A Closer Look At The Fuse Factory: Alison Colman & The Role of Non-Profit Organizations In a Dance Music Scene

In the lead up to my interview with Mike Gallicchio, I told you all about how I am shifting my project  to understand the unique economic opportunities and limitations we have in Columbus in building a dance music scene. (READ THAT HERE). Today’s interview with Alison Colman, founder and Director of the non-profit organization The Fuse Factory, is my first attempt to show that our growth and development as a scene is not predicated solely on the typical capitalist model of promoters booking bigger acts in bigger venues. In fact, Colman’s experiences with her technology, music, and art non-profit organization highlight one way that our scene can get around the typical capitalist pressures that prevent us from taking bigger risks in the musical experiences we curate. But first, a quick overview on why capitalism limits risk taking in putting on shows and curating music experiences.

The Capitalist Model: Limits on Risk-Taking

In a small to medium sized market like Columbus, capitalism places strong limits on the ability to take chances on artists at the margins or sounds that have fallen from popularity. This is not anything new. Everyone in our scene knows this. Promoters and club owners in our capitalist economy often have their hands tied. They are looking to at least break even from their shows and be financially solvent. This inevitably leads to crafting events and music experiences that do not take risks. Risks are dangerous in a capitalist organized economy, unless you are Goldman Sachs or J.P Morgan and know you can bet against the failure of the whole economy and still get bailed out. Promoters and club owners aren’t gonna get bailed out if a show flops. They can’t place bets on challenging listeners ears or social values too much, because if the listeners reject the show they will lose money, legitimacy in the scene’s eyes, and their ability to put on shows at all. Sure, you can place one slightly challenging artist on a bill and promote a show without placing a half-naked woman on the poster as long as you have other artists that can carry the bill.  Yet, the capitalist dance economy always wins out and limits the sounds and experiences in Columbus and other scenes around the country. We end up stuck in a race to the middle where hype beasts roam across the club spaces trying to make safe, mainstream music and show concepts seem dangerous, new, and exciting.

I understand this is a very idealized argument and does not map 100% onto our scene. I can see some of you already clicking the ex-out tab now saying: “What is he talking about?” I understand that their are people mounting challenges to listeners ears, but I think its important for us to think seriously about how we are complicit in this race to get bigger and better. Is that truly what we want? Is bigger better? Is growth the answer? Sure, within a capitalist system it is where the race for profit is the new religion, but is that the answer for our scene? In my posts over the last 6 months, I sure thought that becoming the next Detroit or Chicago was the answer. Yet, with time I have begun to question the idea of “pushing this scene to the next level” just so we can be like those big scenes. What do we have to sacrifice in pushing our scene to the next level and who wins economically in a big scene? These are the very questions we need to ask ourselves at this moment as a music community. We need to THINK about what we are doing and not just strive for bigger and better just because thats what the economic system we are embedded within teaches us to do that. We still retain autonomy over where our scene is going and together we can try and find ways to take risks to push the boundaries of peoples conceptions of sound and values.  Luckily, capitalism doesn’t always have to win out and their are organizations within our community that still provide us a venue for challenging ears and values.

One Way Out: The Fuse Factory and The Role of Non-Profits

How do we circumvent such a system? Who is going to take chances? Alison Colman’s experiences curating music, technology, & art events provides an interesting case study to show one way we can circumvent these capitalist pressures through the non-profit organization model. If your curiosity is perked then read on because Colman’s responses show us how non-profit organizations can curate experiences that take real challenges and showcase the margins of sound. Enjoy.

LA: What is the Fuse Factory and how did it start?

AC: The Fuse Factory Electronic and Digital Arts Lab is a Columbus-based 501c3 nonprofit organization focused on promoting the electronic and digital arts in all its guises (visual and sound art, music, movement). I started it in late 2006 at my kitchen table (literally) with a couple of friends interested in contemporary and experimental art and a big stack of books on How to Start a Non Profit. I was at a point in my life where I needed to change directions career-wise; while conducting my research for my dissertation in the mid and late 1990’s, I came across a number of art and technology/technology and culture NGOs and nonprofits in the U.S. and abroad (Eyebeam, Rhizome, FILE, Teleportacia, Waag Society, Sarai) and thought to myself “Central Ohio could sure use something like this!” So, when it became apparent that academia and I were not a good match, I felt that it was time to strike out and do what I’d been wanting to do for some time. The Fuse Factory really didn’t really begin to gather steam until late 2007, early 2008 when we moved back to Columbus and I was able to recruit board members and volunteers in earnest. We had our first juried exhibition in March 2008; the rest, as they say, is history.

LA: What is your organization’s mission?
AC: Our mission: The Fuse Factory is an art and technology initiative focused on cultivating artistic production, research, and experimentation with digital media and electronic tools. Our purpose is to function as an incubator for innovation, interaction, collaboration, critical thought, diversity, and artistic exploration.

LA: What are your thoughts on how art, technology, and music come together?
AC: The fusion of avant-garde art and music is not a new thing, obviously – it didn’t just appear with the advent of computers. Fluxus is a good example of a movement that embraced the intersection of various media and the combined use of everyday objects and sounds to create new objects, sounds, images, texts, and so on. I think much of what we are doing is in the spirit of Fluxus, even though we aren’t explicit about it. Technology simply adds a new dimension and adds to the possibilities. It is an excellent facilitator for bringing art and music together. I experienced this to a certain degree when I was a graduate student at OSU and taking classes at ACCAD. The courses were open to students of all majors, so there were folks from art, art education, computer science, architecture, engineering, and dance all working on cool projects and collaborating with one another. The discipline you were affiliated with came in distant second to your skill sets, your talent, and your willingness and ability to share your knowledge with others. It was all about the camaraderie the cool and interesting stuff you could do with the technology available. It was really great! I’d love to recreate that level of collaboration and interdisciplinarity with the Fuse Factory (albeit with a focus on experimentation, playfulness, and art on the margins).

(Trademark Gunderson of Evolutionary Control Committee)

LA: Much of the fuse factory’s work curates experiences from artists that don’t fit into the mainstream of music or art scenes. Why do you think it is important to showcase artists out on the marigns?
AC: The short answer is: because there is so much good stuff going on in the margins! But of course, that doesn’t fully explain why we do it. The value of presenting the work of non-mainstream artists, to us, is introducing audiences to novel and creative ways artists and musicians are playing with technology. Artists and musicians humanize technology in the sense that they are demonstrating how it can be used in ways that are far afield from the ways it was intended to be used by its original creators. In other words, nearly all technological artifacts come with a set of instructions and predetermined uses, either explicit or implied – and I am most interested in artists and musicians who completely disregard these instructions and recreate these artifacts from scratch. Their imagination, creativity, and inventiveness is what is on full display – their “voice” is what takes precedence, rather than the technology itself. The challenge is finding people who are playing with the technology and producing something provocative and intelligent as well as intriguing to look at or listen to, rather than producing eye (or ear) candy. There are many people who use technology to make art or music, but don’t challenge the technology’s parameters at all – those are not the artists or musicians we are interested in.

LA: Is it difficult to make the fringe appealing and get people to come to shows? If so, why?
AC: Yes, it has been difficult, and the attendance at our Frequency Fridays shows have been disappointing – disappointing in the sense that we aren’t satisfied with catering to a very small audience. So many of the artists we have brought in are just terrific, super talented people, and they deserve a wider audience. It’s high quality music – we won’t do weird just for the sake of doing weird. But getting back to your question – there are many reasons why it’s been so hard. First, we’ve been marketing our shows as experimental music. When people hear “experimental music”, they most likely this of some kind of atonal mishmash that they probably won’t like. Even when we use genre descriptors such as “drone”, “ambient”, or “sound art,” it still only appeals to people already familiar with this type of music. It isn’t enough to pique the interest of someone unfamiliar with it. Our shows are solely about the music – they aren’t parties per se, and they aren’t marketed this way. While our shows are BYOB, we’re not advertising our shows as a place to drink and party. Another reason is that we have been doing our marketing online for the most part, and while this has been reasonably effective in the past (and it still continues to be effective when marketing our educational programs), it isn’t really effective any more. It just gets lost in the online noise. We know we have to do a lot more of the traditional marketing with the flyers, handbills, face-to-face networking with people locally, and so on. The problem is that this is more expensive, and potentially more time-consuming. As the primary caregiver to two very young children (and volunteers who are out of school and working a day job or two), it’s hard for all of us to get out and market as much as we feel is needed. We desperately need interns!

LA: How did the frequency friday shows start and what were you trying to achieve?
AC: There are several strands that facilitated Frequency Fridays. One of the things we highlight in our educational program is circuit bending; as we became more familiar with the work of circuit benders in the U.S. and abroad and got exposed to their DIY instruments and the music they made, we realized that we were leaving out a whole group of people working creatively with technology when curating our Ignition exhibitions. However, because it is pretty hard to include live performance in a month-long gallery show (we prefer not to display documentation of shows, since it really doesn’t do them justice), we had to come up with a way to showcase their work. Around the same time, we started having serious discussions about how to increase our audience, along with the number of artists we were serving. In the earliest days of Fuse Factory, we had a yearly show called AUTOMATON which featured dance technologists/choreographers (Robert Weschler, DOUBLE VISION, Anna and the Annadroids) and performance artists (Queen Mae and the Bells). We thought, hey, instead of showcasing performers once a year, why not showcase them once a month? We thought a monthly experimental-electronic music/sound art/performance series would fulfill our goals of increasing our visibility, increasing our audience, serving more artists, and showcasing a wider range of artists’ use of technology beyond what can be seen in a gallery setting. What really got the ball rolling was me being contacted out of the blue via facebook by Tim Kaiser, an influential Minnesota-based sound artist, circuit bender, and electronic instrument inventor – he wanted to know if we booked shows for experimental electronic musicians. Not wanting to let a good opportunity go to waste, I told him yes. And off we went! After a lot of discussion and planning by several Fuse Factorians over the summer and fall of 2010, we organized seven monthly shows for our first season, which took place from November 2010 to May 2011.

(John Dinger of Ring Toss Twins)

LA: Your organization is interested in bringing in more dance music artists to the frequency friday line up. What do you think they can add to the frequency friday conversation?
AC: I think the inclusion of dance music artists certainly broadens our presentation of electronic music, and widens the range of approaches to electronic music that we can feature in our Frequency Fridays shows. This, in turn, will influence our curatorial decisions when deciding who to include on each month’s bill. While this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the music per se, I’m really looking forward to including more local artists in our shows – I’m hoping some interesting collaborations between the local dance music artists and local experimental music artists come about as a result.

LA: You are devoted to not puting artists in niches or genres when crafting a frequency friday lineup. Why do you take what you call a smorgasbord approach to curating a music event?
AC: A large part of it is our desire to educate the public about experimental and electronic music in all of its forms – so instead of showcasing all ambient musicians one month, all drone/noise musicians one month, all circuit benders another month and so on, we try to mix it up so someone who comes to our shows can be exposed to the large variety of ways musicians and sound artists are playing with technology, both high and low. Another reason we use the smorgasbord approach is due to the nature of a lot of experimental music. Most experimental music, to varying certain degrees, requires a certain amount of intellectual effort on the part of the listener – I don’t perceive it as the type of music that can be played in the background, whether it be in a bar or on the radio. Oftentimes it requires a certain amount of careful listening; sometimes there is a visual component to the music (video, instruments, objects) that the listener needs to pay attention to in order to fully appreciate what the musician is doing. This means that it can be a challenge for some people to sit through three or four noise/drone acts, for example (depending on how skilled the musicians are). On the other hand, we’ve featured experimental musicians whose music is more melodic, whose influences also include EDM or classical music; their music doesn’t always require a similar type of mental effort. This doesn’t make them worse or better – it’s just a different approach. My personal philosophy when it comes to experimental music can be summed up by Louis Armstrong’s response when he was asked for his opinion about popular music: “If it sounds good, it *is* good.” In other words, what all of the musicians we feature have in common is the high quality of the music they make. Quite simply, they are all good! In my opinion, categorizing experimental music according to niche or genre is often not very helpful when trying to convey to others what the music of specific musicians sound like. You can use terms such as “dark ambient,” “drone metal,” “sound art,” “EDM-influenced,” “electronica” and so on, but these terms can only give a very general sense of what a listener can expect to hear. We’ve also featured a number of musicians who, quite frankly, don’t fit into any genre I’m familiar with aside from the catch-all term “experimental.”

LA: In the columbus dance music scene, capitalism impacts what types of music events we can and cannot see. Does your non-profit status afford you special opportunities to circumvent that for-profit model? If so, How?
AC: Sure. For instance, if you are running a club that needs to generate a certain amount of profit in order to remain open, you need to bring in musicians or DJs who are popular enough to attract large crowds. Of course, popular does not always equal high quality, and your main criterion for selecting musicians must include the amount of money they can make for you. As a result, there might be some musicians or DJs out there whose work you really like and would love to expose, but you can’t because they are not as well known and won’t draw a crowd. When you are a nonprofit lucky enough to receive public funding in the form of grants, you aren’t operating under these constraints. The whole premise of using taxpayer dollars for art and culture is that there is value in supporting artists, musicians, dancers, etc. that don’t necessarily cater to the mainstream, and that the amount of profit generated should not be a criterion for determining which artists receive support and exposure. In other words, there is inherent value in broadening the public’s cultural horizons. Another premise is that there is inherent value in subsidizing artists, musicians, dancers, etc. with taxpayer money in order to make the work of these artists, etc. widely accessible to the public. What I’ve just described above is an ideal situation – that an arts nonprofit receives enough funding (operating support and project support) to have the freedom to choose artists and musicians based entirely on the quality of their work rather than the amount of profit they can generate for the organization. The Fuse Factory is in this situation to a certain degree, fortunately – the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the Columbus Foundation have been very good to us, and thus we’ve been able to exercise a lot of curatorial freedom when organizing our Frequency Fridays shows. However, due to budget cuts (and thus the limited amount of grant funding available), we are very dependent on our shows to bring in operating funds. This puts us in a bind – on one hand, we’ve received enough project grant money to afford us a lot of curatorial freedom. On the other hand, exercising this freedom has meant (so far) attracting a very small audience, which leads to very little in the way of operating funds being available to us to grow our existing programs. There are a number of sound artists and musicians who we would love to bring to Columbus but can’t because we don’t have enough money. So in order to bring in everyone we want, we have a couple of choices: we can expand our Frequency Fridays curatorial boundaries to include more popular forms of electronic music in hopes of drawing in a larger audience, and we can increase our fundraising efforts. At this point, we are planning to do both. In addition to including more local EDM musicians to our Frequency Fridays 2012-2013 lineup, we are also looking to have more fundraising-type events outside of Frequency Fridays that feature an all (or mostly) EDM lineup. We’re also going to do two Kickstarter fundraising events a year instead of one. Wish us luck!

(Doctah X)

LA: Why are non-profits, like yours, important to dance music communities? What do think they add to the musical or artistic conversation?
AC: I think arts nonprofits like ours can expose members of dance music communities to innovative ways to use technology and electronics in order to make music. There might be something our sound artists/musicians are doing, whether musically, stylistically, or technologically, that EDM musicians can draw upon and be inspired by. In addition, there is a certain amount of musical overlap between EDM and other forms of experimental electronic music, as both groups engage in a certain amount of experimentation with new music technologies; I would say they are on the same continuum of electronic music, just on different ends. Perhaps this could lead to new opportunities for collaboration. We are always happy when our programming fosters new connections and collaboration. But since I’m not really familiar with the histories of experimental electronic and EDM, I’m unfortunately not able to talk at length about their common influences.

In Closing..

Check out The Fuse Factory Website and Facebook for all up to date information.

Also, make sure to come to Wild Goose Creative Next Friday June 1st at 8pm to see how a no boundaries approach to dance and experimental music works first hand. The Fallen (FBK & Plural), Ben Bennett, & Forest Management will be performing a broad spectrum of noise, ambient, techno, drone and all other types of labels we use to describe sound. Event Details


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