Last Friday night the Berwick Research Institute hosted an open studio for their AIR (Artists in Research) residents, Pam Larson and Morgan Schwartz. It was a rare and valuable opportunity to chat with artists about their works in progress, and reminds us how unique and necessary the Berwick is to the Boston community. As for the art under review . . .
Larson’s sweet project relating nature and technology is developing as planned, but could do with some more rigorous examination. On Friday Larson tested her proposal to interrogate the relationships we have to nature. She handed out business cards that only had a phone number typed on the back. For those who chose to dial, crickets, leaves falling, birds walking, silence, answered and the subsequent conversation was open-ended and able to morph in endless directions, all dependent on the caller. In that respect, it is the caller who creates: conversations, listening exercises, confused mixtures of the two. This gives participants an unusual degree of creative agency – often a process that artists protectively coddle. On the other hand, because (well, in the future) we will come across the cards in non-art-specific settings such as shops and restaurants, the first step in the viewer-artist-artwork chain denies us all agency. As opposed to traditional viewing settings, where viewers choose to enter into an art context, artistic assumptions are not the norm upon entering a restaurant or clothing store. Larson allows art – or the possibility of art – therefore to interrupt other banal, quotidian events, and in these small moments of intrusion, Larson’s role as artist becomes apparent.
Throughout the entire process, however, nature is an innocent bystander, once again intruded on by human dominion. It appears to be a benevolent intrusion, and in this perhaps we can find comfort; although, we are still using nature for our own ends -- nature’s presence and sounds provide us with the pensive and still moments we may need for reflection about our urban existence. Not surprisingly, Larson’s piece is colored by a modicum of nostalgia for nature, placing it on a pedestal of sorts, attributing it with powers akin to those that heal and soothe the dirty urban soul. The quiet yearning, the edenic simplicity on the other end of the phone, it is important to remember, is of our own creation.
As it presently stands, the as yet untitled piece is akin to a teasing gesture, a hint of something that, if developed in all its intricacy, could be a profound statement about “how we perceive and understand nature” (the artist’s words). If, however, Larson allows the project to rest on its bittersweet nostalgia and feel-good laurels, then it will remain a lovely idea tinged by the melancholy of what could have been.
Morgan Schwartz’s Whether/Weather inspired a more troubled and considerate debate. In this project Schwartz asks people to participate in an act of ritual and release. After writing comments on a card, participants tether their thoughts to a balloon and release the two together. If/when they are found, the finder can log onto a website (the url is on the card) and comment on the message she/he found. Usually group launchings but private findings, the project is provocative on intimate, communal and ritualistic levels. Friday night Schwartz’s balloon-launching project showed very thoughtful development; where as previously Schwartz gave participants no guidelines vis a vis their comments, he is now experimenting with themed launchings. The theme on Friday was fear and it is from this choice that my concerns and applause arise.
To help spark reflection on this large topic, Schwartz handed out double-sided notes he had compiled on fear: definitions, quotations and listings of phobias. The idea of fear is indeed complicated and merits much serious contemplation, and the handouts began to acknowledge the troubled subject matter. The coupling of fear and the ritualistic act of release intensified the already innate severity of the theme, and while it is an appropriate union – fear and ritual – I would like to be reassured that Schwartz understands and respects its potency.
Let’s start our own understanding with a reflection on ritual. We all have rituals, and they take many forms – from our morning cup of coffee to baptisms to pledging allegiance to the flag. Similarly, balloon launching itself carries no such sobriety. Indeed, it can be a hopeful, youthful, and fun occasion. So, if ritual can be anything from the mundane to the sacred, what makes a particular ritual serious, rather than, say, whimsical? I suggest it is the subject we are ritualizing. So it was Schwartz’s choice of theme that steeps the event in somber ambrosia that demands formal consideration.
We must, then, acknowledge both the act and the content of a ritual. It is not enough to simply engage in ritualistic behavior; it must be an engagement of intent. In the instance at hand, had we asked ourselves if we were really ready to release our fear? Were we ready to talk about it on a website and with a stranger? Without fully understanding what we are participating in, we run the risk of belittling it, of stripping it of value. On Friday I sensed that we were dancing with such risk. It may sound extreme, but in a society where many rituals – major holidays, weddings, and more grotesquely, death ceremonies - have become commodities, it is important to safeguard the act as much as possible. In efforts to be humorous or trendily flippant about fear, we debase the act and the artwork of their most thoughtful attributes. If the balloon happenings are not supposed to be exclusively serious acts, then I suggest picking less weighty topics.
The integrity of Whether/Weather lies in its possibilities. It is polymorphous – alternately meditative, whimsical, and serious -- and in all of these manifestations the piece provokes the participant to think, look, and contemplate. I only caution that each specific pairing of topic and form be fully considered. If he does so, Schwartz is on his way to creating art that is not only good, but necessary.
All images are courtesy of The Berwick Research Institute.