Tracing contemporary art's vanguard typically leads local audiences to stalwart venues like the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Glassell School's CORE exhibition or openings at grassroots art collectives like Box 13 and SKYDIVE. Come Saturday, the frontier for new art forms migrates to the waters of Buffalo Bayou, as the Tex Hex, an artist-made boat and floating cinema, embarks on its maiden voyage.
On Saturday, spectators will gather along the bayou near 1011 Wood St. to observe a 70-minute floating presentation, Visionary Transport, curated by filmmaker Deborah Stratman. Partly inspired by this weekend's Art Car Parade, the selection of films has been organized along the theme of car culture, with works by experimental filmmakers the likes of Kenneth Anger, Buckminster Fuller and Robert Nelson.
Organized by the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston, the Tex Hex is the result of an unprecedented level of collaboration between artists, architects, curators, filmmakers and idea makers. In 2006, the center invited the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) — a loose collection of artists, researchers and scientists based in LA — to serve a year-long residency.
From there, the Mitchell Center and CLUI began collaborating with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership to establish a field office on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Next, CLUI involved SIMPARCH, a sculpture collective with Whitney Biennial, Deitch Projects and Ballroom Marfa cred. CLUI and SIMPARCH began working on a disused metal pontoon boat, building it out into what would become the Tex Hex.
"The idea of the Tex Hex is that it will become a research tool for artists," says Mitchell Center program director Bree Edwards. "So artists can go into the water and do research in areas that are inaccessible by land — say, maybe the bird-foot of the Louisiana coastline." Ideally, Tex Hex will be environmentally solvent, functioning with solar power and a composting toilet.
The collaborators christened the device "Tex Hex" in reference to the hexagonal patterns that link physical and conceptual elements of the project, as well as the hexagonal molecular form of benzene, a compound found in crude oil and an industrial precursor for many plastics made in the area around Houston. The six-sided theme is continued into the shape of the stainless steal structure that now resides atop the pontoon.
Enter Deborah Stratman, who has worked with CLUI and SIMPARCH in the past. The artist was invited by the Mitchell Center to engage for a short residency in April and May of this year. "We selected Deborah because she's worked with both entities, and she is very familiar with Houston because she's shown her own films at the Aurora Picture Show," Edwards says.
Stratman can now be found working alongside SIMPARCH members and CLUI founder and director Matthew Coolidge at the organization's bayou-side trailer as they put the finishing touches on the boat. When complete, the vessel will float down Buffalo Bayou as it projects Stratman's video selection.
"It's a self-contained theater unit," explains Edwards. "It has a generator, projector and a screen on the boat, which can pull up to the bayou and come to an audience."
Terming Tex Hex as a "pop-up" cinema is just another indicator of a mounting trend of roving art venues. Edwards cites the nomadic nature of the Aurora Picture Show as another pop-up manifestation.
And the Saturday launch won't be the last time Houston audiences will witness the Tex Hex on the region's waterways.
"It will be continue to be used for artistic research," Edwards says. "It will go to other places in the Gulf and maybe fresh water. There will be cameras that can document what's going on underwater — maybe researchers can go to an oil spill area and project the footage taken that night."
One of Tex Hex's defining qualities is the spirit of reciprocal collaboration that was evidenced by entities referring one another to contribute to the artistic process. Edwards gushes, "I love that we keep bringing people back to Houston. The artists we're inviting are inviting their collaborators in turn — and it's spreading like wildfire, the idea that Houston is an amazing place to come do artistic research.
"Particularly, these artists are really interested in reusing marginal, industrial spaces that are kind of contentious politically, and spaces that have been overlooked. How to reconsider the bayou is what's of interest to these artists."
Describing the bayou setting as "rich" with possibility, Edwards envisions the Tex Hex as illuminating new ways of seeing the city's artery. "When artists make work about a place, it changes peoples' perceptions of it just by pointing out a location," she says. "People begin to see it differently."
The Tex Hex pop-up cinema will screen Visionary Transport on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. along Buffalo Bayou at 1011 Wood Street. Free parking is available along the street and at Vine Street Studios, 1113 Vine. Sneak peeks of Stratman's selection will be held at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Guadalupe Park, 301 S. Jensen Dr., and at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday at a location along Buffalo Bayou to be determined.