Sensory overload 

Multimedia events fuse artistic disciplines with fun-seekers looking for the next new thing

Perhaps it's only a coincidence that the cocktail of the moment at Atlanta's trendiest watering holes is a potent blend of upmarket vodka and Red Bull energy tonic. However, the concoction provides a liquid metaphor for today's sophisticated nightowls who need to have their familiar diversions laced with a jolt of stimulation.

For a large and growing segment of the city's social scene, simply ordering up a cold one and conducting an astrological survey of fellow bar patrons doesn't cut it anymore, if it ever did. Whether a by-product of the MTV revolution, a symptom of our collective cultural ADD or just this year's fad, parties that creatively weave sound, art, video, motion, textures, speech, performance and interactivity into an evening's outing have become the new wave in nightlife.

Although they've percolated in the urban underground for more than a decade, multimedia events have boomed in Atlanta over the last year or so. On any given weekend, there's often a selection of lofts or warehouse spaces drawing crowds with a mixture of live music, film loops, slamming poets, belly dancers, paintings, photographs or fashion. And large, well-promoted events can attract hundreds who are willing to pay for a dose of artistic vision and an alternative to the bar scene.

Those on the front lines of the multimedia movement say party-goers' heightened expectations ensure that the trend is here to stay -- and the city's nightclub community better get hip or they're going to get left behind.

"Opening up the doors and having a DJ play isn't enough anymore," says Bill Kaelin, a Web page designer who helped produce the ambitious Kabuki Theatre event at Midtown's eleven50 in April.

A former event manager at the now-closed Fusion nightclub, Kaelin is a partner in Universal Culture, a multimedia group that looks to stage culturally themed mega-events every few months. (They plan to tackle India in the fall.)

Drawing its visual inspiration from ancient Japan, Kabuki Theatre offered a smorgasbord of sensual distractions that would have caused a Zen master's head to spin: ceremonial drumming, bonsai-pruning, projections of live on-site video feeds, a sushi buffet, body painting, dance performances, geisha fashions, a calligraphy and watercolor exhibit, back-walking massages, live theater and, somewhat incongruously, vibrating chairs with earphones -- all set to the insistent back-beat of a clutch of featured DJs and lubricated by a busy cash bar.

In the hyper-drive age of the Internet and broadband TV, when Google.com boasts how many picoseconds it takes to rustle up a hundred websites and every inch of Philips Arena is filled with screaming banners and banks of video screens, even a social gathering has the challenge of providing constant stimulation to visitors, he says.

"We're a generation that's grown up on TV and computers so we need more to ignite our senses," says Kaelin's partner, production designer Harmony Boje.

Having helped stage a dozen multimedia events of varying sizes since moving to Atlanta from L.A. in late 1998, Boje has seen the scene expand from small, edgy, word-of-mouth gatherings to increasingly frequent blowouts such as Kabuki Theatre.

"It's completely exploded in the last year," she says.

Held on a Thursday night, the event still managed to draw an impressive crowd of 1,200, just breaking even on its estimated $13,000 in production costs, she says.

Like Boje and Kaelin, most local multimedia impresarios aren't in it for the money but as a creative outlet they can share, ideally, with hundreds of friends and grateful strangers and as a vehicle to gain exposure for themselves and like-minded artists.

Franklin Lopez, a 29-year-old native of Puerto Rico, manages to eke out a modest living as a freelance website designer and filmmaker, but he isn't looking for a steady job. That would get in the way of his real work as a video artist and a leader of subMediaTV, a loose collective of media artists who pooled their efforts to produce the first luminaCity event in a West End warehouse in October.

To maintain a cozy, underground vibe, Lopez and crew gave only about 50 friends the password to get into the free party and withheld directions until just before it was to begin.

"We didn't want to invite people off the street," he says.

But when more than 150 people showed up, Lopez knew they were on to something. At a second event, in December, 350 people paid $7 to party, and a third luminaCity event at a converted warehouse in Candler Park drew another 350, this time at $10 a head, but Lopez was amazed to see very few familiar faces from the earlier gatherings.

"You had a wide variety of yuppies, older artsy types, film geeks, club kids -- all being exposed to this underground arts scene," he says. "I realized a lot of people have grown dissatisfied with nightlife in Atlanta, where you have the option only to drink or hear a band."

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