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AFFECTS OF GRAVITY @ THE TOPSFIELD FAIR

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By MATTHEW NASH

On rainy days like these, Gravitron looks colorized -- his lights, a fake smile

in the dismal afternoon. No matter how he tries to make real for himself the sense that there are

other state fairs, that there have to be other Gravitrons out there, he is alone,
wants a little Gravitron of his own. He feels the riders gestate inside him and pretends that when

they disembark, they will be imparted with something permanent. Time is too
little to claim; being born is virtually the same as not being born. When he contemplates the

riders' temporariness, they go still. He is afraid to stop spinning; the barker is
guessing everyone's weight. Gravitron is always right: zero lbs.

Chris Tonelli, "Carriage" from For People Who Like Gravity and Other People.

As America's oldest agricultural fair, the annual Topsfield Fair is a celebration of farming, community, arts & crafts, and rural America. Each pavilion presents the diverse creative achievements of many different people, from flower arranging to sheep shearing, pumpkin decorating to basket displays. The region's largest pumpkin is on view, as are the best tomatoes, garlic bulbs and chickens. There is a whole pavilion dedicated to arts and crafts, with blue ribbons for the best paintings, photographs, quilts and afghans. There is no shortage of creativity on display in Topsfield.
Yet, much of the nature of the displays is based in categorization, of meeting some type of expectation, and fitting within a certain boundary. The pavilions promote and reward creativity, but they also contain it, implying that the experiences of the midway are of another sort. The rides offer cheap thrills while the vendors serve up great food, but these are intended as a very different form of entertainment experience. This dichotomy, more than anything else, is what was so fascinating about the project Affects of Gravity this past weekend on the midway of the Topsfield Fair.

Poet Chris Tonelli and artist/activist Andi Sutton teamed up to create a work that would surprise its audience by bringing art and poetry to an unexpected venue, and found a perfect collaborator in the ride called Gravitron. That Tonelli's new chapbook of poetry is titled For People Who Like Gravity And Other People (Rope-A-Dope Press, 2010) may have made the pairing obvious does not change the fact that it is still surprising to hear about, much less experience, poetry and sound art installed in a carnival ride designed to make you dizzy.

The experience of good poetry, when presented by a commanding reader, can be very moving. As creator of the So And So Series of poetry readings, Tonelli has the ability to master a room, to move an audience with his words. Inside the Gravitron, his poems become wholly transformed, its words spoken as if by the ride itself, its power derived from the gravity of poetic meaning as well as the gravity of centrifugal force.

In stark contrast, Sutton's soundscapes made from field recordings of the midway feel almost as if the world outside the Gravitron, the world left behind when the door slammed closed and there was nothing but the padded interior of the ride, has become amplified. The midway becomes an abstraction, something in the distant past, the sounds of the real midway mingling with the audio recordings to create something that is both like memory and history.

Here I must admit that my experience of Affects Of Gravity was different than most who experienced it. As I climbed into the ride and settled onto the padded wall, I was joined by my friends Colin Tracy, who once played in a band with Tonelli, and Kanarinka, who has worked closely with Sutton. Thus, we were prepared to pay more attention to the poetry than the kids around us. And they were all kids, talking loudly, full of sugar and giddy with a day at the fair. They could not have cared less about the poetry and sound recordings, and Colin even noted how they seemed to be trying to drown out the sounds by stamping their feet.

Yet, when the ride started to spin and there was nothing but the whir of the motors, the sound of the recordings and the pull of gravity, something seemed to change. Tonelli's voice, the voice of the Gravitron, spoke with authority. The machine demanded our attention, pulled at us and spoke to us at the same time. For that brief period, the length of one midway ride, our small group of artists and children understood the Gravitron in a way that I doubt any of us will understand any other carnival ride.

NO. 6

Gravitron is having one of those days where he feels like an absolute genius.
Each revolution less redundant than the last. He thinks of Pollock and de Kooning and how, like

them, he can’t imagine doing anything else. He is inventing an entirely new
circle. Gravitron wonders though, if say Franz Kline ever woke up wanting to paint a colorful

meadow. Because sometimes Gravitron wishes he were vertical and could
spin slowly, like the Ferris Wheel. Wants people to hold hands, fall in love, enjoy the view. But

when the switch is thrown and the electricity courses through his wires, any
doubt as to his lot in life is suppressed—Gravitron heads for a speed that separates everyone,

makes even The Fat Lady weightless.

When things slowed down and the door was opened, I heard the kids talking back to the Gravitron, responding to his voice, some annoyed, others curious. Perhaps they thought of it as part of the ride, something that played for every rider, an experience they could re-create over and over by purchasing more tickets. Or, perhaps they sensed that today was unique, that they were the lucky few who stumbled upon this moment of art in an unexpected place. Perhaps they wandered off, momentarily unsure that art was something that a pavilion could contain.


"Affects of Gravity" was on view October 2-4, 2009 inside the Gravitron at the Topsfield Fair.

All images are by the author.
Poems reproduced with permission.


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About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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