Saya Woolfalk is a New York-based artist who, for the last decade, has been building an elaborate and multi-dimensional narrative about alternate cultures. Woolfalk’s physical installations document the artifacts of these cultures—specifically the No Placeans (plant humans) and the future human culture that discovered No Placean bones, the Empathics—using ethnography-museum displays strategies that she populates with digital projections, elaborate costumes and mannequins, paintings, artifacts, and totems. With that intersection at play, Woolfalk offers alternative models for cultural exchange, societal hierarchy, and the way they mirrors many own conventional norms today.
Caroline Picard: What is No Place?
Saya Woolfalk: No Place is a project I worked on from 2006-2008 with filmmaker and anthropologist Rachel Lears. It was scripted and conceived by collecting the utopian desires of people in our communities. Through a series of ethnographic interviews, the story of No Place emerged. The No Placeans are plant humans who change gender and color, transform into the landscape when they die, and repurpose refuse into usable technologies.
CP: Did that vision of utopia continue to evolve in your work after 2008?
SW: Once this collectively imagined “utopia” was established I began to think about how people in the present could become the plant humans of the future. In 2009, I worked with a group of women dancers to create the first Ritual of the Empathics. Then in 2010, I collaborated with biologists at Tufts University to hash out how humans might actually become part plant in a project called The Institute of Empathy.
In 2012, The Institute of Empathy (IoE) curated and lent an exhibition of objects, dioramas, and videos at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. In this exhibition The Empathics describe how they find a group of No Placean bones into the woods of upstate New York. A fungus on the bones stimulates a physiological mutation that allows Empathics to easily cross species by integrating various genetic materials into their DNA. The nonprofit organization IoE was established to study this new morphology and distill the mutation process into a multi stage system so that any ordinary human can opt into becoming an Empathic.
CP: It seems like you’re talking about cultural exchange, where the fungus becomes a radical agent between Empathics, No Placeans, and the fungus itself. What was it about fungus that makes it a good multi-species ambassador?
SW: When I interviewed the biologists at Tufts, I gave them the backstory for the plant humans of No Place. I then asked what might make people from the present hybridize in such a radical way. One of the researchers offered the example of a fungus that implants itself inside of an ant. The ant is generally risk averse, but the introduction of the fungus alters both its behavior and morphology. Sprouting out of its host body, the fungus eventually kills the ant. When I saw an image of this violent rupture and subsequent transformation, it seemed to be the perfect inspiration for the origination story of the Empathics.
CP: I’m interested in how you borrow scientific, ethnographic, and artistic strategies to build not just new cultural narratives, but also objects and installations. Can you say more about how you incorporate and refract biological, anthropological, and artistic methodologies?
SW: In the visual art program at Brown, we were offered a variety of classes where we could explore combining the methods of art and science. After grad school, I moved to Maranhao, Brazil with my husband, cultural anthropologist Sean Mitchell. We lived in his field site for two years and this is when I began to borrow anthropological methods for thinking about and making my own work. I also got a Fulbright to do research into folkloric performance traditions in northeastern Brazil, which is how I met Rachel. When we got back to the States, she and I decided to collaborate to create the short film I mentioned, Ethnography of No Place. That was the first project I made that really blended artistic and anthropological methods into a single project.
CP: One of the things that struck me about the Empathics is that they are described as being plant/human hybrids; they are very adaptive and easily absorb different influences. I loved this idea because in some way I feel like you are articulating a bridge between nature and culture, which is typically difficult for Western philosophic and cultural frameworks to embrace. What was it about plants that made you interested in plant/human hybridity?
SW: I spent summers of my childhood going to elementary school in rural Japan were there was an emphasis on learning about plant systems in. We nurtured plants, learned about their ecosystems, and relationships with humans.
In 1999, when I was a junior in college, I went to my first Venice biennial. At the biennial I encountered the Kaki Tree project, in which a singe persimmon tree survived the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. This mother tree emerged out of a catastrophic historic event and its human collaborators stimulated intercultural exchanges using her saplings. On their website they describe how “Art cultivates the imagination to help us feel others’ pain and creativity to build a new world. It goes beyond borders, religion, race and even language, and helps us feel sympathy for each other.” The structure and drives of this project impacted how I wanted to conceive my future work.
CP: What continues to draw you to the Empathics? Do you think of their narrative as a kind of medium?
SW: I always wanted to create a project that would allow me to think about cross cultural relationships and hybridization but did not want to use my personal story or standard tropes of multiculturalism.
CP: ChimaTEK is a corporation developed for the Empathics, by the Empathics, to help with their individual pursuit of self-improvement.
SW: ChimaTEK is the corporate branch of the IoE; through this corporation, the Empathics have patented a multi-step process with home-use technologies that make interspecies and intersubjective hybridization available to all.
CP: Am I right in thinking that the corporation is an ambiguous and even distopic figure in your narrative. Would you say the corporation is kind of dark mirror for the Empathics?
SW: The corporation is intentionally ambiguous and distopic. When I first conceptualized the project in 2006, ChimaTEK was in my notes as The Land of the Pleasure Machines. In this early iteration of the project, the Pleasure Machines are humans who give up their flesh and take on robotic bodies. As No Place and the Empathics developed their own logics, I revised the story to explore what happens when research that seems to be utopian gets coopted into a corporate logic. ChimaTEK allows users to wipe their identities clean and download specially configured identity algorithms. What do we self-select if we are capable of this kind of transformation?
CP: That makes me think about the power of fictional narratives, somehow, as a method to imagine alternative realities and mirror one’s own reality, without implicating a specific, individual biography. Still, I think it’s interesting that empathy plays such a big role in your work. Why is empathy so important?
SW: In graduate school I was inspired by Afrofuturist feminist Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. In these books a race called the Oankali go through the universe seeking organisms to trade genetic information with. Empathy plays a complex role in this story, from the perspective of the Oankali they are being empathic, they are saving humanity from the brink of destruction. However, humans lose their autonomy once integrated into the Oankali genetic order. The protagonist, Lilith, establishes a blended family out of her relationship with the Oankali and the books trace her personal and social conflicts with being a trader to her humanity as well as a desire to integrate into a new genetic and social order. The series has been described as an exploration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; Butler uses science fiction to consider forced familial relationships forged out of slavery that resulted in generations of African Americans having conflictual relationships with their integration into American culture.
CP: It seems significant that you haven’t written a novel (as yet) but instead make objects, installations, and performances, almost as secondary artifacts that viewers apprehend like archeologists…we don’t access the direct text-narrative, but instead connect the dots via artifacts that narrative produced.
SW: Octavia Butler’s fantastical and psychologically complicated myth fueled my desire to tell a story. As a visual artist, I knew it would not only be told through words but through a physicalization of objects, places, and by building new realities. So, for me, the objects and installations are very important, they are the material manifestation and physicalization of another place. They are the things that make the place real, that allow us to have access to that place.
CP: You are able to hit a lot of registers at once and seem comfortable with the seams between digital/material/nonhuman/human mediums; that’s part of what makes your work take on such a cohesive feeling of artifact. How did you develop that process?
SW: I started playing with digital technology early on in my work. I made digital collages with costumed figures using early versions of Photoshop in the 90s. I was trying to use the newly available digital technologies to combine real people and places with new imagined possibilities.
CP: What about the difference between mannequins and live bodies? Does that difference matter?
SW: I gravitate towards the utopian potentials of digital space (post race, post gender, post human etc.), but understand that people live in real bodies that experience real consequences based on how they are gendered, sexed, raced and classed. As I currently explore things like augmented and virtual reality, I constantly bring us back to actual bodies in space, real dancers that have physical manifestations not just phantoms that exist in digital space.
CP: What would the Empathics say about the Anthropocene?
SW: The Empathics are initially ordinary humans and do their work in human centric systems. I imagine they would not be opposed to the current geological epoch being characterized as the Anthropocene. However, I don’t think they would want ChimaTEK or the work of the IoE to be limited by a human centric vision of possibility. I teach at Parsons the New School and a number of mu students last semester worked on projects that centralized birds or rocks as the consumers of the work. I think that the Empathics would be interested in this kind of exploration.
By Autumn Hays
This past Friday I attended The Operature an exhibition by the collective ATOM-r (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) at the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago. This exhibition was held in two parts an interactive installation and 90 minute performance showcase. ATOM-râ€™s participants include Mark Jeffery (choreography), Judd Morrissey (text and technology), Justin Deschamps, Sam Hertz, Christopher Knowlton, and Blake Russell (collaborators/performers).Â The ATOM-r collective explores the application of forensic science and anatomical mapping, as viewed through the through the scope of performance, technology, and language. What struck me most about the exhibition was the poetic consideration of the body and the layering of segmented perspectives visually, technologically and through dance. This is especially true of the performance where the dancers bodies move like they are being examined for medical display, like they caressed with love or sex, like in battle, and like the ritualistic laying out of the dead all in one sequence. When combined the layers of sourced gesture seem not as if disjointed but in an embracing collaboration of movement. I feel my observation of this exhibition is like looking through a magnifying glass peeping in to catch glimpses at what is a large body of accumulated research.
The installation included a 15 monitors that displayed the interactive exhibitionâ€™s language poetry and digital art that seemed like entries dense with interconnecting references selected from an accumulation of archived materials. The Operature. Attendees are able to pick up cards with medical and anatomical imagery and show the QR-code to a camera provoking a response and changing the exhibited material as a corresponding text begins to dance across the screen blinking in and out. On other screens images of head cut into thin slices spin resembling the process of cross-sectional scans of bodies under anatomy study, or the presentation of anatomical evidence on glass slides. The dissection of slices is also seen in the exhibitions use of language fragmentation and the multifaceted perspectives created by technology that includes both in the installation and performance.
Upon entering attendees are prompted to download an app that allows them to interact using their smartphones during the installation and performance. Audience members found themselves taking on the roll of investigators drifting around the exhibition looking for signs, images, and codes that they could scan using their camera phone. Once scanned, these images display technological overlay ghost images and text that seem as if they had already been there, invisible, waiting for you to discover them. Often I find technological interactions to fall short but there is something consistent about the concept of a phone app that allows you to view an augmented reality layer in an exhibition based off anatomical theaters, where the audience becomes an investigator of anatomy. It was one of the best uses of interactive technology I had experience in an exhibition. This inclusion of the technological other worlds slips in and out of the subjective, pushing realties/non-realities together and is an integral interaction when used during the performance piece.
The collective stratum of reference is something you encounter in every aspect of ATOM-râ€™s performance. One can view the piece from multiple vantage points choosing to sit in pews, walking among the performers, or standing above the performance looking down on it as in an operational theater. As the performers dance Judd plays the role of conductor, controlling projected displays of text reiterating those used in the installation, and reading them aloud as he performs.
He also provides the attendees with a technological viewpoint, displaying his live video of the performance showing the virtual reality ghosts we first encountered in our own investigations of the installation. The spoken language of the piece was delivered in the same cold cut tone as a scientific manual but had the touch of deeply personal poetics of the struggle with the body. The text provides us with many concepts such as the examination of the body as house, the treatment of the dead, and the histories of anatomical theater. One of the most interesting sources is the text sourced from the â€œstud fileâ€ of writer Samuel Steward describing details and observations about his various erotic encounters with men. These excerpts when juxtaposed with the anatomical body texts create an interweaves narrative of the gay male body.
The expert choreography composed by Mark Jeffery and his collaborators holds the audience captive while working in correspondence the technological devices. The all male group of performers embraced, wrestled, fell, carried one another around the room like corpses, posed for examination, removed and readjusted each otherâ€™s buttons and zippers, each performer functioning simultaneously as the displayer and the displayed. Even the lights become dancers moving around the room and repositioned by performers. Observes peer into the dancers bodies, guided by the ever-present examiners lights. As the scenes are constructed I am reminded of the painter Thomas EakinsÂ and his paintings of medical theaters. The audiences enters ATOM-râ€™s The Operature like a crime scene, attempting to paste together all the clues given through the use of dance, poetry and art as evidence. To quote text from the exhibition, â€œthe evidence looked back at you awkwardly and defiantlyâ€, asking you investigate the margins of these clues. Your reward for your exploration is an involved and richly layered experience that speaks to the poetics of anatomy and left me feeling touched to the bone.
If you would like to see it for yourself the exhibition continues till March 29th. There will be two more shows this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday. The interactive exhibition is open at 6pm and performance begins 8pm. National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, 175 W. Washington, $15 at the door. Here for more info.
(images provided by ATOM-r. Photo Credit: Katie Graves Photography)
In keeping with my interests and research in phenomenology and embodiment, this article addresses four disparate works that are currently on view in Atlanta. Drawn from four separate shows â€” Coloring and In Translation at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC), Live Amateurs at MINT Gallery, and Gyun Hur – A System of Interiority at Get This! Gallery â€” these installations address and provoke bodily experience. Unlike the other works in these shows, other than possibly Anne Lindbergâ€™s at ACAC, these works invite the viewer to inhabit the space they create. Each of these installation-based and -esque works instantiate a world within the particular gallery space. Broadly, these four pieces can be grouped into two categories: color fields/dimensions and bodily encounters. Rutherford Changâ€™s We Buy White Albums at ACAC and Gyun Hurâ€™s A System of Interiority at Get This! both open to the viewer an experience of color. Jonathan Bouknightâ€™s Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other at ACAC and Maggie Ginestraâ€™s Angel of the Interior Heaven at MINT create moments of encounters with the human form, its materiality, and that of our own.
Traces of Color
In our everyday existence, our perception of color does not correspond to a geometrical color wheel. We do not necessarily examine the red of a fire truck when we see it wheeling towards us in our rear view mirror; rather, the red speaks to us, telling us to pull over, signaling to us that there is a fire, a situation, somewhere that needs to be tended to. In this confrontation with color, the pure red that exists as a particular wavelength does not concern us. The object, the red firetruck, exists as a phenomenon in our everyday being. Both Rutherford Changâ€™s and Gyun Hurâ€™s installations create situations where objects are allowed to rest in their object-ness and our perception of their colors in their particularity are brought forth.
In the case of Rutherford Changâ€™s installation We Buy White Albums, included in the show Coloring at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the color white, which, depending on which theory of color and perception you choose, may not Â be a color at all. Chang, in his use of a white object, exemplifies the ways in which bodies and objects collide, rub off on each other, imprint themselves upon the other. If white here is considered the gathering of all light on the spectrum, we can push the metaphorics of accumulation and negation; white as a manifestation of maybe both of these. By a process of collecting first-presses of the Beatlesâ€™ White Album, Chang presents us with cultural signifiers that have visibly and explicitly been shaped and affected by bodies. Though each of these vinyl covers is white and was released in 1968, the installation presents the viewer with a range of color, wear-and-tear. Some of the album covers have drawings on them. Some have stains and spills. Some have an exaggerated impression of the vinyl disc lying inside; years of pressure worn into the album sleeve. The wall installation, though not touchable, allows the arranged albums to resonate with touch; the fingertips â€œfeelâ€ the cover without touching it; the fingertips can sense those who have touched the album before. Apart from the wall are album bins that the viewer can sift through, allowing her to touch these objects with her own hands, connecting to the hands that have touched this very object before. The signs of history and othersâ€™ beings are traced, etched, scuffed, buffed, and impressed into these seemingly identical and mass-produced commodities. Accompanying the installation is an audio piece that is a layering of 100 copies of the songs from the White Album on top of each other, which illuminates the subtle differences between each of the albums; the â€œvarious scratches, dust, and differences in the pressing of the records.â€ Â Even though these commodities are machine-made, the audio points to the objectâ€™s own materiality and the ways in which the bodyâ€™s handling of them further affects their material conditions. In a way, Changâ€™s piece illuminates the ways in which, as Merleau-Ponty states, â€œeach object … is the mirror of all others.â€ 
At Get This! Gallery, Gyun Hurâ€™s new installation work A System of Interiority creates a constantly changing experience of color for the viewer through its use of multiple constructed layers. Built in an L-shape against two walls of the gallery, the work consists of a structure made of glass panes resting on columns of bricks with mirror panels connecting the glass to the cement floor. On top of the glass panels are three piles of hand-shredded silk flowers and powders in magenta, yellow, and orange. Underneath the glass panes, on the cement floor, is a ground of brown/black dirt and another material that sparkles. Above, a lighting system in three parts: a two-sided color-changing track, a standard can light, and a panel holding a grid of naked lightbulbs. This installation does not give itself easily to any vantage point; it requires exploration. Sitting on the ground at the vertex, the point where the two large glass panes converge, I witness the piles multiply in the mirrors against the back walls and those on the ground partially covered in dirt. Peering under the panes, into the dirt directly, a miniature landscape opens up that gives the illusion of a highway underpass; the stacked bricks transformed into concrete columns. The earthy brown contrasts with the black sparkles that reflect the lights above. The magenta, yellow, and orange piles, radiate color on top of the glass while the mirrors underneath them reflect other, more muted colors. The ways that the surfaces of glass, mirrors, piles of powders, and dirt reflect each other and the viewer, opening a field of tranparently-opaque relations, which according to Merleau-Ponty is a certain translucence: â€œThe fully realized object is translucent.â€ Â We delve into it in our perception of it, but only to a certain extent; not all of the object is perceptible at once; it hides something within itself.
Constructed Bodily Encounters
In our everyday experience, when we see bodies, we recognize them as human bodies like that of our own. However, Descartes (in)famously states in his Meditations of First Philosophy from 1641 that those bodies wearing hats and coats he views from his window could in fact not be human bodies at all: â€œBut what do I see aside from hats and clothes, which could conceal automata?â€ Â In art works that make use of the human body, particularly that of the living, breathing, fleshy human body, the problem becomes how to regard these bodies. Since they are part of a work of art, what is their status as objects of my gaze? Who are these people I am looking at? Is it ethical for me to gaze upon their forms? How should I contemplate them?
Jonathan Bouknightâ€™s installation, included in the show In Translation, also at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, consisting of a video monitor on one wall and five 7.5 ft tall drawings on the opposite wall, is a manifestation of the problematic experience of watching moving bodies and then viewing a seemingly static representation of them. The piece, part of Bouknightâ€™s Gaze Series, the workâ€™s process creates multiple possibilities of embodiment. The video depicts two dancers; a man and a woman, wearing grey – the woman in a grey top and shorts, the man in only grey shorts, bare-chested. The angle of the video, at first disorienting, allows the viewer to penetrate the space between these two bodies that are at times intermingled, at times only touching. The layers of drawings on 7.5 ft tall pieces of butcher paper gaze at this video. Each day of the exhibition, Bouknight works in the installation space and draws the video. In order to see the video, Bouknight has to turn his back to the drawings, thus making them blind contour. The drawings, made using black acrylic paint, have a movement all of their own. When focusing on the drawings, the audience is not able to see the video, and vice versa. This limited perception, intentionally created by the artist, allows the viewer to see each aspect of the work on its own – the drawings are not merely illustrations of the video. They are a layered exercise in line and movement. The viewer can lift one drawing to reveal more layers of drawings underneath. Each layer a manifestation of a particular viewing experience that is translated onto paper. Both these aspects of the work produce certain corporeal consciousness and affectivity. The layers of drawings bring about a similar weightiness that is felt when attending to the video of the two dancers; a play of movement, shifting arrangements, and physics enter into my own bones, muscles, and sinews.
At MINT Gallery, within the jam-packed show Live Amateurs, lives Maggie Ginestraâ€™s performance and installation Angel of the Interior Heaven #s 1 – 4. A card table with four folding chairs surrounding it is in a back corner of the gallery. On the table is a plate of nibbled on cookies, cards, and hand-felted scarves. Now, these chairs are empty. They were complete with sitters at the opening on January 11, 2014. They will remain empty until the closing of Live Amateurs on February 7, 2014. During the first performance, the sitters, naked save the hand-felted scarves, conversed with each other over cards, cookies, and wine. Other than trips to the bathroom, these nudes remained inside a privately public space; audience members were onlookers except when sneaking a cookie. These bodies, so exposed to the viewer, yet also so distant, provoked otherworldly and mystical imagery. They might have been those gods sitting atop Mount Olympus watching the mortals below. However, these gods were not concerned with we mortals; they seemed indifferent to our presence. These performers, on display for us, elicited somatic responses. The viewer was faced with the decision to gaze â€” perhaps only a sidelong glance, a glance perhaps engendered in our gender. It was not necessarily the initial confrontation with the naked human form that created a moment of discomfort; something else in this arrangement blocked my gaze. Perhaps something related to the poetry Ginestra provides with the performance/installation: “For the angels of the more interior heaven are able to speak with men by means of spirits of the interior heaven, thus this is effected mediately.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, from The Spiritual DiaryÂ (1747). The terms “interior” and “mediately” being most important here.Â The gallery during an opening is usually an openly voyeuristic place: we gaze at the art on display and the other patrons that for the night share our space. But in this case, it was uncertain what my role here was: mere onlooker, voyeur, participant; there is an unease provoked by this ambiguity. Do these beings want me to interact with them? Am I supposed to serve as a sort of mediary between their internal space and their external surroundings? Or, do they want me just to leave them be? This is the moment of decision that I have to grapple with, which demands me to negotiate my bodily arrangement and positionality.
Return to Our Perceiving Flesh
Perceiving artwork is a bodily experience; the viewer is always perceiving the work from somewhere in some body, in some particular embodiment. This is not only true for installation work that more or less explicitly invites the viewerâ€™s body into the scene, but also for paintings, digital work, and etc. In Heideggerâ€™s essay â€œOrigin of the Work of Art,â€ he describes a painting of peasant shoes made by Van Gogh as the creation of a particular world that we gain access to; we can imagine the possibilities of these shoes and the way they become equipment for the person wearing them. Â Iâ€™m interested in how works are able to create new worlds for us to inhabit, on the micro scale â€” Chang quite literally creates the space of a record store in the gallery that we can peruse, though we always find the â€œsameâ€ record with every turn, and also on a macro scale â€” Ginestraâ€™s â€œangelsâ€ trace out an almost ethereal world that we cautiously navigate. These installations make us hyperaware that in our viewing of them, we have to negotiate the space the works carve out and the other viewersâ€™ bodies that are also present. In doing so, we are forced to return to our contoured, fleshy, perceiving bodies.
Both In Translation and Coloring are on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until March 8, 2014.
Live Amateurs is on view at MINT Gallery until the closing reception on February 7, 2014. Maggie Ginestra will stage another instantiation of Angel of the Interior Heaven during the closing reception from 7-11pm.
Gyun Hurâ€™s A System of Interiority is on view at Get This! Gallery until March 1, 2014. The gallery will stay open until 7pm on Wednesdays in order to experience the light change to night in the installation.
 Rutherford Chang’s statement forÂ Coloring.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty,Â Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 71.
 RenÃ© Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” , trans. Donald Cress, inÂ Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2000), 112.
 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” inÂ Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper, 1993).
“Tumblr is a great way for people who don’t create content to share content thus lending their life some kind of creative import.â€ Â This is the somewhat omniscient Jayson Mussonâ€™s tweet from a couple of weeks ago.Â The more I think about it â€“ and I have been thinking about it way too much â€“ the more I realize that heâ€™s probably right.Â There are a lot of people on Tumblr and I am one of them.Â And I cannot get enough. Â But you know what, I donâ€™t care if these people havenâ€™t created the content theyâ€™re posting, at least theyâ€™re posting content â€“ which, in of itself, is a creative act. Â And itâ€™s visual, and I personally am constantly learning from it. Â Itâ€™s a visual literacy of the highest import.
My own Tumblr, Installator, is a curated (for lack of a better term) blog of other peopleâ€™s content.Â Â Â Installator (wrapit-tapeit-walkit-placeit) is essentially a compendium of art in a state of movement â€“ being installed, de-installed, moved, crated, knocked down, hung, lifted, cleaned, screwed together, and on and on.Â Itâ€™s about art as an object, but decidedly not the object that most people understand it to be.Â Not precious, or in some cases priceless, well-lit aesthetic nuggets that just seems to appear on walls, or pedestals, in fields, on buildings and above couches.Â These are images of artworks that are not static.
Sometimes I wonder if people who go to museums or galleries think these things just kind of magically appear overnight – like some sort of aesthetic fairy flitting down to delicately place a painting on a wall with their sparkly fairy-dusted level.Â Well they donâ€™t, and there is a magical coterie of individuals who do make it happen: art handlers/preparators/riggers/etcetera.Â I am not an art handler, though I have done my fair share of handling art (Iâ€™m also married to a former preparator).Â It is with the utmost respect for these folks that I showcase them in the photos that make up Installator.Â Other people are impressed too.Â Of the many comments I do get on one photo or another â€“ a common one is some form or another of: â€œI want to do this for living!â€
Looking for images can be a pain in the ass, but when I find a good one I get really excited.Â I have a loose set of criteria that I stick to when finding them; ideally itâ€™s a large jpeg; includes an image of a person(s); is of an artwork or artist that I admire; is visually representative of the act of installing or de-installing and has to be stimulating to look at.Â Funny pictures help, as do process-oriented sets of images.Â I mostly start with a Google image search including an artistâ€™s name (or sometimes an artwork) and the word â€œinstallingâ€.Â Another route I take is plundering the Facebook photo albums of museums.Â I find that European museums do the best job of documenting their behind-the-scenes, but there are a few museums with their own oft-updated Tumblrs, blogs and websites (the Dallas Museum of Art, Contemporary Museum of Art, Houston and the Walker Art Center are tops.)
At this point it seems as though a lot of Museums are catching onto this peeking-behind-the-curtain-thrill.Â Many of them are sharing much of the work that goes into setting up an exhibition, not only by posting more and more images for the public, but also using it as a form of education about the lives of artworks.Â This can only be healthy.Â It humanizes the pricelessness that these objects are assumed to have once they enter the institution.Â It also showcases the care for these objects from a preservation standpoint.Â I thought this quote from the Chrysler Museum of Art was interesting, even though the images they did post were some of the most beautiful Iâ€™ve come across: “We generally do not discuss anything related to the movement of art. There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from the obvious (security) to the obscure (proper protocols and handling).Â â€¦. We rarely if ever actually photograph art being moved. This is [a] field where mistakes are not an option, and a great work of art being damaged because somebody tripped over a photographer just canâ€™t happen.â€
There is also what I cannot find. Â I have a mental list of artists whose work I would very much like to see installed.Â There are also museums that simply arenâ€™t interested in showing how work travels from the bowels of their storage to the walls of their galleries.Â Outside of Instagram, commercial galleries very rarely show images of their artists work being installed (though Salon94 has a great blog that features this).Â Along the same lines, itâ€™s often difficult to find images of art fairs being loaded in.Â Artists who have their own websites also rarely show images of their work from this viewpoint (Sterling Ruby and Martin Eder (?) are a couple of exceptions).Â Holy Grail images would include almost anything pre-1980, better yet pre-1950.Â Â The Smithsonianâ€™s Archives of American Art (watermarks excluded) is by far one of the best resources Iâ€™ve found.Â As far as mediums go, who knew it was so hard to find images of drawings and photographs being installed?
A short wish list, in case anyone was inclined to do some of their own digging and submit: Morris Louis (a good one, though this one is pretty good), Allan McCollum, Eve Hesse, Cady Noland and On Kawara.
Whatâ€™s next? I thought an old fashion artbook might be a good way to harness a lot of whatâ€™s happening on the Installator tumblr.Â There is more to mine here: from the relational aesthetics of it all to the art historical precedents of installing art. Â However, after looking into it and making a couple of inquiries, I realized that it would never happen.Â I donâ€™t own these images and I certainly wouldnâ€™t want to deal with the red tape (from artist to gallery to museum) about ownership and rights.Â Nonetheless, I do worry that with the fleeting nature of screen-scrolling, people arenâ€™t really looking.Â Good old fashion page-turning sounds nice to me – maybe one of these days.Â For now, Iâ€™ll still be looking for content and posting it for my 137,507 â€œfollowersâ€.
Bio: Britton Bertran ran 40000 from 2005 to 2008. He currently is an Instructor at SAIC in the Arts Administration and Policy department and the Educational Programs Manager at Urban Gateways. An occasional guest-curator, he has organized exhibitions for the Hyde Park Art Center, the Loyola Museum of Art and several galleries. You can find him trying to be less cranky about the art world on twitter @br_tton.Â Stay tuned for a couple more guest posts where Britton will be waxing poetic on whatâ€™s wrong with the Chicago art world circa 2013, while thinking out loud about how to fix it and another post about looking forward to 2014 (and maybe a top 10 list of sorts too.)
- â€œKULTÃšRA NAPJAINKBAN, dan perjovschi utÃ¡n szabadon” (via richardlivesus)
- “The Acrobatic Sculptures of the Rooftop Garden”. Alexander Calderâ€™s “Man” being installed atÂ SFMOMA
- MoMA staff dismantling Pablo Picassoâ€™s â€œGuernicaâ€ (1937) for shipment to Spain. Photo taken on September 8, 1981 by Mali Olatunji. Image Â© The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- â€œMonumental wall sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly installed on Dartmouth campus.Â This major site-specific work, titled Dartmouth Panels, was commissioned by longtime arts patrons Leon Black â€˜73 and his wife Debra, who contributed $48 million towards the creation of the center.â€ (artdaily.org)
- “This piece is made of ceramics, a medium which Robert Arneson helped bring to a full-fledged, independent art form. Typically, large-scale works such as this would be made out of bronze or marble. Luckily for our installation crew, this piece is hollow, meaning it only weighs between 500-700 lbs. Heave-ho!” (SFMOMA)
- â€œThis incredible sculpture by Turner Prize-winning artist Anthony Gormley, consisting of 40,000 clay figures, has been put on display at an empty Tudor manor houseâ€¦. It took five days to place the humanoid characters into positionÂ across the ground floor of Barrington Court, a National Trust Property near Ilminster in Somerset. TheÂ installationÂ â€˜Field for the British Islesâ€™, was originally created in 1993 and has been loaned to the property by the Arts Council Collection through its Trust New Art Programme.â€
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres,Â Untitled (Placebo), 1991.Â Installation process.Â Image courtesy of the Williams College Museum of Art; photo by Roman Iwasiwk (curatedobject.us)
- DominiqueÂ de MÃ©nilÂ supervise lâ€™acrochage dâ€™une toile deÂ BarnettÂ NewmanÂ en 1991. |Â Dominique de MÃ©nil oversees the hanging of a Barnett Newmanâ€™s painting in 1991. (MarcÂ Riboud, circa 1991, 38 x 52Â cm viaÂ Galerie Verdeau, viaÂ tongue depressors; via bruvu)
August 22, 2013 · Print This Article
Introduction: Laying the Floor
This July, I participated in the gloATL Summer Intensive. gloATL is an Atlanta-based dance company that creates physical installations for the public. During the Intensive, there were six of these installations that focused on the concept of utopia for a series of â€œutopia stationsâ€ that was part of its seriesÂ Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspectiveÂ that had occurred during the summer for the past few years; this summer was the last of these installations. Lauri Stallings, the choreographer and founder of gloATL, considers these performances installations – physical and public installations; the series is described as â€œphysical installations [that] are unveiled as public utopia stations for arriving, leaving, and staying for awhile.â€ 
During the first weeks of the Intensive, Stallings described to us her interest in utopia, referencing Thomas Moreâ€™s book UtopiaÂ (Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia (DeÂ optimo reiÂ publicaeÂ statu deque nova insula Utopia)), published in 1516. What seemed to be impelling Stallings to the notion of utopia is that the word utopia has multiple and somewhat contradictory meanings. The statement for this summerâ€™s series of utopia stations describes that â€œ[t]here is a double-meaning in the term â€œutopia,â€ being both a good place (eutopia) and a no place (outopia).â€  The perplexing concepts of â€œgoodâ€ and â€œnoâ€ together propelled me to enter the work. During this discussion with Stallings, the company, and fellow intensive participants, I mentioned that it seemed that â€œno placeâ€ had to be impossible. Wherever there is being, there is movement. Even between two atoms, there is an ever-so-slight vibratory motion. Animate form, or life, is exactly that, animate. It moves.  If â€œno placeâ€ cannot possibly exist, then what of the â€œgood placeâ€?
All of the installations involved swings, swing sets, and the encouragement of public engagement with the swings. For Stallings, this is a gesture of ultimate freedom; the ability to partake in the childlike joy of swinging within public space. Each installation also had blue astro turf designating a stage of sorts that at most times separated the dancers from the public. However, Stallings said that even this space should not be maintained as an eternal divider. She keeps in mind that a member of the public could always step over the edge of the floor and enter the space of the stage.
In looking back on this Intensive experience and observing the installations while reading Plato’sÂ RepublicÂ for my PhD comprehensive exams, I find myself in a rather perplexing state of body-mind. Both Thomas More’sÂ UtopiaÂ and Plato’sÂ RepublicÂ describe a space where all would be good – proper governance, happiness, order, common property. Both of these spaces are fictional, however, and cannot possibly exist in the real world; a confluence of the double-meaning – a good place that is no place. In encountering a work that attempts through dance to create a utopian space in the current world we live in, the troubling passages in RepublicÂ become more clear instances of the perceived dangers of artistic freedom.  However, maybe the utopian installations illuminate these same passages in terms of a Platonic sarcasm; since the idea has been so pushed to the edge, it has become ridiculous.
As a participant in the making of the work and also as a viewer, my experience of the series of installations straddles multiple spheres of engagement, perception, and bodily recognition. I have to admit that those three weeks of July were among the hardest I have lived yet. The physical exertion of dancing for hours six days a week was taxing. The emotional investment was more than I had expected. The mental exercising was beyond what I had encountered before. Being in a PhD program at Emory, I donâ€™t often have the opportunity to use my body as the material of my thought and production of work, so putting myself in the mode of bodily “thought” was an exercise in mental gymnastics.
Inhabiting anotherâ€™s work was something I had not experienced before. Taking on someone elseâ€™s idea as my own and incorporating it into my own body was more of a challenge than I could have imagined. The ability to fully take on the choreographerâ€™s concept as inspiration for oneâ€™s own bodily experience is a skill that I fully respect. It amazes me to see gloATL dancers express these concepts with their whole bodies; each finger is doing something special; each facial twitch is a culmination of an entirety of being. As Stallings says, â€œthe movement is in your fingers.â€
Stallings process is an incredible one to witness. Starting with an idea, it traverses into often unexpected territory, blossoming into full body expression. This part of the process, called â€œProcessâ€ by gloATL, usually came after a warm-up led by Stallings or other gloATL dancers. This wasnâ€™t any sort of warm-up though. Called â€œTools,â€ it was an exploration of internal bodily connections that make movement manifest externally. All movement generates from the inside and radiates towards an external form that can be witnessed. Coming out of a Gaga tradition, a dance technique and vocabulary formulated by Israel choreographer Ohad Naharin, â€œToolsâ€ is a way to connect to the pleasure of movement. Even when difficult, the ability to move is a pleasure in and of itself. One of the goals is to constantly search for the unexpected places in the body that initiate movement. Stallings often said that if you feel you are comfortable with a particular movement, itâ€™s time to move towards something previously undone, unthought, un/not-moved.
After finishing the intensive and going back into my usually more stationary world of reading books and writing words on a screen, I feel that the world of movement has infiltrated my world of stationary contemplation. I realize that the movement was there all along and that itâ€™s just that I have begun to accept it more fully into the life I am living.
During the last installation I participated in with gloATL, I felt something inside come up into my throat. Maybe a purely physical experience, but something tells me that it was more. At the end of the installation, we invited the audience into the middle of the blue astro turf floor by leading them using our elbows as the anchor for them to hold onto. There, after looking into each otherâ€™s eyes, we decided as a group to speak: â€œYou have only to say yes.â€ With childlike wonderment and excitement, about the beautiful swing sets, about the blue of the astro turf, about being there moving, the group performing in the installation let go with screams, laughter, and every other kind of expression that erupted from the core. At this point, something inside my body crept up to the top of my throat, something was attempting to escape through my mouth. I stopped still. If I moved anymore, that thing would exit my body onto the astro turf. I couldnâ€™t fathom that happening. It was a purging that I couldnâ€™t handle happening at that time.
I went home that night after the installation and tried to process what had happened to me. The next morning during process, we went over that moment. The same thing kept happening. Whatever was in there wanted to be let go, but, for some reason, I couldnâ€™t let it. I sat down in the hall outside the studio. My body couldnâ€™t accept what it was saying. The connections between my body, my mind, and my internal emotional existence were confused with each other. It seemed that my mental thoughts couldnâ€™t keep up with the internal movements of my emotions and body. I couldnâ€™t keep it together. I couldnâ€™t participate in the last installation. Of this, I am deeply regretful. I wish I could have made it through, but something, Iâ€™m not sure what exactly, kept me back.
Maybe it was the thought of utopia, a freedom I couldnâ€™t comprehend. That feeling deep in my belly that rose to my throat threatened me simultaneously with the â€œgood placeâ€ and the â€œno place.â€ Something in my unconscious body-mind didnâ€™t understand what that even could mean. How could I occupy that position of â€œgood placeâ€ and â€œno placeâ€ at all, let alone at the same time? Maybe this is what Plato was warning against: a radical disorder. If the body, mind, and soul cannot be easily divided and categorized, what happens to that being and the rest of the world she inhabits? Music and gymnastic together as dance brought be to that precipice of disorder that was begging to erupt. This eruption of bodily order holds within it the potential for ultimate freedom from restraint, but also ultimate devastation of a creeping chaos.
This is the experience that Stallings created – for me, for the public, maybe for the other dancers themselves. Though these installations are meant for public interaction, it is rare that you see an audience member claim the space as her own. The dance floor remains a dance floor for most of the time until glo explicitly invites the public to join them. There is a timidity to dance and art viewing even with the explosion of socially-engaged and participant-driven art. However, during one of the performances at The Goat Farm Arts Center, one of the participants decided to take control of the space. He took on one of the swings hanging from the rafters as his own. He did not want to get off the swing, even when approached by glo dancers that needed the swing to perform the choreography. Eventually, with some silent, eye coaxing he got up and off the swing. In the public sphere, it is impossible to claim a particular space as purely your own. Part of the freedom the series of installations points to is the freedom to not grasp so tightly.
During the ending section performed at The Goat Farm Arts Center and The Woodruff Arts Center, we played a game of switching and racing for swings. It was so satisfying to attain the glory of the swing, but at a certain point, while swinging with pride, watching the other dancers in the middle of the floor fidget with anticipation and wide eyes, I decided to jump off the swing, give it over to another to enjoy. That might be the space of utopian contradiction – both the â€œgood placeâ€ and the â€œno placeâ€ together; the space suspended in air where you joyfully float, exiting the swing in order for another to occupy it.
For more images of the installations, check out BURNAWAYâ€™s flickr sets for gloATLâ€™s Liquid CultureÂ installations atÂ Historic Old Fourth Ward, Goodson Yard at The Goat Farm Arts Center, and Woodruff Arts Center.
For a great review/write-up of the 2013 Liquid Culture series, check out Cynthia Bond Perry’s article “gloATL’s “Liquid Culture” series finds breath, simplicity, and freedom” published on Arts ATL.
 Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)
 Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)
 Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement, 2nd edition (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011).
 See for example Plato’s treatment of music and gymnastic as the best tools for educating the body and soul to be temperate, courageous, and good. However, there are stipulations attached to these training methods; no innovation is allowed. Since music is claimed to be the most mimetic art, it comes with a certain power that must be controlled. I don’t think it is surprising that this art form is paired with an art of the body, gymnastic. (Plato, Republic, Book II, 376; Book III, 410; Book IV, 424; and etc.) Also consider the discussion of music and gymnastic in relation to the proper form of narrative in poetry, pure third person narration, which does not inhabit the person of a character and speak through him or her. In Book II, section 377, Plato asks whether music also includes literature, and further, whether this literature is true or false. This leads the members of the dialogue to a discussion of what stories should be allowed to be told and which ones are dangerous to the ears – too influential.