Essay by Susan Bickford

susan-bickford-portraitIn the Door, Out the Window weaves together aspects of spirituality, healing, connection, engagement, transformation, and presence. As I spend time with this work I see stars appearing in the night sky.

I enter the Lord Hall Gallery to visit In the Door, Out the Window, I am greeted by a boisterous crowd.

I am alone.

The spirit of the artists and their collaborators is fully embodied in the works themselves. I can feel their presence, it is palpable. They are still here.

The sound fills the rooms, it overlaps, drifts, slams, interrupts, insisting on a human presence that keeps me guessing.

Is there someone here?  

By myself I settle in and “take tea” with the work by Özgür Akgün.

In his piece Interstice, Özgür has made a practice of meeting with a participant. At each encounter he asks them to “teach me something.” From the audio recordings and snapshots of those meetings he composited a painterly video document which is organic and abstractly layered. It reminds me of late afternoon sun shining through leaves gently blowing in the wind. It is a blend of indian summer colors; maples, oaks and birches in early October. He takes a snapshot and then “asks them to direct (him) to another person for the next transmission.” Participatory in nature, I wonder if the subject each participant is teaching is important at all, or if it is simply a reason to spend time together. A face surfaces in the video like a fish might rise to the surface of a pond, I recognize a former student, and then she slips away into the dreamy shadows and light cast upon the screen.

sipNread, Özgür’s next piece reminds me that I wish I had an actual cup of tea to put in the holder he has left for me. A good cup of tea and an actual person sitting across from me to share the “fortune” I have stumbled upon in this unexpected place. Yes, this piece again is participatory in that he has gathered drawings and sayings from people, and shared them in this hand printed zine wrapped around tea. In this ordinary object that prevents me from burning my hands, I also find a little gift, a proverb, a funny comic, a fortune. Like a tea bag tag…the sleeves make my tea extra-ordinary, as if there was someone that left behind a secret message just for me.

I am drawn around the corner, into the party of stories being told, in response to prompts; “what makes you smile,” “what is the worst thing you have ever done,” etc… An apparatus for making drip paintings which look like fake Jackson Pollock’s, hangs over a canvas in process. In his description of Pendulum he says that he wants to “limit the control of the artist, (himself) and limit control of the participant interjecting chance.” I sit and listen, and find an interesting mix, each piece ostensibly being made while stories are told. The recordings interrupt each other, and fill in the gaps in each other’s stories. It is difficult to unwind them from each other, but as I sit here, I find my longed-for tea companions, not visible, but dangling here telling me something significant none-the-less. They are telling me something I want to pay attention to, something I can learn from, something that happened to them, a true story.  I find very little relationship between the stories being told and the image which according to Özgür, is a “documentation of the interview.” Another interesting aspect to this piece though is the title, where the participant regains control. Don’t go home with your hard on, is the title that apparently Nathan Hackworth selected for his drip painting. I begin to see a connection.

Hello?

Can anyone tell me what I am supposed to do here? Should I press on the screen to get this piece to play?

I recognize this next work as being done by Rachel Nelson, a student in my class spring semester, she is here in three small snapshots placed one atop the other in a humble brass hinged frame. And she is here in an iPad mounted behind a traditional wood and gilded frame. I press my finger on her face, a tiny icon on the screen. The piece entitled One Time We Went to the Ocean (When I was very Small) lists materials as: “Salt, Itch, Memory, Flesh, Imagination, Lies, Nylon and Human Hair, Tears, Digital Video,” and gives dimensions as: “Heart Sized, Fist Sized.” Already there are so many conflicting clues for me.

For the first 23 seconds I see a black screen, I hear her voice recounting what I believe is a true story in an actual particular place, inhabited by ghost trees. Silver Cedars, petrified years ago, recently discovered the cause of which was an earthquake, she tells me. I see her walking on a dune path to the beach. Bleached white light swallows up her diminishing figure as she speaks of another earthquake, one that is sure to happen in the future, a prediction, which promises to devastate the whole Pacific Northwest.

A title flashes in silence: “Rehearsal footage, in search of a character in the face of potential disaster, July 2015 the Oregon Coast.” I am disoriented and oriented at the same time by this information.

The next segment alternates from Rachel performing herself, and her character Leslie Jones. Both are telling me simple things about themselves but at least one of them is lying. At first Leslie’s character calls into question the veracity of what Rachel is telling me. If Leslie is a lie, then is what Rachel is saying also untrue? Simple facts about her life, born on an island in Puget sound…connected to water, island mentality. Why lie? What would be the point?

But then in contrast to the false story of the 42-year-old character Leslie, who I do not trust, all of Rachel’s story seems to be pure of heart, full of integrity.

Rachel continues with a memory, “getting dragged out into the sea by a ‘sneaker wave’ to be rescued by her Mom…not remembering being afraid…All of the moments when I almost died.” Rachel’s true stories are interrupted by her character Leslie, an obvious imposter, a charlatan, wearing a fake wig, telling me what I see is a lie, an obvious lie, don’t trust me, “I merged with the water.” Wisdom is not possessed by this woman, I think, she is pretending.

We jump to the beach, the narrator tells me about boundaries being blurred at the ocean. Rachel lays face down in the sand, time moves forward and backward and Rachel becomes sand, and Rachel becomes Leslie. Lies becomes truths, become a faded memory and I begin to stop caring. It is all one story. She tells me about time having relative speeds and losing oneself in time…and losing other people…I can relate.

She flashes back to the prediction of imminent danger and catastrophe, an earthquake, a tsunami, fires, the devil. It is a beautiful story, vivid. I like hearing Rachel’s voice, it soothes me even though I know, it is likely something terrible will happen here. She is right here, in my head, inside these headphones, and I am transported right there, back there, on that beach with her, and her sister, and her mother and…Leslie is there too.

“What do you imagine it would be like to be crushed under a million pounds of water?” she asks me. Memory is permeable. I wasn’t there, but now I feel as though I was, it is my memory now, she has given it to me. I wasn’t there when her friend told her she had found a lump, but now I feel like I was. I have lost loved ones to cancer too, who hasn’t? And I wasn’t there when she and her boyfriend saw a beautiful sunset and he said, “If this is all there is, is it enough?”, but I think a boyfriend once said that to me, too. I let it go. Through her telling of her very personal truths and lies, approximations and predictions, I am seduced and involved trying to decipher and decode her meaning. While I am busy doing this I slip and fall into my own rabbit hole of memories. Unearthed, fleeting moments rise to the surface in my mind. I have been talking about how this works with my students for years: “Show me your personal stuff, and I will easily be drawn in because it is your story, Then, wham! I recognize something of myself in your work.” Rachel has demonstrated this tactic masterfully.

Hello?!! I call out. No one answers, they just keep on talking, as though they cannot hear me. Maybe it is me that is not really here. I go on.

Mary Mailler has been studying the power of ritual for years. She practices ritual performance and documented her efforts demonstrating transformational energy in her piece Stillwater Runs Deep. Mary asked her classmates to impress their anxiety about their upcoming work into stones she found on campus. She said that she “could feel their energy after they gave their burdens to the rocks, they were hot.” Mary then took the stones and carried them with her for a day, she felt their weight, they burdened her. She carried them with her and involved them in her daily activities. In the video we see her brushing her teeth, making coffee, washing her face, taking a shower, in the company of the stones (her friends’ burdens). The video is somewhat dream like, stylized, soft focused, beautiful, interesting…even though it is banal.  I am involved because the stones are there, and she accommodates them. We hear whispers, a voice over, the worries, repeat like voices in our heads. She carries them in a sack. At the end of the day, she places them in her bed and sleeps with them. It couldn’t have been very comfortable but she did it as though it were completely normal, just a part of her day, a task like any other that needed to be done. In the morning light she rises and goes to the river, she wades into the water and submerges herself. She emerges, spins in a circle and slowly releases each rock, saying a prayer: “May we feel the burden of worry lifted and discarded, may the rivers of this state survive and thrive in a healthy way, may they continue to serve as a willing partner in unburdening us, and may they have the strength and will to roll forever on.”

Mary is comfortable performing the ritual, she is not self conscious, it is a gift. She feels the power as she has felt it before. This power of the elements, this power of spirit in a place, of raising up energy with intention and asking for help with a simple task of transmuting energy. She believes and so do we as viewers, that this ritual has allowed and resulted in a transformational energy shift.

At every corner I look and see if other people are here. At every corner, a flicker, a shadow, a reflection, but nobody manifests.

 The title, it occurs to me, could be referring to the practice of opening a window after a loved one has passed, to set their spirit free. I think to myself, the windows don’t open in here.

Dee Clark’s work is an academic study and display of a centuries old tradition of labyrinths, a ritualized installation used for spiritual awakening. A maze is very different than a labyrinth. In a maze it is likely you will get lost. The primary purpose of a labyrinth is to aid in a walking meditation, to occupy one’s body in a ritual path for the purpose of becoming mindful. According to Wikipedia “A labyrinth has an unambiguous route to the center and back again and is not difficult to navigate.” As a part of Dee Clark’s research she has visited and walked over fifty of the over 200 labyrinths in New England. She has documented this into organized and easily understood charts which comprise a large part of her exhibition. She has taken on the task of teaching us about labyrinths. She has also made large labyrinths as an “artistic, community building, and spiritual practice.”

I am particularly struck by the images in her exhibition of the South Orchard Garden Labyrinth which is a permanent installation she built at the Common Ground Fair in 2014. She established the lines of the pattern with pear trees and perennial plantings. This project, it says was a collaborative endeavor with Rose Swan, Jack Kertesz and other volunteers. The images of the construction of the labyrinth show a large group of folks working hard in concert with the earth and feeling the power of this tool for inward looking. The smiles on their faces speak volumes. Dee invites us to directly experience the labyrinth in the gallery by reducing the scale. We are invited to play with a few finger-sized templates in a box of sand. I put down my notebook and take a moment to create my own path, to the center and back again. I’m game, but I have to admit I feel a bit foolish using a wand to trace around the template. It is easy to wind the curves, I sort of forget where I am, and then I arrive at the center. I continue to trace, and discover that it is just complex enough so that I am surprised by the motion of the path and then all of a sudden I slide back out the exit. I pick up the template and there it is, a barely visible trace of my path. I join this centuries old practice of following a path inward, and returning refreshed and renewed, so simple I giggle, it feels good. She has made a writing of this liminal journey and its four thresholds inscribing it into a wood medallion, which explains a lot. “MENTAL THRESHOLD This journey offers worthwhile opportunities and numerous possibilities. Self-reflection is meaningful for discovery, transition, and healing. PHYSICAL THRESHOLD This labyrinth embodies ancient symbolism and beneficial activity. Movement in this unique space enhances wellness, intuition, and creativity. EMOTIONAL THRESHOLD This experience welcomes remembrance of pain and joy. Authenticity facilitates understanding, integration, and compassion. SPIRITUAL THRESHOLD This openness transcends mundane perception and self-protective ego. Humility illuminates interconnectedness, context, and wonder. Embrace the liminal in all its forms. Step through. Go deeper into yourself with curiosity and with love.”

It is not surprising to me that this form has survived. Dee has re-presented it to us in a non-threatening way. A very serious, magic, sand play path to self knowledge.

Hello…It could be that the door is for the living, and the window is for the spirit. I google it, finding nothing. I move along.  

Sally Levi’s piece Girl Who Lives in a Glass House, is at first glance stunning, a marvelous crystalline, light filled maze of a house fashioned from old windows. There is no structure other than the salvaged windows themselves which are precariously balanced and supporting the weight of each other. It has been built like a house of cards. I walk around and see traces of her having spent time inside. She has scribed onto the glass her inner thoughts, exposing a state of unrest, fear, anger, sadness. “Please Help Me! So Sad, so sad, so sad, lots of secrets and lies, I am estranged from my sister…” What Rachel has done with her voice and video, Sally gives us in installation, traces of performance and photography. Inside is a makeshift bed, a humble chair, a table, some books, an old red telephone, a suitcase filled with saltines and jam, a coffee thermos. Her father’s’ ashes are in there and his door knob attached to the front. Sally pledges to isolate herself and spend a day in the house with the intention to reflect on the circumstance of the dissolution of her family. It has been a source of great concern to her. She packs her suitcase with items as if she were a child running away from home. But in fact she is running to a house she has built for herself, filled with things she thinks she needs, to reconcile her differences, to reflect. When I had the opportunity to talk directly with Sally about her performance she said that she felt she “entered the house a child and came out an adult.” She allowed the transformative power of durational performance to shift the stuck energy in her relationship with her family members from anger and fear (one where she threw tantrums) to one of acceptance, compassion and empathy. The spaces in between the installation, the performance and the photographs are where the work bulges and sways with the weight of her experience. She transformed, there is no doubt about it. It is visible in the the traces, through the words she left us we can watch her progress like a time lapse animation. We witness her moving from blame, anger, to fear, sadness and finally acceptance and responsibility. She spent the time, she and did her work, it was hard. At first she felt as if her house was a jail, finally she says “It feels like a refuge.” She intended to break the windows with rocks that she brought with her “but after waking up to such a beautiful light, all she wanted to do was make beautiful art.” Sally created for herself a “an arena in which to act,” a phrase coined by Harold Rosenberg referring to American Abstract Painters. Her powerful self portraits and installation remain as traces of her artistic, emotional and spiritual growth. Even though Sally lives 3000 miles from here, she inhabits this house, her presence is very much here, and so is her father’s. In one of the portraits she sits waiting for him to call, as if the phone were a direct line from the afterlife to her cell.

Hello? Do these things work, can I touch them? Hello?

Johnny Sullivan collaborated to make an interactive performative installation called Inside Out. In the show I see a video documentation from this event showing people entering a photo booth and have their picture taken. Another interface is a phone booth, where they speak into the receiver. In both cases they give samples which are synthesized to become something new.  All of the samples are filtered and manipulated live, some are uploaded to twitter. They can hear and see traces of themselves, it is familiar, and then it is transformed becoming something strange. In his statement he says this work is questioning corporate surveillance and people’s urge to connect and brand themselves with their online image. The participants are able to direct some of the manipulation themselves with their body movements. From the looks on their faces, they are having a great time.

Johnny Sullivan also has two “noise boxes” placed on pedestals like sculpture. These instruments are the most overtly interactive pieces in the show. I am meant to be able to play them but at the time I visited they were just for display. Dis Play. I can see that they share a material kin, (surface skin) with the work of Dee and Alex, as they have all used the laser cutter to fabricate their work. But in this example, the medium is not the message. The box is a case with buttons and labels indicating what it would do if I were allowed to play with it. The design is simple and elegant, plain text spells out the function of the controls. Less is more. I want so much to interact with these boxes. Turn them on, press the buttons, “watch them come to life,” flickering lights. I want to move them, put my finger on the slide, hear the speakers which he has exposed so I can watch them vibrate and pulse, tweak and twist the knobs. Dis Play only, they are silent, please do not touch. Johnny sends me a link and I watch the documentation of an earlier prototype online. It performs better than I thought, this only increases my desire to interact with his new noise boxes. On the outside is a linear position sensor, and a hole, for the speaker to protrude through. Inside he shows me an Arduino Nano, Raspberry Pi, speaker, two piezoelectric sensors, accelerometer gyro and a battery. He turns it on closes the lid. They make eerie ghostlike sounds which respond to the way the box is being held, played, moved and interacted with.  Immediately I am super interested, I feel like an isolated indigenous person seeing a video camera for the very first time. The sound is otherworldly but vaguely recognizable, like an effect in a science fiction movie. Chimes, slowed down, whale song underwater, effected, controlled by his turning the box and tapping it in an ordinary way. His playing the box creates magical mysterious unnatural sounds. The box turns him into a medium of noise, conjuring up sounds from the past, present and future. I look forward to his noise box entering the marketplace.

Hello? Is there anyone in here? Again, I hear someone. I check the office door which is ajar and slides open. Hello? Hello?

In Alexander Gross’s piece Pantheogenisis Instagrama (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) he begins with a fascination of the human “ability to identify faces from amongst the vast visual stimuli of experience.” He also notes that this ability is not always spot on, we see faces everywhere. There is a word for it: pareidolia. Alex also takes note of how we create computers with our own abilities but enhanced such as with face recognition software. We traditionally design computers to reason, calculate and be infallible, better than we are. He asks “But can we teach a machine to see without teaching it to dream?” I guess he is equating dreaming with active imagination. For this piece he writes an algorithm to collect images from Instagram with tags of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. He then subjects each image on the list to a facial detection algorithm.  His machines collect and combine “false positives” and through their logic we can see crowd-sourced portraits of the elements. The prints are phenomenal, ethereal, uncanny, spiritual, they appear to be made of light. But they are machine made, begun by our constant human desire to record, post and tag our worldly experience. Completed by logic, numbers, lists and algorithms. These portraits are a true collaboration between Alex and his machines, with the machines doing most of the work. My only wish is that they were in motion, and that it was a continual cumulative effort so that I could witness their becoming.

I turn the corner, my wish seemingly responded to by his next piece: Every Thing is No Thing. A flashing portrait emanating from a monitor mounted on the wall, above a stupa, a replica of those at Borobudur in Java, Indonesia. The pulsing portrait appears god like, unreachable, omnipotent. A microphone juts out in front, listening, sensing sound from the room. I have been to this sacred site, I recognize the shape of the stupa immediately, but the feeling of standing in front of Alex’s piece is markedly different than the silent reverence at the hot arid pyramid of stupas. This feels more like the market gauntlet which one has to pass through in order to gain access to the looming monument. There is a speaker inside the bell, which is broadcasting an evolving sound. There is also a computer accumulating and integrating, supposedly moving toward its original sound. What I hear is undecipherable, stuttering, utterance, white noise, and other works from the show bleed through. It is jarring. The idea of collecting ambient sound and re-recording over itself reminds of Alvin Lucier’s seminal piece I am sitting in a room, “He recorded the sound of his speaking voice and played it back into the room again and again until any semblance of his speech was destroyed, leaving only the natural resonance frequencies of the room articulated by speech.”

Every Thing is No Thing has great intentions…it is as intelligent as it is beautiful and quixotic. As I understand the sound aspect of Alex’s’ piece: there are three recordings; a recording of the chanting of the heart sutra (which acts as a pattern but we never hear), a recording of white noise, and then there is a small computer, which is taking intermittent samples of sounds from the room, and trying to match those ambient sounds to a location on the heart sutra recording. The computer overwrites the white noise recording with the the ambient sound samples it is collecting. Slowly the white noise will disappear and be replaced by sounds from the room. It should be an approximation of the heart sutra chant. So far, it is still distinct samples which butt up against each other, disjointed, not unified, no breath. The bits of white noise are the biggest interruption, it is not the silence of John Cage’s 3 44. Alex tells me it is impossible to arrive at the premise of the heart sutra, through the rules of logic and deduction. But it seems to me that he is trying to prove that there in fact is presence in the machine, knowledge, soul, everything and nothing. That through a practice of logic, an algorithmic approximation, a matching of a chant can transform a recording of white noise, to emulate a spiritual resonance. It is close, but the very nature of digital is discrete samples rather than a contiguous analog breathing in and out. The jumping image and sound is still distracting, interrupting my ability to see it as a part of myself.  The word technology after all is derived from the Greek “techno-logia which is composed of the word ‘teckne’ as in art or craft (technique) and ‘logia’ as in a subject of study or interest.” -Lukas Feireiss. Alex has instructed his machine to craft a recording using found sounds from this room, and superimpose them over white noise in the pattern of the heart sutra recording. His machine is appropriating and chanting. The only problem is the white noise he started with as well as this room are far from empty.

Perhaps as the program matures it will develop a smoothing effect, a blurring, a fading, dissolving differences, like Rachel, like Sally, like Özgür, like Dee, like Johnny I see and feel a spiritual presence here, like Alex.

Hello? Still no one is here…everyone and no one.

These artists were not trying to make work that overlaps and connects in such a way but in my mind clearly they have. There is so much presence here in these rooms. They are all still here. Their work haunts and swirls, influencing each others as the noises and concerns overlap and filter through the echoing gallery space. As good work does, this grouping will also stay with me, in my memory. The more time I spent with it the stronger the connections like dark matter (the connective tissue that binds the universe together) became. I often think of artwork and artists as stars in a night sky, appearing slowly, blinking independently, millions of miles apart, but when seen from a distance with sight lines, an image appears, a strange and new constellation. A myth is formed to tell a story. This story they are telling is one insisting on transformation and spiritual presence. It is palpable in the traces of their work which they walked in the door and left here.

 

Perhaps, if we could open a window.

 

Susan Bickford
Associate Graduate Faculty for the Intermedia Graduate Program, University of Maine
Citizen of the artist world
susanbickfordinteractive.com

 

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