March 1, 2001.
"Notes from the Underground"
A group of prominent local musicians form a collective to produce Web content and live shows spotlighting undersung Albany art
By Kirsten Ferguson. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.
Reprinted from Metroland,
"Some cities, like wrapped boxes under Christmas trees, conceal unexpected gifts, secret delights. Some cities will always remain wrapped boxes, containers of riddles never to be solved, nor even to be seen by vacationing visitors." So wrote author Truman Capote to describe the cloistered allure of his native New Orleans, as well as other cities that possess such mysterious charm.
For a group of local artists, the Capital Region similarly cloaks an artistic world that, while active and fruitful, may not be well known outside its inner core. Under the moniker of the Hidden City, a group of area musicians, writers and visual artists formed a collective to bring to light some of the unexpected riches of the local arts scene.
Last year, singer-songwriter Amy Abdou, along with a handful of friends and "friends of friends" involved in local arts and music, met to explore the idea of establishing an arts community that could showcase some of the creativity coming out of the region. "We wanted to do something to draw attention to the underground arts scene in Albany," says Abdou. "We've all heard the perspective of the New York City artist, but to be an artist in Albany is something quite different. It's a weird combination of small-town cliquishness and the fact that we're city artists trying to do something more global."
A friend of Abdou's came up with the idea of calling the collective the Hidden City-to reflect the perception that the area's vibrant arts scene is a world of its own, and that it's often obscured by its larger surroundings. "Albany is a grand and great city, an area of many assets," reads the manifesto for the Hidden City, located on the collective's Web site (www.thehiddencity.com). "Somewhat less evident is the depth of artistic talent that this area holds. . . . It is easy to overlook such opportunities in a city big enough to be on most globes, but small enough to have only one dailynewspaper."
Local musician and writer Norman Kee, who came to know Abdou primarily through their work for the defunct Capital Area Musician Association, reiterates that the project arose from a desire to promote the burgeoning local arts scene. "We all really like Albany and the Capital District," he says. "There are a lot of really talented people here. But still, it's limited. You have a big population, but not a lot of people who go out to shows. You're in a place that's big yet small. There's not a huge arts community-it's close-knit."
After kicking around the idea of a print publication to showcase the group's artistic output (and dismissing the idea as "financially daunting," according to Kee), the group settled on the idea of a Web site. Musician Bryan Thomas, a Web designer by day, had the technological skills to make the site come together. "Compared to a publication, it seemed like the Web would be easier in terms of distribution, and offered more potential for multimedia," Thomas explains.
Organized into categories of "Read," "See" and "Hear," the Hidden City's site incorporates visual and musical content in a way that would not have been possible in a standard print magazine. Musical experimentalist Jason Martin has displayed pieces that incorporate video, photos and text; Justyn Thomas (Bryan's brother) contributed video of a livespoken-word performance; Bryan Thomas is currently working on a piece that pairs flash animation with music. The site also has displayed content in more traditional media, such as poetry by Lurithen Fraser and visual art by Matt Tiernan and Aindrea Brennan Richard.
"One of the advantages of the Web is that it's an easy way to display things," Kee says. "A visual artist doesn't have to frame the work and find an exhibit space. There isn't necessarily a venue for things that are quirky and unusual. Our idea was to create the venue. Part of our intention is to allow people an indulgent place to do things they've always wished they could do. It's an organization, a roundtable, and therapy."
Kee says that because the Hidden City is a collective of about 25 people, its site differs in focus from the more all-encompassing Web directory Capital Region Unofficial Musicians and Bands Site (www.crumbs.net), which admirably attempts to be as inclusive as possible in representing local music. "We're not trying to say this is what Albany arts is," Kee adds.
The collaborative encourages its members to branch out into different mediums. Abdou has used to site to showcase some of her writing, and local poet Mary Panza has contributed articles that allow her to tell stories in more detail than is sometimes possible with poetry. "It's a chance for me to say more and not be so closely guarded about what I say," Panza explains. "There's a lot more freedom in this."
Panza helped organize a series of events that launched new installments of the Web site, which the group hopes to unveil on a quarterly basis. At Larkfest 2000, the group kicked off the first edition of the site by setting up a stage on which Hidden City performers-including Rosanne Raneri, MotherJudge, Brown Cuts Neighbors, Kamikaze Hearts, Amy Abdou Band, Bryan Thomas, Paddy Kilrain and others-played acoustic sets.
The group celebrated the second installment of thehiddencity.com with a December 9 showcase at Café Web. Titled "What Are Words For," the show featured a variety of artists performing spoken-word pieces. In addition to readings from area poets such as A.C. Everson and Marcus Anderson, the event featured musicians out of their usual element. "What I wanted to accomplish through that event was to show people that musicians are writers," says Panza. "They were all great, even though they didn't have their guitars to protect them."
The next version of the site is scheduled to be up by April, and will be accompanied by an April Fool's Day show at the Lionheart Cafe. Built around the theme "Why Can't I Be You?," the show will feature musical and spoken-word performances by Capital Region artists covering each other's work.
The live events allow the group to involve more people than those who comprise the group's foundation, since, for the time being, the collaborative is primarily limited to its original members. "I think the idea of the Hidden City is to start small with this one group of people, and down the road maybe expand it and become more inclusive," explains Thomas.
"It's a work in progress and will probably stay that way," adds Kee.
Reprinted from Metroland, March 1, 2001.