It's a week and a half before the opening of the third annual SPARKcon, and about 20 of the participants are gathered on the second floor of DesignBox in downtown Raleigh to finalize plans. Dressed in everything from vintage outfits to suits to T-shirts and shorts, they buzz among themselves, quickly resolving minor difficulties; one person worries that they're short on tents, only to find another has some extras he's happy to share.
As the discussion continues, Jarrett Lee of filmSPARK mentions that they've been contacted by Disney about running a preview of Spike Lee's new film Miracle at St. Anna as part of the presentation. There's a slightly awkward moment before it's determined that it's past the due date for submissions. "Sorry, Spike!" Lee jokes.
Even with his independent film credentials, a known Hollywood commodity like Spike Lee doesn't have much of a place at SPARKcon, where the talent on display is local and often unknown. For its third year, SPARKcon continues to wage the battle to help brand the Triangle as "the creative hub of the South." The three-day conference and showcase of local talent is designed to bring together the area's creative community, helping it connect with the public—and itself.
"There are pockets of people who are doing things the others don't know they're doing," says DesignBox's Paul Friedrich, who helped develop the event. "We have to make sure they come together to lead to other things." Adds Friedrich's DesignBox partner Aly Khalifa, one of the event's coordinating "Bobbleheads": "It seems like there's a lot of local talent that's not tapped."
SPARKcon seeks to tap that talent—and help it to become a greater part of the community. This year's event includes a bazaar with 30 vendors and events covering everything from break dancing to body piercing to Buddhism. There's also the annual ideaSPARK, a gathering to define, discuss and try to solve pressing issues in the Triangle using local creativity.
One problem organizers have had to solve is the growth of SPARKcon itself. In just three years, the event has grown exponentially. "[It's] reached a level of fame—or notoriety, whatever you want to call it—where they've actually been able to hire someone to coordinate," jokes Greg Ettenson, whom SPARKcon's Web site bills as "the man with all the answers." Ettenson is a necessary addition; coordinating the event gotten to the point that a separate site (plan.sparkcon.com) is necessary to keep all the updates straight.
But is the Triangle necessarily the creative hub of the South, and is the event truly unique among those that celebrate local creativity? "There are so many other events that are similarly exciting and creative that we have to ask ourselves if SPARKcon is still relevant," Khalifa says. "It grows out of the question, 'Are we the creative hub of the South?' And the answer is 'Yes, we want to be.'"
There's also the question of whether SPARKcon represents a unique voice for change, especially given such recent events as Raleigh Wide Open and the opening of the new convention center. Khalifa says the minds behind SPARKcon have asked themselves that question. They see "bigger challenges" for the creative community, he says.
Khalifa also believes that these new developments downtown should remain separate from the Triangle's creative community. "Institutions cannot authentically create this kind of thing," he says. Rather, he believes institutions should encourage efforts like SPARKcon. "They can best do this by removing some of the technical barriers like fees, helping with permits, coordinating logistics and so forth," he says. "To this extent, the convention center has been highly supportive, and we'd love to see other institutions follow their lead."
Bringing the "con" to life has been a learning experience for those involved. Khalifa says that in the first year, DesignBox learned to do fundraising, and the process of learning development skills has helped several organizations evolve. "It's helped a lot of people learn the dynamics of a group—how to handle communication issues, be more organized, how to manage people who don't want to be managed," Khalifa says.
The result of this unofficial training might be that others may eventually take over the event as it evolves. "The biggest challenge is not to let it be us every time. There has to be attrition and there has to be rotation," Khalifa says. "The key part of it being fresh is to make sure the people who are running it are fresh. The best thing that could happen is that the people we're training to be community leaders in all these different disciplines can take over. ... It would be great for this to become a community leader training platform."
He has a point—the planning meeting for SPARKcon runs smoothly, and even lets out early, with everyone satisfied with their progress toward bringing the creative community together. Perhaps SPARKcon might transcend its status as a creative gathering to become something more—an introduction to community activism. "I consider it our way of getting a new form of civic involvement," says Ty Beddingfield, another SPARKcon organizer. "Rather than joining an organization, you're showcasing your talent, exposing it to the city. Rather than a protest or joining a board, this is another way to get involved."
Kickoff Event: Local bands I Was Totally Destroying It, Hammer No More The Fingers, The Young Sons and The Trousers play at Tir Na Nog (Sept. 18, 9 p.m.). There will also be a performance by Blue Mountain with Cory Branan at The Pour House at 9 p.m.
danceSPARK: Immediate Theatre, a collective of Triangle-based dance artists, designers and musicians, appears at Loft 135 for an evening of "spontaneous, improvised works of dance/ theater/ live performance" (Sept. 19, 6:30-7:15 p.m.)
Special Performance: N.C. Symphony and Opera Co. of North Carolina at the Urban Design Center (Sept. 19, noon-1 p.m.)
Schizophrenic Octopus presents Breakdancing Competition at Loft 135 (Sept. 19, 10 p.m.)
bazaarSPARK: Now in its second year and featuring more than 30 vendors, including fashion designers, crafters, a flea market, a farmers' market and more (Sept. 20, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.)
groundSPARK: Street painting at Moore Square (Sept. 19, 3-7 p.m.; Sept. 20, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.)
artSPARK: Image slam at Moore Square (Sept. 20, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.) and an open gallery at 213 Fayetteville St. (Friday and Sunday, noon-8 p.m.; noon-10 p.m. on Saturday, with a reception featuring Sacrificial Poets from 6:30-7 p.m.)
storySPARK: Readings at the Moore Square Stage from G.D. Gearino, William Rokos and William Conescu (Sept. 19, 2-4 p.m.) and war stories from News & Observer correspondents at The Pour House (4 p.m.). For something a little racier, there's the After Dark erotic poetry reading at Metro (Sept. 19, 10 p.m.), where a local news anchor has promised to perform some "smoky jazz." Ooh la la!
fashionSPARK: A highlight of each year's event, the official fashion show takes place at Moore Square with live music from local bands. Catch work by local designers now—before it winds up in an overpriced boutique (Sept. 19, 8-10 p.m.)
ideaSPARK: Fruits of this year's brainstorming sessions will be presented at Urban Design Center and might give an idea of what to expect from SPARKcon next year (Sept. 21, 2-4 p.m)
filmSPARK: This year's event at Moore Square includes films in virtually every medium and genre imaginable (Sept. 21, 8-10 p.m.)