The Conversation: Keith Marks

Keith Marks
Co-Founder
Avant Arts
Conversation with and photograph by Tiffany Manning

You grew up in a typical American household, largely based in one place. As an adult, you chose the path of adventure, setting out to travel the world, living in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Central America. After spending ten-plus years on the road, what did you discover about yourself and why did you come back to the US?
Working your way across borders, figuring out accommodations without the benefit of spoken language, sampling exotic foods, dealing with foreign customs and laws, and expanding your personal worldview in, at times, difficult and dramatic ways, is more enlightening than any drug, any college education, any book.
When we give traveling enough time to work its magic, something transformational occurs. When the process begins, we look at “otherness” through our cultural lens and say, “Oh, that’s weird that they do it that way,” but as we move further away from our origination, we begin to refract that lens back at ourselves, where we come from: “Huh, I wonder why we do it like that back home? Why do I think that’s normal?” When ‘otherness’ becomes our new norm, we have an opportunity to deconstruct our programmed paradigm – our country’s programming, our religion’s programming, our family’s, our hometown – and we get an opportunity to reprogram ourselves, leaving us with our own, original lens.
And that was my big revelation when I returned to the States. Since we’re changing as our background changes, we don’t really get a good indicator of our own growth. It takes coming home to really feel how much growth has occurred. It’s like an experiment we did in high school to understand equilibrium. When pressure, volume and temperature are balanced, an equilibrium is established. Affect one of the variables, and the whole system changes in some way. The act of living abroad tweaks your variables, forcing growth. It’s uncomfortable, awkward and scary, but, in the end, positive change occurs, affecting the system as a whole.

You’ve always been a cultural entrepreneur, starting in your teens, when you were promoting concerts across Florida, and by the age of twenty you had organized one of the largest underground arts events in Jacksonville, complete with local all-stars Al Letson, Willy Evans, Jr., Batsauce, John Citrone and fifty or so other people. This show, held at 9th and Main in Springfield, came at a time when Jacksonville’s arts and culture scene was still in its infancy. What was it like to be involved then and how does it compare to the art scene of today?
Those were special times. The arts and cultural scene was relatively small; we all knew one another and only had a few places to congregate. There wasn’t something happening every night and because of that lack of distraction, people spent time honing their craft.
The scene wasn’t fractured: blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics all in one room. Jazz musicians, photographers, poets, chefs, mathematicians, hip hop producers, dancers, painters, sculptors, heavy metal musicians were all in one scene. As a skinny, white, Jewish kid from the suburbs, that community had a huge impact on me. I still feel the impact of those friendships, conversations, and projects. I booked bands, had a record label, and wrote for Folio as a freelance music journalist. I learned early on that artists tend to have a hard time promoting what they do, and at that time, there was nobody for me to learn from carrying the title of “producer,” which is, ultimately, what I understand to be my major skill set. The project you referenced was sort of my big finale before packing my bag and traveling for a decade.
Today’s arts scene is so much larger, stronger, and so much more active and integrated. Our artists are beginning to make names for themselves outside of Jacksonville. There’s a movement of rallying around arts. There’s a desire to support artists, and help them build careers out of their passion. That’s an incredible reality considering where we were a few years ago. But one thing I wish we did better today is collaboration outside of genre and discipline. And I think we could learn from our past not to go out every night; artists need time to hone their craft with an obsessive passion for improving.
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Author: Arbus

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