The Beat Nation exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery takes up an entire floor of the museum. It is a BIG exhibition. It will take a series of posts to cover it in any detail. The short video clip above shows a piece by artist Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq artist from Newfoundland. Bennet has several works in the exhibition. This particular piece, Turning Tables (2010), is a sound installation made of walnut, spruce, oak, and electronic components. As you will see from the video clip, the turntables actually turn and generate. Only one turntable was in operation during the video recording. The needle seems to pick up patterns in the wood surface, providing a rhythmic hiss and pop. The group exhibition ties together music and contemporary aboriginal art, so the overall soundscape is significant. Bennett’s contribution to the audio aura is subtle – the comparatively quiet installation entices people to walk the length of the gallery to approach it and listen closely. The second turntable plays the sound of the artist practicing Mi’kmaq language lessons, but it only operated intermittently during the opening events on February 24-25, 2011.
While I work on writing about Vestige Vagabond, a performance by artists Maria Hupfield and Charlene Vickers performed at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art last weekend, I thought I would share a four-minute podcast by students from The Evergreen State College. My thoughts are with Maria Hupfield and her family in NYC as hurricane Irene heads in that direction.
Last year, Maria Hupfield’s installation work Double Tripod Inverters was part of the exhibition titled It’s Complicated: Art about Home at The Evergreen State College Gallery in Olympia, Washington. Several academic programs used the exhibition as the taking-off point for assignments for students. The video above was created as a podcast by first-year students Joe, Alex, and Jesse. This was a project they completed in five weeks. The team of students viewed the artwork by Maria Hupfield in the art gallery, researched the artist’s career, devised interview questions and corresponded with her, wrote and recorded voice-over narration, edited a digital recording sent by the artist, and selected images to accompany the audio track. They began the project with no previous training in art or podcasting, just a desire to better understand an artwork they found interesting. The college’s excellent media staff made it possible for these students to learn the technology and quickly put it into practice.
If you would like to download this student podcast or others from the exhibition, please visit http://blogs.evergreen.edu/visionsandvoices/ and follow the download instructions.
Santa Clara Pueblo artist Roxanne Swentzell has been working on “Mud Woman Rolls On” at the Denver Art Museum since January of this year (2011). The sculpture is nearly finished at this point, but she is scheduled to continue work on it during public museum hours on August 16th and 17th. It’s almost your last chance to get to see the artist at work. The 10 x 11 x 5 foot sculpture of a storyteller figure is made from fired and unfired clay. To see it for yourself, go the third floor in the North Wing of the Denver Art Museum. “Mud Woman Rolls On” is near the elevators.
While I sat in the gallery, numerous visitors came through the space and talked about their previous visits and the progress they had seen made over the months. It was great to see so many people were making return visits and speaking with each other about their experience of the artistic process.
See this artwork before the exhibition closes on March 31st, 2011! Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe.
A lot has happened in the world since my last posting on Not Artomatic. There was the usual problem of working too much. But a lot has gone on in the world, too – Egypt, Syria, Libya, Japan. It has felt rather like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with a new event every two weeks or so. I say that from the perspective of someone who was a high school senior in 1990. Something changed in the world then – I saw it on television, and there was intense emotion on a massive scale, but no real understanding of what might come afterward. My high-schooler imagination was excited, but I lacked the knowledge, the perspective to really understand much of it. Twenty-one years later, I find that hasn’t changed much! I swirled around news sources that didn’t even exist back then, looking for information, understanding, answers. I also swirled around my memories of conversations with artist John Feodorov about his new series of work, titled Emergence. I wanted to write about this series, but kept finding something in the way. First, I told myself it was because I need to be more academic and I need good research on Navajo cosmology and the Emergence concept. I did research, and had trouble coming up with an explanatory, non-Eurocentric (yet possessing academic authority) source. Unlike many religions, Navajo religion does not proselytize.
But the artist’s conversations with me made it clear that this structuring worldview was very important. On a gut-level, I’ve been tying that in with the cascade of events in the Middle East, recent devastating earthquakes, the tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. The Christian paradigm of apocalypse does not seem to help us deal with widespread change, whether that change is natural disaster, environmental disaster, or political collapse. For human cultures to survive, we have to have cultural foundations that help us recover from disaster and create some kind of order from entirely new conditions. I think that’s what appealed to me about looking at Feodorov’s Emergence series.
Any of you who are reading this who are writers (and I’m sure you all are writers, even if you don’t think of yourself that way) are familiar with something we end up calling “writer’s block.” I don’t think it really exists. When my mind ducks away from writing something, there is usually a reason. Often, it is because I still need to think/feel my way through an issue and writing sometimes isn’t the best way to do so. Sometimes, making art helps me figure things out and then I can get back to the writing. Other times, words from another person (in conversation, e-mail, a song, Facebook) help me make a connection I was missing. And then here is something that floors me every time it happens. I occasionally get stalled because I ALREADY WROTE THE WORDS I NEEDED. The text in the section below is from an early blog post I wrote called “What is so important about Native American Art.”
“Indigenous populations have experienced multiple migrations, population losses, and recoveries. The conceptual unification of oral tradition and the production of material culture contextualize this history and provide us with models for survivance that are useful not only to our indigenous communities, but perhaps to the population at large during this current period of change marked by serious […] upheaval.
We still have the stories and songs of when we arrived in our Tlingit homeland, over 10,000 years ago, not only the stories of how we got to where we are now, but the stories of the people who had to sacrifice along the way. Part of our stories have to do with the sacrifices by clan mothers in order to get where we needed to be.
- Larry McNeil
Such stories help us contextualize present issues. Our artforms give us the tools we need to cope with change, to be resilient, to make conscious choices that consider the long term. Thinking seven generations ahead requires imagination! Art is more than a reaction to events in our lives; artistic practice also leads to real-world changes.
In very practical ways, indigenous artistic practices lead to involvement in environmental issues.” All of this has been leading into actually addressing Feodorov’s Emergence, series in reference to the Navajo cultural framework that describes their origins as a people who have passed through a series of worlds or existences, with each new world arising from the out-of-balance destruction of the previous one. The organizing principles, spiritual forces, and sacred terrain are different with each new emergence.
I always think it is important to pay attention to artists’ own statements about their work, as you will know from reading my writing in general. The following is John Feodorov’s exhibition statement, which was prominently placed at the entrance to his exhibition:
In 1979, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in USA history happened in Church Rock in the state of New Mexico. A tailing dam burst, sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring toward Arizona into the Rio Puerco River. Today, the Navajo communities still cannot use the water.” *
According to a Sept. 23, 2010 article in Indian Country Today, “The New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court this month to reverse the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. […] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted Hydro Resources, Inc. a license to mine uranium in Crownpoint and Church Rock.”
According to the Associated Press, 11/17/2010: “Supreme Court justices Monday decided not to review a decision that allows Hydro Resources Inc. to leach-mine uranium at the aquifer used by 15,000 Navajos in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas.”
The works in this room explore the transformation of environmental tragedy into possible new mythologies. This is the basis of the Navajo creation myth–one world’s destruction is another’s creation. With the acknowledgement by most scientists that our global climate is heating up, and with the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, many people admit a sense of helplessness and even resignation. To be honest, I sometimes find myself among them and this ambivalence is reflected within this recent body of work. While watching the continuous live video feed of the BP oil well freely spewing into the Gulf, I couldn’t help but think of the Navajo creation story where animals, insects and gods climbed a magic reed, like the fabled Jack and his beanstalk, from the Third World into our current Fourth World to escape annihilation. I kept thinking of that leaking pipe as another “reed” in which spirits embedded deep within the Earth were now emerging into our world, like medieval demons charging through the mouth of Hell, or red ants marching towards unsuspecting picnickers.
With the Oil well now capped, it is easy for us to fall back into our daily routines. I hope this doesn’t happen. As demonstrated above, environmental pollution and exploitation continues to this day. Since we don’t seem to learn from the past, it might be a good idea for us to start looking around for another magic reed. * (Excerpted from “Pollution of the Navajo Nation Lands” a paper by Kimberly Smith of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, presented August 2007 at the United Nations International Expert Group Meeting On Indigenous Peoples And Protection Of The Environment, which took place in Khabarovsk, Russian Federation. This meeting was hosted by the Government of Khabarovsk, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON) in the Russian Federation.)”
Feodorov’s words (above) take on even more relevance in relationship to the current revisiting of nuclear policy going on worldwide as a result of the containment problems at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. What about the work itself?
Rani Molla wrote a review of the exhibition for the Santa Fe Reporter, which is worth reading. Molla closes with this statement:
“The fifth world—entered through a sooty smokestack and in which we teddy bears are still defined by the items we buy—would already be dismal. Perhaps the point is that there is no fifth world—just this one, and it’s a scary place.”
I was terribly disappointed with that statement. I didn’t think it was all that dismal. I found humor, irony, sarcasm, in many of the pieces, yes. There also seemed to be a cautionary aspect, too. If we don’t shift some core values, we’ll end up placing our power-generating capacity (and the corporations involved) into a position of deity-like power over us. I’m probably a bit too used to Feodorov’s work to look at it with fresh eyes. He’s been using the Teddy Bear as a symbolic element to his work since the beginning of his career as an artist. The open-mouthed profile view of a human head is also repeated element in his 2D work. Sometimes the open mouth represents a scream, desperation, pain. Other times, it represents speech, breath, a connection to the sacred.
Maybe Molla and other reviewers are right – Emergence is about dystopia instead of future potential. I keep asking myself how the work would have to be different in order to present a new mythology to help us feel our way into a Fifth World. What is the middle ground between naïve hopefulness and dystopic vision? Can the video feed, the antenna, the open-mouthed communication, the apotheosis of the stuffed bear, the grinding of candy corn, combine to show us the world we already live in? Is Emergence really about the Fourth World? And can we really leave that world behind us? Can we alter those patterns in the next order of things? Does Feodorov need to show us a Fifth World that is better than the current state? I’m not sure I could set my own skepticism aside for that.
If you have the chance to go see this work – say you’re in Santa Fe at some point during the next two days – take a look at Emergence. See if you can find hope, despair, and a questioning of the “natural order.” I think I did.
 And by television, I mean I saw it on all three networks, with rabbit ear antennas, when we were amazed that the new tv had a digital display of 1-99. All the channels were fuzz once we tuned it beyond channel 13. My family did not get cable television until after I left home.
 The exhibition is at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It closes 3/31/2011. See it right away if you can!
 Larry McNeil, comments from the panel “Migration, Relocation and the Diaspora,” during the Creation – Migration – Change convening, February 2009.
 Wall text by John Feodorov, accompanying the Emergence exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM January 14 – March 31, 2011.
 Rani Molla, “Emergency: Emergence Shows the Environment in Dire Straits,” The Santa Fe Reporter, January 19, 2011. http://sfreporter.com/santafe/print-article-5863-print.html
 I wrote a short essay as part of MoCNA/IAIA’s Vision Project and specifically address the symbolism of the Teddy Bear in popular culture and how Feodorov uses it in his work. This essay is not yet published. I will update this footnote after the publication is available to the public.
One of the current exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe right now is a selection of recent works created in response to the history of Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), an early Mohawk-Algonquian convert to Christianity. She is beatified by the Catholic church and is in the process of canonization. I will be writing more about this exhibition and other work currently on exhibition at MoCNA – but time runs short! I took a brief segment of video of Marcella Ernest’s video installation work and wanted to make that available sooner, rather than later. The full video is four minutes long and is projected on a screen of pasted-together pages from a bible. I only have 30 seconds of it in the video above. It’s worth viewing in person. If you stand close to the screen, you can easily read the biblical passages. This work deals with Kateri’s physical disfigurement from smallpox scars and her exercise of physical mortification as part of her devotion to her new religion.
The works in Soul Sister examine the complexity of responses to Kateri Tekakwitha, from analytical to devotional.
To see the work in person, visit the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe.
The performance begins to the sound of rain and occasional thunder, plus the white noise of the industrial air circulation in the space, and the footfalls of passersby.”Sneak” carries a cloud from the end with the blue fabric (sea) to the end with the tan fabric (island). Johnson’s “Sneak” persona wears men’s trousers, a white button-down oxford shirt, a men’s hat, moccasins, and the tail-end of a coyote pelt peaking out from under the oxford shirt. She wears big honkin sunglasses under that hat, too. Sneak carries the clouds from one end to the other and a cascade of blue seed-beads falls out onto the tan fabric island. Once the clouds are emptied, Sneak meticulously tries to gather the rain back into the clouds to transport them back to the blue (water) area.
The performance lasted 30 minutes. In the photo above, some audience members take a closer look at the final configuration of objects. The performance space was in the very large entryway that is the common pathway to get to the library and the computer lab. Students with huge stacks of books halted to watch for as long as their arms could take the weight of the books. Someone with a service dog stopped for about 10 minutes. Her dog was really eyeing that coyote tail. No one spoke – a space that is ordinarily loud with voices and footsteps was hushed and even reverent.
Artist Merritt Johnson is based in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches at Emily Carr. Her website is www.merrittjohnson.com
Artist Merritt Johnson is performing Clouds Live Where in the main entry area of the Library Building at The Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA) Friday November 12th at 5:30 – 6:00 pm. . Johnson’s paintings and mixed media work are on display down the hall in the college’s gallery as part of the exhibition It’s Complicated – Art about Home. There will be a brief curator’s talk in the gallery beforehand…starting at 5pm. Johnson’s performance this Friday takes the ideas present in her paintings: observations about boundaries created by humans, patterns of movement of wind, water, animal migrations – and moves those ideas into action in a physical space.
For more information on Merritt Johnson’s work and it’s relationship to the theme of home, you can click on the file below. It will open in a goofy tiny little window and will play the enhanced podcast (audio with still images). Better yet, download the file and play it through iTunes or your iPod-like device. This podcast was created by Evergreen students in the program Visions and Voices. They did their research, made a storyboard, and learned multiple software programs in a five week period!
Please try clicking the link above… this is new technology/file format for me. I am lookinig for a better way of including m4a files on my blog.
There have been a number of requests for installation views of the exhibition opening at The Evergreen State College’s Gallery tonight (5-8pm, TESC campus in Olympia, Washington). The photo above is a tease… you’ll have to do some serious “looking” inside the gallery to find this view.
This clip lets you hear the audio component of Postcommodity’s If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, The the Shape of Arrow is Changing (2010) now at MoCNA in Santa Fe. I wrote in-depth about this piece in Collisions of Art and Science. You can also read about Postcommodity’s exhibition “It wasn’t the Dream of the Golden Cities” at The End of Being.
ART LEADS TO DATA?
Sometimes, the combination of art and science creates great art. Other times…well, not so much. We don’t usually think of art creating great science. The reason for that might be that the role of aesthetics (yeah, art) in presenting scientific data is well-masked. In order for scientific data to be believable, the aesthetic decisions about how to present the data are usually obscured. Some artists embark on projects that look a lot like a science experiment, such as a piece recently featured in the New York Times. Brooklyn artist Elizabeth Demaray constructed an ant habitat and presented the ants with a fast food diet. As the article states, she picked a type of ant very unlikely to be able to adapt to a fast food diet. I puzzled over the article… lodged in the “Science” section of the paper. Here is a link to the article, which includes a photograph of the work installed in the gallery. It seemed like bad science to me – and unfair to the ants. (Many of the ants died, unable to adapt to anything but the sesame seeds on the buns and the questionable interiors of chicken nuggets). Is it possible for this experiment to produce useful data? And does it work as a piece of art? Neither question is addressed in the NY Times article. In terms of science, the artist picked the wrong type of ant. But if she wanted to make the point that fast food is bad for humans, as demonstrated by visual evidence that not even ants can live off of it, then one could consider the work successful. I’ll go out on a limb though and say that my opinion is that it is mediocre art in terms of the content and bad science, as well as ethically questionable. Other species of ants could have survived quite well within Demaray’s Corpor Esurit, but the meaning of the piece would have been a bit muddled. The presentation of the work in the gallery looks very visually interesting, at least in these photographs generously provided by the gallery. Take my judgement here with a grain of salt… I’d have to go see the work in person to really have an informed opinion. Maybe some of you in New York can go look at it and report back… (see comments).
DATA LEADS TO ART?
Demaray’s piece produces data that we are supposed to see with our own eyes. However, another method is to make work based on already existing data that has then been visually interpreted by the artist, unveiling relationships between art and science. According to my limited research, the term for this is “data visualization.” Aaron Koblin, for example, has created artworks based on visual representations of data, such as calls and internet data between New York City and the rest of the world. The emphasis is usually visual, although there are examples of works that translate data into audio forms. Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey collaborated on an audio piece called Bicycle Built for 2000. It’s worth visiting the site and clicking on “more info” for a fuller explanation of that piece. The song “Daisy Bell” was the first piece of digitally synthesized vocal music (1962). You might also remember it as the song that HAL sings in the final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They had over 2000 people record themselves singing a small snippet of the song and then assembled each snippet into overlapping audio data. If you visit the artists’ website, you will note that there is a visual component to the piece, not just the audio file all on its own. I looked online for something about a project done by tree canopy scientist Nalini Nadkarni, but couldn’t find anything about it. I saw her give a talk about her work and she presented a project that she worked on with a musician, in which they transformed tree canopy data into audio representations instead of the more usual graphs, pie charts, etc.
DATA leads to ART leads to SOUND/SPACE/AUDIENCE… leads to POSTCOMMODITY
All of this leads me to one of the new works by the artists’ collective Postcommodity, on exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MOCNA) in Santa Fe. Postcommodity is a four-person team of artists: Raven Chacon (Navajo), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Laguna/Navajo) and Nathan Young (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee). Their selection of works in the exhibition (curated by Ryan Rice) is titled “It wasn’t the Dream of the Golden Cities,” a reference to the 400 year anniversary of Santa Fe, and the rumored existence, according to Spanish, of seven cities of gold that lead Spanish conquistadors to the region repeatedly. Friar Marcos de Niza reported glimpsing one of the cities from afar. But when Coronado arrived, there was no gold – only adobe pueblos. After 140 years of violence and abuse by the Spanish and the church, the pueblos revolted against Spanish control and had years of autonomy between 1680-1696. All this is background knowledge that is necessary to understand Postcommodity’s work in this exhibition. The particular piece that I’m writing about in relationship to science, data, and sonification is the multimedia installation piece titled If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, then the Shape of the Arrowhead is Changing. This installation is in a room 29′ x 16′ and has 8 monitors mounted on narrow pillars roughly chest-high around the room, plus a hidden subwoofer. Everything in the room is painted with gold paint. Walking down the hall toward the room, you hear a cacophony of sound. Entering the room, you feel it as well. Different tones emit from speakers in different parts of the room. You turn around in the space, trying to separate out these digital tones, to catch where precisely they are coming from. My dad was with me on one of my trips into the room. He absolutely hated the piece and couldn’t leave fast enough. The auditory experience is pretty unpleasant…even more so for someone with tinnitus, like my dad. He wanted to check it out more, but couldn’t take it. But that’s pretty much the point. The piece is intended to represent an ambush – a situation any reasonable person would want to get away from. If it were just an unpleasant sound installation, I would say the piece was a gimmick and would put it in the category of yet another work art that seeks to punish the audience (not that we don’t sometimes need a good punishing). However, the science, theory, and collaboration behind the piece is what is intriguing and is what brings the piece beyond a simple surround-sound extravaganza.
There is an interesting field called cymatics that works on visualizing sound by vibrating sand or water. Here is a link to a video of Evan Grant explaining cymatics. It’s a way of making sound visible. I searched for a term for the opposite transformation… the transformation of the physical into sound, but couldn’t find one. What Postcommodity is doing is basically reverse-cymatics. Kade Twist says that the correct term would be sonification. Postcommodity takes data on the hypothetical trajectory, velocity, and impact energy of four pueblo weapons at the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and turns that data into sound. The wall text (and gallery guide) describe the piece this way:
“The sound and multimedia installation If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, The the Shape of Arrow is Changing (2010) is a sonic ambush utilizing four Pueblo Revolt era weapons (bow and arrow, atlatl and dart, sling and rock, and war club). We have performed a ballistic analysis for each weapon that includes all potential impact points within the gallery, providing a comprehensive mathematical analysis of multiple ambush scenarios. From this data algorithms were derived to inform sound compositions specific to each weapon. The result is a dynamic and interactive installation entirely informed by the inherent physical, cultural, and intermediary properties of each weapon. The sound filling the room becomes the medium for the weapons themselves to physically engage and envelop audiences.”
The sound is directional… with sound emanating from the position where the weapon would land… if it didn’t hit YOU first.
In a public talk at MoCNA, Postcommodity described the origin of the idea as coming out of reading the book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) by Manuel de Landa, heavily influenced by Foucault, plus Deleuze and the idea of the machinic phyllum. This piece introduces the idea in a physically challenging way. Kade Twist wrote to me that If History Moves… “is also influenced by the writing of Paul Virilio (Speed and Politics). He came up with the idea that history and the rationalization of temporal relationships within a particular society/civilization moves at the speed of its weapons — we culturally rationalize velocity through our weapons systems — in this context we are looking at the velocity, or dromological difference of the two clashing civilizations and analyzing the indigenous cultural identity and worldview embedded in the weapons systems.” So how did Postcommodity convert those weapons systems into sound? Twist says “We used the computer code written in Max/MSP that was written byCristóbal Martínez. Each weapon was assigned a specific tone: sine tone (war club), triangle tone (bow and arrow), saw tone (rock and sling) and square tone (atlatl and spear). These are the fundamental sound waves from which all sound is comprised.” Rather than have a completely arbitrary or purely aesthetic criteria for selecting the audible tones, Postcommodity’s team selected sounds whose forms, revealed by cymatics, had some symbolic relationship with the forms of spear, arrow, rock, and club.
UPDATE: Listen to the audio embedded in this updated post: LISTENING TO THE AMBUSH
This piece is a cerebral romance between art, technology, history, colonialism, and counter-colonialism. The big romance is between art and science, with the four artists from Postcommodity collaborating with composer/media artist Cristóbal Martínez and scientist Andrew McCord, who performed the mathematical analysis and physics modeling of the weapons. And where the romance turns gritty and real is in the audience’s own physical relationship to the piece. Positioning a mathematical model of an ambush using pueblo weapons in a gallery puts the audience in the position of vulnerability and culpability. The piece would seem to push the audience into imagining themselves as the Spanish attacked in the Pueblo Revolt. Yet it is in a gallery, in a setting that reminds museum-goers of that violent past and the injustices to which the Pueblo peoples were subjected. Who exactly are we rooting for in this ambush? Surrounded by false gold, in the midst of Indian Art Market, tangible white guilt, romanticism, and earnest desires to make a better future, If History Moves… gives the audience the chance to identify with the power of the “conquered” and the weaknesses of the conquerors. And the conquerors are all of us living today.
Nathan Young had some important words that I’d like to close with:
We didn’t have a dream of these golden cities. That’s not why we are here. It’s not necessarily the Spanish’s fault, or gold’s fault. It could have been anybody. It’s the market.
For more on Postcommodity, please see this previous post: Photo Essay: Day 4 of My Blood is in the Water.
Here are links to other articles about this piece:
 The Museum of Contemporary Native Art made an audio recording of Postcommodity’s public talk. They plan to make the audio tracks available via their website sometime this fall. I will include the link here when it is released.