Kindle Project has been funding High Mayhem since 2009. As a local art collective with leaders and members who are our friends and collaborators, they have always impressed us with how they’ve done so much with so little. The same can be said of many of our grantees. However, each member of the Kindle team has been or is currently involved in some form of artistic practice and as such we know how challenging it can be not only to make art, but to share it while engaging our communities.
When High Mayhem submitted their grant proposal to us this spring, we had a renewed burst of energy for this long-time grantee. We’ve seen what they’re capable of in terms of the kinds of offerings they give to the community of Santa Fe, how they work and train young artists, and how their doors are open to so many forms of unfettered creativity. But this year, with their proposal also came a letter from High Mayhem’s Director, Carlos Santistevan. The letter was such an honest and earnest exploration of what it takes to thrive as an art collective that we were compelled to publish it here.
For anyone interested or involved with an arts collective – this is an essential read.
Battling Through Longevity as an Art Collective
by Carlos Santistevan, Director of High Mayhem
High Mayhem Emerging Arts is entering its 11th year as a not-for-profit all volunteer arts collective. During this time we have had to continually evolve, redefine and refocus our efforts in an attempt to keep the collective alive despite member changes, life changes, and the powers that be. It has been challenging, but somehow we have endured and continue to evolve as an organization and as artists.
I think whenever a legitimate art collective emerges it is a confluence of many forces.
There has to be the need in the community for such a thing to exist (a void to be filled), the right people have to come together or meet at the right time, and the right physical space needs to exist or make itself available. All these things coming together at the right time creates an almost celestial happening, and those that become part in giving birth to this new creative outlet are lucky to find themselves in the middle of such a convergence.
If the community is ripe for it and the art is good enough, generally the art collective will be able to make a “big splash” in the community. There is a lot of hype and people are quick and eager to jump on and help in whatever way they can. They find nourishment in what the collective provides and it’s refreshing to be able to feel the power of what a large community can achieve when working together. Through riding such a wave High Mayhem put on eight large 3-day multimedia experimental arts festivals and hundreds of shows to our community. Bands and artists seemed to pop out of nowhere, and while often little known or unheard outside our immediate community, these acts made huge impacts locally, and nurtured an artistic development that could never otherwise have been born.
But what happens when the bubble begins to burst or fade out? Critical members experience serious life changes, people begin to donate less time and energy, kids are born, family or career pulls people in other directions and places, rent is hard to collect or raise, people that have no interest in the art show up to events simply cause it’s “happening” and cause fights that tear at the heart of the organization. How does an art collective survive against these odds? The laws of the universe (entropy) make all things move towards chaos and disharmony. How does an art collective rise above this? Or can it?
For a long while we got caught up in the hype that surrounded our organization and really raised the public’s awareness and programmed and produced more events than we should have. While it was fun and cool, it actually began to endanger our collective. We began to put energies toward putting on and producing events instead of focusing on our own art as artists. People began to burn out. We made many great connections and brought in lots of inspiration, but didn’t leave enough time for us to nourish our own art.
The other issue with raising our profile publicly was that people began to come to events not for the art, but for the scene surrounding us. While we understood this was usually a good thing as people became exposed to art they never otherwise would, it also became dangerous as people with no interest or reason to be at an event showed up and started trouble. Fights and guns showed up in a place that we grew from our heart and these things were painful for us to accept. Along with this, Police and Fire Marshalls began showing up to events and shut us down. We were told our house turned art space only had an official capacity of seven, and without tens of thousands of dollars of renovation we could not host public events. We became too visible, and eventually lost our art space as a result.
After we lost our space, we were unsure what would happen. We eventually got to the point where we realized this was an opportunity to go back to our roots; to go back underground and really focus on our art. So that is what has kept us going for the past 3 or so years. We have drastically reduced our public presence. We know that every time we put on a public event at our space, the authorities or people that simply “don’t get it” could take this away from us. We are weary of the press for the attention it brings. We have made our new art space our laboratory where we challenge each other, grow, develop, document, and occasionally showcase our creative efforts.
Despite these challenges, somehow High Mayhem is still here. Our light has faded in the public or hipster eye, but the art that is being created today by High Mayhem artists shows a level of sophistication and maturity that could only exist by having gone through and endured all this. By placing our priority on our own artistic growth and development we have endured through many ebbs and flows. Our art has served to guide us through these challenges. As just about any artist will tell you, the reason they create is to help them cope with the immensity of life. In this case, our art has guided us individually and collectively through these processes and kept High Mayhem’s pulse strong.
At this point we are now challenged with how do we get our art more recognized and not challenge our very existence? We are exploring ways to exploit more digital media and means of broadcasting to a wider global community. This summer we are working on designing and installing a live internet broadcasting system as well as recording and filming various local and touring artists to establish a video series of musical sessions recorded at our studio. We are putting our faith into the idea that this will fill the gap between artist and audience, but know that we will continually need to reassess and redirect our energies if we are going to continue to survive, and like any life form, our decisions are based upon survival in an environment that tries to choke the life out of art collectives.
Reflection, sincerity, humility and perseverance reverberate off of Carlos’ letter, acting as a relatable reminder to other art collectives to stay strong, to shy away from the notoriety of popularity, and return always to the art.