Brightly colored aluminum “stones” are strewn in the brush along a secluded trail deep inside Swope Park.
They have their own language, the language of the ancient Earth. Crack the code and nature will impart a secret message.
“You can’t know what it says until you’ve walked the entire thing,” said artist Shawn Bitters, who conceived and created the 3/4-mile participatory piece of art called “Burn Out.” “I’m not going to divulge what it says to anybody. You have to take the time, which is kind of fun. It’s a game, and I kind of like art that is a little bit of a game.”
That’s a good way to look at Open Spaces, a nine-week public art experience unlike anything Kansas City has ever seen.
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Open Spaces embraces sculpture, music, dance, spoken word and just about every other form of expression from the minds of local, national and international artists.
It is not confined to one venue but scattered across the metropolitan area, with a hub in Swope Park. The event’s website says: “Open Spaces will transform Kansas City into a living cultural tapestry into which the best of the world’s collective imagination can be woven.”
The event officially begins at 11:30 a.m. Saturday Aug. 25 with a puppet theater, a junkyard orchestra, poetry and rap at a specially created “village” near the Southeast Community Center in Swope Park.
From there, people are invited to seek artistic experiences around town, from the caves of Subtropolis to a vacant lot near 18th and Vine to Westwood Park.
At Westwood, artist Carlie Trosclair’s “Fractured Horizons” “includes wallpaper, salvaged 2x4s, reflective Mylar and wood panels to create new topographies and narratives that highlight the structural and decorative shifts that evolve over the lifespan of a single building.”
A piece by artist Dawn Dedeaux called “Paradise Lost and Found” on the Paseo “envisions Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as a mythopoeic meander.”
In other words, contemporary art.
Here are five things to know about the inaugural festival.
1. This isn’t your usual art event or exhibit.
Open Spaces grew out of a task force on the arts appointed by Kansas City Mayor Sly James and nurtured by by the specially created Office of Culture and Creative Services in the city manager’s office.
James calls it a “citywide experience celebrating diversity, community, artistic expression and creative innovation.”
The city contributed $500,000 for Open Spaces and scads of individuals, businesses and foundations contributed about $1.8 million.
Open Spaces is paying for the installation and staging of the art. But organizers say Kansas City will gain by drawing attention to the city.
Locals will learn not just about art, but also about places they might not know much about. Many of the artists chose their own locations, and many are east of Troost Avenue.
“I think we are shining a light on a lot of parts of Kansas City that are treasures but have not had exposure that much,” said Scott Francis, a co-founder of Open Spaces along with Susan Gordon.
“I think part of this is about urban renewal as well,” Francis said. “Bringing all these elements into the city, there will be measurable economic benefits. But part of it is a quality of life issue.”
Officials hope a successful inaugural Open Spaces will lead to a biennial event.
“We want to make this sustainable,” said project producer Keli O’Neill Wenzel.
2. The art is something else.
“There is such a diverse range of offerings,” said artistic director Dan Cameron. “There is really something for just about everybody.”
Cameron was the founder and artistic director of the Prospect arts event in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and has been involved with other events around the world.
He said Open Spaces is different from most because it combines visual and performing arts and is based on a theoretical model of the future where art is not only seen in a gallery and music is not only heard on a stage. The venue is wherever you want it to be.
Cameron said art is often ahead of its time and contemporary artists often struggle for popular acceptance, which eventually comes around, but “how about trying it out right now?”
“With something new like this, the first thing you have to do is appeal to people’s curiosity,” Cameron said. “People will see little signs here and there. What is this? What is Open Spaces? What does this have to do with my life?”
Organizers say a free, interactive app will be available by the end of the week. It will tell people about individual pieces and allow visitors to critique them.
3. It’s mostly free.
The individual pieces of art scattered around town are free to view.
The arts “Village” in Swope Park, designed by Populous and HOK, will have free performances every weekend. Music will range from hip hop to jazz to classical to rock.
There will also be a maker’s space in the Swope Park Pavilion, and there will be food and beverage vendors.
4. Janelle Monáe and The Roots are coming.
Professional artists will be highlighted at Starlight Theatre the weekend of Oct. 12-14.
The Roots, the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” will headline on Friday, Oct. 12.
Kansas City, Kan., native Janelle Monáe, who has not performed here since 2013, will cap the night on Saturday.
And jazz pianist Vijay Iyer will top the bill on Sunday.
Friday and Saturday tickets from $39.50 to $99 and can be purchased online. Sunday tickets are $20 or $50.
Some performances at various locations around town also will charge $20.
5. More than 40 other artists’ works will be featured.
In addition to local talent, Open Spaces has attracted artists from Miami, New York, Lexington, Ky., Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Wichita, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
Bitters, who created those stones he calls “volcanic bombs” on the Rancho D-Lux Trail in Swope Park, is an associate professor of art at the University of Kansas.
He grew up in Utah and has always been fascinated with landscapes, but this is the first time he is using actual landscape in his work. He was drawn to the trails in Swope Park because of the periodic controlled burns that are done there to keep invasive plants in check and renew indigenous ones.
“I thought it was kind of absurdist and funny and poetic to create a language as if the Earth was speaking to us,” Bitters said. “It gave me a chance to flip the narratives, to play with the way we perceive nature.”
Bitters is pleased with his installation, which will be near another by artist Ebony Patterson at an old hydrotherapy pool in Swope Park. They are both by Camp Lake of the Woods and the Go Ape zip line and accessible by Oakwood Road.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” Bitters said of the event’s organizers. “What Open Spaces is doing is really admirable. This is the inaugural one and they’re kind of getting it fleshed out. I think most people in Kansas City don’t know what these festivals are like.”