Monday, November 16, 2015

The Commission 2016

Begun three years ago as a way to showcase VCCA Fellows' work and demonstrate exactly what VCCA does, The Commission presents a major site-specific collaborative work by at least two artists from the three disciplines (literature, visual art, musical composition) VCCA fosters.

The first Commission, Bright Shiny Me (2013), brought together visual artist Maja Spasova (London, Berlin) and composer Luis Hilario Arévalo (Mexico City). The 40 foot-square piece was made up of 1,600 mirrors secured to metal spikes. Loudspeakers produced a low frequency sound similar to a heartbeat, created by Arévalo, which caused the mirrors to move fracturing and reflecting light.

Coming to Know What We’ve Always KnownThe Commission 2014 took inspiration from the glorious natural surroundings of Central Virginia. Created by visual artist Georgia June Goldberg (Ross, CA) and poet Sally Dawidoff (Berkeley, CA), the piece combined 150 saplings painted bright green that were planted across the landscape like living trees. As the viewer walked through the installation, motion sensors at the base of each tree activated hidden speakers so that Dawidoff could be heard reading her poem.

Visual artist Brice Brown (New York, NY) and composer, Alan Shockley (Lakewood, CA) won the 2015 Commission commission with their Glass and Bridle, Pomegranate and Pears: On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union (pictured)A site-specific work combining sound, performance, sculpture, printing and painting, Glass and Bridle, Pomegranate and Pears: On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union draws on themes related to the history of nearby Free Union, Virginia, namely its founding by a freed blacksmith slave named Nick.

Modular units organized the space like a kind of maze through which The Commission guests could wander while experiencing a shifting sonic and visual landscape. Each of these modular units was composed of two 4’ x 8’ wood frames that were connected at a 45° angle. The surfaces of the frames were charred in the Shou-sugi-ban style, giving them a luminous black color. Hanging from the center of the frames were printed/hand-painted textiles featuring imagery derived from The Batsford Colour Book of Roses as well as 19th-century etchings of alchemical processes. These images created a landscape within a landscape, and referenced the transformation from one state of being to another—from potential to fully realized form—inherent in the blacksmithing process. In the middle of this maze was a special 4-panel unit containing a live sound performance.

Contained within each modular structure, an mp3 speaker played an independent piece of music, which, when combined with all the other pieces of music in each pod, created an overlapping sonic composition for the viewer. The individual musical works featured electronically manipulated sounds with various source materials connected to the story of Free Union. Sounds of a blacksmith’s shop and of local birds and insects, the sounds of wind and water all figured prominently. Several of the sound modules projected works created by reductively processing and fragmenting material from a handful of American shape note hymns. The original hymns are ones that would’ve been part of life in Free Union at its founding, but the new compositions were much more spacious, empty and still.

The live performance featured Shockley playing a Native American bass flute, a lap steel guitar, and various melodicas and small instruments, along with a laptop computer running Max/MSP for the live electronic manipulation of the sounds generated by all of these instruments. This performance worked with the very same source materials as all of the other sound components, making for a non-discursive, interactive sonic environment, which, with many of its sounds coming from nature made for a sound world that is always part inside, part outside, part music, and part natural environment.

The title of the installation references the tradition of still life painting, where titles are often formed of simple lists of the objects depicted. Its length is characteristic of 18th century titles (the era from which some of the musical materials were drawn), and also referenced the organic images that inform the sound modules’ fabric walls. The title also links with the story and background of the town of Free Union, as well as the ephemeral and collaborative nature of the installation.

Part vernissage, part rollicking good time, VCCA’s The Commission is a major event on the art and social scenes of central Virginia and beyond. This year the event will be held at the timeless and beautiful Pharsalia on May 14, 2016. 

An 1814 plantation built by Thomas Massie for his son William as a wedding present, Pharsalia is located in the fertile Tye River Valley and sits on the shoulder of DePriest Mountain in Nelson County, Virginia. At its height, Pharsalia’s working farm was part of a family owned tract in excess of 10,000 acres. Crops and products produced at Pharsalia included Wheat, Hops, Tobacco, Potatoes, Apples, Cranberries, and Smoked and Cured Bacon and Hams. In addition to the original family smokehouse still on the site today, a large commercial smokehouse was operated for the commercial exportation of specialty hams by bateaux. The smokehouse from William Massie’s father’s home, Level Green, also graces Pharsalia today. It was disassembled and moved to the property in early 2000 for complete renovation. 
Nearby Massie’s Mill and Tyro Mill were large mills built and operated by the Massie family for the commercial production and exportation of fine wheat flours to Europe and Northern and Western American markets. Still in private hands, Pharsalia is quite simply one of the most beautiful properties in Virginia.

For specifics:

Corinne Teed's Poetic Explorations of the Marginalized, Both Human and Animal

Corinne Teed’s Feral Utopias is a multi-channel animation that uses cross-species affinities to explore parallels between the alienation faced by LGBTQ people and that faced by animals. Both of these groups are “struggling to find a sense of home in a human society that has repeatedly communicated to us that we are unwanted.”

Corinne continues, “There’s a whole field of study in critical theory called Queer Ecology that greatly influences my work. While I am interested in breaking down the boundary between human and non-human animals and what those distinctions mean, I am particularly interested in the perspectives of marginalized human communities on ecological issues.”

In Feral Utopias, Corinne pairs photographs of LGBTQ subjects with audio recordings of these participants describing the animal species that provides them with a sense of home. “The interviews were completely unscripted,” says Corinne. “I thought the project participants would have something interesting to say, but I was incredibly surprised at how strongly people responded to the questions. It wasn’t difficult for them to answer and they had significant emotional and intellectual responses to it. So the process itself was really rewarding. I got a lot more out of it than I expected.”

Following is an excerpt from Vanessa’s Feral Utopias statement: “I chose the sea turtle mostly because their home is always with them. I am half Filipino and it wasn’t until I was 25 that I got to return to the Philippines as an adult. Flying all the way across the oceans to the Philippines was an incredible journey. Before I went, I thought maybe I would fit in. I thought, maybe this is the home I have been looking for, maybe this will really resonate. That was so far from the case. I only felt so much more othered. And then I returned home to realize that I feel othered here as well.”

The figures appear and fade away within a fairy tale landscape composed of scans of 19th century etchings. Corinne is drawn to early images of the North American landscape. “I like taking historical sources and turning them on their head. I’m very curious about this particular time in both landscape photography and etchings because of how they reveal the construction of nature and the wild as patriarchal domains. This era of photography greatly influenced the belief of human dominion over nature. And so it feels important to use this source for the imagery.” Corinne created the animations of the subjects with photographic stills shot in the studio. She employed an entirely different technique to create the movement of the clouds that drift lazily across the sky. All these various components work together to produce a visually rich piece that manages to look both antique and contemporary. 

Because Corinne is after an immersive experience, she presents her animations within the larger framework of an installation. Feral Utopias featured an inset in the entrance doorway that forced the viewer to crouch down in order to enter. Wallpaper made from the same etchings used in the animation covered the inset and surround sound ensured the kind of deeper experience Corinne sought. Corinne also made a letterpress pamphlet that visitors could take home, which included summaries of participants’ stories with letterpressed images of the participants.

At VCCA, Corinne was working on a new animation, centering on wolves. She first became interested in wolves during a Signal Fire Residency in eastern Oregon. The wolf population in that state is fragile, numbering just under 70. As paltry as this sounds, this is an improvement from the 1970s, when northern Minnesota and Michigan were the only continental areas that had packs. Until recently, Oregon and Washington were the only states that had protected wolf populations. As of November 9th, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to remove the gray wolf from the state’s endangered species list.

In a switch from her normal practice, Corinne was working on the images first; usually she starts with the sound. She had a few tracks recorded during a workshop for children in Iowa, “Lost Wolves: Remembering Our Past Neighbors”. Corinne explained, “In Iowa, wolves have been exterminated since 1925 and so we discussed the history of their extermination and our desires to cohabitate with them again. The kids made giant renderings of wolves and then I recorded them in conversation with the wolves. I asked them, ‘If you could speak to the wolves, what would you want to tell them?’”

Several prints she had made of wolves were hung on the walls of her studio. Each of them seemed curiously bisected by a white void. The prints were made using images of trophy hunters holding up their kill; yet Corinne only rendered the wolf, leaving an empty space where the hunter clutches the wolf. Corinne explains her research into human and wolf relationship, saying “There’s this incredibly loving side to the spectrum of human relationship with wolves and respect for wolves—they’re a lot like us and many people and cultures revere them,” she says. “But then there’s another side to the spectrum that’s a deep hatred. People kill them in ways akin to hate crimes. I respect the concerns many ranchers have about wolves killing their livestock. (The U.S. government now pays for any animal killed by wolves—a pretty common strategy in countries that are trying to re-populate wolves). However, I don’t understand the vitriol of some wolf hunters and I am trying to both expose it and interrupt it.”