Starting Saturday, a very unusual broadcast will stream live to TVs at downtown hotel and a Union Market event space. A mashup of music and videos — including talks by black intellectuals, news footage and home videos — “BLKNWS” aims to capture the full complexity of African American life and culture and to counter dominant media narratives. The piece, by artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, who has directed music videos for Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, is just one example of the world-class art landing in unusual places around D.C. for this year’s By the People festival.
“BLKNWS will be streaming to the Eaton Hotel and AutoShop at Union Market for the duration of the festival,” says Kate Goodall, CEO of Halcyon, the arts and social enterprise incubator behind the event. “That’s a big part of the festival, the accessibility — we want people to encounter these works in surprising places, in public spaces that aren’t necessarily in the gilded institutions.”
Launched last year as a four-day affair, By the People is expanding to nine days this year, opening on Saturday and running through June 23. It’s also spreading to Prince George’s County in Maryland and Reston, Va., with the goal of bringing the festival’s mix of cutting-edge art and community dialogue to as many people as possible, Goodall says.
“In addition to being free, we are making it as accessible as possible by providing free transportation on the weekends,” Goodall adds.
Indeed, courtesy shuttles will travel between the festival’s two hubs — the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building and Union Market — as well as to a temporary, indoor art market in Georgetown, where attendees can view (and buy) original pieces by local artists. The shuttles will also stop alongside the By the People art barge, which will travel the Potomac and Anacostia rivers throughout the festival. The art barge will display a sign created by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas that reads, “They are US is them.” You can’t board the barge, but you can participate in site-specific “activations” when it docks at several ports, including Anacostia Park, Capitol Riverfront and the Georgetown Waterfront. On the land beside the river, people will be invited to write down what freedom means to them on lawn signs.
“What I love about the lawn sign activation is that it’s something anyone can participate in, at any age, or any political leaning. Whatever you feel is OK,” Goodall says. “Those lawn signs will get displayed in view of the barge so that not only are they an interactive component, but they’re actually part of the exhibit.”
This year’s By the People festival also includes artist talks, plus a day of civic dialogues focused on the future of transportation, food, sports and entertainment. The event, at Eaton Hotel on June 20, will include presentations by representatives from Lyft and Virgin Hyperloop One.
“I think setting the dialogue a little bit in the future helps to free us, at least temporarily, from the intractable problems of the present,” Goodall says.
Goodall hopes locals can get to multiple sites over the festival’s nine days, but if you only have time for one, make it the Arts and Industries Building, she says. The cavernous space will be filled with festival showstoppers, such as “Walking on Clouds,” a site-specific piece by New York-based conceptual artist Jonathan Rosen. Rosen’s piece consists of a room filled with fog, where viewers are invited to take a picture of themselves in a mirror. Later, when you look at the photo, you’ll see your face underneath a phrase such as “I could be king,” “I could be loved,” “I could be seen” — messages that had been scrolling by on the mirror too quickly for you to read.
“I have a feeling it’ll be one of the most popular pieces of the festival because it’s so interactive and so Instagrammable,” Goodall says. “It gives a positive affirmation for the future, which, I think, is something we all need right now.”