Countercrawl: A Conversation with Alex Tu
Carrie Schneider: What is Countercrawl?
Alex Tu: Countercrawl is a citywide collaborative community-building event, a multi-venue bike ride that goes anywhere from 12-17 hours. It is a free public event run by volunteers for the benefit of the community. We want to collaborate with as many people as are willing to collaborate and make interesting things happen.
CS: How long has it been in existence?
AT: The first one was on June 9th, 2011, and we have had three events so far, and the fourth one will be April 28th, 2012.
CS: What was your motivation? How did it start?
AT: Hosting art crawls at The Houston Foundry, producing art happenings/shows, riding critical mass, going on scavenger races, potlucks, bike polo, noise/improvisational music, riot folk, underground pop/rock/hip-hop/electronic music, urban farming, culture jamming, reality hacking, derive, relational aesthetics, people collage, and being involved in the creative community. After finishing my BFA, I kept meeting talented and driven people doing things and I wanted them to meet each other so we could all do something together. We wanted to create a more directed experience. Going to spaces that may or may not get as much exposure and create architecture for how people view things, what order they do it in and how they get there..treating the experience as a medium. It was conceived in that type of environment, and then we found collaborators, and then they found collaborators and it just went from there. It’s volunteer-run: artists, non-artists, musicians, writers, poets, activist/organizers, all sorts of people…just people, yeah.
CS: How many people are organizers or are responsible for Countercrawl?
AT: It really fluctuates between each event. The first one was around 20 people, including the local info shop, a multicultural center, an internet radio station, a warehouse full of poets and jazz musicians, a warehouse promoting punk shows, a photography studio, a hacker space, and a speakeasy performance venue. The second one included an urban farm, a bicycling advocacy group, and an art car graveyard turned performance venue. The last one included an artist run warehouse/gallery, a reuse/recycle market, a screen-printing studio, and an artist run gallery space. There’s a core of about 15 people who are always showing up at the meetings interested in organizing and collaborating and producing the events, but that fluctuates.
CS: Your organization structure and the way you run your meetings is really non-hierarchical, is that right?
AT: Exactly. We take a lot of cues from activist organizations where decisions strive to be consensus based and people get on stack so everyone gets a turn to talk about what they want to talk about. So even introverts are able to express their views so it’s not always the loudest voice that gets their way. We also use social media to organize around our schedules and disseminate information.
CS: How do you think that affects the project?
AT: Well, I mean, there’s a lot of compromise because of that. Because we’re all collaborating, there’s no singular vision. Not everyone agrees on everything. If people support an idea then they will work to make it happen with or without help from the rest of the group. I think the main goal is community building and people meeting each other, having outside collaborations outside of this project as well as within, and fostering the growth of a culture within this city that is unique to here and not just a copy of other templates from other ‘destination’ cities. I see it as more of a social sculpture than just an event.
CS: What do you think is significant about the idea that this mass of people is going on this journey, specifically on bikes, together to various venues over time. It has an extended geography and an extended time frame from how most art is shown. Why was that intentionally built into the structure?
AT: For me, it was about framing. Oftentimes, as art consumers, we go around to all these art shows in our cars and drink some wine or whatever and breeze through the art or what not. But when it’s orchestrated into this twelve hour event then people tend to absorb more information stop more and pay more attention and give more thought towards what’s going on because we’re basically holding them captive for a long period of time. They’re just following us kind of blindly through seedy parts of the city and underground spots. There’s that element of taking people out of their comfort zone and taking them to another place which changes their perspective and how they view the art or how they listen to the music or how they experience each other.
CS: How is the programming determined? At each venue, how do you decide what the music is, what the art is, what the food is, what the games are?
AT: For the first one, I was just going around going to a lot of shows and meeting musicians and organizers from different venues, and it just kind of happened. There’s also people among the collaborators, their contacts that they knew were good and we would all just kind of checked each other out. With the second one, people had already heard about it, so they were approaching us, people who wanted to be involved with us because they heard about the project, and how open it is to experimental musicians.
CS: But you had spoken before that you had more control over the music and venues that you thought was really awesome and then now it is more of a group effort and what gets determined is at each venue. Is that how it’s working? How do you see it evolving over time when different people are taking more leadership roles?
AT: I think it’s good in the sense that I myself am being exposed to things that I may not like which is fine. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. There’s other people that do like those things. I can say that I like most of the people that we’ve worked with and there are very talented people in this city doing interesting things.
CS: So the first Countercrawl was your vision and your curated scavenger bike ride extravaganza, and now you’re watching where it went on its own, finding out what it’s becoming as it’s becoming it?
AT: Yeah. I think with any idea, any art, if you’re transmitted these thoughts and then you transmit them to others, and then after that it’s no longer yours. It’s kind of like what Roland Barthes was talking about with “The Death of the Author” – the author is dead. The work is on its own without the author and grows on its own and does what it’s going to do. That’s important because I’ve done other types of social experiments like ISSE at U of H that grew in different ways due to their architectures…
CS: What does that stand for?
AT: It was an open acronym, but the first thing that we said was Interdisciplinary Society of Social Engineers and the last thing that we said was Interstellar Sensory Experiences so you get an idea of where it was and where it went to. Some of the core collaborators from Countercrawl had participated in ISSE or were a part of the susy show facilitated by the supercollidingintrospectivereview, which had happened the year prior to Countercrawl. That was definitely a major element in how Countercrawl was conceived is the people that I was collaborating with at the time and the people that they were in contact with.
CS: So what do you think that is working and what do you think is not working with Countercrawl?
AT: I’m really disinterested in conventional means of display and consumption, so sometimes when it feels like a concert or another white box, it’s kind of disappointing for me. But it also feels like it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing- not necessarily the event, but everything that leads up to the event- is doing it. The event could have a lot more audience participation, and more decentralized organization. It’s really interesting to see where it’s going, because it’s its own thing now. It’s like its own growing organism.
CS: What are you most excited about happening next?
AT: I am excited to see where this project goes without me being involved what so ever.
Countercrawl IV will be held on April 28th starting at 11am.
Images courtesy of Alex Tu.
Countercrawl definitely been a product of all the willing participants and volunteers we’ve had since day one – no matter if some of us attended only one meeting, or all of them. The beauty is in the fluidity of the planning process, I think. Sometimes it’s easier than other times, but there’s a strange kind of consistency in knowing that almost every meeting is going to involve someone new, or a whole new cast of players. It changes my mindset, and puts me in places I wouldn’t normally find myself, but which have so far been very positive. I look forward to more profound integration of traditional discipline and an immersive experience for Countercrawl participants, which I’m hoping we’ll achieve for Countercrawl IV.