The first light to transform the Ames Family Atrium comes from the sharp stripes of sunset that paint the floor. Then the sky beyond the glass roof darkens, and the colorful dance lights turn on for thousands of people.
“We always have vibrant lights at MIX because once it gets dark in the atrium, there’s an energy that creates a really special environment,” says Deidre McPherson, the CMA’s director of community programs.
The monthly MIX events in the atrium have been suspended since March because of the coronavirus public health emergency. McPherson has led the efforts to make it a virtual event. The next one, MIX: Viva, will light up living rooms on August 7 from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m.
MIX parties in the atrium were a place to see fun fashions, show off dance moves, meet friends you hadn’t seen since the last MIX, or buy a drink for a stranger. MIX connected people of all ages from all neighborhoods across northeast Ohio.
“MIX is a social event that is very much about the environment and being in the atrium with 2,000 people, having a DJ on the stage, and all the lights and the creative spaces. It was kind of intimidating to try to reimagine all of those spaces in a virtual way,” McPherson says.
She knew she wanted to host a virtual MIX on the Zoom platform so people could see others dancing in the grid view and could use the chat function to shout out to longtime friends or introduce themselves to new ones. Each MIX has a theme, so for June she picked “Bloom.”
“The theme was inspired by the beauty of Cleveland when it blooms. Back in June, we were all sequestered in our homes, sheltered in place, and taking walks was and still is a daily highlight. The ‘Bloom’ theme also acknowledged the period of growth and transformation we are all experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic,” McPherson says.
She also wanted MIX to visually reference the museum’s collection, so she invited Cleveland artist Jessica Williams to create digital animations of flowers and artworks using the CMA’s Open Access initiative, which allows anyone to use hi-res images of CMA artworks. Williams’s fun visuals and animations were paired with a live DJ set from JonDoeTho1 (John Berdin).
“It was a great marriage between the DJ, the visual artist, and the CMA staff,” McPherson says. “Seeing how everything came together in a virtual space for a communal experience gave us all goosebumps.”
Since that experiment was successful at bringing people together in a virtual space, the virtual MIX: Viva will celebrate the diverse sights and sounds of Latin culture in honor of the current exhibition A Graphic Revolution: Prints and Drawings in Latin America. The night includes a live DJ set by Cause&Effect (Jean Paul Hernandez) and animated visuals by Texas-based artist Michael Menchaca, whose video art combines imagery from video games with ancient Maya texts to explore Latinx identities.
“Michael Menchaca’s print Hasta La Casta is featured in the exhibition. His artistic training is in printmaking, but he also uses digital animation and video as part of his practice. We thought the vibrant colors and energy of his videos would be perfect for a party, and coincidentally, when we reached out with this idea, he said producing visuals for a party was something he’d always wanted to do, so he’s excited. His video work speaks very much to the themes of Latinx culture and identity in our exhibition,” McPherson says. “For example, Menchaca’s La Raza Cósmica 20XX is a two-minute digital animation that presents a mythical reinterpretation of Jose Vasconcelos’s mestizo identity theory.”
She and her team have prepared a digital toolkit for MIX: Viva that includes instructional merengue, bachata, and salsa dance videos from Afro-Caribbean duo Caribe Conexión, who also provide a social context of the origins of each dance; a Spotify music playlist from Cause&Effect; downloadable virtual backgrounds designed by Menchaca to use during the Zoom party; a list of area Latin restaurants to order dinner for take-out before the party; and more. Caribe Conexion will also perform at the beginning of MIX: Viva. “Dancing in a virtual Zoom party can be a bit intimidating for some, so they will help us keep everyone on their feet and break the ice as our party starters,” McPherson says.
A virtual MIX also allows the presentation of an original poetic response to an artwork in the exhibition, Belkis Ayón’s print I Always Return. The poem is written and performed by actor-poet Andrew Aaron Valdez, who hosts Voces Fuertes Open Mic at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center. “We asked Valdez to respond to an artwork with an original poem and asked DJ Cause&Effect to select a soundtrack to accompany the reading, so it’s a DJ who has responded to a poet who has responded to an artwork,” McPherson says. “We couldn’t really do this on-site because there would be noise bleed from the music into the exhibition space. Those are the kinds of technical things that get solved in a virtual space through a video collaboration.”
Cleveland’s Young Latino Network is a co-host of MIX: Viva, which is supported by Chase Private Client. “The mission of YLN is to empower the Latino community through leadership and civic engagement. During MIX, YLN will help us keep the Zoom chat lively with fun polls, shout-outs, and games. They’ll also be reminding partygoers to register to vote and complete the census. We greatly appreciate having YLN as a community partner to help us connect with anyone who wouldn’t want to miss this celebration of Latinx culture,” McPherson says.
McPherson is planning virtual MIX events for every other first Friday: October 2 and December 4. She looks forward to creating experimental experiences in a virtual world.
“At a virtual MIX, we can do things that we can’t do in the atrium,” McPherson says. “For example, we can work with other collecting institutions to develop an experience in a neutral space. We can marry our collections in a virtual world. We don’t have to worry about whose house the party is going to be at!”