Culture meets medicine at the Kingston O+ Festival 2022

Amber Rodriguez and friends with lighted paper octopuses. (Photos by Phyllis McCabe)

In an email last month to the media, O+ festival PR co-ordinator Michael Frank wrote: ‘The fact that it is still not well understood locally, after 13 years, tells me that there’s a ton of messaging to do in the months and years to come. Alongside this missive, there was the offer of press wristbands to access all of the weekend’s events. That’s what it took to motivate this correspondent to immerse himself in the Festival for the first time. And the overall verdict is: Wow. How funny. Why didn’t I do it before?

Muralist Amanda E. Cross at the YWCA building.

It’s not that I didn’t always think from the start that O+ is a great idea all around — one that’s already being replicated in other cities far from Kingston, New York. Although it raises the question of why such an initiative should be necessary in the richest country in the world, when all other Western democracies have single-payer health systems, it was a feat of genius to create a new a model in which artists and others working in the gig economy who have no health insurance (or none at all) can trade their skills for medical treatment, diagnosis and preventative therapy.

I guess what held me back was the impression cultivated by the youthful energy of the early years of O+ that it was a festival geared exclusively to the musical tastes of millennial and generational listeners. Z. A geezer like me would look at the list of scheduled bands and think, “I’ve never heard of any of these people. I don’t have goth outfits. I’m not going to dance with young people in their twenties in nightclubs. I will not fit in.

Well, surprise! My happy conclusion is that there is something for everyone here, from any musical vintage. A centerpiece of this year’s offerings, in fact, was a tribute to the Old Dutch Church in honor of what would have been Pauline Oliveros’ 90th birthday. Many of the performers and weekend viewers were musty old folks like me; and while someone whose musical diet consists exclusively of classic rock might not have found much audio comfort food at O+, the menu was indeed eclectic.

Even my folk roots bathed in the sound bath of duo Andrew Forbes and Max Carmichael, billed as “psychedelic bagpipes and bouzouki”, who played a lively set in the street ahead of Rough Draft on Saturday afternoon. A huge fresco left by the 2014 O+ Festival, Nils Westergard’s Mastloomed over the streetscape as the musicians transformed the familiar “Scotland the Brave” from a simple march into a jig tempo, then into something unrecognizable, yet still pleasing to the ear.

Art exhibitions across the city began opening at noon on Friday, and the Festival’s musical performances kicked off in the late afternoon with a parade launched from the Kingston Library. Leading the march was punk cabaret queen Amanda Palmer, holding her ukulele in one hand and waving the other from the seat of a fire engine red 1960 Austin-Healey Sprite convertible. Close behind was the high-energy Brasskill Marching Band, and another beloved local brass and percussion band, the Rosendale Improvement Association Brass Band. In the middle, of course, was an executive from the Center for Creative Education’s Percussion Orchestra of Kingston (POOK). Squads of marchers, many wearing wildly mismatched costumes, represented the Queer Conspiracy, Radio Kingston and the Italian-American Foundation of Ulster County. There were stilt walkers and jugglers and a guy in a gorilla costume. Joy was in the air.

The Queer Conspiracy marches.

At the end point of the parade, the courtyard behind the O+ office at 52 Main Street, designated Somewhere Stage for the weekend, Brasskill and a team of costumed dancers warmed up the crowd for Palmer’s pop-up show and the bands that followed. Noting that much of her usual repertoire is too angsty for a party occasion, Amanda Palmer sang a Radiohead number that audience members younger than Yours Truly no doubt recognized, followed by an original that is a staple of his shows, “In My Mind”. Afterwards, she shouted out to the intrepid O+ volunteers, noting, “This is not a corporate event – this is a volunteer event!”

I stayed on the Somewhere stage long enough to hear What? a band of SUNY New Paltz alumni playing funk and R&B, and much of the set from the superb Mac & Cheeze Balkan Power Trio. Food and craft vendors, a makeup booth and an O+ merch trailer lined the perimeter, and in the middle of the space, Rhinebeck-based performance artist Ben Pinder had created an installation called dancing lighthouse, topped with a disco ball. Stationed inside, he programmed a light show to “match the mood of the music”.

During the Pauline Oliveros @ 90 celebration, attendees performed a song from the heart outside the Old Dutch Church.
New Paltz’s Dr. Maggie Carpenter is hosting an HPV self-care test outside of The Box.

It also captures the overall vibe of O+: many different art forms in a mind-boggling variety of styles, all generated at once, sharing the same spaces, reinforcing and intertwining with each other. These spaces are spread throughout the city, from the Palisade to the Rondout (much of the Sunday lineup coincided with the Italian-American festival on the Strand). You could spend your entire weekend consuming O+ offerings and only experience a quarter of them. Because there’s so much going on, with attendees grabbing a bit of this or that act and then meandering off to something else, the crowd never got overwhelming (although I have to admit I didn’t try to to attend the biggest draws, like Joey Eppard, James Felice or Mercury Rev).

The most visible manifestations of the Festival are the music acts and murals, of course, and the art exhibitions which usually remain in place for the entire month. I visited the Pinkwater Gallery on North Front Street where the O+ feature was the installation Occhiolino, consisting of miniature dioramas by various PUGG/The DRAW artists surrounded by paper flower sculptures by Sophi Kravitz. Oil on canvas by Melanie Delgado Bingo on the Boardwalk — the image used on the wrappers of “BO+ardwalk Bars” chocolates sold to raise funds for O+ — was displayed in the center of the room, to be auctioned on October 10. Next door, the windows of the house NEWT furniture store featured evocative paintings, poems and photographs by students from Kingston High School’s Advanced Writers & Painters class, all inspired by this year’s O+ theme, “SO+mewhere”.

Less obvious to the occasional stroller is the serious medical side of O+. Admittedly, the bike component is a big deal, with organized rides ranging from a visit to the most recent murals to a 55-mile loop around the whole county of Ulster, and participants can easily take part in a wide selection of rides. wellness workshops. Many of them tend towards the New-Age end of the prevention spectrum: yoga classes, gong baths, meditation. Attended an Indigenous Guatemalan Cocoa Ceremony in the Old Dutch Cemetery that promoted “mind, body and center alignment” through the respectful preparation and ingestion of origin hot chocolate ethics.

All good, but if you think you might have cancer and don’t have health insurance, these workshops won’t provide the solution you’re looking for. The exchange of artistic services for health services mentioned above — the “beating heart of O+” — is precisely the least visible component of the Festival. In theory, my press bracelet allowed me to explore the artists’ clinic accessible through the side door of the old Dutch church. Maybe I should have gone in and interviewed some of the volunteer doctors, nurses, psychotherapists and body practitioners who offer their services there for free, or some of the Festival artists and volunteers who are invited to participate. But it would have seemed intrusive to enter that inner sanctum, to delve into people’s intimate physical and mental health issues.

Dancers/choreographers Dana Florin-Weiss and Harriett Meyer perform To Sister outside the Reformed Church in Fair Street.

Therein lies, I suppose, the PR problem of the Festival: us normals hear the music, look at the murals, hop on a bike. We don’t fully appreciate the vital links that O+ creates. Maybe next year more of this story will be told. Meanwhile, start planning to spend a fall weekend in 2023 experiencing the intersection of art and wellness that this groundbreaking cultural institution represents. It’s fun for everyone.

Media artist Nell Jungyun Choi and her art are projected onto a building on North Front Street.
Alabaster Fels sits on a throne made of books in the pop-up garden on North Front Street sponsored by the Half Moon Bookstore.
Nicole and Mike Battaglia from Kingston provided Selectric typewriters in the pop-up garden to tell why they chose the two books they selected from all the books Half Moon Bookstore had on offer.
18-year-old singer-songwriter Stella Prince performs on the YMCA’s Young Adult Stage.
Famous author, playwright/director and poet Lone celebrated the 90th birthday of his late partner (Pauline Oliveros). Pauline played a pivotal role in the development of experimental and electronic art music and founded Deep Listening Space.

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