Washington, D.C.-based Transformer Gallery has been bringing emerging artists to perform at an unusual location since 2017: the beaches of Asbury Park, NJ.

Throughout July and August, the Siren Art Festival will present six nights of debut performances that take place right on the sand, off the boardwalk and in full view of Madame Marie’s fortune telling empire, the Stone Pony, and other well-worn Jersey Shore landmarks.

Transformer Gallery’s founder Victoria Reis is originally from the Asbury Park area, and said she grew up loving the Jersey Shore, referring to the area as having “a palpable creative energy that was very influential for me.”

While she started her brick-and-mortar gallery in DC two decades ago, Reis always wanted to find a way to bring art back to her home turf. When she and her husband moved back to the area a few years ago, she pursued working with the local city government and real estate developers to get funding for this unusual project. Together, they’ve come up with an innovative response to the location that invites in art crowds and curious beach-goers alike.

A photo or Armando Lopez-Bircann in performance at the 2021 Siren Arts Festival

Armando Lopez-Bircann in performance at the 2021 Siren Arts Festival

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Armando Lopez-Bircann in performance at the 2021 Siren Arts Festival
Courtesy of the Transformer Gallery DC

The Siren Arts Festival provides invited artists and collectives with a “micro-residency”—a few days at the nearby Asbury Hotel to brainstorm and be inspired by the city as well as the ocean, rather than the usual weeks- or months-long commitment many residencies require artists to adhere to. This is key to the program’s success, as it opens up the possibility of participation to artists who might otherwise juggle full-time jobs or family obligations, and it keeps the resulting performances fluid and moving and truly experimental. A mix of funding from the City of Asbury Park and the Andy Warhol Foundation, along with support from local developers and businesses, not only supports the artists on their residency but also allows the festival to provide completely free performances to the public.

As part of the residency, artists must give a talk about their work at the nearby Transparent Clinch Gallery on Wednesday evening during their stay, and then perform on the beach on Thursday evening. For that performance, there is no stage nor are there tickets—the performers take to the beach just as a family looking for some sun might, and there is no physical barrier between performers and the public. A small crowd of fans of the festival will gather to watch, but also so will confused tourists, curious onlookers, and stray children chasing lost frisbees or volleyballs. The effect is relaxed and welcoming, but also challenging to both the performers and the audience.

The thing about art is, it’s usually framed in some sort of way. Whether it’s a literal frame or pedestal, or the institutional “frame” of a gallery or museum space, there is usually something that surrounds an object and declares it to be “art.”

With these ocean-side performances, that frame is abandoned. To the random person walking by, there’s nothing to immediately distinguish the works from a street performer or local eccentric or a brand trying to make a name for themselves through viral marketing (all of which are plentiful in Asbury Park).

Most viewers — likely beach-going tourists, who happen across the festival en route to get a slice of pizza or a soda on the boardwalk — will look at the goings-on on the beach and never even realize it’s art. And that’s exactly what makes the festival so experimental, and such a potential site for something really exciting to happen.

A photo of Alexander D'Agostino/Glitterwitch in performance

Alexander D'Agostino/Glitterwitch in performance

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Alexander D'Agostino/Glitterwitch in performance
Courtesy of the Transformer Gallery DC

The work in the festival always responds in some way to both the site and to an overarching theme — this year, the theme is “salt.” Reis’s chosen artists react to this theme in a variety of ways — through the lens of labor, land use, immigration, emotion, and other interpretations. One artist, Alexander D’Agostino, will be mixing salt extracted from the ocean with lavender, presenting it on an altar for the audience as a kind of pseudo-religious offering; for Arien Wilkerson with Nicholas Serrambana and Karim Rome’s performance brack·ish, the artists will be “flying, darting, digging, trotting, gliding, hurling, slinking, connecting movement phrases, live sound experimentation, and long choreographic structured improvisations” in response to the substance.

All the performances are free and open to all. According to the organizers, they’ll take place around 7 p.m. on the 2nd Avenue Beach in Asbury Park. Performances last about 30–40 minutes. People are encouraged to arrive at 6:45pm, with beach towels or chairs. In the event of rain, alternative venues will be announced by 6 p.m. the day of the performance. Check the Siren Arts Instagram, @sirenartsap for those updates.