Aurora Addresses Last Year's Problems As It Prepares to Unveil a Sneak Peek of 2017

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Aurora, the Dallas Arts District’s biennial light, video and sound art extravaganza is back this weekend in its off-year, scaled-down iteration to preview next year’s festival and resolve some of the issues that come when you’re just too darn popular. Prelude is the title of this year’s two-day preview event that takes place in and around the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the Dallas Arts District the evenings of Oct. 21 and 22.

It’s a testament to the event’s innate appeal that last year’s event attracted so many people the founders fielded harsh criticism concerning over-crowding and some attendees’ lack of respect for the art.

“Since Aurora is a biennial event, we knew we wanted to have a preview of next year, in order to maintain engagement with the public, but also to take the opportunity to see how a multiple-day format can elevate the event experience,” Aurora founder Shane Pennington says.

“Attracting 50,000 people last year was a surprise and great success — but we also learned we needed to anticipate crowding points and how flow, signage and installation placement might help that,” Pennington continues. “We’ve beefed up our onsite educational materials, provided more prominent map and way finding signage, and even developed a docent program, where two trained docents will be stationed at every Prelude art installation.”

As an event like Aurora grows it inevitably evolves; locations change, venues are expanded, and, as attendance balloons, so does the festival itself, forcing the event’s founders and producers to continuously answer the question of what they want this still very young festival to be.

“Aurora is unique in that it was founded by two artists and it really came out of a love for the city of Dallas,” says Justine Ludwig, director of exhibitions/senior curator at Dallas Contemporary and one of Prelude's three curators.

Those artists would be Pennington and co-founder Joshua King, who launched Aurora in 2010. Since then the event has grown from a small, local event curated by King and Pennington, into an internationally recognized festival that still maintains an aura of accessibility. There’s food, music and other entertainment starting at 6:30 Friday and Saturday evenings, and the event goes until midnight. It’s also refreshingly free unless you want to fork over the $55 for access to the Art Bar inside the Winspear Opera House (it will have its own art and complimentary drinks so it might be worth it.)

As Ludwig attested, Aurora is intentionally designed to attract a general audience as opposed to the same small circle of arts-goers who can be found at most arts events in the city and, apart from the occasional misstep, the founders, who set the curatorial theme for the festival, ensure the artists and art chosen for the festival don’t skew too far toward sheer spectacle.

“This is a free and public art event that welcomes audiences at every level: from those experiencing this kind of art for the first time, to art-savvy people with distinct perspectives,” Pennington says. “Some works will prove challenging, ground-breaking and even controversial. Other installations may be considered whimsical and fun. We feel our curators last year did a great of job of striking that balance, and you’ll find this year’s curators have done that as well.”

This year’s preview event features three curators and only ten installations spread about the ATTPAC grounds.

Participating artists include Alicia Eggert & Safwat Saleem (Denton), Antonin Fourneau (Paris), Shilpa Gupta (Mumbai), Herman Kolgen (Montreal), Quayola (London), teamVOID (Seoul), Tramaine Townsend (Dallas), and u_joo+limheeyoung (Seoul). The curators are Dooeun Choi, Ludwig and Nadim Samman.

“Our director of programming, Monica Salazar, is a Dallas native who has lived in Berlin, Germany, for the last seven years and is heavily engaged in the international art world,” Pennington says. “She works with us to bring in and work with these local and international curators each year, who have elevated the presentation of the artwork and been able to approach the event with different outside perspectives and also incorporate their artist networks.”

“They pick people [curators] who are very contemplative,” says Ludwig, “because it really is about bringing people together.”

For her part, Ludwig saw it as an opportunity to invest a bit more in one artist’s practice. For the event Aurora commissioned Shilpa Gupta, a Mumbai-based artist Ludwig has worked with previously, to create a site-specific light installation entitled, “Deep below, the sky flows under our feet.”

“Things that are true often seem utterly fantastical,” Ludwig says. “You lie underneath the piece and look up to see the title text in neon, just like if you drew a line through the planet you would see sky beneath your feet.”

It’s a piece about interconnectivity, and for Ludwig, a love letter to Dallas, a city she has only called home for a short time.

The other piece Ludwig has curated for the show is a piece originally performed by Gupta in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2010. “I Want To Live With No Fear” is both a performance piece and a photographic series. The piece features giant custom balloons on which, in the artist’s handwriting, the words “I Want to Live With No Fear” are written. “In light of recent violence the idea of living without fear, of having this hopeful message, is beautiful and poignant,” Ludwig says.

Accessibility is not a word that’s often thrown around when discussing a contemporary art festival but that’s something Pennington is committed to and it may be the reason for the festival’s success.

“We love that we can present these exhibitions curated by some of the most well-known curators of the moment, in a free and public environment,” Pennington says.

This year’s event will be no exception.

To RVSP to the free Aurora: Prelude, taking place in the Dallas Arts District on Friday and Saturday, visit attpac.org.

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