A black man wearing a pagoda hat grips the microphone.
“Think for yourself,” he says quietly, over and over as a jazz band plays in the background. The walls of the room are painted lime green and splattered with fuchsia roses.
A horn-rimmed indie band plays to a fashionably sullen crowd down the hall. Next door there’s a graffiti room where a DJ is spinning.
In between the rooms are black and white photographs of male and female genitalia bearing reminders such as “You are what you eat” and “You suck.”
Titled “Art-o-Matic 2002,” this exhibition takes over the former EPA building, re-imagining a space about to be demolished. The building, located a few steps away from the Waterfront Metro stop, showcases the refined and profane elements of artistic expression in hundreds of rooms. Pieces represent the work of a variety of local artists, bringing together many aspects of the Washington arts scene.
Another room is full of killer cardboard monsters in seeming pursuit of bunnies lying across AstroTurf. Among the featured plays and films are the titles “Washington Interns Gone Mad” and “7 Blowjobs.” There’s glasswork, sculpture, sketch comedy, poetry readings, protest puppets and, of course, the requisite exhibition of flowers painted in watercolor.
When you enter Art-o-Matic space becomes convoluted, mirroring the art itself. Rooms open into corridors, which open into more rooms in a seemingly endless cycle. The sheer enormity and seemingly infinite proportions of the space are the event’s most striking features.
The show is divided into rooms, or collections of rooms, named for Metro stops. You can follow one of the provided maps, but somewhere on the third floor space and direction cease to make sense. You get lost, you get burned out, you go home. But then you need to go back.
The first Art-o-Matic was held three years ago when group of artists decided to take over an abandoned building. They used the space to create a grassroots art show. The event was repeated at a different location in 2000. Now two years later, Art-o-Matic is back and features more than 1,000 artists, filmmakers and performers.
The event, which is supported by a variety of sponsors, is free for visitors. Artists pay a small entrance fee and staff the show with the help of volunteers. Each artist is free to set up their exhibition space as they desire; the result is a striking transformation, even in the case of 2-D exhibits, where the space becomes part of the art. There is frequent repetition of colors, such as the lime green from the jazz/spoken word room, which popped up on other walls, doorframes, window trimmings and even on the floor.
Art-o-Matic is non-juried – anyone can have their art included. This means that there are a lot of pieces that leave you scratching your head, if not shaking it.
There are a couple of exhibits that appear as if, like one man at the event put it, “someone just went crazy with their Photoshop cut and paste.” Some use the event for self-promotion, others for self-help. But among it all there are some really stunning pieces that are worth the search.