JON POTTER Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- This should come as a surprise to exactly no one, but our whole technology-driven, internet age isn’t going anywhere.

In fact, most of us love our phones, tablets, iPods, laptops and various other gadgets, and we’d probably all be shocked to find out how much time we really spend on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and the like. Yes, this is an age where we are all, increasingly, left to our own devices.

And this begs some interesting questions. Is where we’re headed good or bad? Is it liberating us or locking us down? Are we more connected or less? What are the consequences of engaging the world more and more through screens, and what can we do to change that or at least come to terms with it?

In 2013, the ways in which our area’s arts community grappled with some of these questions emerged as one of the most interesting themes. Pushing back against the ways in which technology dehumanizes and isolates us, while embracing the ways in which it helps us to further unleash our creative souls was one of the prevailing conversations. Can we still "go local" if we’re all busy going viral? There were few clear answers, but the conversation played itself out in interesting ways.

Case in point: "One Thousand Love Letters," a public, participatory community art project launched by local artist Dalia Shevin. From Feb. 1-15, Shevin rented the former Sanel Building on Flat Street and provided a space and materials for people to write love letters to anyone, or any thing. Her goal was to gather 1,000 of them, many of which were displayed to be read by all. The fact that the project surpassed that number is testament to how the project touched a chord. For Shevin, it was proof that there’s something missing in our texting, Tweeting world.

"As a culture, we’re getting more disembodied. I’m interested in getting us using our whole hands to write our loved ones, not just our thumbs," said Shevin.

Here’s the ironic part: Shevin was able to do the project thanks to a Kickstarter web-based crowd-sourced funding campaign. Small contributions flooded in and allowed her to pass her $4,000 goal in a very short time, indicating that the project had some resonance. But it still couldn’t have happened without the internet and social media. Food for thought.

A similar dynamic played out in September with Meg Donahue’s Watching Angels Public Art Show, which also used a Kickstarter campaign to raise more than $8,000 and entice artists from the community and from all over the world to take part in placing angels and messages of hope, love, inspiration and gratitude all over town. A success, Watching Angels offered something personal and participatory in our isolated times.

This interesting cost-benefit interplay between technology and reactions to it also came to light during the debut presentations of The Hatch, which twice brought top-notch storytellers to the Latchis Theatre as fundraisers for worthy arts-related causes. Propelled by podcasts like The Moth, storytelling is experiencing a renaissance, and that, in itself, captures the ironies of our digital days - the most ancient art form re-energized by the most modern technology. The organizers of The Hatch appreciate these ironies.

"It’s a reaction to the atomization of our lives. We’re connected, but we’re not. It’s the personal connection, the face-to-face we need. It is in our DNA," said The Hatch’s Tom Bodett.

The costs of technology also came up in the context of "Dates for Coffee," an independent film by Brattleboro native Kiera Lewis. Intended to convey to Americans an appreciation of the importance of folklore and story in the culture of Oman, it is also a cautionary note to her friends there, who are facing pressures to modernize and globalize. "Leaving behind your folklore for Facebook is not going to help your culture," she said.

Other artists are looking at technology in other ways, perhaps even as a way to save their art forms.

One such artist is Kyla Ernst-Alper, a Brattleboro native who’s been a dancer in New York City for 15 years. Looking for ways to find new audiences for dance and more hope that dancers can make a living at their art, she created underonedances.com, a website where dancers can showcase themselves and attract fans and followers by providing videos and personal information. "We’re working our butts off, we’re not making any money to live on, and nobody’s watching, so why are we doing this?" she asked. Hopefully underonedances.com can help answer that.

Full-on embraces of technology happened in other ways. The Vermont Center for Photography hosted an exhibit of cellphone photography in August. Maestro Hugh Keelan and a merry band of musicians and technology experts announced the formation of Pan Opera, a group which would present fullscale operas at which audience members could engage interactively with their smart phones and devices, in essence, creating their own experience and helping Pan Opera create their art.

Clearly, technology itself, is not the enemy, but it’s a challenging friend. Nonetheless, there’s scarcely an artist or organization in town that doesn’t derive some benefit from technology, whether it’s information, outreach, audience development, enrollment, fundraising or reaching new customers or clients.

A big year for film

Perhaps the art form benefiting most clearly from our technological times is film, and not surprisingly, 2013 was a banner year for local films, video and digital media.

In early September, film crew members, industry insiders and actors David Koechner ("The Office" and "Anchorman") and Paula Pell ("Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock") rolled into Brattleboro to help send a house on Spruce Street and another on Putney Road back to the 1970s for the filming of "110 Llandaff," an autobiographical film written by New England Youth Theatre faculty member Jane Baker. The cast featured 18 actors from NEYT, who were all selected by New York casting agents. Several, including Cassie Dunn, were in starring roles. The whole project happened thanks to a successful $40,000 indiegogo crowdsourced campaign.

In April, filmmaker and Marlboro College professor Jay Craven premiered his latest piece, "Northern Borders" to a full and enthusiastic house at the Latchis Theatre. Filmed in 2012 in the Brattleboro area and outlying towns, with major work done at the Franklin Farm in Guilford and the Whetstone Inn in Marlboro, "Northern Borders" was created through a unique partnership between Craven’s Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College, using a unique model in which students from a multi-college consortium worked on the film for class credit, playing major off-screen roles and gaining bankable experience.

"We had an opportunity to really develop as a creative community. I believe strongly in this model," said Craven, who is at work on his next film project using this innovative mentor-student model.

The ITV Fest brought top-notch independent film and video to the Dover area from Sept. 26-28. With the hope of both entertaining audiences and connecting industry bigwigs with independent filmmakers, the festival spent its first year in Vermont after seven in Los Angeles and appears to have found a home. Though the inaugural Vermont edition fell short of its attendance goal, director Philip Gilpin Jr. said the festival would be back in Dover. Attendees liked it there, and area businesses reported a surge in customers.

Another significant event happening around a film, occurred April 25 when the Putney School hosted Gathering of the Vibe, a concert and film screening of "For the Love of the Music," a documentary about the legendary Club 47, a ‘60s folk hot spot in Cambridge, Mass. Many of the interviews had been filmed at the Putney School the year before. The concert featured David Amram, Tim Eriksen, Hayley Reardon, the Diamond Doves and others.

Other film highlights include: the 22nd annual Women’s Film Festival in March; new initiatives by the Center for Digital Art to bring more people into its events, including hosting Power Animal Systems by Jason Martin, a former co-conspirator of Lady Gaga’s, and Matt Ostrowski; the successful indie work of Newfane’s Robert Fritz, whose films "Twice" (filmed at Brattleboro’s Twice Upon a Time) and "AKT 2" each garnered awards; local screenings of work by NEYT alumni Emily Seymour ( "Only Daughter") and Isaiah Palmeri ("Second Thought"); Brattleboro native Angela Snow’s "World Circus" getting a local showing at the New England Center for Circus Arts; a second chance in the spotlight for Westminster filmmaker David Koff’s 1981 documentary "Occupied Palestine," which found new audiences and continued relevance thanks to a showing at a film festival in London; and the work at the Greenwood School by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, who was in Putney to film the students there working on the Gettysburg Address.

Finally, but certainly not least in a busy year in film was the return of the Brattleboro Film Festival. Organizers kept their promise after the festival’s debut in 2012 by making this year’s festival bigger and better. Spanning more than two weeks, the festival featured more than 30 films, in a dizzying variety of genres, styles and subjects. "Short Term 12" was selected as audience favorite, but the centerpiece of the festival was the Southeastern Vermont premiere of "Freedom & Unity: The Vermont Movie," Nora Jacobson’s massive undertaking involving 50 filmmakers in an effort to convey something of what makes Vermont what it is. While the issues are complex, and Vermont’s history is rich and contradictory, some themes emerged.

"If there is a message it’s that Vermont, because of its scale, because of its size, can be kind of a laboratory for trying to get back to doing things on a local level," Jacobson said.

Contemplating community

Carrying Jacobson’s thought to the local level, the arts community here spent some time focusing on its relationship, role and potential for leadership in the community at large.

A chief source of this conversation was the Brattleboro Core-Arts Project, a two-year initiative funded by an NEA Our Town Grant to explore the ways in which the arts shape Brattleboro’s sense of place and community, CoreArts’ busy year included the creation of a Cultural Assets Map, with the assistance of students from the Conway School of Design, and holding a series of panel discussions, interviews and conversations around the arts in Brattleboro.

With a year still to go, the Core-Arts Project has asked some tough and probing questions about Brattleboro’s arts community, aimed at discovering something new. We all know it’s there, but how does it function and what does it mean?

"It’s true the Smithsonian thinks we’re great, but they probably never asked the questions we think to ask," said CoreArts Project team member Zon Eastes.

For its support of CoreArts, as well as for the inclusion of a strong vision for the arts in its Town Plan and other efforts, the Town of Brattleboro was chosen to receive the Friend of the Arts Award from the Arts Council of Windham County. "Over the past years, the municipal government of the Town of Brattleboro has shown vision, leadership and commitment to significantly improve the environment for artists and arts organizations within its borders thus serving as a model for other communities of engaged and proactive civil leadership," the Arts Council wrote.

Another important contemplation of our community came as part of the Strolling of the Heifers, which hosted "Plowing Old Ground," an exhibit of photographs by John Nopper and text by Susan Harlow of Vermont’s organic farming pioneers.

The exhibit served as an important reminder of the significant contributions of these hard-working innovators.

"Organic is here, and it wasn’t always here," said Nopper. "It didn’t just happen. It took entrepreneurs. It took thoughtful people."

Debuts The relationship between the arts and its community was an important aspect to one of the events that made its debut in 2013.

The Southern Vermont Dance Festival brought dance teachers, performers and students into town for four days of classes, workshops, concerts, free music and more.

Aimed at promoting dance in general and the wealth of dance Brattleboro can offer, the festival also had, from the get-go, a mission to support the business community.

"We have a focus on promoting dance in Southern Vermont and the dance community all over the area and an equal focus on promoting downtown business," said Director and Founder Brenda Siegel. "Between Hurricane Irene and the Brooks House fire, Brattleboro’s having a hard time coming back."

The event made a promising debut, and plans are afoot to bring it back in 2014.

Other debuts in this year in arts include:

-- The opening in March of the Landmark College Fine Arts Gallery with an exhibit of work by Tim Segar and Craig Stockwell, followed in April by "Reading the Landmark College Community" and others since then;

-- The launch in April and then in November of Putney Vaudeville at Next Stage Arts;

-- The inaugural Death Café hosted by Brattleboro Area Hospice in June, offered people a chance to come together around tables and talk about aspects of death;

-- The first publication in October by Green Writers Press, a Brattleboro-based publishing company founded by Dede Cummings with a mission to give voice to writers and artists who will make the world a better place. Pledging proceeds to 350.org and local environmental organizations, Green Writers Press has created a unique publishing model which values art, earth and responsible business practices. It has already proven popular with authors and artists, and more releases are due in 2014;

-- The Immanuel Retreat Center, affiliated with Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Bellows Falls and proved to be a popular place for summer artist retreats, particular ones led by cellist extraordinaire Eugene Friesen;

-- Sandglass Theater launched its New Visions series in the fall, giving a performance platform to some of the best new and original voices in puppet theater;

-- Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College collaborated to begin the Windham County Performance Series, which brought top-notch performers like Arlo Guthrie, Stile Antico, Gordon Clapp and Natalie MacMaster to venues throughout the county. More are on tap in 2014;

-- The Wistaria Chamber Music Society, well established in the Pioneer Valley, made inroads in Vermont with performances at Centre Congregational Church;

-- Southern Vermont Lyric Theater, packing a catchy acronym - SVeLT - presented "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in December as its first prodiction;

-- Offering a new model of Vermont craft retail with an experiential twist, Vermont Woods opened its new showroom in Huckle Hill in Vernon.

In the realm of visual arts, exhibits of note included "Two Roads Diverged," featuring work by women who found or rediscovered their muses later in life. It ran at the Dianich Gallery in March.

In July, the Crowell Gallery at the Moore Free Library in Newfane hosted an important exhibit of the Impressionist Arthur Gibbes Burton. In December, a rare photograph of reclusive author J.D. Salinger came home to Brattleboro.

Taken by Brattleboro native and former Reformer photographer Michael McDermott, the image, in a limited edition photogravure, was on view and for sale at Vermont Artisan Designs.