Photos by Nicholas Karlin, words by Kaylee Dugan
The first thing we noticed were the trees. Not the lush and beautiful Symphony Woods, but the trees hanging upside down from the ceiling of the Chrysalis. Ken Farmer, curator and brain child of OPUS 1, was overseeing the project. As he tweaked things and gave instructions, we watched, trying to make out exactly what was going on. While the crew prepared to lift a fourth tree to the ceiling (and worked on straightening out a few of the others), we started peppering Farmer with questions.
“Trees are amazing things to light and project on,” he replied, noting that there were quite a few of them on hand anyway. He explained that when he first came to the forest and saw the Chrysalis he was immediately taken by notion that it looked like an alien spaceship, something that had just crash landed through the woods. He wanted to play with that imagery. “We want to create a level of magic,” says Farmer. “With lighting and projection, there’s a degree of interactivity.”
As he explained the run of events at Merriweather’s newest stage, that there would be a pep band, followed by an Indian classical music band to kick off the day, it all started to come together. Farmer enjoys messing with your expectations. One of the themes that pops up again and again in his newest project is the idea of roll reversal and playing with conventions. He’s pushing the boundaries of Merriweather’s usual style and he’s having a ton of fun with it.
But OPUS 1 didn’t come out of nothing. Yes, it’s a free, one day festival that’s bringing a ton of artists and musicians to the area, a blend of art, technology and music, but it’s also a sign of what’s to come. Presented by the Howard Hughes Corporation, OPUS 1 is both a celebration of current day Columbia and a sign of change. The area is in the middle of being renovated and revitalized, with new apartments and commercial space going up all the time. As someone who grew up 15 minutes away, who worked at Merriweather as a teen, I never thought we’d see a Whole Foods in the neighborhood, none the less a slew of mixed use buildings aimed at millennials. The area is changing at a rapid pace, and OPUS 1 is serving both as a reminder and an assurance. A promise that no matter how many new and shiny things get built, Merriweather is always going to be a little weird. A little unusual.
OPUS 1 is also mirroring this evolution, not just of Columbia, but of Merriweather itself. This is the last event of the season for the 50-year-old venue, and as half of the crew busies themselves with building new pieces for the weekend, the other half is tearing things apart. Merriweather has gone through a major renovation and more is left to come. Besides the addition of the Chrysalis and the brand new state of the art backstage facilities, they’re tearing out all of the old blue seating and have plans to raise the roof by 20 feet before next summer.
As Merriweather becomes larger than life, OPUS 1 strives to be more than a music festival. Farmer explains that the goal here is to have the art as big as the music. To not just have people sitting and enjoying a concert, but to have them wandering the woods, discovering immersive art around every corner. OPUS 1’s pieces are strewn around Symphony Woods, and while they’re arranged so that one piece naturally leads you to another, Farmer is excited to watch people choose their own adventure. To see how different people gravitate toward different things. “The forest is an extension of the stage.” says Farmer.
And Farmer doesn’t let a shred of that forest go to waste. He’s placed things very carefully, making sure they fit perfectly in the natural shape of the forest. For example, there’s the Forest Gateway, a giant eyeball that looks like its made out of stained glass. It’s laying on the grass right now, but soon it will be hanging up in the trees. There will be images projected onto it, along with corresponding music. Its aim is to draw people through what Farmer is called the Enchanted Forest, but it’s an art piece within itself that is bringing together three different artists in collaboration. The forest’s clearings are taken up by its biggest pieces, like Vincent Moon’s “Híbridos”, a exploration of music as performative ritual, and Jesse Seegers’ 80 foot long “Lightening Cloud”.
There’s also the “Mutual Wave Machine”, which turns brain waves into art, the “Forest Green” which brings a mini green screen stage to the center of the woods and so much more. There’s a video cube on the main stage, a second stage (called the Hearth) is being built in front of the lawn, plus an entire culinary village. The bevy of artistic pieces and shows are purposeful. Farmer doesn’t want this to be a traditional hedonistic music festival, and he doesn’t want people stuck in line waiting to try a VR machine. “We’re not compromising your night with lines,” he says. “We’re pulling from this history of festivals, it’s an engagement of the senses.”
OPUS 1 is a lot to take in and Farmer knows that. It’s a one day festival that’s only running from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. There’s a limited amount of time to draw people in and make an impression, but he’s confident. As we chat about what the festival could become he says, “I’m excited for the potential of the future… But we’ll see how everyone takes this in.”