The Austinites Behind the Curtain: Fusebox

In this series, we’ll be getting to know some of the Austinites who produce our favorite local events. In our interview last week, Jeremy von Stilb talked up Fusebox as one of the great Austin events, saying that it “bends my brain in half year after year.” So this week, we conducted a Q&A with the executive and artistic director of Fusebox, Ron Berry, to find out how they do all that brain-bending.

L+B: Can you briefly describe Fusebox to readers who might be unfamiliar with it?

Ron Berry: We’re an Austin-based non-profit arts organization, founded in 2005 by a group of artists. We’re most known for our annual Fusebox Festival, a contemporary art and performance festival which happens every April. The artists are 1/3 local, 1/3 national, 1/3 international, and the projects take place in about 20+ venues and sites all around Austin. Through an initiative called Free Range Art, the festival is 100% free to attend. 

L+B: You created Fusebox 15 years ago. What gave you the idea for it at the time? How would you say it’s evolved since then?

Ron Berry: There were two ideas at the heart of the festival when we started it. We were interested in live performance (most of us were coming from a theater background), but we were also interested in where live performance met other art forms. And we loved living in Austin, but we were hungry to meet artists living in other parts of the world. So the festival was (and still is) very much about exploring the possibilities of live performance, but it was also about the exchange of ideas across different art forms and across geography.

Those original ideas are still central to what we do. We’ve also been using the past 15 years as an opportunity to explore “festival” as an idea. In a city that has so many festivals, we thought it would be interesting to keep exploring the possibilities of “festival” as a thing, as a platform, as an experience. What are the possibilities of a festival, and how can our own festival continue to live in a meaningful relationship with this place? That’s led to a series of civic-related projects around affordable housing, community health, and mobility.

L+B: Do you have a favorite memory from a past Fusebox Festival?

Ron Berry: So many! I mostly love the sense of community that emerges each year. But here are a few…

We hosted part of our festival inside Seaholm Power Plant one year before it got developed. It was pretty awesome being inside there, experiencing that remarkable architecture and that huge volume of space. We commissioned Mother Falcon to create a suite of music especially for that building, and it featured 100 violins. It was gorgeous.

I also think about Guadalupe Maravilla‘s performance in a State of Texas parking garage near the Capitol that featured an all-female motorcycle club from San Antonio, a 50-foot-long inflatable alligator, and girls in brightly colored quinceañera dresses coming out of the alligator’s mouth and performing traditional dances while men in masks were performing Capoeira. It was a strange, beautiful fever dream.

[Editor’s note: This sounds like our absolute ideal event.]

L+B: What’s your curation process for Fusebox? 

Ron Berry: Most of the festival is by invitation only, though we do have a submission process for local artists. We spend about two years putting each festival together. Our artistic team travels around the country and world to festivals, art centers, theaters, etc., to view performances, meet with artists, gather context for work, and set up tours. We’re particularly interested in live performances that crack things open, that help us imagine things in new ways. 

L+B: Do you have any pie-in-the-sky works or artists that you dream of booking for Fusebox, if logistics were no concern?

Ron Berry: So many artists we’d love to work with! But how’s David Byrne for starters?

L+B: Being executive director for Fusebox is your full-time job. What are some ways in which it’s a year-round organization, even though the festival itself is only a few days each spring?

Ron Berry: Each festival is about two years in the making. So we’re already working on the next couple. We spend a good deal of time researching, scouting, and seeing work. Early on in the process we identify a few projects that we think would be especially exciting/interesting/meaningful to bring to Austin. We start to build out the festival from there—what would be interesting next to these projects? What would be interesting in conversation with these projects?

And then we’re also always trying to hold several different conversations simultaneously. What’s happening in Austin (artistically, socially, politically, etc.) and then what’s happening in the larger field of contemporary performing arts. And where do those things align, where do they miss each other. There are usually some pieces of our festival that develop around these conversations.

We also develop projects with partner organizations. We view the festival as an act of community building, and partnering and collaborating is a central part of that. So we’ll spend considerable time dreaming and scheming with other organizations to identify projects to do together.

Once we select projects, we start situating the projects in different venues and sites in Austin. Fusebox is not a plug-and-play festival. We spend a good deal of time thinking about the ideal place to site each project. Sometimes it’s in a theater, sometimes a gallery, sometimes a park, sometimes underneath a bridge or on the banks of a river. Whole neighborhoods have become sites for projects. All of this takes a considerable amount of time.

[Editor’s note: This is one of our favorite things about Fusebox—y’all know we love a site-specific event.]

We also produce an online platform called Written & Spoken on our website that features original writings, essays, interviews, and podcasts throughout the year. And to accompany the festival each year we create a festival book that features commissions and original artworks. 

All of this requires money, so we also spend a considerable amount of time fundraising through grants, events, sponsors, and individual donors. 

We also do some events throughout the year, perhaps most notably our 60-in-Sixty performance extravaganza that we host every summer. It features sixty individual performances by sixty different artists, all sixty seconds in length. It’s a pretty ridiculous, rowdy evening that’s a ton of fun. And it’s a wonderful celebration of the local artistic community because it features so many local artists. 

We’re also currently working on a large-scale national performance festival that will take place in partnership with Crystal Bridges Museum & The Momentary in NW Arkansas in October of 2021.

L+B: Obviously, moving Fusebox to an online-only festival this year wasn’t what we’d all been hoping for. What percentage of the planned performances have you been able to keep and translate to an online setting? Are there any aspects of an online festival that you’re excited about, anything it allows you to do that normally wouldn’t have been an option?

Ron Berry: We were obviously gutted to not be able to share the festival as originally planned. So many amazing artists and our team had spent almost two years planning everything, so it’s pretty brutal on that level. Obviously understand the need to shut it down IRL. The decision to cancel, while painful, was a no brainer.

Having said all that, it’s been a lot of fun to imagine the festival as a virtual experience. About 90% of our original festival artists are participating. There was no obligation for any of our artists, it was totally up to them. Most of them wanted to participate in some shape or fashion.

The reality though is that in most cases it wouldn’t make sense to just directly translate what the artists were going to do into a virtual experience. It’s not possible logistically in most cases, and the virtual online space is a different environment. So the artists have been imagining and dreaming up different ways to contribute to this platform. I think we were also interested in using this as a moment to experiment and learn. What kinds of things work especially well in this environment? And so we’re trying out a lot of different kinds of things—pieces that are a minute long, four minutes long, half an hour long, an hour, all the way up to 24hrs long. We’re offering workshops, talks, cooking classes, studio visits, as well as live streamed performances. We’ll see what kinds of things seem to be more meaningful. 

I do think using the technology to go on location is pretty cool. For example, we can go visit an artist in their studio in Tokyo. That’s pretty awesome! Also, it’s allowing us to engage with more people all over the world (and so accessibility is really enhanced). We’re definitely not viewing this as a replacement to the live experience. But we do think this virtual online platform can do some really meaningful, inventive things that will allow us to share ideas, connect with new people, and create community. 

L+B: What are some of the pieces at Fusebox this year that you would particularly encourage people not to miss?

Ron Berry: There’s a lot of stuff! I would mostly just encourage you to dip your toes in and check out different stuff. But here are a few that might be of particular interest:

• The Choir! Choir! Choir! sing-along on Friday at 6:15pm should be a blast. Their work translates really beautiful to an online experience.
• The short videos by Dickie Beau, entitled Pies in the Sky, should be super interesting. He’s an amazing lip-sync artist from the UK. Incredible. They happen each day of the festival.
• Justin Shoulder‘s studio visit at 10pm on Friday. I don’t know anyone in the world doing what Justin is doing—fascinating work.
• The Case of Reality Winner on Saturday at noon. This is a panel discussion with Reality Winner’s mother, her lawyer, and artist Tina Satter, moderated by Adam Bennett.
• Medium Workshop by Rianto at 6:30pm on Saturday. Just a remarkable performer and a cool opportunity to experience this particular style of dancing from Indonesia. 

L+B: What are some of your favorite Austin events to attend that you don’t produce, and/or who are some local event producers whom you admire? Or favorite venues to work with?

Ron Berry: There are so many events, organizations, and producers that I admire here in Austin. We partner with so many other organizations all the time and it’s truly what keeps me here in Austin—this remarkable community. Off the top of my head, I love the Museum of Human AchievementBody RockOutsider FestivalBlack Mountain Project, the Museum of Pocket ArtBossbabes… Lots more but those are few to start with!