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Dan Deacon and the Culture of Innovation

19 Jun

This piece was originally published on Springboard for the Arts’ Tumblr.

Dan Deacon on the Walker Art Center garage from CakeIn15 on Vimeo.

Over the weekend, 89.3 The Current and the Walker Art Center hosted Rock the Garden, one of the highlights of the Twin Cities summer concert calendar, which we cling to so tightly to make the most of our precious warm months. And, as it has for the past few years, it rained over the weekend. Now the festival itself is “rain or shine,” and the rain had started to sheet in just as the first act of the day, Baltimore-based elctro-dance act Dan Deacon was about to take the stage. Sticking to the rules of “rain or shine,” Deacon would have worked onstage, and a few sodden fans would have braved the rain to thrash about in the mud.

But Deacon had other plans. Grabbing his gear; a hodgepodge of pedals, keyboards, iPods and oscilloscopes held together by fluorescent duct tape, and instructing the crew to take the PA sound system with them, Deacon moved the entire dance party into the belly of the concrete, underground parking ramp, which was serving as an ad hoc rain shelter. This may have seemed like an obvious choice in retrospect, but, as Current DJ Steve Seel pointed out later in the day (once the sun had come out and it was gorgeous again) this was all Deacon, “madcap,” as Seel put it, on the spot. Realizing that the situation wasn’t the way he wanted to play, or for his fans to experience the show, Deacon knew enough to take advantage of the possibility adjacent to the existing rules and make the situation work for him.

He was able to do this because it’s part of his growth as an artist to play these odd spaces. One of the best things about his act is that he always introduces himself,”I’m Dan Deacon and I’m from Baltimore, Maryland.” He comes from a specific place and has inherited an ethos of that place. Baltimore isn’t just The Wire, but it is a post-industrial American city with lots of empty warehouses and scene with artists looking to fill those spaces. As Steven Johnson quotes urban writer Jane Jacobs in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, “New ideas must use old buildings.” Deacon’s hyperkinetic electronic dance music stems directly from that locally-developed, internationally-influenced scene in Baltimore, and Deacon has managed to take it around the world.

Also coming out of his specific experience is his development of crowd engaging activities and games that expand his performances past simply DJing and into an immersive experience. A Dan Deacon show is replete with dance-offs, follow-the-leader exercises and touching your neighbor. To start the show, he had everyone reach up to the sky to suck the grey of the clouds down and then to touch their neighbor’s head and put that energy into them. It’s ridiculous, but in the belly of what he called “a mall from The Matrix,” that shared experience was joyful in its absurdity. As the music came on and the dancing got wild, one assiduous security guard was moving people away from the table carrying Deacon’s gear. Deacon turned to the guard and said kindly, “Thank you for doing your job, but it’s ok. They’re my band.” That acknowledgement of the shared experience on his part understood what the crowd intuitively knew – we’re in this together.

So what can we take away about innovation from a sweaty, cobbled together dance party inside a parking garage? That it’s possible to make the most of a situation if you can break away from the rules once they become untenable. If you nurture a scene, if you’re part of a community that takes advantage of its assets and hidden treasures, you can create something that transcends place. That acknowledging you don’t do it alone – even if it is your name on the marquee – can create something communal and shared, that people will talk about for years after. And if you’re doing it right, it’s a great party.

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