Imagine that Raleigh is the buzzing center of culture in the South, a place that carries the one-word cachet of "Austin" or "Portland" or "Seattle." It seems a stretch, but there is indeed a vibrant and ambitious creative community in the state's capital that is looking to boost the city's image.
A year ago, a group of Raleigh creative professionals decided to start a cultural conference called Spark Con that would showcase the achievements and aspirations of the artists and impresarios of Raleighwood.
"It was literally started by a couple of people saying, 'We have a lot of creative people [in the Triangle]. How can we highlight that?'" says Artspace Director of Programs and Exhibitions Lia Newman.
"Last year, for us, was kind of an attempt to put a stick in the ground and see who could gather around and what kind of interest it built," says Ty Beddingfield of the creative collective DesignBox, which helped conceive and execute last year's Con. "It was really bigger and more successful than we ever imagined."
The end result drew an estimated 3,000 people to downtown Raleigh to observe, to network and to discuss how to officially make the Triangle "The Creative Hub of the South." It also set a high standard for this year's event, which will be held from Sept. 20 to Sept. 23.
So what is Spark Con? It's a mad four-day rush of everything from art to music to food, with downtown Raleigh serving as both a showcase and a think tank for the Triangle's creative talents. There's a fashion show, a chili cook-off, and most significantly, a series of workshops whose partipants will both pose and try to answer questions about the future. (For more information, see sidebar below.)
What's both exciting and potentially problematic about this expansion is how it works in conjunction with Spark Con's loose-knit style ("We don't really come from a festival-organizing or conference-organizing background," Beddingfield says). Aly Khalifa, Beddingfield's partner at DesignBox, uses the analogy of a starfish. "If you break off one arm, a new starfish can grow from that, but it's still the same structure, still a starfish," Khalifa says. His goal is for Spark Con to "maintain its identity, while also having autonomous parts."
Beddingfield serves as a "bobblehead," the Con's whimsical term for the "connectors" of its events, along with Khalifa, whose enthusiasm for Spark Con and what it can accomplish is boundless. Using analogies ranging from Wikipedia to Burning Man, Khalifa sees potential for both networking between the technologically and creatively inclined, and in using that networking to shape the creative voice of the Triangle.
However, the freewheeling inclusiveness that is inherent to an enterprise modeled on such open-source antecedents as Wikipedia can mean that Spark Con can have surprising bedfellows. Vintage 21, the downtown Raleigh church that adheres to conservative theological tenets, will host many of this year's events, including the welcome and keynote speech, the ideaSPARK workshops, and the wine tasting. Messages left with Vintage 21 were not returned, but Khalifa says Vintage 21 fits into Spark Con's vision.
"I'm excited about it," says Khalifa. "They were one of our biggest supporters last year. I think their themes really resonate with our own in engaging the creative community. Everything we've seen by them has been very positive.
"The trick is being not just diverse, but inclusive," says Khalifa, who calls the workshops and conferences at the heart of the convention "the stone soup of Spark Con.
"We're going to put that in a pot of water, and if someone wants to bring some carrots in the form of a fashion show, or potatoes in the form of an image slam, or work by local artists—we'll add it to the soup," Khalifa says. "The more ingredients, the better."
This year's Spark Con has plenty of ingredients. The success of the 2006 show means that, in Beddingfield's words, "everything has grown by probably 20 to 50 percent." Khalifa echoes this sentiment. "Last year, we had, I think, 11 musical acts," Khalifa says. "This year, we have 10 or 11 different venues, each with their own acts.
"At the same time, we're 100 percent completely volunteer, we have no money, and everyone else already has their own full-time job, so we're not going to [force ideas on you]. If you want to do your own film event, you're going to have to rely on your own network to get all those things done."
Many local networks have offered their services. Spark Con's already got the support of the Raleigh Commission of the Arts, which will partner with Visual Art Exchange to roll out "Art-on-the-Move" during Spark Con on Sept. 22, featuring work by local artists emblazoned on the sides of CAT buses. June Guralnick, the commission's executive director, says she feels Spark Con represents "the way of the future" for Raleigh, which is "at the cusp of becoming a world-class city of the arts."
"Raleigh is the capital of the state, and I think it needs to become a capital for the arts as well, in conjunction with our partners in Durham and Chapel Hill," Guralnick says.
Talks have already begun for next year's Spark Con, though Beddingfield says he wants the Con to be "defined from the outside," with its identity determined by the types of creators who participate. "Rather than define what the creative class is in Raleigh, we would like it to be civic engagement, to be self-defined," Beddingfield says. "Next year, we want to get it more out of our hands and exist in the community."
Khalifa agrees. "Anyone can do a Spark, really, and all the Spark ideas we've received have been really fascinating."
THURSDAY: The Con begins with the ideaSPARK welcome and keynote speech at Vintage 21 at 7 p.m., followed by artSPARK and gourmetSPARK presenting an open art exhibition and tapas reception at 8 p.m. MusicSPARK will also hold several events, including Flamenco Night at Moonlight Pizza at 7 p.m., and a WKNC-sponsored highlight of local bands and local beer at Tir Na Nog at 9 p.m.
FRIDAY: Let your voice be heard at ideaSPARK, held at Vintage 21. Each day four speakers will address questions about creativity in 15-20 minute sessions, and then challenge attendees with a provocative question that will be addressed in informal 90-minute workshops.
The speakers will include Durham arts attorney Dan Ellison, Bill Mooney of Tanis Root and Kung Fu Nation, Michael Tiemann of Cygnus Solutions and disability rights activist Joy Weeber. The event will be held from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Registration for the event is $40.
Opera buffs will want to check out Opera About Town on the steps of 414 Fayetteville St. from noon-1 p.m., or you might try the sidewalk painting at Moore Square and Martin Street from 3-6 p.m.
The evening highlight is fashionSPARK's "Wear What You Are" show, which starts at 8 p.m. at Moore Square Park. The runway show features accessories, body art and textile fashions by Triangle designers.
SATURDAY: Saturday features the bazaarSPARK outdoor mall from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at Moore Square, which will also feature the artSPARK Image Slam and performances at 7:30 p.m. The latter will feature 96 artists, including MC and spoken word artist Langston Fuze and breakdancer Schizophrenic Octopus. MusicSPARK also features Indie Music Night at the Lincoln Theatre at 9 p.m., one of several music events happening Saturday. (See page 52.)
SUNDAY: In what may be Spark Con's hottest event, Moore Square will be the scene of chiliSPARK, a chili con carne cookoff, from noon-4 p.m., with the winner getting a shot at the World Chili Cookoff.
At 8 p.m., Moore Square will also be the scene of filmSPARK, when the works of local filmmakers, including Alex Perez and Brian McGinn, William Noland and Anya Belkina, will be shown outdoors.
For a complete listing of Spark Con events and performers, visit www.sparkcon.com.