Any fan of the "The X-Files" knows the sentiment by heart: The truth is out there. But talk to alleged abductee Jeremy Vaeni, or the dozens of others like him who plan to attend the UFO festival spread out across Lower Manhattan this weekend, and it turns out the truth is not out there, but here, in New York City.
Scheduled to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Roswell incident, where some believe the U.S. military recovered in the sands of New Mexico a crashed flying saucer and the bodies of its occupants "UFOs: The Culture of Contact" will attempt to reconnect the topic of extra-terrestrials with main stream audiences.
Since Roswell, space aliens have jumped to the front of the nation's public consciousness in fits and starts, thanks to films like 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and 1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," books like 1991's "Gulf Breeze Sightings" (which documented a series of UFO sightings in the 1980s), and television shows such as "The X-Files." But Mr. Vaeni says the issue has lost some of its momentum recently.
"We need to make the whole subject hip again," he said, explaining why he looked to the East Village to host a rare New York City UFO event. "Not that long ago, it had seeped in to the pop culture; you even had aliens in Kodak commercials. It made it so people just sort of took it for granted that these things exist. I think the whole movement lost its edge, and now it's harder to get new people into it."
Mr. Vaeni is himself a filmmaker who has made movies about his alien encounters, which began with a UFO sighting in rural Vermont when he was a teenager and have continued to this day. He says his body has come to possess a unique energy that offers him a "psychic awakening" to other dimensions and states of consciousness. Six months ago, he approached Ray Privett, the programmer of the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, and began discussing his desire to use the venue as a staging ground for the first annual "UFOs: The Culture of Contact Multi-Media Festival," which kicks off tonight and continues across the East Village through Sunday.
"It started because the East Coast had not had something like this in a long time and we started thinking, ‘What can we do?'" Mr. Vaeni said. And we came up with this sort of Lollapalooza-style concept, with events around the city, focusing on screening classic films in hopes of attracting new people beyond the traditional crowds you expect. After you rope them, then maybe they'll stay around to hear some of what we have to say."
To that end, Mr. Vaeni, the coordinator of an organization called Culture of Contact, has finalized a rigorous schedule for his festival — a mix of media, speakers, and topics that promises to offer a comprehensive look not just at evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial life, but also the potential implications of what that existence means to human beings. A slate of films, concerts, and art showings will also offer a bit of fun in between.
Beginning tonight at the Pioneer Theater, the festival will cross the "E.T." spectrum, beginning with a public talk about the flying saucer phenomenon and how it has affected everyday thinking in the scientific community. That will be followed by a historical discussion of the Roswell crash, a screening of the 1956 sci-fi drama "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (in which flying saucers attack Washington, D.C.), and a panel presentation featuring a group of alleged abductees ready to share their firsthand experiences.
On Saturday and Sunday, the event expands to two additional venues — P.S. 63 on East 3rd Street and Lit Lounge on Second Avenue — with a lengthy agenda of events jumping among film screenings, art viewings, music concerts, and celebrity panel discussions. Mr. Vaeni pointed to two Saturday evening events as the highlights of the festival. The first is a presentation by the legendary alien abduction researcher and author Budd Hopkins, who is known for his investigations of UFO sightings and his work with abductees to recall events through hypnosis, as well as for his coining of the phrase "missing time," or the gap in conscious memory that occurs as a result of abduction.
Mr. Hopkins will be followed later in the evening by Stephen Bassett, the only registered lobbyist in Washington advocating for UFO and extraterrestrial issues and the executive director of the Paradigm Research Group. Mr. Bassett will talk about his progress in fighting for an end to the government's "truth embargo" of evidence surrounding the existence of extraterrestrial life on this planet. Separating the two speakers will be a screening of the 1984 John Carpenter film "Starman," in which Jeff Bridges plays an alien who assumes human form.
Mr. Vaeni said he hopes to strike a balance of testimony, entertainment, and activism, using the event not only to bring believers and contactees together, but to allow outsiders to engage the topic in an informal way.
Mr. Bassett sees it as an important step toward reaching out to a new generation.
"What's important about what's happening in New York is that this issue has been carried by the baby boomers for 60 years, but Generation X and XX have not yet embraced the issue," he said. "Events like this will hopefully draw them in to hear what's been happening. We are getting to the point where the truth will come out. It has to. The truth always finds a way to break free."
If Mr. Bassett's expertise skews toward public policy and governmental protocol — he notes the government's official stance since 1969 has been not to investigate UFO sightings — many of the festival's artists speak to something philosophical, even transcendent, about the close encounters that have changed the way they see the world. The painter and sculptor Melissa Reed, who said her visitations have mirrored those of her late father, who was visited regularly, has used her symbol-based paintings and sculptures to process and convey how her experiences have opened her up to new dimensions.
"My contact wasn't just an event, but it helped wake me up to new truths about existence and consciousness, and that's what I've tried to infuse my work with," she said. "It's about waking up to a shift in the way the world exists, and trying to share that visual information."
Many who will appear at the festival recognize that people new to the discussion may approach their stories skeptically to say the least.
"If I were not an abductee, I'd be making fun of this, I guarantee it," Mr. Vaeni, who, in addition to his filmmaking, is a columnist for UFO Magazine, said. "We're here to say: ‘We're normal, we're just like you, and this is what happened to us.' If we can try to convey that through an event, a festival, that's also fun, then mission accomplished."
For his part, Mr. Privett is intrigued by the possibilities of what this weekend holds for the Pioneer Theater. Acknowledging the fact that his venue is the smallest in the city, and thus always on the hunt for offbeat and creative programming, he said that even he, by no means a "believer," has had his interest piqued by the weekend's lengthy lineup of events.
"I really have no involvement in that community, but to have a sense of humor about it and to try to program an event that's still interesting for a nonbeliever is an interesting way of going about it," he said, pointing to Mr. Vaeni's candor about the tension that exists between abductees and the mainstream public. "I'm bringing a fair bit of skepticism, but maybe I'll learn something, and maybe I'll be converted. Or not — probably not."