Experiencing the Sacred and Profane Festival

Time and temp building
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  November 17, 2010


In seriously dark conditions, art is simply the ritual of making light.

It's more proper to say that Saturday's festival of the Sacred and Profane was more of a communion or convention than a festival. Assembled annually by a disorganized and amorphous crew at Battery Steele on Peaks Island, the event seems to persist without any fanfare or publicity, like the birthday of a modest old friend.

A member of this year's organizational team put it to me in Zen-like terms: "Some people make stuff, it's pretty, then it's gone and everyone goes home. That's it." This reductive, nothing-to-see-here angle isn't merely a concealed peevishness. Like anyone else, artists can be protective of their rituals, and the festival is a time-honored occasion for some of the city's most original artists to create work both anonymously and under uniquely rich conditions.

Sacred and Profane has been around for much longer than I've been attending, but even in that smaller window, American culture has become aggressively documentarian. It's now an era where virtually everyone is daily equipped with a camera or recording application (to say nothing of humble scribes). Needless to say, the performances and installation work of the event do not easily cooperate with this instinct. Many are time-sensitive. Many depend on tactile sensation. Nobody's found a decent way to capture dance without reducing it to artless, two-dimensional plodding, and not even Homeric verse can recreate what it feels like to be inside an enormous cave. Even at the risk of hypocrisy, it must be said that Sacred and Profane is a profoundly experiential event. Each account differs, and little documenting can do it justice.

For many, that first rush of experience begins on the ferry. Things started getting weird during the procession from the ferry terminal to the fortifications, led by an enormous variation of a Pac-man ghost and some trumpeters. As we were steered into the first turret, a carousel of wooden marionettes hanging from tall rafters became visible, each beset with big waxy wings. Deep, moaning horns bellowed from the stomach of the battery, its dark tunnel set with a prefab wooden archway.


Two curtains separated the room from the awning of the north turret. Behind them loomed a human-sized installation perched in an unlit room. A sheer white muslin gown was fastened to a thin skeletal frame, the room illuminated by a glowing halogen light embedded in the figure's chest. The detailed contours of the frame made it look distinctly human while still anonymous, and the radiant heart left no question what power it obeyed.

Barreling down the battery and into its first room, participants circled around a single bulb, its cord suspended vertically to a point a couple feet off the ground. A strange elliptical glow surrounded its dim, unshaded light, and the cement floor below was finished with a powdery sheen, as if mica or silica. As the first in a series of rooms that altered sensory perception, the optical field presented an illusory rabbit-hole entirely appropriate to the themes of the day.

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