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You’ve got to hand it to Halcyon House for their chutzpah – By The People is as bold of a debut effort as I’ve ever seen when it comes to art festivals in DC. Spanning four days and five principal locations across DC (Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, THEARC West, The Parks at Walter Reed, Union Market, and the Washington National Cathedral), they’ve brought together an intriguing collection of visual artists, thought leaders, performers, and speakers covering a wide range of mediums and topics. The common theme throughout seems to be work that provokes a reaction – whether one of wonder, introspection, or curiosity. And from what was on offer last night at the soft opening/welcome reception at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, they’re on the right track.

It was my first time inside this space, and I was taken aback by how different it is to any other building that makes part of the Smithsonian Institution. Granted – they’re all quite unique, but the Arts and Industries Building was as eclectic, provocative, and large as By The People (the festival) is trying to be. The interior looks like a hybrid between an art school and an unfinished Moorish mosque, with four principal wings converging at a central, cavernous duomo. And the principal installations in each of the rooms make excellent use of the space – from the gorgeous aerial web and augmented reality installation in the West atrium, to the “Mobile Interfaces” in the opposite wing that ask us to stick our heads in what are essentially giant beach balls. If that sounds strange to you – and it is – it was a surprisingly popular interactive piece of art, with many people in the room delighting in taking a moment to totally disconnect from the outside world.

Putting together a festival of this scale is a challenge, and my personal logistical nightmare, but the organizers seem to have a grip on it thus far: the catering at last night’s event was on point, and the drinks were flowing; artists, friends and family, and press alike all seemed to be having a good time. Speaking of which – shout out to the extremely PDA couple who were basically dry humping for the duration of the event. It started as some heavy petting during remarks by the organizers, and before the night was over, they were making out and fondling on top of each other (and everyone else) in the central room, capturing everyone’s attention. If this was performance art, it was of the highest caliber. Let your freak flag fly, DC.

Most of the exhibitions, installations, and showcases taking place as part of By The People are free, just requiring you to RSVP. Others are not – and the website isn’t clear on what you have to pay for, or how much it costs. There are a ton of events happening across the city from Thursday to Sunday, and it isn’t clear that the organizers are prioritizing certain events over others, which makes it incredibly hard for audiences to do the same. That being said, from the quality of the work of participants on display last night – which included a performance by the Hong Kong Ballet (!) – you probably can’t go wrong with any decision.

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