Blogs Field Guide Interviews

The Future Should Come in Multiples: A Conversation with Extrapolation Factory

How can we imagine alternative futures? What role does design play in such thinking? And, most importantly, how can anyone contribute to such imaginings? These are questions at the core of the practice of Extrapolation Factory, the Brooklyn-based art and design team of Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken that works to apply techniques used by think […]

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Extrapolation Factory, GM Platano Garden Cart, Mobile Service Stations, New York, 2014. All images courtesy the artists

How can we imagine alternative futures? What role does design play in such thinking? And, most importantly, how can anyone contribute to such imaginings? These are questions at the core of the practice of Extrapolation Factory, the Brooklyn-based art and design team of Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken that works to apply techniques used by think tanks, futurists, and designers to collaboratively reshape the future. Transforming the Walker’s Art Lab into a laboratory for futures studies, the duo invites visitors this weekend to survey, from a bird’s eye view, the natural surroundings of the Walker and neighboring Loring Park and to collaboratively design solutions to address the future effects of climate change in this area.

In advance of their Walker Open House visit, Walker public programs manager Jacqueline Stahlmann sat down with Montgomery and Woebken to discuss their practice, why design is an important component within it, and what participants can expect at this weekend’s workshops and during their return to Minneapolis for the reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in June, 2017.

Jacqueline Stahlmann: To start out, could you explain your name, “Extrapolation Factory”?

Elliott Montgomery: I think that’s a great question because the name of the practice is a pretty helpful metaphor for thinking about the way we think about futures. So “extrapolation” is the practice of taking a series of data points and then starting to imagine what might come next if you start to draw the line between these data points. And so in the Extrapolation Factory’s work, we generally start with signals from the world around us. Whether that’s in the case of the project we’re doing with the Walker, shifting climates and migratory patterns, species moving into and out of certain areas—like the Mississippi watershed, for instance. So we look at all these signals and then start to think about what the world could look like in very specific stories, and we try to look at multiple different versions of extrapolations. We extrapolate up, we extrapolate down, left, right, all sorts of directions, and that’s where the “factory” comes in.

So when we do the work that we do, we try to bring in a large, diverse group of participants to create multiple, different versions of the future. So you can imagine a factory line where these ideas for the future are the output of the factory and each idea pops off the assembly line, but each one is its own vision of the future. So when we get together with a group of participants working on these projects, they’re the workers fabricating these visions in a sort of factory.

Extrapolation Factory duo Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken in Moscow, Russia

Elliott Montgomery and Chris Woebken

Stahlmann: You two met in a program in London. Was it a design program?

Montgomery: Design Interactions.

Stahlmann:  And then who extrapolated, if you will, into futures work when you met again in New York? Was it taught in your program, the idea of futures design?

Montgomery: It wasn’t really taught. We were in a program that challenged the notion that design should serve to just satisfy the most glamorous human needs or solve problems in the simplest way to describe this. And instead, design could play a role as a provocateur, where designers are challenging our assumptions and getting us to rethink the world around us, almost introducing problems instead of answering or solving problems.

Chris Woebken: And we really like the fact that people can come together, old folks, young folks, and all sorts of people from the community can do this, and also have fun doing this visioning and come up with a tangible outcome that you can share and talk about. So what we would like people to take away from coming to our workshops is that maybe this, as a practice, can radiate into other spaces, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be confined to think tanks and gallery spaces.

99¢ Futures, Studio-x, New York, 2013

Stahlmann: We were introduced to you guys through Emmet Byrne, the Walker’s design curator, because he knew you through that world. So initially, we thought your work might be more design-focused, but really it’s much more futurist-focused. Do you consider yourselves more as designers who think about the future or as futurists who use design as part of your practice?

Montgomery: I think we both take different approaches, and part of the reason that our practice is what it is is that I come from a certain background and Chris comes from another background. I really think of myself as a designer, and I use design to make futures thinking in the think-tank context more accessible to people who weren’t trained, traditionally, in futures. I’m really interested in how we can break down methods, distill them, make them useful and engaging and accessible to a broad community, and allow them to pick them up and tinker with them and apply them to challenges that they’re already thinking about. Design, to me, is a perfect example of that language, because we’re constantly surrounded by designed experiences, designed artifacts. And so we speak the language of design whether we are traditionally trained in design or not. We’re buying things and using objects to get through our day-to-day lives and these objects are, more often than not, designed objects.

Woebken: Yeah. And I think the other aspect that we like to explore is how can we create these spaces for people to have fun and get engaged with this. It maybe connects to what Fluxus was doing. There’s a certain history of instructional art, and we want to create experiences and spaces where people can come to and enjoy engaging with some of these methods that we’re presenting. And then ultimately, take that away as an inspiration that they can maybe do this in their own community or their own life or maybe in their profession. So that’s what we are aiming for enabling with these participatory workshops, installations or performances that we’re doing.

Modeling Futures, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY, 2016

Stahlmann: Let’s back up a step. Could you both define what a futurist is and where we see the work of futurists in our day-to-day lives? Most people probably know what a designer is, and we see the work of designers day-to-day, but perhaps they’re not familiar with this idea of the futurist.

Woebken: I have problems with the term futurist. It’s a complicated relationship. I like the practice, definitely, but I don’t agree with everything that comes with it. There is a bigger history of how we think about the future, and a lot of it is coming from government and military practice. At some point, we understood how to extrapolate from data and create models to model the weather and make predictions, etc. But I don’t like the language of predicting. There are a lot of futurists who sell the product of predicting a trend or a vision of what it might be like. We like the idea of multiplicity, and not necessarily saying, “This is our prediction and this is going to happen.” What we do is participatory futures, so that is more our niche field of our futurist space.

Montgomery: Just to nuance that answer a bit more, not all futurists consider themselves to have predictive capacity or a vision for the way the future will go. I think oftentimes futurists describe themselves as people who have experience using tools to think about many possible futures. And so I think it would be short-sighted to say that all futurists are attempting to predict the future, and there are some futurists who do operate much more from a methods perspective to begin with. And that is actually a really healthy way to think about the future.

I FUTURE NY (proposal), 2013

Stahlmann: How will Walker visitors relate the work of your project to their daily lives?

Montgomery: The most useful way to describe the stuff that we do is, at least for me, to talk about the experience of being a young person and having elders. Maybe a guidance counselor in high school asked you to come up with a five-year plan. And so that person asks you to take on this feat and they never give you any approach or tools for doing it. They just say, “Yeah, come up with your five-year plan.” Then you’re stuck there trying to think about what the future looks like, five years out into the future. Maybe you’re only a 15-year-old person, and so this is already one-third of your lived life that you’re extrapolating into the future, and that can be paralyzing.

I think in a culture that asks us to think about long-term futures but doesn’t give us tools or languages for thinking about future, we actually just have an inherent need for this type of capacity. So as we’re introducing tools, methods, and languages from these other contexts, part of what we’re trying to do is answer to that vacuum of ability to, or comfort with, working in futures and visualizing possible futures for ourselves, for our communities, for larger organizations or even the world.

Extrapolated Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, 2015

Stahlmann: You’ve been described as engaging in “democratized futures work and elucidat[ing] strategies and techniques pulled from think tanks and futurists.” What techniques are you using and how are you applying them to the project at the Walker?

Montgomery: There are many tools we use, but we start out with basic ground rules for the way we think about the future—starting out with, as Chris said, this idea that future should come in multiples, that there shouldn’t be any one future but there should be multiple futures. So that guidance counselor really should say, “Come up with five five-year plans,” instead of one five-year plan. “Come up with lots of different alternatives and then let’s use those alternatives to start a discussion about how we navigate forward from the present,” as opposed to just picking a path and then feeling like that’s the only way. It’s either that way or you failed pursuing your future.

Stahlmann: Could you speak to the intersection between your futures work and design and why those two intersect and why it’s important that they do?

Montgomery: As we’re talking about the future, so much of it is… Well, all of it is just a fiction, right? The only ideas we have for the future are fictions and they will not be factual or real until they arrive in the world around us. And so the act of design is, in some way, akin to or parallel to this act of futuring where you’re translating an imagined concept that’s in a brain to something that exists in a material form that allows us to evaluate it, assess it, build on it, make it better or decide that we don’t like it and steer away from it. So, in some ways, design is really just the process of getting our ideas out into the world.

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Futures Capsules (3 of 4), Whistler, British Columbia, 2014

Woebken: That’s also a big difference of presenting these speculative fictions or speculative design, not necessarily in a white gallery, but in these environments where we are allowed to interact with these fictions and these diverse futures. It becomes more activated.

Montgomery: Which is actually a nice segue into what we’re doing at the Walker, where we’re starting with this sketch possible versions of the future, these new ideas that we’re hoping to introduce, that we’ll invite people to contribute to, and then we’ll work to translate the ideas that are generated through this participatory process into habitable, physical, interactive elements that will exist in the real world several months down the road. And so in some ways, this is the most direct impact one might have on the future in the near term: they can come in and sketch something out and then come down to back to the Walker six months later and see that thing sitting there before them and know they have designed the future.

Stahlmann: So, for this project, you created a map of the Mississippi watershed area that the campus of the Walker is a part of, which includes the Sculpture Garden, the Upper Sculpture Garden, the Walker Art Center itself as well as Loring Park across Hennepin Avenue. You’ve been doing some research around that and you’ve already given a teaser of, “If you come in December, your work will be forayed into…” “You’ll see your work here again in June…”

Montgomery: Yeah. We’re going to try to select ideas that may have the most impact to transform the ecosystems around the Walker Art Center campus.

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Walker Ecosystem model, November 2016

Stahlmann: Could you talk about the map that you’ve been working on? What might participants in the Art Lab project expect to experience? Is there’s any prior knowledge that they need in order to participate?

Montgomery: We are taking the geographic area immediately surrounding the Walker as this canvas of sorts, a test bed, where we would like to examine possible versions of habitats that could allow species to thrive in or occupy, and at the same time to allow for some kind of human need to be addressed. As a lot of species are getting edged out of their habitats or seeing other organisms move into their habitats, there’s just a condensing, there’s a compression, there’s less availability of resources, spaces. And so if we think of habitats serving multiple purposes—sometimes to serve an ecosystem or a natural system, and then at the same time, to serve a human need—that allows us to think of habitats as being these hybrid spaces or symbiotic spaces.

Woebken: So we’re identifying species in Minneapolis that are local. We are also particularly interested in these indicator species where when we see behavioral change that reveal shifts in the environment, and from that we can learn what might happen in the next 10 years from now. We looked at common species: the beaver, certain kinds of fish, the walleye, the ducks that migrate and so on and so on, amphibians, insects, and so on. When you come to the Walker, we try to really present all these characters and some research that indicates how they might be impacted.

How can we communicate with the earthworm? Or how do we build better landing pads for a particular kind of insect or ducks? And then also we will look at the infrastructure in the surrounding area. So we’ll present a bunch of design opportunities of where we can intervene and plug into potentially. And that’s what we present as research and then visitors will come and start responding to this and creating proposals.

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Extrapolation Factory Operator’s Manual

Montgomery: You asked if there’s something that visitors should prepare for. I think it could be great for visitors to explore the space that’s covered in this map and to look for examples of infrastructure that are currently serving human needs that could be transformed to serve both needs of human systems and natural systems simultaneously. So what happens if the goal posts on the football field become birdhouses and they serve both as a football goal and a birdhouse at the same time? Or what happens if our parking deck becomes an apiary and we have bees living in the parking deck? So we’re actually drawing bees back into the local area. Maybe there’s a flower garden on the top of the parking deck and the bees are pollinating the local plants around us.

Woebken: And then we’ll also try to make these responsive, so we can add some sort of opportunities for communicating with animals and with understanding these patterns and understanding these shifts. Maybe start with quantification but also going up to actually communicating and responding…

Montgomery: Or coexisting—some kind of proximity that gives us a sense that these organisms are as fascinating as they really are.

Work with Extrapolation Factory December 1–4 during the Walker’s Open House Weekend

Talismanic Song: Gillian Conoley & Brian Laidlaw in Conversation

This Thursday, Rain Taxi will co-present Bay Area poet Gillian Conoley and local troubadour wunderkind Brian Laidlaw in a multimedia showcase, involving projected drawings of Henri Michaux, original and translated poetry and other texts, and composed and improvised music (let it here be known that Laidlaw on vox and guitar will be flanked by California’s […]

Brian Laidlaw. Photo: Ali Rogers

Brian Laidlaw. Photo: Ali Rogers

This Thursday, Rain Taxi will co-present Bay Area poet Gillian Conoley and local troubadour wunderkind Brian Laidlaw in a multimedia showcase, involving projected drawings of Henri Michaux, original and translated poetry and other texts, and composed and improvised music (let it here be known that Laidlaw on vox and guitar will be flanked by California’s Danny Vitali and Minnesota’s Bex Gaunt on multi-instrumental madness). The event celebrates the release of Conoley’s poetry collection Peace, as well as her translations of Michaux, Thousand Times Broken, and Laidlaw’s Amoratorium, a song-cycle about Bonnie and Clyde on vinyl with accompanying poetry chapbook.

Confused?  You won’t be as all these artists make magic together on stage. To whet our appetites, we asked the poets to riff a little on how the various disciplines they engage both dovetail and diverge.

Brian Laidlaw: Gillian, let’s get right down to it: What can poetry do that visual art and music can’t? And what can visual art and music do that poetry can’t?

Gillian Conoley: If we think of poetry or “the poetic” as being the ineffable, as something that can’t be said in any other way than in art, then poetry is in music and visual art. Music is certainly in poetry as in “if it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing” (thank you, Duke Ellington). Visual art has the gesture and movement of music, no? All I know is I couldn’t live without any of these arts and have a hard time separating them. Can you?

Laidlaw: Woof, who really can? I think of all these art forms as delivery systems for the same substance, and “the ineffable” is a great term for that substance. The delivery systems have their own logic and limitations: a song is fixed in time (its 3:38 duration), a drawing is fixed in space (its 12.5 x 9.5 inch area). Poems are special to me because, fundamentally, their content is timeless and spaceless; a poem reconstitutes itself in a reader’s mind.

When I first started writing, my songs and poems closely resembled one another: all metered and rhymed. That formalism is great for songwriting, but it severely limits the terrain in which a poem can roam. Encountering your work—Profane Halo and The Plot Genie were the first books of yours I read—was an absolute watershed moment for me. Your use of poetic form is virtuosic; it induces hallucinations, vertigo and enlightenment. How has your relationship to form changed over time? And (how) do music and visual art insinuate themselves into your poetic forms?

Conoley:  Always glad to induce a hallucination. Form: formal form, as in English form, metered and rhymed, I never could do it—I would write horrible things and it seemed like a math I couldn’t do, it almost made me want to cry. But I very much admire people who can do it and who make me forget it’s even there: I love Marianne Moore, for example. Even though I can’t do it I have studied prosody and still like to do so.

My relationship to form has changed a lot over time. When I first started to write, everything was justified left-hand margin, and I learned to break a line and make a stanza, and then I started to think about the page as a material in and of itself and how that might enter the poem—the page more as canvas or field or soundscape came into the writing. I’ve always written in black sketchbooks with no lines on them, where I make a big mess of words and images and phrases; I try to let everything in and not think about it or even think that I am writing a poem. I do this for pages and pages and then I wait for something to coalesce. I’ve learned (or I am still learning) how to wait, to work/trust in the materials. I also write lines I get just walking around into my cell phone–so much more trustworthy than scraps of paper I would lose!

Music has always been in my DNA because my dad and mom ran a small-town rural radio station thirty miles outside of Austin from the late 1940s to the 1980s: country western, soul, Mexican polka, Czech polka, rock ‘n’ roll. Johnny Cash, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Elvis, they all came to the station and played live in a little one-room studio lined with egg cartons for acoustics. I was really young, and not even born when Elvis came, so I only remember Joe Tex, but my older sister remembers James Brown. Painting I didn’t get a sense or love for until college, but it is life-long. If there were more time in the day and I didn’t have to work I would maybe try to learn to paint. I see things and write them down. I hear things, too, but my imagination runs more toward the visual than the auditory. I have a poet friend who says she doesn’t see ever, she only hears, so that’s interesting. Everyone has their own path.

I think artists have to be the most patient beings on earth. If you rush or strain, it shows. When do you know a line you get in your head is going to go in a poem or in a song? Or does it matter?

Laidlaw: There’s a Johnny Cash–encounter poem in Peace, and I wondered if it was a little autobiographical . . . what a wild time and place to have been running a radio station. I also love that you describe the pre-poem page as a canvas or field. It makes me think of Annie Dillard’s passages in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that describe how cataract patients, immediately after sight-restoring surgeries, first see the world as a patchwork of undifferentiated colors and shapes. Poems – particularly ones that treat the whole page as a visual field – have the capacity to depict the world in the same, frighteningly fresh, almost newborn way. It’s also in the presence of that fresh/frightening imagery that the most fresh/frightening insights happen; both as a writer and as a reader, those are the moments I live for.

When I’m writing, I’ve learned to dwell in a somewhat trance-like state where lines spontaneously form in my mind’s ear (it’s entirely aural, like your friend – not visual at all for me.) The process allows me to be surprised, even shocked, by the lines I’m writing.

I wanted to ask you one last question, to wrap things up: When audiences (students in particular) encounter unfamiliar music or visual art, they often seem comfortable letting the pieces wash over them, simply enjoying the new aesthetic experience, but when they’re encountering unfamiliar poetry, they seem likelier to resort to an “I don’t get it.” In your own work, how much do you worry about the reader “getting it”? Is there a specific “it” to get?

Conoley: The Johnny Cash encounter is autobiographical! When I was in my twenties I worked as a journalist both at Dallas Morning News and freelance and went on a B-movie film set where Cash was acting—really bad movie, I don’t even know if it ended up getting released. I didn’t, after all, write an article, so that part’s true, too.

The “I don’t get it,” the “it” there is to get: I think that has to do with a kind of default mode humans can go to when it comes to language. We have expectations of language that we don’t necessarily have when it comes to paint or sounds in music. Language, when we encounter it, we often think it is going to tell us something or give us information.  So the first step in reading poetry is to let go of that expectation, and to welcome in the other aspects of language: the sonic, the aural, its ability to trigger the visual in the mind.

This takes us back to the ineffable, where we began our conversation. Sometimes poetry is taught early on, say in elementary school, as though it is symbolic and there are symbols one must figure out: that’s the “get it” part. When really, if there is a symbol in a poem — and so many poems don’t even contain one — if there is a symbol, if the symbol is truly acting in its full-force, it is huge and associative and reaches us at an almost subliminal, subconscious level that one couldn’t even begin to paraphrase.

Having said that, though, it doesn’t mean that poetry is just this open art that is whatever the reader wishes to make of it. Of course there is intent, but what’s key for readers first coming to poetry is to open themselves up to what language can do when it isn’t busy just giving information. It’s a song, it’s talismanic; it reaches the intellect, the heart, and the body.

The Inevitable Relationship Between Fluxus and Social Practice: Sarah Schultz Interviews Natilee Harren

What do Walker Open Field, the avant-garde art movement Fluxus and socially-engaged art practice have in common? That is what the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department explored through this summer’s program, FluxField. This project took advantage of the concurrent timing of Open Field and the opening of Walker exhibitions Art Expanded: 1958-1978 and Radical […]

What do Walker Open Field, the avant-garde art movement Fluxus and socially-engaged art practice have in common? That is what the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department explored through this summer’s program, FluxField. This project took advantage of the concurrent timing of Open Field and the opening of Walker exhibitions Art Expanded: 1958-1978 and Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, both containing a strong Fluxus presence.

We invited a range of artists to create projects or events for Open Field inspired by or in some cases in reaction to the works, philosophy, and cosmology of Fluxus. FluxField artists included Beatrix JAR (Bianca Pettis and Jacob Aaron Roske), BodyCartography Project (Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad), Andy Ducett, Mike Haeg, Rachel Jendrzejewski, Chris Kallmyer, Maria Mortati, Margaret Pezalla-Granlund, and Jenni Undis. The indomitable Laurie Van Wieren also jumped into the flux fray with her Open Field piece, 4×4 = 100 Choreographers Dancing Outside. Key Fluxus figures Alison Knowles and Benjamin Patterson were invited to perform their work during the summer and fall.

To set the stage for FluxField, we invited the Los Angeles–based art historian Natilee Harren to begin to draw connections between these practices with a talk in the Walker’s Star Tribune Foundation Art Lab. This interview between Harren and Sarah Schultz, the Walker’s former Curator of Public Practice, is drawn from an essay Harren is writing called Notes on the Inevitable Relationship Between Fluxus and Social Practice.

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Maria Mortati’s FluxField Interpretive Trail. Photo: Maria Mortati

Sarah Schultz: Natilee, what exactly is Fluxus? I find myself stumbling over this question and have never have seen or heard it described the same way twice!

Natilee Harren: The simplest and yet most difficult question to answer! Fluxus began as a neo-avant-garde artist collective founded in 1962 by George Maciunas and was active throughout the US, Europe, and Japan at least through the 1970s, although some would argue that Fluxus is still active today. It has acquired the reputation of being an unrepresentable or undefinable art movement, similar to how Dada and Surrealism were once perceived, but I think that’s simply because we haven’t yet arrived at a satisfying framework for understanding what Fluxus artists were up to. If we look at the main modes of Fluxus production—performances and multiples—it becomes clear that the common denominator of Fluxus practice was a reliance on scores and other forms of instruction. And that implies a production that was process-oriented, iterative, and often delegated. A Fluxus work almost always entails multiple realizations and therefore multiple authors, performers, and audiences. Fluxus artists’ utilization of scores was a crucial contribution to the post-modern expansion of artistic practices in the 1960s and a major thrust behind their efforts to look beyond the art world—to related fields like music, theater, literature, architecture and design—for models of art’s production and distribution.

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Mike Haeg’s Penny Event. Photo: Maria Mortati

Why is the score such an integral form and idea within Fluxus? What does the score enable?

It all goes back to the search for alternative models for art’s production and distribution. A score allows for risk, failure, and experimentation, especially in the wake of 1950s innovations in musical notation and the embrace of indeterminacy by New York School composers like Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and John Cage, with whom many Fluxus people studied. A score creates an opportunity for collective and collaborative production. A score allows the work to happen in different times and places with different performers and different audiences. And yet, despite all this risk, chance, and variability, a score allows the work to be continually understood as a particular work, and to maintain its identity in however loose a way despite the differences in its varied manifestations. A score can provide a very loose structure or form, but the form is still there. It persists.

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Rachel Jendrzejewski’s Walker Yam: 100 Scores for Open Field. Photo: Steve Cohen

The score feels like a connecting thread between Fluxus and Open Field. Why do they make good companions?

I think Fluxus and Open Field are natural complements because there is an integral relationship between the commons (the social-spatial model for Open Field) and scores. If you look at any theory of the commons, there is always the provision that commons require a set of agreed-upon and collectively upheld rules—just like Open Field’s own Field Etiquette. These rules could just as well be thought of as Open Field’s “score.” If commons rely on a score-like set of rules, then I think it’s equally fair, and rather interesting in fact, to imagine that a score in the expanded sense brought to us by Fluxus creates a commons, if only temporarily.

Some of the most explicit examples of Fluxus scores that can be thought to produce commons are those highly graphic in nature, like Benjamin Patterson’s Pond and Dick Higgins’s Graphis series. I am particularly interested in these because they remind us that Fluxus scores were not all text pieces but came out of an emergent culture of experimental notation that utilized not only text but really wild diagrams and drawings. Notation in the expanded field, you could say. The Patterson and Higgins scores involve grids and tangled webs of lines that are enlarged and transferred from the score to the floor of the performance space, providing a full-scale map to organize the bodies of performers and viewers.

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BodyCartography Project’s Feeling the City on Nicollet Mall. Photo: Sarah Schultz

But perhaps even more so than Fluxus artists, the architect Lawrence Halprin was one who understood the link between scores and commons, since he designed public space with choreography in mind. He was the partner of dancer Anna Halprin and author of The RSVP Cycles, an amazing book about the social uses of scores. And he was the designer behind the renovation of Nicollet Mall in 1966. The RSVP Cycles includes his own “motation” study, a score for how people might move through one block of the redesigned street. I loved that we performed Alison Knowles’s pieces there, mapping them onto Lawrence Halprin’s extant score for pedestrians in the form of his carefully designed cityscape.

This connection between scores and commons helps makes sense of why Fluxus artists would go from performing a touring concert program to establishing artists’ housing in Soho and, at least in the case of Maciunas, planning communes in Massachusetts, Japan, and the Caribbean. Or more simply why everyday, life-sustaining activities such as cooking would figure into their practice.

Speaking of Alison Knowles: one summer highlight was working with her at the Walker to perform several of her iconic Fluxus scores including Proposition #2: Make A Salad, Shoes of Your Choice and Piece for Any Number of Vocalists (Song of Your Choice). Can you talk about your experience of the salad, the shoes and the song?

of2014air_ak_salad Open Field; Artist-in-Residence; Education; Public Programs; Visual Arts; Exhibitions. Alison Knowles: Make a Salad, July 10, 2014, in The Grove. A leading member of the Fluxus artist group, Alison Knowles will be in-residence with her collaborator, Joshua Selman, to restage her iconic event score Make a Salad on Open Field. Event scores involve simple actions, ideas, and objects from everyday life recontexualized as performance. While each iteration of the piece is unique, the basic ingredients include Knowles preparing a massive salad by chopping the ingredients to live music, tossing it in the air, then serving it to the audience. Originally performed in London at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1962. Knowles?s work is included in the Walker?s new exhibition Art Expanded: 1958?1978, on view June 14, 2014 ? March 8, 2015 in Galleries 1, 2, 3, and the Perlman Gallery. Curated by Eric Crosby.

Alison Knowles’ Make a Salad. Photo: Gene Pittman

With those performances I was profoundly struck by Alison’s spirit of adventure, curiosity, and commitment to those pieces throughout all these years. Those works were written in 1962 and 1963! Her relationship to them is a perfect example of Fluxus performance culture. There is a commitment to the work, a comportment of earnestness and seriousness despite the work’s lightness and wit, and an attitude—an ethics, even—of generosity and denial of mastery and ego. The recent Walker events demonstrated that after all these years Fluxus scores still have something to give us, something to show us, due to their flexibility and durability and strength, cannily built in from the very start. They bring different things into relief in every environment and era in which they are performed.

ecp2014air-knowles-wkshp Education; Community Programs; Open Field; Artist-in-Residence; Visual Arts; Exhibitions. Alison Knowles Workshop July 11, 2014 Art Lab; Nicollet Mall; Hyatt Hotel in Downtown Minneapolis. Part of Alison Knowles Open Field residency, and by extension, the exhibition Art Expanded. Two of Knowles' scores were reinterpreted: #6 Shoes of Your Choice (orig. March 1963), and #7 Piece for Any Number of Vocalists (orig. December 1962).  The event/workshop was not advertised or open to the public. Sarah Schultz sent an invite to Staff and a small group was assembled. Collaborators include Laurie Van Wieren, Eric Crosby, Chris Kallmyer, Bianca & Jacob from Beatrix*JAR, Marcus, Rachel J., Laura, and Natilee.  Andy Underwood documented the scores on location; still photos by Lacey Criswell.

Alison Knowles’ Song of Your Choice. Photo: Lacey Criswell

And then there is always the danger involved in their performance, especially when we took them out into the streets of Minneapolis. With Shoes of Your Choice, which we performed on Nicollet Mall, there was the danger of enfolding passersby into the piece who had no idea what Fluxus is, and then with Piece for Any Number of Vocalists (Song of Your Choice), which we performed at the Hilton hotel’s indoor pool, there was the danger of having no audience at all except that one guy who was already swimming laps. But then several people, including some in ballroom dance costumes, came out onto their balconies to hear us and it was so lovely. The works are open to all possible outcomes. As George Brecht once said, “No catastrophes are possible.”

So finally, what kind of connections can we draw between Fluxus and contemporary, socially-engaged art practices? If it’s helpful, I am using the phrase socially-engaged art, a term I know can be frustratingly vague,  in the broadest sense, to encompass any number of art practices (activist, performative, community-based, pedagogical etc.) that are created by and grounded in social interactions and exchange between people.

of2014air_kallmyer-pcat_0717 Open Field Artist-in-Residency Chris Kallmyer, Play Catch, All Together, July 17, 2014, Open Field. Grab your baseball glove* and join Kallmyer and Twins organist Sue Nelson for a work focused on the sound of people playing catch alongside a baseball stadium organ. Participants are invited to oil their gloves, do some light stretching, and throw around a lemon as warm-up?an homage to Fluxus artist Ken Friedman. Afterwards, have freshly-squeezed lemonade, meet Nelson, and take home a copy of Kallmyer?s score for Play Catch, All Together.

Score for Chris Kallmyer’s Play Catch, All Together with Twins organist Sue Nelson. Photo: Gene Pittman

Speaking art historically, I think that artists working within the framework of social practice today owe much to the Fluxus milieu’s expanded understanding of a score, whether they are explicitly working with scores or not. To help make sense of these links I’ve begun to think of different types of social organization as scores that organize the movement of bodies through space—everything from music, recipes, and games to architecture, digital coding, ritual, and law. The best social practice work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.  At the Walker for example, you’ve invited artists like Lucky Dragons and Fritz Haeg to mount projects that capitalize on the innate community-building aspects of music and the preparation of food.  This summer Chris Kallmyer drew out some of the meditative, aesthetic aspects of the cultural ritual of baseball on Open Field with his work Play Catch, All Together.  In Los Angeles where I live, artists like Elana Mann and Juliana Snapper of the People’s Microphony Camerata explore the political and aesthetic potential of the People’s Mic, and Michael Parker carved a gigantic obelisk a parcel of land adjacent to the LA river, which became a platform for performances and critical discussions about art and the local ecology.

As artists move further and further away from the production of discrete, conventional art objects, I find the idea of the score—and all that it entails in terms of the work’s ontology, production, distribution, and reception—to be an increasingly helpful way of understanding what an artwork is now and how it moves through the world.


Benjamin Patterson, a key figure in the Fluxus network of artists, visits the Walker on October 9 as part of the exhibit Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Art Expanded, 1958-1978, which explores the expanded arts of the 1960’s and 1970’s, is on view through March 2015, and includes the work of Alison Knowles and George Macunias, among other notable Fluxus figures.

The Evolution of a Salad

It’s been more than fifty years since Alison Knowles’ event score Proposition #2, Make a Salad premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in 1962. This seemingly simple piece, which consists of amassing, washing, chopping, and tossing vegetables into a giant salad that gets served to the audience, has since been performed more than a […]

Nivea Cream Piece by Alison Knowles. Performed at the In the Spirit of Fluxus opening by L. Van Wieren, J. Anfinson, S. Shinazaki, B. Sobocinski and T. Carlsom. Alison Knowles dispensing Nivea cream. February 14, 1993.

Nivea Cream Piece by Alison Knowles. Performed February 14, 1993, during the In the Spirit of Fluxus opening by L. Van Wieren, J. Anfinson, S. Shinazaki, B. Sobocinski, and T. Carlsom. Alison Knowles dispensing Nivea cream. 

It’s been more than fifty years since Alison Knowles’ event score Proposition #2, Make a Salad premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in 1962. This seemingly simple piece, which consists of amassing, washing, chopping, and tossing vegetables into a giant salad that gets served to the audience, has since been performed more than a dozen times around the world, most recently at the High Line in New York in 2012. Knowles, who last made an appearance at the Walker in the early nineties for the exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus—returns next week to re-stage Make a Salad on Open Field with her collaborator Joshua Selman. Other work by Knowles and her Fluxus peers is on view in the exhibition Art Expanded, 1958-1978.

Below is an excerpt from the oral history interview with Alison Knowles (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution by Judith Olch Richards, , June 1-2, 2010), which sheds light on the evolution of this iconic salad.

MS. RICHARDS:  You had created a number of Fluxus event scores and I wanted to ask you about a few of them.  One of the early ones, 1962, was Make a Salad, which you’ve done subsequently. How did the idea for that piece come about?  Was that the first time that you were making something using food that people would eat?

MS. KNOWLES:  Well, I’ve become sort of known for the food art thing with the Identical Lunch [1969].

Alison Knowles, The Identical Lunch with Anne Brazean, 1971. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Walker Special Purchase Fund, 1989

Alison Knowles, The Identical Lunch with Anne Brazean, 1971. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Walker Special Purchase Fund, 1989

MS. RICHARDS:  Right, but that was a little bit afterward.  Make a Salad was earlier.

MS. KNOWLES:  The Make a Salad is earlier.  Actually I don’t call it a Fluxus event score.  I think my event scores, some of them, I mean, they were done during that time.

MS. RICHARDS:  Yes.

MS. KNOWLES:  It’s during the Fluxus time but often evades the, what I would call, a strict definition, if you even could do it for Fluxus.

But for me, they are event scores and they’re more based on the work of John Cage than they are on I think – or George Brecht, let’s say, than what became Fluxus performances that many people were doing and adding to.  So what’s meant by a Fluxus performance?  I really don’t know until you describe it to me.  But with the Make a Salad event score, you knew exactly what’s going to happen.

MS. RICHARDS:  So if you knew exactly what was going to happen, you’re making a distinction between that and something where you didn’t know what was going to happen.

MS. KNOWLES:  Well, between what you know is going to happen and things that happen from what you have done is what differentiates I think the event score from something like happenings where there was much more of an “anything goes attitude” and it was more important that certain people were there or that the site where it happened, like one of Kaprow’s happenings.

MS. RICHARDS:  Mm-hmm.

MS. KNOWLES:  When I say you know what’s going to happen in the event scores, for something like Shoes of Your Choice [1963], you’re going to have someone describing their shoes.

You’re not going to have someone telling a story about when they went to India and with Make a Salad you’re not going to have someone serving hors d’oeuvres.  So that’s what I mean by there’s a known quantity and then there’s all the things that happen around it.  But the salad might be made in Indonesia and you have to work with very different ingredients than you would in New York City.

Jackson Mac Low describes his shoes to the audience (Photo: Michael Lange, 1985)

Jackson Mac Low describes his shoes to the audience. Viking Ship Hall, Roskilde, Denmark, May 29, 1985. Photo: Michael Lange

MS. RICHARDS:  When you made that, did you think that it might turn out to be a piece that would be done again and again and that people would respond to it so?

MS. KNOWLES:  No, absolutely not.  I remember how the piece happened.  I was riding with Dick [Higgins] in a cab in London and a performance was going to be the next day and I think I was expected to come up with a lot of the pieces on the program.

It was one of those concerts where somehow just Dick and I were there along with Richard Hamilton in the audience.  George was not there.  George Brecht, George Maciunas was not there.  And it was the Museum of Contemporary Art.  So Dick said, “Well, you know, what are you doing to do?”

MS. RICHARDS:  The Institute of Contemporary Art?

MS. KNOWLES:  Is it called the institute?

MS. RICHARDS:  Yes.

MS. KNOWLES:  The Institute of Contemporary Art and they used to have – they had a very nice little audience room.  So it wasn’t a big hall.  It was a nice sized room and I had decided in the cab with him, I said, “What can I do?  Why don’t I do something with food?  Why don’t I make a salad?”

He said, “Fine, make a salad,” and that would always be Dick’s backup for an idea.  He would say, “Good, talk about your shoes,” or, “Fine, go take the train at 8:00 a.m.,” or you know, he just was very quick to back up a thought.  It’s almost like he wanted to be thinking about something else.

MS. RICHARDS:  But it served to validate your ideas.

MS. KNOWLES:  Yes, absolutely. I never remember him saying, “No, don’t do that.”  He just completely trusted what I would say for this occasion and there was no time to do anything but buy the vegetables in the morning.  That’s all the time there was.  And meanwhile, of course people were expecting some huge show or whatever.

MS. RICHARDS:  Well, when you approached that coming performance that you knew you would be doing, was it actually a very positive approach that you waited until the last minute, was that a usual approach?

MS. KNOWLES:  Usually we had no time.  We usually had just taken the train the day before from Nice.  We probably lost a passport.  I mean, absolutely a hair-raising tour, absolutely, across France, Germany, and you’d get somebody to pay your train fare and that’s about it.

MS. RICHARDS:  One might have taken all of these already created performances with you and not had to have created them at all at the spur of the moment.  So I’m just trying to imagine that maybe –

MS. KNOWLES:  Well, who would perform them?  You’d have to train a group or you’d have to write ahead what you were going – what people were going to do.

MS. RICHARDS:  I’m wondering whether it was in a way purposeful that they were made at the last minute because in fact it’s possible they could have – you could have come up with Make a Salad before you left New York.

MS. KNOWLES:  Oh, I see.  No, I think that the spontaneity of the imminent event was useful.

MS. RICHARDS:  It focused you.

Photo by Liz Ligon Courtesy of Friends of the High Line (2)

Make a Salad at the High Line, New York City, 2012. Photo: Liz Ligon, courtesy of Friends of the High Line

MS. KNOWLES:  Because probably back in New York I would have decided to do something more elaborate, or involve more people or – but I love Emmett Williams’ phrase.  “We have no time and we had to present a united front.”  In other words, within the group there were people who didn’t get along.

As human beings, they didn’t get along with this or that idea or this or that person.  But people always thought they were meeting this completely compatible group getting off a bus.  But by the time we got to present at the theater, we certainly had a pretty good idea what we were going to be doing.

We met the night before and put our ideas together and then often there was George Maciunas who would act as our director, whatever, and was very good as a, you know, what do you want to call it, the man who presents on a television show.

MS. RICHARDS:  Emcee?

MS. KNOWLES:  Yeah, he was a great emcee.  He looked strange.  He wore a monocle and full dress suit, black with a monocle and spoke with a decided accent.  He used more of an Eastern European accent.  When you consider that most of these are American artists exhausted, traveling around, you know, from place to place with Emmett who was a wonderful performer and brilliant and who was putting in a lot of very good pieces.

MS. RICHARDS:  Why were you doing all this touring in Europe?  Was it just a much more welcoming artistic scene that you couldn’t find in the U.S.?

MS. KNOWLES:  It didn’t exist here at all and even when we came back after the first Wiesbaden Museum presentation and then went through Europe, we came back to New York and we tried to put on an event on Canal Street in Dick Higgins’ space, his studio.  And I think he didn’t properly manage the promotion because George had always done that in Europe.  All we had to do was get there.

So here I think we all made a few phone calls but there couldn’t have been more than 20 people in the audience and not plausible – it was very haphazard.  We did a piece of mine called String Piece [1964] where I kind of tie up the audience and make chairs get tied to me and I get tied to the mike and it was kind of a nice web piece, which could be done when something else is being read.

So the Make a Salad was a totally amazing event.  He also did Shoes of Your Choice that night with Richard Hamilton’s performance.  Anyway, with Make a Salad, I got there and the little man in a red jacket who served the drinks, he said I couldn’t use any water because he needed the water to wash the glasses.

And I said, “But I have to wash a lot of lettuce.”  He said, “I’m sorry, I knew nothing of this,” and he began to raise his voice and my friend Robert Filliou was standing by the door.  And he walked in and this man had little red lapels on his little dinner jacket.

And he lifted this little guy by his lapels right up off the floor.  And he shook him and he said, “You give her whatever she wants,” put this guy down, completely turned him around and he left and I turned on the water ad washed everything.  I didn’t see him again.

Together at the Tree: An Interview with Jared Walhowe

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jared Walhowe, who works with two programs — The Garden Gleaning Project and Fruits of the City — housed within the Minnesota Project. If you had the opportunity to come to our most recent Free First Saturday you may have met one of the wonderful people representing […]

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jared Walhowe, who works with two programs — The Garden Gleaning Project and Fruits of the City — housed within the Minnesota Project. If you had the opportunity to come to our most recent Free First Saturday you may have met one of the wonderful people representing the Garden Gleaning Project and may even have taken home a lettuce or cabbage plant for your home garden. My conversation with Jared focused on his work in relation to some of the themes found in Fritz Haeg: At Home in the City.

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How did the Garden Gleaning Project come to be?

We started informally in 2010 or 2011. At the time I was working at a food shelf called Waite House, as well as Gardening Matters. Gardening Matters is a local gardening organization and emergency food shelf network that supports all of the local food shelves, as well as the food banks that these food shelves order from. At first it was just a couple food shelves and nonprofits that got together and talked about how to get more fresh foods and vegetables on the shelves and how to get gardeners to help. They hosted the meetings and it turned into the Garden Gleaning Project. That first year it was myself with Waite House and the Little Kitchen Food Shelf in our spare time.

The next year we received funding from Hennepin County which allowed us to hire community coordinators to serve as liaisons between the gardens and the food shelves. We’ve been able to do a lot more outreach than before; many people didn’t know you could donate fresh produce, or what foods the shelves were even looking for. We had neighbors that didn’t know about us. A really localized effort is our strategy: just that neighborhood around that food shelf. The coordinators make connections, advocate for the food shelves in the community, and build relationships with farmers and gardeners.

Food shelves are stretched; a lot of them are exclusively volunteer-run, some are open one or two days of the week, some are open every day but include one paid manager that works 24/7. Some have volunteer coordinators, but we’ve found that accountability increases with a stipend position. The little money we put toward that stipend position comes back many times over. It’s more than just the pounds of food; now our neighbors knows about the food shelf. Maybe they weren’t interested in giving money, but now that they know about other ways we need help they are more than willing to volunteer at home or at the community garden. But the program is really about building relationships.

We have another sister program that’s a little bit older called Fruits of the City. Fruits of the City has a class every month in relation to growing food, usually fruit trees, but smaller plants, too. The main thing that program does is to connect with fruit tree owners and get them to register their trees with us. Last year we harvested 40,000 lbs of apples – most of it was from backyards. There’s a lot of community building in that too, and that’s what I’m interest in. I have neighbors meet neighbors whom they had never met before, because they came out and volunteered at their neighbors’ house. There are different ways to engage in both the programs, and both of them are trying to explore getting more healthy food into food shelves and building those connections and relationships.

Part of your aim is to create a Toolkit to serve as a model to help other food shelves and gardeners connect on their own. Can you tell me a little about the resources you’ve compiled to help people build these gardener/food shelf relationships elsewhere?

Well, it’s a growing model. In addition to having a coordinator at each of these food shelves, a larger, much more long-term goal is to create resources to help food shelves do this work. Hennepin County funded this project, but they want our model to help food shelves everywhere. We were able to finish this last winter. The neighborhood coordinators contributed pieces, all of those nonprofits in the back contributed, and a lot of it is coming from the food shelves and what has worked for them.

What I think is really great about this is that we’ve gotten people to download it across the US and internationally as well. My hope is that our Garden Gleaning Project Toolkit changes so it can be useful in, say, the Southwest in the same way it’s useful here. It doesn’t have all the answers, but I think this can start the conversation and we want to extend the invitation to talk with us and help us build a stronger Tool Kit.

The role I want to play is in starting that conversation, and having done this project, we’ve had people reach out and share their own gleaning experiences. So my new question is how can we learn from and share information between all of these disparate organizations that are doing similar work and find out what’s working for them? I think soon there’ll be a conference or something, because it seems like people are starting to know about each other. I mean, Fruits of the City started doing it really autonomously; they basically just geocached the trees and let people do whatever they wanted. Garden Gleaning is a little more organized, because we want to bring people together at the tree. I want to see more of those gatherings.

Fritz Haeg said a great thing in an interview with Paul Schmelzer that I wanted to share with you, “The projects I’m most interested in are the ones that exist in this fantastic, ideal notion of what the city I want to live in looks like—creating some small piece of that and putting it into the least likely part of the city to see that contrast between the city we want and the city we have.” I was curious what your ideal city looks like and how your work with The Minnesota Project relates to that?

I guess ideally we wouldn’t need food shelves. Ideally everyone would have access to land. There would be public spaces where folks could harvest food for themselves and others.

We do have a little bit of that. There are some fruit trees on our greenways and public spaces, and that’s a beautiful thing. We really want to support this idea of a community orchard, that is, a public space that anyone is welcome to, where food is free. It’s accessible and there are no stigmas or barriers surrounding it.

We worked with the the Frogtown neighborhood to do a pop-up tree nursery where we took a vacant lot that used to be a liquor store and planted a bunch of tiny fruit trees and let them grow for a while. Seitu Jones headed up this project and distributed them to neighbors in the area. Anyone who wanted fruit trees could have them. Because of this project, we have lots of new fruit tree owners using land that wasn’t being utilized otherwise and making fresh fruit more accessible.

And these food/forest concepts of turning underutilized spots into very diverse, really open and accessible edible gardens, like Fritz Haeg’s Foraging Circle that are perennial, come back year after year, and don’t require a lot of maintenance are part of the city I want to live in.

The goal of parks is to serve everyone – you can’t have one person come and pick all the apples. My thought is that we don’t have enough apple trees. If there aren’t enough for everyone, we don’t have enough. We have laws that say foraging is illegal on park land and I think the Foraging Circle is going to help us break ground on that issue and raise questions about these regulations. It’s kind of a wavering line between an art piece and a park, and that helps show it’s possible. and I’m really excited that that happened. That the Foraging Circle is a permanent installment is incredible.

I mean, we aren’t an arts non-profit. I love that he [Fritz] is doing this work. It may help us make connections and maybe get more traditional art-goers to think about food in these realms and start conversations about food in terms of access and where it exists in those spaces.

The Garden Gleaning Project is relationship-based thing as well, and it doesn’t seem as tangible as the orchard, it’s more nebulous. We have constellations of gardeners growing a tiny bit here and a tiny bit there. But I think those are real things.

Going back to that quote, if we can incorporate more edibles and community orchards, community gardens, who’s to say it isn’t art? Who’s to say it is? And how do we bring the art outside? We think of art as in a museum, but how can we think of art as something that lives everywhere and is accessible? It’s not behind walls, there’s no admission. I’m very interested in that.

If you would like to donate your time or lovingly grown produce to your local food shelf, please register your garden at gardengleaning.org/register or your fruit trees by sending an email to fruits@mnproject.org .

Listening, Online and Off, with Sound Designer Mike Hallenbeck

The sonic power of phone books. The realm of the acousmatic. Binaural bicycle rides. These are a few of the concepts that came up in my correspondence with sound designer Mike Hallenbeck. With the Walker’s public observance of World Listening Day about 1 week away, my investigation into aural attention continues. As I gather insights […]

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

The sonic power of phone books. The realm of the acousmatic. Binaural bicycle rides. These are a few of the concepts that came up in my correspondence with sound designer Mike Hallenbeck. With the Walker’s public observance of World Listening Day about 1 week away, my investigation into aural attention continues. As I gather insights on listening from professional listeners in our community, I appreciated the opportunity to bend Hallenbeck’s ears for a few questions.

Mike, your writings and audiocraft emphasize sound’s profound variety, its function as a wordless language, and its influence on the imagination. Reflecting on your experiences, what listening prompts would you propose for World Listening Day to facilitate discovery through listening?

I suppose the thing is simply to ask oneself: “What do I hear?” Learn to break down what you’re hearing. What’s happening in high frequencies, mid-range, and lower frequencies? What’s tonal, what’s rhythmic, what’s harmonic? (Any soundscape, from a symphony to a forest to a racetrack, will usually include these elements.) How dense is it? How sparse? Where are things located in the stereo or surround field? What’s happening that you like, and what do you wish was different? This sort of question—”What does it sound like?”—might sound overly simple, but I find it to be central in sound practice. It helps determine how to appreciate and improve sound/music that you’re creating or evaluating, and helps one to respond to the world at large.

But the obvious rejoinder—and one I agree with—is that this isn’t an approach exclusive to sound, or indeed to any sense. Lately I’m asking myself more about the conversation between sound and vision, and to tell you the truth that’s something I’m still exploring in a very elemental sense. I work more and more with sound that responds to and collaborates with visual and/or narrative elements, so these days I’m far more concerned with the interaction of the senses than with sound on its own. To me the important thing is to cultivate a sense of awareness that involves all the senses, incorporating listening into one’s overall practice of mindfulness.

That makes sense—the integration of sound and sight are key to your work as a Foley artist. Like trompe-l’œil for the ear, Foley artists add sounds to recorded media that seem naturalistic but are in fact an artifice. Can you describe a surprising method or material you’ve encountered in Foley art?

Lately I’ve been pondering the unexpected sonic power of the phone book. When I did one of my first Foley assignments for film, I looked up some how-to videos online to figure out how to fake the sound of a punch. I found a video made by an eleven-year-old where he demonstrated how to replicate a punch sound by closing a phone book really hard. It didn’t work for the entire sound—I wound up mixing in a vocalization to add a little sharpness—but it got me pretty far along.

Recently I attended a panel discussion by some Foley artists where two of them shared techniques on how to simulate bodily impacts on a floor surface (other than throwing yourself on the floor, which I can confirm gets old real quick). Both suggested an article of clothing (one a leather jacket, the other some coveralls), but both recommended filling said clothing with—that’s right—phone books. So the idea’s got legs.

I’m looking forward to furthering my phone book savvy soon. I just hope they don’t stop making them, or else I’ll have to start using Henry James novels.

Speaking of books, your “Audiobook” posts on your Synching Ship blog resonate with me. Would you be able to suggest a reading along those aurally attuned lines for World Listening Day?

Sound is really hard to describe using language, but it can be done. Usually I’ll come across a deft description of sound only here and there in books, and the “audiobook” feature is a way to share it with others and (just as importantly) to remember it myself.

Something that comes to mind is “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier. The descriptions of music performance (the stuff performed by Jack White and company in the movie) are some of the most eloquent I’ve ever encountered. I recall “Company” by Samuel Beckett having some nice descriptions of quiet, subtle sounds, but that’s kind of a vague memory.

In your day-to-day appreciation of all things aural, especially environmental sounds, have you been earwitness to sounds that might be disappearing from our soundscape?

My own day-to-day is fairly banal, so I wouldn’t say there’s much change there. But the demands of consumer society appear to be destroying habitats of many species at a pretty rapid clip, which will silence a lot of creatures’ calls as they go extinct. Bioacousticians like Bernie Krause have demonstrated how nature’s sonic identity has been altered as human-made sounds intrude on the frequency spectrum.

I’m doing what I can to address the problem by typing a bunch of words on a computer screen.

The impact of human noise on the wild soundscape is a fascinating topic. In the Sculpture Garden, for example, birds might be developing an urban dialect and the chattering red squirrels are absent since their extirpation in 1909. Take a sonic snapshot of your environment right now. What sounds are you perceiving and are there any special meanings you make of them?

Unfortunately right now I’m listening to Pandora; I’ve created a station that will generate music choices extrapolated from the music of The Shadows. So far I’ve gotten The Esquires, Junior Brown, Link Wray, The Blue Stingrays, and Santo & Johnny (it turns out their track “Sleep Walk” is something I’ve wanted to know the name of for years). I imagine that’s not the kind of answer you were looking for though…

You’re right that I was “looking for” environmental sounds, but your answer aptly demonstrates the contemporary listener’s condition. We are constantly toggling back and forth between mediated and unmediated sound worlds, awash in a mix of “original” and “reproduced” sounds. For me, this calls to mind the work of R. Murray Schafer, the sound researcher whose birthday is honored by World Listening Day. Schafer examined how the Industrial and Electric Ages revolutionized our relationship to listening. He coined the term “schizophonia” to describe the split between original sounds and their copies. From your perspective, what is the delineation between original sounds and electroacoustic reproductions? Could there even be sounds that don’t easily fall into one category or the other?

The light rail train offers a nice example of schizophonia—the train emits electronically sampled sounds of the warning bells at a railroad stop, and—if memory serves—the whistle of a steam locomotive. It’s easy to assume these sounds are produced by actual physical processes, but in fact they’re “fake”. All that matters is that we get the message to be careful in the train’s vicinity.

Yes, a sort of sonic pastiche. The signals’ function is to be interpreted without hesitation, but when we pause to listen, there’s a more complex story behind them.

I guess what we’re talking about here is the realm of the “acousmatic”—an experience of sound merely as a reproduction through speakers, especially when it’s something created electronically in the first place (as with synthesizers, sampled drum loops and the like). The auto-tuned voice comes to mind—it’s gotten to the point where it’s not just an effect in pop and R&B anymore, but just, you know, kind of how voices are expected to sound, like it’s something singers learn as part of their vocal training. It makes me wonder how many people have portrayed Alvin and the Chipmunks over the years—since all you have to do is speed up somebody’s voice, it could be anybody.

It’s odd how technologies like that lose their novelty as we assimilate them into our sonic vocabulary. I’m curious if you can you offer some ways that the Internet has changed our relationship to listening? (For one thing, without the Internet, we’d never have your riotously funny (and schizophonic?) Rickroll chronicle.)

The Internet is a huge topic, since it manifests itself in so many ways. The first thing that comes to mind for me is that it’s ratcheted down appreciation of sound quality. Lo-fi is a new standard in video, and there have been studies that show younger people often prefer mp3s encoded at degraded bit rates to high-resolution audio. Ick.

However, the Internet has been huge in terms of transforming sound practice for the better. I’ll focus on the community-building aspect, which is pretty much universal for any group but has dovetailed especially nicely with sound art. Back before I did anything “practical” with sound, I had no idea just how many people out there were also interested in capturing audio signals “in the field” and curating concrete sounds as art. When I became aware of resources like the phonography listserv I discovered all these other folks out there who were into the same kind of stuff, all over the world—a small community, but a vibrant one. This led to the discovery of all this history, methodology, theory, technical advice, opportunity to share work… you name it. The floodgates opened. It was really transformative.

Your blog curates and draws attention to the language of sounds, sometimes foregrounding sounds produced for effect such as the blat, the beep, the artificial water tank, or Google-translated beatboxing. But you also unplug from time to time and listen to the world of “unmediated sounds.” Along those lines, how would you explore the Twin Cities to get a sense of its sonic texture?

I’d recommend a bike ride around Minneapolis in the summer. One of the things I like about biking is that while you’re traveling relatively quickly, which can be exhilarating, you’re not encased in anything and you’re traveling slowly enough to experience sensory intimacy with your surroundings. I like the crunches and crashes of the recycling stations I pass on North Second Street. When I pass the Metrodome there are sometimes kids skateboarding, and I love all the pock-crack impacts skateboards make. And generally speaking, the tactile crunch and grind of the bike tire against the street is pleasing to my ear as well.

Sure—like a soundwalk but on wheels rather than foot! One of my favorite Synching Ship posts was your binaural bike ride from Easter 2011. It’s delightful and demonstrative of how sounds ground our awareness in time and in space.

Mike Hallenbeck Photo: Amy Myrbo

Mike Hallenbeck is a composer and sound designer active in a variety of media. He adopts sounds both hither and yon, brings them home and helps them decide what to be when they grow up. He blogs at synchingship.blogspot.com and maintains a home page at juniorbirdman.com.

Radio Producer as Earwitness: MPR’s Marc Sanchez on World Listening Day

Hearing is a sense. Listening is a skill. Attention is the catalyst that transforms hearing into listening. Just like any skill, our listening skills can be cultivated to approach excellence, and doing so requires a great deal of attention. In planning the Walker’s observance of World Listening Day on July 18, I turned to esteemed […]

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

World Listening Day 2013 at the Walker Art Center

Hearing is a sense. Listening is a skill. Attention is the catalyst that transforms hearing into listening. Just like any skill, our listening skills can be cultivated to approach excellence, and doing so requires a great deal of attention. In planning the Walker’s observance of World Listening Day on July 18, I turned to esteemed listeners in our community to get their take on aural attention. I corresponded with Marc Sanchez, a radio producer from Minnesota Public Radio, who shares his insights into listening for meaning, listening for a living, and listening for listening’s sake.

Marc, you started Minnesota Sounds, a project on Minnesota Public Radio that captures our state from an audio perspective. What was the most surprising Minnesota sound you’ve experienced?

Probably the most surprising sound came from the Stillwater lift bridge. There’s lots of traffic noise zooming back and forth, and the sound of warning bells clanging is constant as the bridge gets ready to be raised. That’s kind of what I expected to hear. What caught me off guard were the creaking, sticky sounds of the bridge itself. Grease is piled on to the thick girders that act as guides for the bridge to slide up and down. You can hear it at around 1:30 into this recording.

How about the most moving or evocative sound?

I don’t remember how I first heard about the chimes at St. Olaf College in Northfield, but their story is pretty powerful. Suspended in a timber-framed tower built by faculty members, the chimes are prominently featured in the main walkway through campus. The project began after the 2003 school year, when five students in that graduating class died before completing their studies. Each chime represents a student’s life that was lost since that time.

World Listening Day takes place on the birthday of R. Murray Schafer, a composer and sound researcher who coined the term “soundmark.” Derived from the word landmark, “soundmark” refers to a community sound which is unique and held in special regard by the people in that community. If you were to design an aural tour of Minnesota, what soundmarks would you include?

1. For some historical perspective, following the Dakota 38 + 2 memorial ride each December from Lower Brule, South Dakota, to Mankato, Minnesota.

2. Cracking ice is quintessential Minnesota. You can hear it everywhere, and it’s the kind of sound that becomes more distinct as you become more still.

3. Ships in Duluth. I moved here from California, where the ocean was a fixture I took for granted. Listening to the waves of Lake Superior lap against the shore brings that back for me.

4. The Sky Pesher. Walk across the grass from the World Listening Day event in the Sculpture Garden and immerse yourself in this installation. My colleague Rob Byers did a fantastic job of capturing Cantus performing here.

5. The State Fair is an explosion of sounds. My tip: get there as early as possible. That way your ears don’t have too many competing sounds to deal with.

Have you been earwitness to sounds that might be disappearing from our soundscape?

In a way, I suppose. Frogs at Carlos Avery [Wildlife Management Area] haven’t exactly disappeared, but their counts are being closely monitored by the DNR. The steam engines in Rollag will probably always provide a way for people to connect with the past, even if the present and future wants to run on clean energy. The fog horn that you can still hear at the Split Rock Lighthouse is only a pre-recorded replica of the original, which was taken out of commission in the 1960’s.

What about exciting new sonic phenomena on our horizon?

To my ears, there are always new sounds to hear or old sounds to hear in a new way — you just have to stop and listen.

Yes, speaking of stopping and listening, Schafer also talks about exercises to achieve “clear hearing,” or “clairaudience.” Are there acoustic phenomena that for you serve as a kind of “tuning fork” or baseline to hone your sense of hearing?

I have more of a relaxation technique than a tuning fork. It’s OK to close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and try to empty your mind of distractions. You’ll be surprised at how differently you start hearing the world after a minute or two.

Marc Sanchez making a field recording of a tiger

Marc Sanchez making a field recording of a tiger. Photo: Tom Weber

Take a sonic snapshot of your environment right now. What sounds are you perceiving, and are there any special meanings you make of them?

Newsroom chatter of editors and reporters talking through a story… Keyboards clicking… The hum of my hard drives… A squeaky door. For me, these sounds get interesting when I look out the window at the bright sunshine and a summer shower. I’d really rather be listening to the rain splat on the sidewalk.

What sound gave you the most challenging pursuit to record?

Probably the biggest challenge was overcoming my nerves and climbing into a pen that housed a pack of wolves. I’d been hearing their howls and observing them all morning, when Peggy Callahan from the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus, Minnesota, invited me to get up close and personal. There’s nothing like standing in the middle of a wolf pack as they run around, growling at their meal. Luckily, that meal consisted of rabbits being tossed into their pen and not me.

Do you have a listening regimen either in the field or when you edit a radio piece that lets you hear with fresh ears?

I like to hear pieces that I mix in multiple environments whenever possible. So, I might mix something by watching my level meters and listening on headphones, then move to a studio where I can listen through speakers. I also mix a lot of dialogue, so natural rhythms and breathing patterns in speech become important. I like to think of myself as a conductor when I’m mixing a story. My goal is to have everything sound so natural that you forget I was ever involved.

In Minnesota Sounds, you’ve encouraged listeners to submit environmental recordings with stories. What advice would you have for an eager and curious pair of ears, someone new to the all-encompassing aspects of listening?

These days there are so many devices for us to record with, so I would really encourage people to not feel like they have to wait for top notch recording gear. That said, if you’re going to use your smartphone, for example, try and monitor what you’re recording with headphones. And even better, use a pair of headphones that are closed-backed — in other words, not ear buds. Headphones will really allow you to hear what’s going to be on the final product. They’ll also let you hear when there’s a lot of unwanted wind noise, volume clipping (distortion), or handling noise (when your mic picks up unwanted sounds like your hands knocking into it or a table being bumped).

Being part of a community like the folks at World Listening Day or Transom, if you’re into radio, is a great motivator too. However fun your experience might be, going out to a remote area with a pair of headphones and a mic can be an isolating experience. Listening to other people’s sounds and stories helps to remind me I’m not alone out there.

Marc Sanchez is the producer and director for MPR News’ weekday program, The Daily Circuit. He has worked on a number of different American Public Media-distributed programs, like Marketplace Tech Report, Weekend America, American RadioWorks, and On Being with Krista Tippett. His radio career began working for Joe Frank and on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic. He has helped produce and report stories for This American Life, Freakonomics, and Soundprint, among others. In 2010, Sanchez started a project called Minnesota Sounds (now Minnesota Sounds and Voices), which captures Minnesota, from an audio perspective. You can also hear him as a monthly DJ on MPR News’ sister station, The Current, where he helps showcase homegrown talent on the Local Current stream.

Meet the Artists of February’s Free First Saturday: Part II

By Rachel Kimpton. This is the second part of our artist interview for February’s Free First Saturday. On February 2, we have a few fantastic local artists making their way to share their styles and methods of painting. These artists will be participating in the Art Lab activity in accordance with that day’s opening of the […]

By Rachel Kimpton.

This is the second part of our artist interview for February’s Free First Saturday.

On February 2, we have a few fantastic local artists making their way to share their styles and methods of painting. These artists will be participating in the Art Lab activity in accordance with that day’s opening of the Walker Art Center’s newest exhibition, Painter Painter. This exhibition focuses on the development of abstract painting and the role of both the artist and the studio space. For the activity, visitors are invited to observe and talk to the artists as they work, then use that inspiration to create their very own painting.

To get you pumped for painting, we asked each artist to share a brief bit about themselves, their work, and their space. In part I of this blog, we heard from Betsy Byers, Kate Fartsad, and Eric Syvertson. Here are answers from the last 3 artists of the day: Tara Costello, Joonja Lee Mornes, and Jehra Patrick.

Tara Costello

Tara Costello’s paintings examine unfamiliar spaces and the emotive power of the interplay of forms. She uses layers of Venetian plaster and raw pigment to build up and create uncanny spaces in which viewers are called to find unexpected beauty in the relationships between rich textures and primitive marks. Costello aims to create spaces with variable contexts and perspectives, some hidden from sight, and some starkly unconcealed. Above all, her work is based in the desire for formlessness and the search for unforeseen possibilities.

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1. What’s your favorite part of your studio?

My favorite part is losing track of time while painting.

2. What non-traditional tools do you use to paint with?

The non-traditional tools that I use to paint with are venetian plaster and a trowel.

3. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was ten, and had just won a poster contest for The American Red Cross. I had drawn a helicopter dropping a ladder to a person in a forest fire. There were 4 age groups, and I noticed that all the posters with a blue ribbon on them all had drawn helicopters. I wanted them to like the drawing more than the picture.

"Pink Sky." Tara Costello.

“Pink Sky.” Tara Costello.

Joonja Lee Mornes

Joonja Lee Mornes is an Asian-American artist who grew up in Seoul, Korea. She holds a Master of Arts degree in painting and has almost ten years of experience teaching art to college students and young adults in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Her other professional experience includes working more than twenty years as an architecture and landscape architecture librarian at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Mornes draws inspiration from watching the nature in various light and seasonal phenomena. Her imagined landscape paintings harmonize her past memories of rice fields in Korea, and present moments of the prairie with changing seasons and light.

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1. What’s your favorite part of your studio?

The studio is a place to be alone surrounded by my work, to review whether or not the works reflect my experiences and emotions successfully.  It’s a place leading me to go forward and a place to think, read, work, and nurture myself.

2. What non-traditional tools do you use to paint with?

I am not sure if it is a non-traditional tool or not, but I use color shapers with rubber tips along with brushes.  I also use house painter’s sponges to lay the thin layers.

3. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I always admired artists when I was a child and wished I could be one, but it was not until I came to the US and pursued my college education in art.  It was one of the best decisions I made for my life and career.

"Breathing: Rilke." Joonja Lee Mornes.

“Breathing: Rilke.” Joonja Lee Mornes.

Jehra Patrick

Jehra Patrick is a visual artist who works out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her current project questions art’s promotion, and the artist’s reciprocal relationship with the museum, by investigating museum collections, archives and spaces, selecting images to repurpose as the subject of paintings and photo-based work.

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1. What’s your favorite part of your studio?

Having a space designated for art-making. It is a space separate from my other art activities; when I walk in the door, I’m there to paint! So much of my art practice is laptop-based: reading about shows and artists, researching for concepts or images, updating my materials, applying for new opportunities, working with digital images – by contrast, it’s great to have a place that is expressly for painting. The space itself, I like because it is a neutral, white backdrop for envisioning my work on gallery walls. I’m grateful for it’s natural light and I always welcome the smell of linseed oil when I open the door.

2. What non-traditional tools do you use to paint with?

Regarding materials, I’m a pretty traditional painter; I work with brushes, paint and traditional mediums. I will divulge a little studio secret though – I’m quite thrifty and I purchase most of my materials at Home Depot and Ace Hardware. Rather then shell out $100 for a 2″ wide natural or synthetic brush, I just buy $2 brushes from the hardware store – they’ve become my favorite tool for large fields of color and blending! And if they get cruddy after several uses you can just toss them. I also use a digital projector rather then sketching out my compositions. I find it to be a really efficient way to maintain accuracy. I’ve also used it to project my source images to determine the scale of paintings yet-to-be-made.

3. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

In all honesty, I’ve wanted to be an artist since I was probably 6 or 7. As I got older, I wasn’t sure it would be a viable option – though I continued to produce work – it seemed like artistic success was a game of odds. It wasn’t until the past 6 years that I came to the understanding that artists are in charge of their own careers; you have to want it, and you have to follow up, otherwise it doesn’t happen. So, I reaffirmed that I’m going to be an artist, and now I’m doing just that.

Freight Elevator." Jehra Patrick.

“Freight Elevator.” Jehra Patrick.

You can join these three artists on February 2 in the Art Lab. Joon will begin at 10:30am and paints until 1:30pm. Both Tara and Jehra will be painting from 12:30pm to 3:30pm. This is a great opportunity to witness artists in their creative process!

Meet the Artists of February’s Free First Saturday: Part I

By Rachel Kimpton. For our upcoming Free First Saturday in February, we have a few fantastic local artists making their way to share their styles and methods of painting. These artists will be participating in the Art Lab activity in accordance with that day’s opening of the Walker Art Center’s newest exhibition, Painter Painter. This exhibition […]

By Rachel Kimpton.

For our upcoming Free First Saturday in February, we have a few fantastic local artists making their way to share their styles and methods of painting. These artists will be participating in the Art Lab activity in accordance with that day’s opening of the Walker Art Center’s newest exhibition, Painter Painter. This exhibition focuses on the development of abstract painting and the role of both the artist and the studio space. For the activity, visitors are invited to observe and talk to the artists as they work, then use that inspiration to create their very own painting.

To get you pumped for painting, we asked each artist to share a brief bit about themselves, their work, and their space. Here are answers from the first three artists of the day: Betsy Byers, Kate Fartstad, and Eric Syvertson. Check out part II to hear from Tara Costello, Joonja Lee Mornes, and Jehra Patrick.

Betsy Byers

Betsy Byers paints to discover and imagine relationships that embody our intimate experience with the environment in an abstract form. Her work often births from singular, elemental experiences of the body within space: feet touching water, the curve of the back nestle into rocks. In her paintings, Byers interweaves the psychological space and materiality of paint, as she searches for reciprocity between the self and the surrounding environment.

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1. What’s your favorite part of your studio?

My favorite part of being in the studio is the act of preparing my materials to work. It always surprises me to open my studio door and get a new perspective on a painting, even if it is has only been 10 hours since I last looked at it. I enjoy mixing paint, staring at my work and playing out new possibilities of compositions in my head before my brush even touches the surface of paper or canvas.

2. What non-traditional tools do you use to paint with?

I use paint rollers, squeegees, rags, and spatulas in addition to a variety of brushes and palette knives. My favorite brush is a #4 flat.

3. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I didnʼt paint with oil until I was 20 years old. When I was growing up I did a lot of observing, drawing and writing, but I never imagined that I would become an artist. I decided to major in art during college because art classes challenged me more than any other department. I chose to become an artist due to the questions that art raises. I am constantly engaged by my work in the studio and by my attempts to translate and develop a visual experience for others.

"Coalesce." Betsy Byers.

“Coalesce.” Betsy Byers.

Kate Farstad

Kate Fartstad is a recent graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She currently has a solo exhibition, MOUTHBREATHER, up at Midway Contemporary Art (MN), and has shown in the past at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MN), Zach Feuer Gallery (NY), Art of This (MN), The Soap Factory (MN), Fox Tax Gallery (MN), Synchronicity Space (LA), and has an upcoming exhibition at Julius Caesar (Chicago) in April of 2013. She makes paintings and sculptures using disparate objects and images, and would like to think that she has an excellent color sense. Farstad is also an active musician in the Twin Cities, playing drums in two bands, ‘Tips for Twat’ and ‘Larry Wish and His Guys’.

Farstad

1. What’s your favorite part of your studio?

I do enjoy that I can get paint all over the floor and won’t get in trouble. I enjoy being able to be alone when making things. But my favorite part is that I just have a studio to work in that’s not too claustrophobic.

2. What non-traditional tools do you use to paint with?

I like to use anything and everything, but tend to favor perhaps the shoes you’re currently wearing, or any material that is impersonating another material; as well as hair, matchsticks, shells, dog treats, or wreaths.

3. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I think in first grade (about 6 years old or so) I was forced to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I knew then my anxiety towards science and mathematics would continue, and that those things would not be a part of my trajectory. I have always loved making art. My grandmother was a painter, my father is a photographer, my mother and three brothers are all musicians… so I have been blessed to have a family that supported that sort of thing, i.e., “weird” stuff.

"Double Swaddle".

“Double Swaddle.” Kate Farstad.

Eric Syvertson

Eric Syvertson is an artist, educator, and arts advocate currently living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A recent transplant from North Dakota, Syvertson has served two terms as the President of the Fargo-Moorhead Visual Arts (FMVA), the largest visual arts organization in the state. Syvertson graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in art education, and for the past four years has been teaching art at West Fargo High School. Currently, Syvertson is working on his master’s degree in fine arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design as he exhibits work throughout the region.

Syvertson

1. What’s your favorite part of your studio?

Its ability to be a hiding place for all of my failed attempts at art making.  Walking into the studio, I feel very lucky to enter a space where failures are more than just allowed, but they are actually very necessary in learning how to make my work. The studio becomes an experimentation lab where both good and bad results of effort always seem to be time well spent.  It is very empowering to enter a space where you feel as though you can do no wrong.  Come to think of it, we should all reserve space or a little corner of a room for that sort of thing!

2. What non-traditional tools do you use to paint with?

I love to experiment with all sorts of materials in my paintings.  In the past I’ve used birch wood, spray paint, textile paint, ink, burnt paper, or anything else to make a surface more interesting.  These days, my approach to painting is more traditional but I still have fun trying out different tools or methods.  Often when I start a big painting I like to use a reductive method of using rags to wipe away layers of wet paint to reveal the surface below.

3. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I can’t say that I remember when I decided that I wanted to be an artist.  Instead, I think that drawing and painting was something I enjoyed as a kid and just kept doing into adulthood.  Rather than deciding that I wanted to be an artist, it was more of a realization that I had always been an artist.  That realization didn’t come to me until I was about twenty years old and it took another five years or so to begin to understand how my passion for art had potential to be fulfilling for a lifetime.

Syvertson face transplant

“Simultaneous Portrait: Richard’s Face Transplant.” Eric Syvertson.

You can join these three artists on February 2 in the Art Lab. Betsy and Kate will begin painting at 9:30am and go until 12:30pm, and Eric will be working all day. Come enjoy real artists create new pieces before your very eyes!

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