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Artist and impresario Miles Holst helps energize downtown Raleigh cultural life

Miles Holst 

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Miles Holst - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

On a recent night at Jackpot on Raleigh's Hillsborough Street, 23-year-old artist Miles Holst scans the dim space from behind a DJ booth, his blue eyes lit both by his laptop screen and the Christmas lights draped over stacks of vinyl records and a baby Jesus figurine he brought for the show. Holst wears a white bandana over a dark T-shirt, and oversized gray headphones over brushed-over blonde hair. He's focused on getting the sound just right; yet, other than a few head bobs and shoe taps, a crowd of regulars scattered across booths and tables seems unfazed by his mix of '70s soul and British Invasion.

A few hours later, though, the place has transformed into a swarm of dancers jockeying over floor space, pressing against abandoned tables and spilling into other sections of the bar. Holst closes out his set with Patti Smith's "Because the Night"—he later tells me he picks the most emotional songs for last—before packing up his thrift-store Samsonite briefcase and walking into the crowd.

The next day, Holst, a senior design student at North Carolina State University and a purveyor of planned and impromptu social gatherings, recalls the moment he first decided to try his hand as an impresario—as a DJ, designer, arts curator, inventor and, sometimes, pied piper. It was at a Fashion Brigade concert in Wilmington, where he attended high school.

"I was just standing there, listening to the music and enjoying it—and I wasn't moving," he says over coffee down the street at Cup A Joe. "I went home and really regretted not dancing, and that's the worst feeling. I told myself, 'From this day forward, I'm never going to regret not dancing if I want to.'"

Since then, Holst has encouraged countless others to dance, laugh, make art, watch old films and reconsider our urban landscape—in other words, to lose our inhibitions and behave like social creatures.

"If you feel it, just do it, don't have any regrets—if you have a whim, act on it," he says. "That's what I do with my art, too."

Holst's art, which he began as a child "nailing soda cans to boards," is equally inspired by found objects, robotics, space exploration, obscure designs and the frontiers of human interaction. Projects he's worked on range from a Stay Safe, Stay Sexy documentary that mixes old television footage with a mad-scientist comedy of the absurd; a sculpture of tree branches (or, as he deemed it, a species from Venus) growing out of copy machines and desks; helicopter-seed influenced screen-printed spinners; an "optical telegraph" that speaks in lights; and "kinetic sculptures" that hung from the "EB 2" building on NCSU's Centennial Campus and reacted, in graceful, jellyfish-like swirls, to any movement that triggered its optical sensors.

Holst tends to promote collective undertakings, and his art often is a complement to events he's organized. These include several "Epic Knights"—music-fueled marches from his old 1930s apartment complex at the Wilmont, through downtown to Boylan Heights, picking up strangers along the way. Holst leads the way with a vintage ghetto blaster rigged up with an iPod. ("We get a lot of thumbs-up and fist bumps—I feel like people like it when they see something out of the ordinary and refreshing," he says.) He's also screened old 16 mm films on the lawn outside the Wilmont because, he says, "There's no point watching a movie by yourself." And, last year, he turned Raleigh's Alley Cat bicycle race into a "Space Race" between the Russian cosmonauts and the American astronauts. (The cosmonauts won.)

"Really good contemporary art is interactive, and that's what Miles does," says Nicole Welch, curator of education for the Contemporary Art Museum, where Holst serves on the advisory board and is an assistant camp coordinator at Design Camp. "He's all about bringing the community around something that's creative and fun, and maybe discovering a different part to yourself."

For each event and art show (Holst was the co-director of Fish Market gallery in Moore Square for three years), the preparation is as important as the execution. Often, Holst designs a screen-printed poster or some other form of promotion. For one Fish Market call for submissions, Holst placed 25 N.C. State surplus telephones throughout the design school, with a hand-printed sign that read "Open Call." For the Space Race he organized an assembly line of spoke card and poster manufacturing, teaching people how to screen-print in the process.

"He designed the poster, but there was more community pride in making it than there was personal pride in having designed it," said his friend and fellow designer, Christopher Wentworth, who goes by "Critter."

Chandra Cox, head of the art and design department at N.C. State's College of Design, said Holst's attitude has "lasting impacts on other students."

"He introduces a new way of seeing and doing things," she said.

After Holst left as co-director of the Fish Market, Cox said, she noticed more original installations—the sort that Holst would curate, like a miniature city built of Styrofoam that gallery viewers would enter by crawling through plastic tunnels. For Welch, this is evidence of Holst's lasting influence.

"I remember when I first moved here and going out to First Fridays, I always wondered where all the college students and young people were. That's really changed since Miles came onto the scene," Welch said. "I really think he helped us build that young artist community."

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