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Raleigh's SPARKcon arts fest opens up

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Raleigh designer Aly Khalifa realized that he had reached a landmark of sorts earlier this year. He was on the other side of the globe, and people wanted to know about SPARKcon, the unique street festival he helped found in 2006.

"I was on a fellowship this year, traveling through Southeast Asia, and people really wanted to learn about it, about how we do it," Khalifa says. "I think it's a way that the Triangle can really be a leader, not just nationally but internationally."

What made SPARKcon noteworthy outside of North Carolina was its collaborative, open-source organization. Open source was still a novel concept in 2006 (Wikipedia was then only five years old), but Khalifa and his co-founders, including his wife Beth Khalifa and the Designbox arts collective, bet that a diverse and exciting event could arise from a low-cost, collective approach.

Or, as Sarah Powers, executive director of the Visual Art Exchange, which produces the yearly event, puts it, SPARKcon is an arts festival organized from the inside out. Rather than trying to curate the festival from the top down, with one person or a committee making the choices, SPARKcon lets the participants themselves run the show. Each block of programming—such as theaterSPARK, danceSPARK and geekSPARK—is headed up by volunteers who are given free rein to put together their own events. SPARKcon central handles the big-picture specifics like security, permits and marketing. But the programming is entirely up to the volunteers.

"There's just way more going on than any one person, or a handful of people, could know," Powers says. "With the open-source approach, everyone brings to the table the things they're excited about.

"The most important thing is that it's an overview of what the entire creative community is doing," she adds. "People come out of this and get paying gigs and move their careers forward. And that means more stuff to do around town, more support for artists."

Has it really been seven years already? By now, SPARKcon has grown into a major event for the city and a driver of downtown development. It returns to Fayetteville Street this week, banking on its unique open-source party theory to deliver four days of music, fashion, food and performances. SPARKcon will feature more than 1,700 artists and performers at 200-plus shows and exhibits on Fayetteville Street and City Plaza. Among the attractions: street painting, circus acts, skateboarding, film screenings and fashion shows.

This year's biggest addition is the inaugural SPARKcon opening ceremony, Thursday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Raleigh Amphitheater (soon to be called Red Hat Amphitheater, reflecting a local tech sponsor that's perhaps more in line with SPARKcon's aspirations for downtown than the original, aborted sponsorship deal with Bud Light). The show will include presentations from all of the SPARK teams, including a fashionSPARK runway show, a circusSPARK presentation and a skateboarding demonstration from the wheelSPARK team.

"To be able to do an opening ceremony and have the amphitheater as a venue is a huge change for us," says Aly Khalifa. "It's a big exclamation mark on this whole theme we have of exploring and expanding the creative frontier of the Triangle."

Craig Rudewicz is heading up this year's filmSPARK program after volunteering with the film team last year. Rudewicz says he sought out SPARKcon after moving to the Triangle from Massachusetts and reading about the event online.

"I've volunteered with other organizations before, and this is entirely different," Rudewicz says. "Usually, it's an approach where, each part of it, you've got to listen to the boss. Here, it's really more about listening to the volunteers."

For example, Rudewicz noticed last year that there were no outdoor daytime events for the filmSPARK series—all the film screenings were at night. So this year, he's put together an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Princess Bride.

The tent will be open noon–4 p.m. Saturday and will feature sword fights, trivia, a scavenger hunt and an Inigo Montoya impersonation contest. Oh, and free chocolate-covered miracles from Raleigh's Vidiri Chocolate Factory. Nothing wrong with that.

The tent will also have information on the weekend's various film screenings, which brings the focus back to local filmmakers. "We wanted something that would bring in the film crowd but also just general fans of the movie. And who doesn't like The Princess Bride?"

Other new events this year feature collaborations among the SPARK programs. The wheelSPARK crew has teamed with musicSPARK and graffitiSPARK to stage one of the festival's most ambitious programs. Skateboarders will be performing throughout the day Saturday and Sunday, accompanied by live music from the dedicated wheelSPARK stage.

The skaters will also be jumping over a car—while it's being painted and tagged by the graffitiSPARK team. Acquiring the car meant a different kind of collaboration, says wheelSPARK team leader Peter Fradella.

"The head of musicSPARK, Stephanie [Brinson], was about to get rid of her car—she was going to donate it," Fradella says. "At the meeting, she was like—just so long as you don't break it, you can do whatever you want."

Fradella runs his own skate company, Rival Skateboarding, which holds classes and works with local schools to "transcend the skater stereotype" and provide positive role models for kids. For Fradella, SPARKcon is a way to stage a big skating event as well as promote his own company.

"Working with SPARKcon, it's definitely an adventure," says Fradella. "We actually had other ideas to work with geekSPARK and theaterSPARK, because skate culture really intertwines with so many other things."

For film programmer Rudewicz, the uniqueness of SPARKcon comes down to having the freedom to program the event you want. "The only requirement is coming up with a plan and letting everyone else know what you're doing. It's very freeing.

"Everyone who volunteers takes it seriously," he adds. "They want to put out a good product at the end of it. No one's getting paid. Everyone just wants to put on a really good festival."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Open source, with flair."

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