“The Gluegunheim” is exactly the kind of curatorial pun I am so mad at myself for not coming up with first.
The sprawling exhibition, which serves as the Bromo Arts District’s Neighborhood Lights program for the Light City festival, stretches down Howard Street from Current Space to Planned Parenthood and reimagines the block’s vacant storefronts as vitrines to display a curious niche of local visual culture. It pays homage to the costumes, props, and ethos of this city’s theatrical, collectivist, and oft-kitschy DIY culture. Think drag-queen-esque gold lamé synchronized swimming gowns from Fluid Movement and spray-painted foam monster puppets from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS).
I consider one of the defining/best/strangest aspects of Baltimore culture to be this kinda-weird tendency to organize ourselves into groups and donate our time and/or crafting talents to what are sometimes pretty silly performative ends. I’ve seen teams of full-grown adults compete in kinetic sculpture races and costumed roller derby tournaments and even cranberry sauce wrestling matches—all leaving a trail of lovingly stitched sequins in their wake. At one point in time or another it seems like most of us have volunteered at a psychedelic music jubilee or helped paint backdrops for a play festival based on YouTube videos or been one of seemingly thousands helping to install any number of friends’ whacky papier-mâché contraptions in a former warehouse somewhere. Hell, once dozens of people donated a whole lot of time and talent to help me fulfill my long-time, inexplicable dream of adapting Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into a glittery, low-budget theatrical production in a defunct concrete anchor factory for some reason.
But out of untold numbers of groups who have come together over the years to collectively attach rhinestones to spandex, carve foam, and hot-glue cardboard sets for something that likely started as an inside joke but became so much more, BROS and Fluid Movement are the two that stand out as quasi-institutions (apart from the legendary “Dreamlanders” of yesteryear, that is). BROS began as a small group of friends in a basement in 2007 and is now a full-blown nonprofit staging productions with Broadway-musical-sized casts and a veritable army of musicians and crafters giving life to their hair-metal-meets-Mystery-Science-Theater-3000 aesthetic. And then there’s Fluid Movement, a performance collective best known for bringing off-beat synchronized swimming productions and heaps of glitter to Baltimore City Public Pools (they once staged a water ballet about the life and career of Jeff Goldblum). Incredibly, Fluid Movement turns 20 this month.
So what does an object-based show that strives to capture this energy look like? For the most part, more glue-gun then Guggenheim, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The interior of Current Space was lit more like a rave than a traditional exhibition—bathing the foam BROS puppets on display in appropriately theatrical lighting. The gallery’s storefront windows were packed with mannequins wearing Fluid Movement’s fabulously campy amphibious costumes and props that resonate nicely with Baltimore’s over-the-top vernacular retail display culture.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what could have been if a professional curator had handled this install. For one of the first times in my art-viewing career, I found myself wanting more wall text, documentary images or video, and context for the stuff on display. For all their crafty charm, it’s the stories behind the communal making and use of these objects that I’m interested in. Most of the puppets, for example, are the product of workshops the BROS ran. I only found that out because I asked, and impressively some collective members at the opening remembered the names of every character, who made them, and what production they were from.
The BROS’ storefront displays running down the street actually did a way better job of giving context to the outlandish costumes and props on view—a bit like a contemporary anthropology museum’s dioramas holding artifacts from some esoteric ritual. But unlike a museum or our underground DIY scene, these were out on the street, and that’s what I loved most about this project.
So much of the weird and wonderful stuff that happens in this city isn’t necessarily seen by as large (or diverse) of a public as it should be. I love the idea that a potential budding rock opera or water ballet fan or participant could discover their new passion by chance on the way to the mosque or Planned Parenthood or subway. And I love the idea that all this great stuff Baltimore has been making got a deserved second life beyond a brief performance run. We have no shortage of empty storefronts in this town, but thankfully even less of a shortage of weird and wonderful makers. Here’s to a 21-glue-gun-salute.
Professor Maury Arteries (of Sherlock Bones) by John Marra
Scarabel from The Electric Pharaoh (2014), by costume director Naomi Davidoff and costume assistant Eliza Vlasova
From The Rat King (2015), Rat King designed by Izzy Lawler, Elise Collier, and Joe Martin
Glamour Alien by Bambi Galore (Chronoshred)
By Katelynn Zimmerman (Chronoshred)
Party Worm by Michael Harker (Chronoshred)
Aliens by Jen Herchenroeder (L) and Kristina Green (Chronoshred)
Provenance: No one knows who made it, but clearly related to the Coxucculent. (Chronoshred)
Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s new show, Space Kümité, opens tonight at Peabody Heights Brewery. For tickets and more info, visit the event page.
Light City continues through this weekend.
Featured image: The Gluegunheim at Current Space
Photos by Michael Anthony Farley