At Moogfest, Stipe is premiering his first solo composition, a multimedia work that serves as eulogy to his friend Jeremy Ayers, a one-time member of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd who was an animating force of the Athens scene. Stipe filmed Ayers and three other friends dancing to a basic beat in an empty studio. He then went back and edited down the footage and composed music to match the ups and downs of their performances. After Ayers’s death late last year, but long after agreeing to premiere the installation at Moogfest, he decided to use a single, sometimes rough, camera angle.
“There were some awkward camera moves, there are moments where he kind of falls off the screen, there are moments where he comes back in, he doesn’t quite know what to do,” Stipe said. “He’s kind of laughing at me, or with me. He’s a little bored at one point. He catches his breath at one point. There are all these very human moments in there.”
Stipe said he never hesitated about putting the show on in North Carolina. “I feel quite the opposite,” he said. A close friend of Stipe’s was offered a teaching job in the state shortly after the bill passed, he said. “I kind of sat down with him and said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ And his attitude was, ‘Well, who better than me to be there?’ You can’t boycott an entire state full of people because some of its leaders have absurd policies or ideas of what should or should not be.”
Blanco said he felt the same way.
“Of course it makes me want to perform in North Carolina even more,” he said. “It’s like, yeah, throw it in their faces. You're not going to bring us back 30, 40 years ago.”
Still, the idea of a protest stage has vexed some observers, who worry that’s window-dressing. Writing in Indy Week, the local alternative newspaper, in February, Allison Hussey wondered skeptically, “Is Moogfest trying to join the corporate masses seeking to cash in on bleeding hearts, or is the festival genuinely committed to effecting change in its home state?”
The local tie-in may have lost some of its urgency, at least on the surface, in March, when, just over a year after H.B. 2 passed, the General Assembly repealed the law in part. The deal between Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and Republican leaders in the legislature was enough to convince the NCAA, among others, to bring events back to the state. But activists both in North Carolina and outside were disgusted with the agreement, which, among other things, prevents cities from passing new LGBT anti-discrimination regulations until 2020.
“I don’t think you can compromise on civil rights. You can’t compromise on people’s dignity,” Grayson Haver Currin, a founder of North Carolina Needs You, told me at the time.
The idea of a protest stage is, of course, rather abstract: How cohesive a theme can protest really be, especially when the targets of that protest are more implied than stated? And does it matter how the artists performing there see themselves? Talib Kweli, for example, is outspoken on sociopolitical issues. Souleyman, by his very presence as a Syrian in America at this moment, is political, but he does not speak about politics. Blanco straddles the divide.