Ambient Electronic Sounds and Outlandish Outfits: Reflections on Free For All

Free For All program (winter 2015)

Free For All: Winter 2015, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: William Hidalgo.

I’m Madeline Penn, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn and a member of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) Student Advisory Board. At Penn, I’m an English major and an art history minor, as well as being on the Undergraduate Advisory Board for the History of Art Department and an avid Kelly Writers House enthusiast.

Contrary to what one might expect, not everyone on the ICA board has a fine arts or history of art concentration. We’re joined by architecture; science, technology, and society; and cinema studies majors, and Whartonites—it’s a fun amalgamation of people!
ICA Student Board 2013/14

(l–r) ICA 2013–14 student board members Sam Werther, Chloe Kaufman, Isaac Kaplan, Heather Holmes, Hillary Halter, Elizabeth Barr

As ambassadors between ICA and Penn, board members are vocal and excited advocates for ICA every day, with focused outreach through special projects, such as printed pieces, social media, co-organized events like the biannual Free For All, and welcoming students to the fall, winter, and spring opening celebrations. We also offer a valuable Penn perspective on the museum’s program.

I love the arts and am so thankful that I discovered ICA through a freshman seminar class: Writing About Art with Susan Bee. I knew then, while viewing the overwhelmingly complex exhibition Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, that I wanted to stay involved in this community. The student board at ICA connects me to the art world on campus in a way that branches beyond the boundaries of the classroom.
Teena Geist, Free For All (2014)

“Experimental drag performer and host Teena Geist charms visitors at Free For All, 2014. Photo: William Hidalgo.”

Last semester’s Free For All (fall 2014) was my first. The exciting event, which happens each semester as a special exhibition opening for students, featured nail and tattoo art, complementing spunky, blonde-wigged drag artist Teena Geist, whose stage presence accompanied by electric guitar sounds rendered her the central attraction. The evening’s camp, contemporary “salon” feel drew inspiration from the freewheeling attitude of ICA’s first floor exhibition, Ridykeulous by Ridykeulous: This Is What Liberation Feels Like.

At the most recent winter Free For All, held on freezing February 11, I had fun switching between being a visitor, a helper, and—as I felt—an ICA VIP. This time, Penn’s Year of Health inspired the night’s theme, which involved hot tea, terrarium building, and nature-themed performances.
Free For All terrariums (2015)

Free For All terrariums, 2015. Photo: Becky Huff Hunter (via Instagram).

The night before the event, I ate pizza with other student board members and ICA’s Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Fellow, Egina Manachova, as we put the finishing touches to more than three hundred glass terrariums for a Free For All workshop led by landscape designer Kate Farquar and artist Kaitlin Pomerantz, who are part of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities.

On the night, the atmosphere was abuzz with Ben Warfield’s ambient electric sounds and some outlandish outfits (hello musical Jesus!) We hit an attendance record of 641 people, so that felt pretty awesome. This achievement turned a shift of forty-five minutes counting visitors into some of the best people watching I’ve ever experienced! As both a lover of arts and culture, and a student board member, I loved being a spectator of the event, while also knowing I had a part in planning it.
Free For All program (winter 2015)

Free For All: Winter 2015, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: William Hidalgo.

The free takeaway for the night, the glass terrariums, proved to be the evening’s highlight. The do-it-yourself aspect, as well as the prospect of bringing home the terrarium, really enthused the guests. The line was super long and we ran out of those terrariums much faster than it took to prepare them the night before!
Free For All program (winter 2015)

Free For All: Winter 2015, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: William Hidalgo.

ICA is becoming less of a hidden gem on campus—the record-breaking turnout is proof! I loved seeing friends, new faces, eclectic dressers, and one of my favorite professors, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, at Free For All. (I also definitely saw someone super famous!) Check out The Daily Pennsylvanian’s 34th Street Magazine’s fun coverage.

ICA is an amazing space and a vibrant community. Whether contemporary art connoisseur or new to art, pop in and see the current exhibitions. It’s always free—and right around the corner!

—Madeline Penn, ICA Student Advisory Board