Since 2008 the Artomatic has taken an empty building, wrangled as many artists as possible, and then set them loose in it. It’s Washington, DC’s biggest creative event: this year it featured over a thousand artists on eleven floors. There are workshops, musical performances, and comedy acts, the space is open for a month, and it’s free. In other words, it’s pretty much amazing. This amazement is also what makes the Artomatic such a navigational challenge.
It’s easy to think of office buildings as being smaller than they really are, especially when you work in one – - you typically are only in one area at a time. But if you fill that space with art, everything changes. Every wall, every hallway becomes significant. I think I spent two hours on two floors, and I know I didn’t see everything I wanted to in that time.
There are flyers for artists on each level as you enter, and there are maps – - but these are all new artists working in a variety of mediums, so there’s no way to say, “I am only interested in landscapes from the golden age of Arlington County”. You’re hunting for the piece that stands out, for the things you didn’t know that you were there to see.
The Artomatic isn’t a museum and it’s not an artist’s studio – - it’s an office building that has been taken over by artists. And it really feels that way – - they write on walls, the floor, they scrawl phrases to inspire you or to urge you to contact them. They make use of anything and everything that can make an impression on you. Each artist or artist collective has a room, and that sets the tone. You might wander into a space plastered with sketchbook xeroxes, or wander into a dark room with ultraviolight light and glowing paintings.
There were many times when it was difficult to determine who an artist was – - I think about illustrations and paintings that only had a tiny signature instead of a name or a website listed. And many artists posted tiny QR Codes to direct people to their websites. I watched, silent, as a man pleaded with his friend to download the QR code reader and then scan the code so that he could see the artist’s website. You can guess how that went over. No matter how useful these things are, the QR code remains this alien, visually hostile totem that most people aren’t wild about. But plenty of people were taking photos of artist info, and writing down URLs.
There are a few recurring themes of Artomatic. There’s the annual Peeps contest, where the little caramelized sugar and marshmallow bunnies are posed in dioramas. My favorite was the Peepius Maximus: Peeps wearing togas is just brilliantly funny.
The second theme is a little more subversive- – a poet by the name of Brash, who reviewed and criticized pieces throughout the museum in sonnets posted next to the work itself. I wasn’t a fan of these poems, some of which seemed to take cheap shots at work I admired, until I realized that it was very possible that there was a poem for every artists. And then, upon googling, I learned that this has been a tradition that’s persisted since 2008. So she has to go see the exhibits, then write about all them, then post the poems in the proper order throughout the Artomatic without being discovered. This is a bit of clever mischief, and it ties all the work in the Artomatic together in a way that the venue can’t.
The Artomatic is open until June 23 this year. The building is scheduled to be demolished shortly afterward.