Five weeks before Wooly Fair, in the Nicholson File Mill studios, Dave Allyn stands on a ladder busy at work. He and Stephanie Grant are building large-scale lanterns with long swaths of multicolored fabrics. Talia Lipkind is making a dichroic glass disco ball. Fred Gorman is asked what costume he’s going to wear. Classic rock plays on the radio. There’s talk of an all-vinyl dance party. Talia says her disco ball would look great there.
Dave gives me a tour. He shows me a shared ceramics studio, a design and fabrication shop (a canoe is suspended above us). He shows me a few more studios, tells me about inflatable kraken wranglers, shows me where people “make stuff,” then leads me to the studio he shares with Sam White, founder and director of PVD’s participatory art carnival, Wooly Fair.
Wooly Fair started in 2005 as “a backyard variety show…a super DIY event,” says White. The idea was to bring a bunch of interesting performers together, to give them a stage, and invite them to transform the space around them into something different just for a night. It ran for eight years and each year it grew larger in scope.
“The more we did it, the more people joined in and helped us do it,” says White. “One of the guiding principles of the event was that it was gonna be different every year, and the thing that bound it all together was the fact it was a community of people getting together and building this spectacle.”
By 2013 Wooly Fair had grown so large White had to take a step back. “It just got too big for me to deal with. I really loved the event but it was having a negative effect on my personal life. So we took time off, and now we’re back. It’s like getting the band back together. I’m just excited to be working with all these people again.”
White and Allyn’s studio is a half-office/half-printmaking space, designed for equal parts work and play. In the studio, Allyn pulls a screen frame down from the shelves. “Wanna see something cool?” he says. Both White and Allyn are printmakers and partners in the production of Wooly Fair. This year they’ve screen printed their own money. Denominations come in $1, $2, and $5.
“Our joke early on was we’re making money now,” says White. “We’re constantly riffing on it… There’s a poke at capitalism, but it’s a small poke. The event comes from making stuff with each other. [Printing money] was our project to get it off the ground. So we’ve got a bunch of worthless cash now.”
Each year Wooly Fair has a theme – “To the Moon,” “Back to Nature,” “Wooly Town: Off the Grid and On the Lamb,” to name a few. This year’s theme is “The Big Deal” and as in years past it will transform the grounds of the Steel Yard with around 20 large-scale installations and two stages featuring performances by Triangle Forest, Atlantic Thrills, Tim O’Keefe, Sun Urchins, and Big Bank. Plus, there will be games (past games include Wrestle the Chef, Adult Tricycle Races, Bad Date Obstacle Course), food, a full bar, a Wooly Alley Vinyl Dance Party with DJs Mike Delick, Yummy, Kaiser Disco, Nick de Parisol and chuckwho, and performers spread throughout the Yard, including Big Tomato – a crime boss who’s elected every hour and bribes people with White and Allyn’s Wooly cash.
“You think about money all the time as Americans, as people in this capitalist world, the idea behind printing the Wooly cash was that we were going to be able to bribe people with it. The cash is gonna be floating around and the valuation of it will go up and down and be completely hard to pin down. You won’t ever have any idea how much it’s actually worth.”
In addition to Big Tomato, there will also be Big Cupcake, a costuming chamber White and Grant are designing.
“We give people fake names at the door and fake nationalities, it’s all about loosening the screws of identity for a few minutes and costuming is an important part of that. You have to forget the person you are at this event and try to be somebody else or nobody or everybody. We try to interrogate identity a little bit, every year that’s been a binding thing. I’ve always thought that identity is just one more prison we all live in and it’s nice to be free of that for a minute.”
Standing at the entrance to White and Allyn’s studio is a 12-foot tall cigarette with speakers built into the filter. Allyn built it. Its name is Big Tobacco and during Wooly Fair its top will glow like a lit cigarette. “Tobacco gets a bad rap these days,” says Allyn. Humor and Wooly Fair go hand in hand.
“Funny is what we’re shooting for with all of it,” says White. “The whole thing about the fake names and Big Tomato and Big Tobacco is it’s a way of disarming people. The spirit we’re going for is jovial. And, maybe a little bit rebellious. But for the most part it’s important that it’s warm, that the spirit is open, and people feel included – like they can just play with all these different aspects of themselves and create.”
The name Wooly Fair is part childhood memory, White grew up on a small sheep farm, and part feeling – the warm, wild feeling of a community creating a spectacularly weird event for a moment in time. Wooly Fair attendees are just as much spectators as they are a part of the experience. There is little differentiation between performers and people who’ve bought tickets.
“I feel like for adults play is so tightly defined. You can go to Dave and Buster’s or go out drinking or go to a sporting event, but it’s often really competitive. Or you’re tied to a computer or some kind of heavily mediated kind of interface. But everything we do is really analogue.”
In 2013, they created the Wooly Town Post Office and randomly throughout the event attendees were delivered mail. In 2010, there was the Natural Selection Love Connection, attendees were given “signifiers” (eg., wearable baubles or headdresses) and let loose to search the crowd for the person wearing the matching signifier. “It was kind of like finding your Wooly soulmate,” says White. “That very much embodied the spirit of the event. It was surprising, it was coincidental, it was just awesome to find somebody out of nowhere… One of the things we’re always trying to achieve are these random occurrences where people meet each other and something surprising happens.’
“People are so lonely these days and so disconnected and cynical and afraid, and I feel all of those things myself, I feel deeply afraid of a lot of things. But then when I turn to Wooly Fair, there’s this feeling of bombastic wild hope.”
This year’s fair includes experiential installations such as REDx Talks, an infinite mirrored video recording booth you can step into and record and email a 3-minute talk to yourself; The Magic Car Wash, a multi-sensory experience by Portal Rental hosted out of the back of a box truck; and, Kraken Wranglers, wrangle a kraken and you’ll win a prize. Other interactive art includes Big Flower, Pixel Lamb, The Wishing Well, Win a Tree Ring Toss, World News and Report, and more to be announced.
“[Wooly Fair] is a chance to play and there’s a real freedom that comes with that. There’s an extraordinary amount of freedom for people to explore alternate identities and alternative spaces and really go all out and transform this one space for a moment in time. There’s something about the ephemeral quality of the event and the scale of it, and the freedom people have to really make cool stuff that may not have any kind of practicality in their own lives. It’s an opportunity to open a portal on some kind of surreal, alternative zone.” •
Wooly Fair: The Big Deal takes place on Sun, Oct 1, from 3 – 10pm at the Steel Yard, 27 Sims Ave, PVD. Wooly Fair is all ages. Visit woolyfair.org for tickets and more info. @woolyfair