We’re pleased to welcome Nick Demske to the site today to share Racine Public Library’s BONK! Performance Series.  Nick is the director and curator of the BONK! Series, which aims to bring challenging poetry, art, and performance to the established local arts community.  The series has garnered national attention in the American poetry scene and is kicking off exciting new initiatives this year despite drastic budget cuts thanks to The Friends of Racine Public.  Read on to learn more about how Nick made it happen!  ~ Erinn
So, for those who don’t know, what is BONK!?
bonkBONK! is a monthly performance series held at The Racine Arts Council and organized by the Racine Public Library. From the beginning, the focus was on local and nationally recognized talent, and our goal was to not only bring atypical, challenging art to the Racine community, but also to provide a platform for emerging artists in the area to perform alongside more established acts.
BONK! aims to include a wide variety of artistic disciplines–including writing, comedy, theater, dance, culinary art, creative lecturing and beyond–but the main focus of the series tends to fall on music and poetry.  Because part of BONK!’s mission is to expose the Racine community to unique examples of many cultural expressions, BONK! has an inherent multicultural aspect to it and the performers it has featured over the last 3 and a half years reflect that.

Can you tell me a little about how the BONK! program got started?  How did you identify the community’s need for such “cross-pollination” of cultural expressions?
I founded the BONK! Performance Series in October of 2008 with poets Matt Specht and Nicholas Michael Ravnikar.  There are lots of art “things” happening in and around Racine, but they’re things like the Racine Symphony Orchestra or the Choral Arts Society or exhibits at the many downtown galleries.  These are wonderful, beautiful, life-bringing things, but they are all very mainstream and traditional. We felt that when one (aesthetic) culture dominates a(n arts) community– no matter how great it is– the community suffers.
So there was that–the recognition that all the art culture around was very mainstream.  But, beyond that, we were also concerned with things like how homogeneous these arts communities were: everyone involved in them seemed to be of a pretty similar economic status and tended to be white.  Coupled with the fact that people here didn’t know artists beyond our city boundaries, the whole situation made for a sort of constant cultural feedback, where we were getting influenced by other people in our community–which is great–but then not by anyone else.

Specht, Ravnikar and I wanted something else…something that ultimately ended up looking like BONK!  We wanted to be influenced by people from all over, from all different backgrounds and philosophies, and we just weren’t getting it from the art scene or open mics.  So we kind of had the idea at first of a closed mic which eventually morphed into what BONK! is today–a showcase of 3 featured performers at least once a month, with an intrinsic emphasis on multiculturalism and cross-pollination.

Ultimately, we wanted to make a space where weird stuff, cutting edge stuff, avant-garde stuff and stuff that just didn’t fit anywhere else could come and be heard in Racine.  But we didn’t want to make a space that only offered that.  We wanted to mix that with the established scene here. We wanted to give the poets, writers and artists from Racine a chance to perform or present alongside more established, nationally (or internationally) recognized artists.  That has definitely been a rewarding piece of BONK!, as well.

What has been the library’s involvement in the program? 

The Racine Public Library had always been involved, at least to some degree.  We started off very small, just using the house printer at the library to print fliers and hand bills.  Once we had the first few events and proved that the series was successful and well attended, Racine Public became a sponsor of the program, and it gradually just morphed into part of my job at the library to do BONK! work (printing fliers, soliciting artists, things like that).

Eventually, though, the other two curators left–in part because they didn’t have an institution to support them in this work.  What that meant for me is the work that had been shared between 3 people was now on me.  I am still incredibly grateful for Racine Public’s support, because it meant I could keep this going for the community.

In January of 2011 Racine Public’s programming services budget was slashed, and it looked like I would just have to give up doing BONK! because I couldn’t support myself and still have time left over to organize the series; I wasn’t even full-time at the Library at that point.  Thankfully, the BONK! community (the Family, as we say) just wasn’t willing to hear that. Here’s a sampling of the support we’ve gotten from the community:

  • The Racine Arts Council contacted me saying that I should apply for grant funding through them.
  •  The Osborne and Scekic Family Foundation contacted my Library Director and said they would like to contribute some grant funding to help BONK! survive
  • And I approached the Friends of the Racine Public Library for funding.
  • I also talked to the Urban League of Racine and Kenosha about being our fiscal receiver and, eventually, we worked out 501c3 status to receive grants through.

Our relationship with the Friends has been particularly amazing;  the Friends help BONK! with 2 sorts of funding: 1) Funding to offer the performers small honoraria (we had never been able to pay performers before) and 2) Funding so that we can buy at least one copy of every book, CD, movie or whatever that the performers at BONK! have published for the Racine Library.

The Library itself still supports us in the small but important way of letting us print large, full-color fliers with their printer.  And, since the Library is still considered a sponsor through these ways, it counts BONK! as a library program, which means the attendance numbers are taken down for service data that we record.  We’re all pretty pleased about this, and thankful for the Friends of Racine Public for stepping up in this way so that BONK! and the Racine Public Library, though separate in some ways, were still able to remain closely connected.

I even talked to a nearby restaurant, Olde Madrid, about giving me and the performers dinner after the shows.  They agreed to that and, now, when we come with 4 performers after the show, 10 audience members follow us because they want to hang out and eat and drink with the poets, musicians, and other artists.  It’s a brilliantly, mutually-beneficial partnership.

It was a great gift to see how many people were passionate about seeing BONK! survive

It’s astounding when you yourself give up hope on something you started, but the people around you refuse to and support you through a crisis like that.  It was a great gift to see how many people were just that passionate about seeing BONK! survive, whether it was through offering support financially or even just morally.

The mission of BONK and the lineup of acts clearly supports experiments and experimental art forms. Tell us a little bit about the community’s response to BONK!  What do folks think about the stuff they’ve seen?

Yeah, we were really concerned that Racine wasn’t ready to have such challenging, experimental stuff in its face.  Boy were we wrong.  And what a fortune that was, even for me personally–to have that myth about my community disproven.  And how!  It turns out, there are people everywhere who are really interested in challenging, difficult, avant-garde art.  BONK! gets attended by artists, college professors, college students,  the near-homeless, senior citizens, high school students, people coming from other cities…

When we started getting audience coming from Chicago and Milwaukee, I knew we were doing something great.  This is the stuff that everyone everywhere is actually craving.  We just don’t even know it exists until something like BONK! comes around and sheds a light on it. The art we’re familiar with now, in general–music, film, books, etc–is so mass-produced and industry-publicized that we barely realize there’s an alternative to that.

Whatever the case, people seem so overjoyed–relieved, even–to find out that there are culture-creators who are not satisfied with producing mainstream-media-ready art.  BONK! has lived off of that, completely.  And when those same people realize that some of those culture-creators are right here in their very own community, magical things happen.  Kids start thinking all that talk about them accomplishing whatever they put their minds to might not be such crap after all.  And that’s just the start of it.  Artists find each other in the community, collaborate, and the whole becomes so much greater than the sum of all its parts.

How do you go about getting artists to participate?  Do they come to you?  Do you seek out new talent? And how do you ensure a broad range of talent and mediums?

When we started, it was very hard to figure out who could fill the next month’s spots.  We just didn’t know that many artists in our region. But as we invited the artists we knew, we would ask for their recommendations, and our network exploded in no time. At this point, BONK! has a national enough reputation, at least in the American poetry landscape, that we have people contacting us to ask if they can read.  The queries are more than we’re able to accommodate, really, so we have our choice; it makes for a lot less work.
I also pay attention to every promotion for art-related events that I get from Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, etc. Here’s an example of my process:
  • I’m on Columbia Chicago’s e-mail list (as well as a bunch of others).
  • When these places send out reading series calendars at the beginning of the semester, I take a look.
  • When I see that a poet I really like will be in Chicago 4 months from now, I’ll contact that person and ask them to read for us the day after they’re at Columbia (Racine is not far!)
Sometimes this involves a bit of research to track artists down, but it’s not very difficult (I’m a librarian, after all) and the investment is worth it; very often they accept the invitation and we can start building the rest of the BONK! program.
As far as ensuring a broad range of talent and mediums, it’s implicit to BONK!s mission that we showcase people with different backgrounds from different places, and the aesthetic expression always follows suit.  The best advice I can give is this:

It’s not about you or your institution.  Look away from all that.  Just start seeking out and paying radical attention to what other places are doing.  Then do it.

Tell us about your plans for the future of BONK!  You have some great partners and it seems like the program is going strong. Any new projects / expansions / new acts on the horizon?

Some 2013 folks on the docket for BONK!:

And there’s actually tons of new things planned for 2013….conversations about new community partnerships are taking place, especially with restaurants in the library’s neighborhood.
The biggest development, though, is that we’re working on a “BONK! in the schools” initiative, where we will basically have BONK! events in high schools to help the young people in our area realize that there are lots of healthy methods of expressing difficult emotion, and those exercises in expression, in turn, can even lead to careers or vocations.  We’re collaborating with exclusively local artists for this project and the pilot event will be in winter of 2013.  One of our collaborators, Nick Ramsey, is responsible for Grass Roots Wednesdays Open Mic events here in town, through an amazing SE Wisconsin organization of artists he helped found, Family Power Music.

With collaborators like that, who have legit track records and endless work ethics, something like this is nearly guaranteed to set the community on fire.  I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Want More? 
All videos recorded by Peg Rusar Thompson. BONK! logo by Matt Specht.
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