An Interview with Kate Lesta of Communikey

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Kate Lesta is excited. The trees are in full bloom, flowers are blossoming and this week Communikey is presenting the fifth installment of its excellent springtime arts festival in Boulder. Kate is the Creative and Managing Director of the Communikey Organization, which is a group of forward-thinking Coloradans out to synthesize sound, desgin and technology into driving forces for social, cultural and artistic growth. In a nutshell, Communikey represents a whole lot of good folks doing a whole lot of good things for the community, which includes bringing a boatload of amazing musicians and artists to one location every year and celebrate the creative human spirit in a clean, safe, and interactively stimulating environment.

The festival that has grown from the organization's work is truly visionary in its approach, combining stellar musical lineups peppered about several smaller venues with a series of workshops, art installations, and topping it all off by keeping the event especially green with its Yes…And? program, which involves making use of Boulder's B-Cycle bike sharing system and setting up several stages entirely powered with biodiesel energy – all steps that help reduce the event's overall ecological impact. But of course we can't forget the music and the art. Laurie Anderson is playing. Morton Subotnick is performing Silver Apples of the Moon, dudes. Peaking Lights and Zammuto and Sun Araw, and a whole cast of others from near and far, will be presenting their sights and sounds throughout the five day fest. Also, Santa Fe's art collective Meow Wolf will be in attendance to contribute several installations around the festival. Meow Wolf, for those who do not know, completed a five month run of a gigantic art installation this past summer called The Due Return, which was essentially a life-sized, time-travelling, inter-stellar space pirate ship you could interact with. I don't think I should have to say, but it was absolutely unbelievable.

Basically, Communikey is going to rule again this year. Near as I can tell, Communikey will in fact rule harder than ever, continuing an impressive streak of solid programming, planning and execution. I wanted to know more about how a festival could grow to seem so old and wise so quickly. Everything just seems so well-rounded, smooth, stylish, under control and confident, it's almost unreal (…taking serious notes for GOLDRUSH). So I picked up the phone and gave Kate Lesta a call to get the scoop on some of the finer details on the history of Communikey, the organization's various relationships throughout its community, the festival's growth and future among other things. She's a really nice and intelligent woman to speak to and seems to be an especially cool person in general (as in, she uses words like “download” to describe intense conversations between people).

Communikey Festival begins this Wednesday in Boulder and runs all the way through Sunday night. Peep their website for full programming details and ticket information.

The TOME: Let's start at the beginning. Tell me about the origins of the festival.

Kate Lesta: The festival came out of a couple different places. Communikey started in 2004, and those of us that started the organization, we'd all been involved in the underground electronic music community in Colorado for many years before that, and we decided to start Communikey because we were looking to bring a different edge to dance music and to the electronic music community here in Colorado. We wanted to bring people from out of town, people who were maybe challenging what defines dance music. For example Lusine was the first artist that we brought under the Communikey banner. Helios was another artist; Hauschka; really experimental but very adventurous, playful artists. What we found was that there was a real demand being met from the community with what we were doing. We started getting involved with festivals like Mutek in Montreal and Decibel in Seattle and it just evolved into a festival. We did regular events for four years and then the festival started in 2008.

You said the origins are rooted in the dance side of electronic music, but Communikey obviously showcases much more than dance music.

Right, that was the goal. We had all come from the dance community, and then we realized that we wanted to do something that's more challenging, we wanted to do something something that's really going to push the edge of what is happening in electronic music in Colorado.

Are you under the impression that there are a lot of misconceptions about electronic music especially in Colorado?

I wouldn't necessarily call it misconceptions. But I would say that in the last five years that electronic music has made its way into the fold of popular music, and we're not necessarily interested in what happens in pop music. We're interested in what happens in adventurous and challenging music. And so we focus on artists that are on the fringe, on the brink of something totally new. So it doesn't necessarily have to be electronic, but it's about what is emerging.

I just got off the phone with one of Communkey's performers, Lake Mary. We were talking about his music and how he is traditionally an acoustic musician, but over the years he's developed his sound to include more and more electronic elements, tape looping and drones, things like that. So it seems like your festival is really celebrating the analog and electronic coming together in recent years.

Yeah, absolutely. It's kind of relevant that you did an interview with him. He played a show that I did last summer that was all just American primitive guitar, and that was what he did for that show. And then we invited him back for this to do his other side. So we do shows that have a spectrum, and it's great to connect with an artist that can really speak to a lot of different styles and be able to showcase them in both ways.

How does Communikey 2012 represent growth for the festival?

What we've really been going for is we've been trying to kind of bring the festival out of the pigeon hole of electronic music and techno and out of the 'music festival' per se, and bring it into an interdisciplinary practice. We're really interested in bringing art into the public sphere and art in the public space where you don't have to walk through a door and buy a ticket and stand in front of a stage in order to experience something. Instead it comes to… it takes over the city in a way. So this year we've commissioned a number of exhibitions and installations all over town. They're outside of the venues. We have about 15 different installations that are happening throughout the festival. So that's a really big change for us.

In particular I noticed from your website that you invited Santa Fe's Meow Wolf to come and do a lot of that stuff. Are they primarily the ones doing the installations?

No, they're doing about eight different projects and then we have an additional eight projects that are happening that are individual commissions from other artists.

How did you guys get in touch with Meow Wolf?

We're really connected with the Santa Fe community. You know it's only six hours from Denver/Boulder, and in the West a six hour drive is like going from Philly to New York, you know, you kind of just do it. We've actually been throwing parties with this crew in Santa Fe called Team Everything for a number of years, and they're doing the after party that's on Friday night. Meow Wolf started in 2008. Because we're so connected to Santa Fe, we've been there a lot and have watched their growth and for several years we'd been wanting to work together and this was just the year. So it's just a natural relationship between the two cities—not necessarily between Meow Wolf and Communikey or Team Everything and Communikey, but between Santa Fe and Boulder.

I noticed on the program guide this year (I'm actually looking at it right now) there's a big picture of the Due Return…

Yeah, incredible.

They're not bringing any of that with them are they?

Well, they create temporary work. Meow Wolf uses a lot of reused and recycled materials, and everything that came out of the Due Return has been repurposed for other projects. So the boat existed for five months and I'm so glad you got to experience it.. I mean it was incredible.

Definitely one of the best art installations I've ever had the chance to experience. The biggest for sure.

Yeah absolutely. I produced two shows that were on the boat as well including Lulacruza who are playing on the closing night with Peaking Lights and Sun Araw. The first time I went to the boat I spent 14 hours there and had a huge download with the main organizers of Meow Wolf and we realized OK, this is the year. The only reason they didn't work with us last year is because they had the Due Return on their plate. And so once that was already up we were all in this space and saying, “Yes, we really have this aligned vision.” We said “OK, 2012. This is the year for Meow Wolf to be part of Communikey.”

Most festivals usually happen during the summer. Is there any particular reason you choose to host the fest in April?

First of all, we're part of an international network of festivals that are akin to ours, like Mutek and Decibel, and we have a lot of shared audience, and we wanted to choose a time in the year when there wasn't another festival. Mutek is six weeks from ours, so people who come to our festival can still go to Mutek. We also really wanted to pick a time of year when the festival season isn't flooded, because all festivals happen between Labor Day and Memorial Day and then you start competing. We didn't really want to compete. We wanted to create something that was at a different time of year when people could really come for it. Also, Boulder in the springtime is gorgeous. It's 70 degrees, you know? The weather here is really temperamental in Colorado but it's gorgeous now, the trees are blooming. The end of April is just a great time of year for a festival in Colorado.

What are the greatest challenges for you putting the festival together each year?

Well, we are a 100% volunteer-run organization. We have a huge community, 75 people on staff and 80 volunteers who come in just to work the festival specifically. But there's a lot of us that work the entire production season. I wouldn't say we have any trouble getting enough help, but we have a set of core values that we really stick to that creates this framework that we're working within and that is particularly challenging because for one, we create a narrative program. We're not interested in creating programing where there's five different things happening at once and the audience is divided. Everyone that is coming to the festival can experience everything that's going on from start to finish. So your audience is completely engaged as a whole organism from the beginning to the end. We're limited with smaller venues, we like to create more intimate experiences for audiences and artists alike. We're starting to outgrow these smaller venues but it's still really important to us to create more intimate experiences for people. We don't want to have five nights at the Boulder Theater. The challenges of having a growing audience and a growing presence and still working out of venues that hold two to three hundred people or even less is a pretty big challenge. Also, in the nature of creating this narrative program we're curating every single moment. We don't book artists just based on, “Oh this artist is going to sell tickets, and that's cool because there will be people there.” It's like creating a week long DJ set where every single moment and every single transition and every single artist or track (if you will) speaks to the next and the one that came before it. That's an interesting challenge as well. And then we also want everything to be affordable. We're not trying to create something that is particularly difficult for young people to attend. All the ticket prices are within an affordable range, the pass is $100. We have some limitations in these ways but they're self-imposed, and it's a good framework to work within because it creates structures.

Who couldn't you do the festival without?

Well we're really closely partnered with the University [of Colorado at Boulder] and with the Technology Arts and Media department at the school. We've been working with them since day one. It's a really mutually beneficial relationship. We're bringing in a lot of unique outside programming for students and staff at the school and they've really facilitated the festival and the activities that we want to do. But to really answer that question, it's all about the community at large. That's what this festival is all about and that's why there are so many people involved.

Now that you guys are in your fifth year, you've had a lot of time to make improvements, learn from mistakes—I'm wondering if you've gotten to the point where you've met all your goals. Where do you see yourselves having room to grow?

I feel like there's always room to grow. It's not necessarily about the festival, but it's about what we are really trying to do with the festival, and whether or not that is really limited to 'festival' as a platform. I feel like everyone in our organization is really interested in always being challenged and always growing in the work that we're doing. We have to ask ourselves every year: “Is this really the platform in which we can best express the change that we want to see in the world?” Festivals are an amazing way to bring people together. It creates this hyper-experiential moment, this bliss in time that you'll never forget the experience that you have, but it only lasts for five days. And it brings people from all over the world, and everyone is there together for that five days. And that's an incredible way to create catalytic moments in peoples lives. But think as far as growth and goals, we're constantly setting new goals for ourselves, which isn't necessarily about external growth, it's about internal growth as people and as a community.

If people are interested in volunteering, what's the best way they can go about doing that?

We staff all of our volunteers three months out, so all of our volunteers are already staffed. But in the future, we have a really open door policy for our organization. People can write to, or we have all team meetings that are held once a month on the first Sunday in Boulder.