Over the past five years, Witching Hour has become an innovator within festival cultures. While many festivals are stops on a circuit of touring bands that parade spectacles for passive participants, Witching Hour, like the Englert’s Mission Creek Festival, has created a different tonality, celebrating the arts as an expression of community. But its core value — seeking the unknown — allows the Englert’s collaboration with Little Village to offer a kind of festival that goes beyond the arts.
Witching Hour has become increasingly well-regarded for bringing in speakers with creative approaches to educational, environmental and socioeconomic issues, explored through the lenses of science, yoga, meditation and spirituality. Speakers and artists in the Witching Hour line-up are multidimensional: Musicians can speak about the science of the stars, and astronomers can talk about the beauty of science.
Their commitment to the unknown also frees the festival’s curators to be forward-looking — to highlight up-and-coming artists, music on the fringes, thinkers exploring the marginal. This was best represented last year by Beatrice Thomas, who spoke about creating art during the apocalypse and provided a well-attended workshop after.
Thomas is the star and creator of Black Benetar’s Black Magic Cabaret, the principal of Authentic Arts media, a cultural strategist, multi-disciplinary artist and creative producer. Their values-driven approach to amplifying and centering voices marginalized in other domains has given Thomas’s work increased prominence across the country.
Thomas returns for the 2020 (all-virtual) Witching Hour Festival with a presentation working-titled “Meditations from the Apocalypse.” They’re taking a “mixtape” approach to the multimedia presentation, creating a digital collage from voiceovers, .gifs and performances.
“I’m in a place that’s simultaneously full and empty,” they told me in a recent interview, describing something familiar to many during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of the combination of disruptions to the world — mail and media, environment and economy — Thomas realized that any plans made months ago were irrelevant, and became more responsive to the present moment.
“This mixtape is really about what I want to carry into the future. It’s the little things that have been inspiring me over the last year, all of the things that I want to work on,” Thomas said.
In the best of times, artists have to face the pressure exerted by the blank page or silent room, fecund spaces that appear empty yet overflow with possibilities. In times of crisis, artists — especially those whose art speaks to ongoing issues of social justice — can feel overwhelmed by the urgent need to address contemporary events and the suffering of those within their communities. But there can also be an initiating force that inspires an outward movement.
“Art is not perfection, particularly in this moment,” Thomas said. “I had a moment when I wanted to curl up and die — but no. I have to do my job. I’m an artist. Once you claim that, you have a responsibility to honor it. You go to the studio. You go to the work.”
Thomas was explicitly appreciative of Witching Hour as an event that summoned them to move beyond their comfort zone and produce questions from within.
“My practice has been about lifting people one workshop/activation at a time. The stakes are now about, ‘Who am I when I’m not doing this project, not lifting anyone up?’ Witching Hour has me grappling with the fact that in order to move forward on my path as an artist I have to let some meaningful things go — especially the initial notion that you can save everyone. I’m ready to let it go.”
The shifting times have forced Thomas to engage in a different way, to question artistic practice and create a different kind of content.
“It’s like putting down something you’re very familiar with and know how to carry, but understanding that it won’t get you where you want to go. It isn’t the right tool for the job. … Right now coming back to Iowa and Witching Hour, there’s no choice but to turn inward and find a different strategy than being just an open resource. I mourn that loss. … If I want to positively touch the lives of one billion people, I have to be fluid and embrace change.”
In framing their presentation, Thomas built on their reflections on the term “apocalypse,” which etymologically has less to do with the doom of the world than with reckonings that lead to knowledge — its synonyms are terms like “revelation,” “pulling off the veil,” “disclosure.” It is a time of the crumbling away of things that have hidden reality, exposing what lies beneath the surface.
“People doing values-based stuff are still working. In moments of conflict and change, things get clearer,” they said. “There will be a tidal wave, but this is a point where things are drawn back and you can see all the shit on the seafloor — and get distance from the seafloor. It is clear whose values are in alignment with us.”
Tidal boundaries are fluid. Allies and new communities are emerging in new landscapes throughout our current challenges, revealed by the tidal surges of power. It makes sense, then, that Thomas has begun to focus their work increasingly in the “flyover” states. Thomas said they’ve become increasingly sensitive to location.
“I met with someone in Utah in a giant room the size of the theater — and it worked really well. Even though we were not out socializing with community, it still felt important to be there,” Thomas said. “I’m interested in the states and diverse communities living in the middle of the country. The coasts don’t need my work. There are multiple opportunities to engage in work or activities. Queer and BIPOC communities on the coasts have more choices than other, less accessible geographies. I want to connect with queer, BIPOC and allied communities where dynamics are more complex — and where access to provocative thoughts, ideas and work presents an exciting opportunity to connect locally and engage in dialogue. I want my artistic presence to serve as a bridge between queer, BIPOC and allied communities across geographies.”
The notion of landscape informs their work with community and activism, especially given the cultural context of 21st-century U.S. politics, which is starting to reveal alternatives to the “white gaze trickle down” common in the good-ol’-boys network of entitlement. Spaces like the Englert, once safely open again, can extend invitations for other ways to perform, create and embrace community.
Nonetheless, Witching Hour has opened up a space for Thomas that summons them to embody their inner artist in a different way.
“The goal is to do the best work possible. Entitlement is about the self vs. confidence — knowing you have the ability to achieve the best thing. Entitlement is singular, and confidence can be utilized in a variety of ways — it is not about what others give you, but more what you can give.”
Daniel Boscaljon specializes in guiding people to the meaning and wisdom necessary for transitioning into the second half of life. Daniel’s Ph.D.s in Religious Studies and English inform his work as a life coach and also his writing on issues in contemporary culture — most recently on misogyny, addiction and racism. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 287.