Pine Barrens festival celebrates art and nature in the ‘Middle of Nowhere’

The welcome table for

The welcome table for "Middle of Nowhere" on the porch of the Whitesbog General Store. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

The historic Whitesbog Village in Browns Mills, N.J., on Saturday hosted the second iteration of “Middle of Nowhere,” a music and arts festival founded by Philadelphia-based filmmaker David Scott Kessler. His feature-length documentary, “The Pine Barrens,” was the impetus for the event, which was first held in 2016 as a collaboration with Whitesbog. This year, the immersive outdoor festival hosted 400 visitors.

The crowd at “Middle of Nowhere” included 400 visitors to the Historic Whitesbog Village. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

John Pettit, head of the Philadelphia chapter of Atlas Obscura, joined Kessler this year in coordinating the festival. He’s also a member of the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, the musical ensemble that performed the live score to the film. He described the film and its live screenings as “[having] a life that mirrors the life of the pines and the dynamism of the environment that we’re exploring.”

“[It] encourages people to get out to a place that they wouldn’t normally go to, and to reflect on it in different ways,” Pettit said, describing the goal of the festival. “[It] encourages artists and people to engage with space in a different way. Whitesbog is one of my favorite places in our region and just being able to come out here and actually play music to the to the landscape, to the environment, to the weather is pretty amazing.”

John Pettit performs in The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra at “Middle of Nowhere” at the historic Whitesbog Village in Browns Mills, NJ on September 28, 2019. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Nike Desis came to the Pine Barrens for the first time this Saturday. She traveled from New London, Connecticut, to experience “Middle of Nowhere.” Desis is a sculpture and textile artist and was intrigued by the opportunity to attend an immersive event in a rural setting. “I like having art outside of urban areas,” she said. Desis was also one of 90 campers who stayed overnight at nearby Mt. Misery, where three more performances took place.

Kessler described the event with its 15 visual artists and five live bands as “a mixture of traditional and experimental.” The exhibits and performers included folk music and pottery alongside contemporary mixed media pieces and electronic soundscapes curated by Kessler and Jen Brown. One highlight of this year’s selections was Nancy Holt’s 1975 film “Pine Barrens,” which offered a contrast to Kessler’s contemporary portrait of the place.

Kessker’s documentary project began in 2012, and the film has served as a living documentation of the region, changing with each screening. Kessler highlighted the proposed pipelines through the Pinelands reserve as the biggest change between the 2016 version of the film and Saturday’s screening. He is no longer shooting new footage but is currently working on edits to submit to film festivals.

David Scott Kessler (left), filmmaker and director of “The Pine Barrens” documentary and founder of “Middle of Nowhere.” (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

“I’m looking forward to just getting this film out to a wider audience,” Kessler said. “I really think that it speaks to a lot more than just the Pine Barrens. [It’s] about preservation but also about the love of a place, and that translates to wherever you are.”

The next chance to see Kessler’s film is at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia Film Society’s documentary series. It is also the first time the film will be screened with a recorded music.

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