Previously Published in THE DAILY IOWAN on March 29, 2018.
Image Credit: Rhiana Chickering
Written By Rhiana Chickering
Locals and out-of-towners explore a convergence of assorted art forms as Mission Creek elicits an influx of culture throughout Iowa City.
From April 3 to 8, the festival will merge music, literature, and technology to represent a multitude of voices.
Thirteen years ago, Mission Creek cofounders Andre Perry and Tanner Illingworth produced Iowa City’s first Mission Creek Festival, which was derived from the Mission Creek Festival in San Francisco.
Perry and Illingworth started the festival by booking several bands at Gabe’s, 330 E. Washington St., for two nights and paying with their own money.
However, now, unlike San Francisco’s Mission Creek Festival, Iowa City’s six-day affair integrates literature and music into the programming instead of relying primarily on music. The festival has also included technology workshops and panel discussions.
“We want to engage two kinds of people: people who are interested in performance, particularly music performances, and those who are interested in literature,” said Perry, who is also the director of the festival and the Englert, which produces it. “[We want audiences] going to places in their community and seeing [these artistic elements] in a different way.”
Supplemental to the curated programming of Mission Creek, Iowa City’s intimate venues enhance the festival’s lure. In places such as Gabe’s and Big Grove, audiences may stand within inches of the stage, not at all typical of a stadium festival.
Literary and music performances will occur in venues all over Iowa City, and with some events being held at the same time, that fundamentally changes how audiences interact with the festival. This is Mission Creek’s largest transformation to date as it enters its 13th year.
“We are trying to build the experience of jumping from venue to venue to different artists rather than coming to three to four artists in one night,” said Aly High, the Mission Creek marketing director. “[We also want to] maintain intimacy with venues and not grow to a big, main-stage festival.”
To make this year’s festival more stimulating, the Mission Creek team of around 15 people eliminated the “headline culture” that shapes standard festivals by including well-known artists at the top of the list in large bold lettering and lesser-known artists at the bottom in small, seemingly insignificant lettering.
“[Other festivals] don’t pay a lot of attention to local [artists], and they don’t pay attention to those voices that don’t otherwise have a platform,” said Brian Johannesen, the Mission Creek community-programming director. “Mission Creek has made it a big priority to focus on voices that don’t necessarily have platforms in other festivals, [resulting in] an extremely diverse festival that crosses the boundaries of genre and even medium a lot of times.”
Associate Music Programming Director Chris Wiersema reminisces about when he hosted Faust, a 1970s German krautrock band known for its rare music style, a few years ago. Faust used equipment such as jack hammers and cement mixers, prompting one of the production workers at the time to rent some of the equipment from Aero Rental.
Wiersema was impressed, illustrating how diverse programming elicits surprises.
“It was so meticulously done that was melodic, and a lot of middle-age German people were in the audience because it was their culture — they [came] because this [music] is what they grew up with,” Wiersema said. “I think that when you aren’t grinding the American festival circuit, there is room for more surprises.”
To make music events more accessible, Mission Creek will host a free rock show at Big Grove Brewery.
“[Mission Creek creates] these super-unique opportunities to see artists in a much more free setting than a 45-minute main stage performance, and I think the venues for Mission Creek help with that,” said Johannesen, who has performed at Mission Creek for the past eight years. “[Iowa City’s venues] are really great at letting the artists do whatever they want and working with them to make sure the space is perfect for the art that is being presented.”
In conjunction with the live music programming, Mission Creek’s literary components also feature fresh voices.
“As we have grown … we have shifted our focus to ensure that we are looking at representation in the literary community,” said Joe Tiefenthaler, an associate literary programming director. “[We are now] focusing on bringing in organizations and publishers that we think do really incredible work in that area [of] representing other voices.”
This year, VIDA, known for its published graphics emphasizing how few women were getting their work published in the literary world, and Kundiman, representing Asian American voices, are among the organizations embodying diverse voices at Mission Creek’s Book Fair.
With Iowa City’s literary-savvy residents and its “City of Literature” designation from UNESCO, one of Mission Creek’s goals for this year was to create affordable access to literary events.
All literary events will be free, with the exception of “Roxane Gay + Amber Tamblyn + Jessica Hopper (In Conversation).” However, the conversation’s proceeds will be donated to “Girls Rock” of Iowa City.
Fittingly, Girls Rock is a nonprofit organization that cultivates creativity among young girls through musical expression.
“Iowa City is the UNESCO City of Literature in the United States, and a lot of people don’t know what that is or how to engage with it,” Johannesen said. “Our literary programming gives people the opportunity — for free — to engage with writers, up-and-coming voices in the literature scene, and really understand what that means for the city.”
Poet, soul singer, and songwriter Jamila Woods will read her work at Mission Creek’s keynote reading and perform her music at the festival’s final event, perfectly wrapping up Mission Creek’s core intent of merging music and literature.
Throughout Mission Creek’s string of festivals, its music and literature teams have worked extensively to provide both new and familiar voices to Iowa City.
“[Music programming] is a yearlong, and sometimes yearslong, process of building relationships with artists and really thinking about the concept for each year’s lineup,” said Community Engagement Director Jennifer Knights. “We have a core group of people who are just passionate about it every year, and we want to find more people to share it with.”
In addition to music and literature, Mission Creek (Art + Life + Tech) producer Wes Beary has helped the festival embrace more art forms by including technological aspects of art on the schedule.
“We look at how technology affects our lives but also how it helps artists and does other things — things that it empowers or enables that might not be possible without technology in the mix,” Beary said.
On Saturday, Mission Creek will host a coding workshop led by Jen Myers, a web designer and developer who founded Code and Cupcakes, a Chicago-based coding workshop for mothers and daughters.
By incorporating Code and Cupcakes into its schedule, Mission Creek will bring new voices to the technology industry, where there are much fewer females than males.
Overall, Mission Creek will widen the voices expressed in Iowa City through united art forms.
“I think it is a unifying experience for the whole town. I think it is a reason for us all to come together and engage in art, which is something this town is very good at, but it is just this very big gathering place for this community,” Johannesen said.
Assorted artists from all over the world enable Mission Creek to enlist a lineup that encourages audiences to discover the unknown.
“We attract international artists, so we pride ourselves as an artist festival, we take really good care of our artists, and our artists talk about us and tell other people about us, so [Mission Creek and Iowa City’s reputations] spread internationally.”
Wiersema recommends attendees use a 1:1 ratio for picking an event they have never heard of for every event that they know in order to take advantage of the cultural immersion Mission Creek provides.
“[We want] to give the community something they want while also wanting them to try something new,” Perry said. “[Therefore], we have a challenging schedule in which people can make space for the known and unknown.”