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Grand Rapids Border Control: Interview with Pitch Night Winner Bjorn Sparrman

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members […]

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members and a jury of experts, ranging from the practical to the conceptual.

For the uninitiated: ArtPrize is one of the largest art events in the world, attracting over 400,000 visitors last year. The festival transforms downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan for three weeks, covering parks, restaurants, stores, museums, and sidewalks with art.  Its structure fosters a tension between professional and populist views of art, awarding large cash prizes to artists selected both by jury and by popular vote.

After some deliberation, the Pitch Night jury selected The Grand River Checkpoint Project by artist Bjorn Sparrman to receive $5000 and a coveted venue at the sixth annual ArtPrize.  His piece will be installed on Gillett Bridge, a major thoroughfare in the midst of the festival, from September 24 to October 12, 2014.

mnartists.org asked Sparrman a few questions about the ideas behind his piece.

Entering Western Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

What’s your previous experience with ArtPrize?

I’ve attended ArtPrize most years since it began back in 2009, but this is my first time participating. I went to college in Grand Rapids, and as a young artist, ArtPrize was overwhelming: the crowds, the diversity of the works, the spectacle. Now that I’ve had some separation from the city and ArtPrize, I feel this is a good time for me to return and participate.

Describe your winning project. What’s the elevator pitch?

I will be erecting a border control checkpoint on the Gillett Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Grand River and connects the eastern and western sides of the city. There will be a guardhouse womaned by a Gillette Bridge Border Control Officer. Along the bridge will stand several signs, some that demand “NO PHOTOS” or “NO CELL PHONES”, and others stating, “You are now entering/leaving Eastern/Western Grand Rapids.”

How do you hope the public interacts with your project? What do you want them to experience?

The piece will bring up a lot of different images and memories for different people, some of which might be very difficult or saddening. However, I do know that everyone will be forced across this border together. If there is something specific I want people to experience, it is a feeling of temporary equality within communal constraint. I am anxious to see the various kinds of responses. There is definitely a bit of shock value.

Gillett Bridge Border Control

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

Tell us about the political implications of the project – it seems to work on several levels.

I want the border to act more as a political/national backdrop which people traverse, or are forced to traverse. We cross these kinds of borders every day. I’m just making the experience more visible. When I was thinking about the bridge and the river, I could only see fit to amplify and play with the implicit border and movement of people that was already there.

How do you think your work be read within the context of the whole festival?

I must admit that the idea came from a somewhat cynical view of ArtPrize, and of large festivals in general. You go and take pictures of the spectacular artworks. You’re encouraged to vote for your favorite pieces with your phone, but the border I’m installing will have signs expressly prohibiting photography and cellphones. Pedestrians have so much access to the city during ArtPrize, I want to make sure they aren’t taking it for granted.

What’s coming up next for you, and how can we learn more about your work?

I’ll be moving to Massachusetts this fall to begin working on a master’s degree at MIT through their Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) program. I currently have a small exhibition in a Copenhagen storefront, but if you can’t make it there, you can see my work at: greenlocomotive.wix.com/beta

Pitch Night

Photo courtesy of Emily Gastineau