When UnderBelly founder Olivia Wisden first spoke with the Cap Times last winter about her still-nascent business, she sat across a narrow table in a corner booth at Black Locust Cafe as a surprise snowfall came and went. She described the startup, whose app helps users find in-person events in the Madison area based on their interests, and which also hosts its own events.
It was mid-March, and the company was preparing to expand to Milwaukee, where it would distribute colorful zines and build out a listing of inclusive, under-the-radar events hosted by locally-owned businesses and organizations, as it had done in Madison for more than a year.
But that was back when people sat close to strangers and ate indoors, and less than two weeks before Gov. Tony Evers would issue a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It feels like a lifetime,” Wisden said of the time that’s passed. The pandemic has turned life upside down for many, but when your business is all about getting people to hang out in public with groups of strangers, the virus means rethinking everything.
She called off several in-the-works events and postponed the Milwaukee launch indefinitely.
“It really became clear that events weren't going to be coming back,” Wisden said. “Everything we'd been working on for the previous four or five months just got decimated.”
But like the bars that shifted to making cocktail kits and the distilleries that turned to hand sanitizer production, Wisden looked for new ways to connect Madisonians.
Over the next months, UnderBelly would use its app to publicize online events like craft-at-home hours and author talks and even help distribute 3D printed masks. Later, when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked protests against police violence and systemic racism, UnderBelly used its channels to share “daily action items,” including petitions to sign or articles to read.
Meanwhile, as Wisden sat in event after event that had moved from the Real World to the Zoom World, she saw missed opportunities and unmet needs.
“There's really interesting ways that technology can be used to enhance events, but I was like, ‘I don't see that happening right now,’” Wisden said.
Without better ways to connect, she said, people will keep meeting up in person and potentially spreading the virus, said Wisden, adding that she's never felt more longing to sit in a bar or invite her parents over for dinner.
“People need this sense of gathering (and) that is the worst thing we can be doing right now.”
Creating a “sense of gathering” digitally is a challenge, she said, and many events aren’t organized with that goal in mind anyway. “It's harder to inspire people to gather on a computer, but we see this need that people feel to do it,” she said.
Later this month, UnderBelly will present its own stab at the challenge. While some organizations have just moved the same content to the web, a company whose prior events include a tattoo fundraiser just couldn’t do that.
Instead Wisden teamed up with someone else whose signature event seemed tricky to translate to the web: longtime DJ and party organizer Sarah Akawa. This would have marked the fourth year of Akawa’s “Hot Summer Gays,” a summer attraction celebrating queer arts and entertainment in Madison and in the broader Midwest, but dance parties and the like are a pandemic don’t.
Their brain-child is WTF: What’s the Future, an “immersive art experience … intended to reimagine what a digital festival can be.”
In this case, a digital festival looks a lot like a choose-your-own adventure video game with wild animation. From Friday, Aug. 28 to Sunday, Aug. 30, attendees can navigate through two virtual “worlds” designed by local illustrators Araceli Zuniga and T.L. Luke. The artists chose the plots, created the artwork and hid “Easter eggs,” along the way, while Madison-based musicians Maggie Cousin and Dudley Noon created the soundscapes, producer DJ Umi did the coding and UnderBelly’s Liz Wisden provided visual support.
The worlds reveal a “futuristic universe that definitely kind of winks at our current present,” Wisden said. Digital tickets are available on a pay-what-you-can basis, while physical tickets sell for $15 and come with goodie bags, which Wisden calls “a little tongue in cheek.”
“We knew early on that we wanted to give you something physical to kind of like bridge that gap into digital,” she said.
What IS the future?
As for what UnderBelly will do next, that’s anyone’s guess.
“What our long term future looks like I think will probably look quite differently in a year from now than what we are now,” Wisden said. “We are in a very different place than I thought we would be in January.”
But Wisden said the business is well-suited to keep adapting, since she and her business partners have kept the overhead low and still work their day jobs.
The company now advertises itself as “a hodgepodge team of creatives who believe in community and art,” offering services like logo and web design, event planning and fundraisers.
“UnderBelly is a connector, a facilitator, a creator and we like to make things that inspire us,” reads a description on its website.
Wisden calls UnderBelly an amoeba that moves and flows as opportunities change, though she intends to keep it place-based and focused on arts and “visual storytelling.” Another core part of the company, she said, is “working with the underdog or with the organization that is kind of fighting the bigger fight.”
UnderBelly might be an underdog itself, but she thinks the company will make it.
“As long as we stick to what we’re passionate about and excited about and are willing to kind of roll with the punches a bit.”
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