal.

Austin's Fusebox Festival is coming back April 1-12, featuring over fifty events hosted in over twenty different Austin locations. This year, the Fusebox experience will still include performances and installations by both local and curated international artists across a variety of mediums. Additionally, thanks to the Think EAST initiative, Fusebox is partnering with the City of Austin to foster conversations about racial segregation, gentrification, and making the growth and development of Austin a slower, more thoughtful, and community-oriented process.

Fusebox Festival was born 11 years ago, and the first festival was hosted by a garage on the East side of Austin. Since then, Fusebox has worked to cultivate community partnerships and build its audience base, allowing the festival to host projects which would otherwise not be possible.

Ron Berry, Executive and Artistic Director for the festival, said that Fusebox was formed out of the desire to create a more meaningful conversation around the arts in Austin. From the beginning, Berry hoped the festival would be “a platform for local artists, a way to inject new ideas into the local community, a means of exchange across art forms, and a platform to collide ideas and bring audiences and artists together.”

Fusebox is a hybrid arts festival, pulling from performance art, visual art, film, dance, music, and anything else you can imagine. “A lot of the work we present is live,” Berry explained, saying that Fusebox provides “the opportunity to see interesteing local projects and artists from around the world, artists who are not household names.”

Berry said that Fusebox likes to champion artists doing really adventurous work, and that the offerings of the festival range from kid-friendly to the emotionally and intellectually challenging.

Berry has a background in Theatre and was a local working artist himself when Fusebox got started. “I am aware of the offerings Austin has regarding film and music,” Berry said. “Fusebox tries to bring something unique with performance art and visual art - things you need to be in the room with to experience.”

Berry explained that Fusebox makes a point of placing a bit more of a focus on live events because they are hard to experience often unless they are consciously brought into town. Overall, however, Fusebox makes an attempt to refrain from labeling the work presented at the festival. “A lot of the work is blurry,” Berry said, adding, “We don't want to pigeonhole the artists.” Berry explained that the international component to the festival is important due to the positive impact of “encountering people outside your immediate sphere to spark new thinking.”

Another unique component to Fusebox is that all festival events are FREE to the public as a part of a three year initiative implemented by the festival board last year. Fusebox is a non-profit organization and decided to experiment with funding the festival through a combination of private donorship and Kickstarter crowdfunding. “We didn't stop asking people for money,” Berry explained. “We just shifted when.”

Berry said Fusebox wanted to use the basic assumption that festival attendance involves ticket sales to provoke a conversation about access to the arts, and the economics of artistic work in and of itself. “The audience felt like they were paying for [the art] with their ticket, but they weren't beginning to pay for it,” Berry explained, emphasizing that Fusebox has made no changes to the way it compensates its artists due the experiment. “Art is not free to make,” Berry said, but added that Fusebox wanted to start a conversation: “How do we, as a community, want to pay for it?”

“Ultimately, the arts are the most dynamic way of engaging with the world,” Berry said. “It's an ongoing process. It feels odd to ask people to pay at a certain point only.” Berry said he believes that making the festival itself free to attend make it less of a transaction and more of a means of engagement with the community. “The festival is a living, breathing thing, changing and evolving,” Berry said. “We have to respond, take risks, and try things out.”

Another way Fusebox is challenging the nature of the festival itself is through this year's ThinkEAST initiative. ThinkEAST centers around a 24-acre plot of land which borders Govalle Park. Partnering with the City of Austin, Fusebox is using the festival as a space to imagine the future of the site, fostering conversations, getting feedback, and testing ideas before anything is ulitmately built.

“This project encapsulates so many issues in Austin,” Berry said. “Historical racial segregation, transportation, growth, affordable housing. We're not experts. We want to create a space for people to come, step in, and talk. Put a pause on development and imagine ways to re-do it.”

Berry said ThinkEAST also provides a means for exploring the idea of the festival itself. What can a festival do? What can Fusebox Festival do that others aren't? Berry said he hopes to “tap into the collective creativity and intelligence of festival-goers” as a part of this process. “Festivals are inherently ephemeral spaces,” Berry explained. “But what if something could be left behind? How can we tap into that to think about and create something together?”

The participation of Fusebox festival is only one component of the ThinkEAST initiative, but Berry hopes it will be a source of community engagement. The festival will include input points throughout the 24-acre site. These points which will track whether feedback is coming from artists, visitors, or community members so that everyone's voices can be heard in the process, but the opinions of the community can still be privileged when it comes time for the ultimate decision-making process.

Berry said Fusebox strives to foster an “onoing conversation with the local community and a conversation with the world.” He hopes the festival will function as a means to connect the two and serve both. Rather than choosing a theme for the festival, Berry used the metaphor of threads weaving together and connecting different pieces to one another. “We wanted to keep it loose enough so there is room for people to make their own discoveries,” Berry said, adding that a goal of Fusebox is to “make Austin a more viable home for artists to live and work.”

While the festival itself is FREE to attend, you will need to register and reserve your seat for any of the festival performances you plan to attend. A limited number of tickets will also be available at the door. Fusebox installations do not require a reservation, and more information about all the Fusebox 2015 artists and events can be found on the festival website.

This article was originally published by The Horn on 03/26/15.

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