Monthly Archives: March 2012

drifting

I wanted to share a little of the writing I am doing for my (s) AND project, a multimedia art installation piece. (You can read more about the piece on the “research” page on this blog.) The work brings together a media-mythic kind of haptic sensory experience created from a fused history of the Lithuanian landscape around the dunes of the Curonian Spit and the rocky shores of Blekinge in Sweden.  (How’s that for an explanation!) It includes a series of poetic reflections on sand, stone, Baltic waters and the impossible histories that unify the elements and sites. (Sand is, after all, in part, eroded stone, and the Baltic sea has helped carry, both figuratively and literally, rocks and sand across the ever shifting shores and borders, over millennia, defying site-specific claims of uniqueness. So there.)

nida studio with bottles

Blue bottles in my Nida studio workspace. (Photographs of the dunes on the walls.)

While in Nida I was inspired in part with my writing for the first section of the (s)AND text–a  poetic text that will be remixed with others as part of the experience of the installation–by  the death of my high school friend Gordon. I have elsewhere discussed his passing as part of my Message in a Bottle project.

The bottles sort of moved from window to window in the studio. Against the snow, they really stood out and sort of glowed.

While struggling to find a way to begin “writing” the Nida landscape, to create a text that might facilitate the basis of the abstract story-telling experience I imagined at the heart of the installation, I sat with my blue bottles in my studio and tried to conceptualize the writing. Processing Gordon’s death at the same time, mourning while pondering how best  to represent him in my bottle project, I remembered a secret connection we shared, and realized it could be a gateway to my writing for (s)AND as well.

In high school, I recalled, I had actually paid Gordon $10 to write a geography paper for me on “continental drift.” It is truly the only time in my life I have cheated academically, and even now as I write about it, some 30+ years later, I am mortified and ashamed. As I recall, it was a sort of innocent thing that began as a joke between us, a kind of dare, but then he agreed to do it, and I just went with it. I believe I even received an A on the paper. It was short and not worth much toward my final grade, and at the time it seemed quite hilarious.

“Ah Youth. What idiots we were.”

Nonetheless it was an academic deception I’d never accept or excuse now, but at 16, it seemed like innocent fun to trick a teacher neither of us liked very much, for an assignment neither of us respected, and so we saw it as harmless fun. It was never discovered, except by me, again and again as the memory bubbled up to taunt  me when I challenged students for plagiarism. Years later, I shared the memory with Gordon, and he couldn’t even recall it. I assured him it had happened, and he too couldn’t believe we would be so reckless. “Ah youth. What idiots we were,”  he wrote. We were truly thoughtless and oh, so rebellious, or so we thought.

ancient continents map

The ancient continent Baltica is center stage, waiting for the squeeze play by super-continents via tectonic shifting.

But as I thought about Nida, the sand dunes, and the Baltic sea, and as I thought too about the stony shores in Sweden where I lived (where sand was a rarity) and then wondered how I could merge the coasts, I thought about tectonic plate shifting. Naturally. Makes sense, right?  🙂 But, in fact, the reshaping  of shorelines through the manipulation of continents, dragged across the sea floor, configuring and reconfiguring them as masses of stone moved together and moved apart along underwater geological conveyor belts, leaving sea trenches in their wake, heaving up mountain ranges, certainly defied the idea that Lithuania and Sweden were somehow separate. I remembered too the theory of ancient super-continents, huge land masses that were the fore-bearers of our “modern” continents. And I remembered little Baltica, a smaller land mass “kicked” around” by the bigger ones, but often joined to them too before moving on.  And then I thought more about unity, rather than separation, coming together, suturing coastlines, and the pain of that joining.

What was the history of drifting as collision, and how could it serve me through seeing connections, no matter how painfully massive the union might be?

My curiosity and research lead me to Pangaea, an ancient super continent formed 300 million years ago, in part, from the collision of Baltica (a continent that now contains much of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia), and Laurentia (North America’s parent-mass), and Gondwanaland, (a messy mass of pretty much everything else). I realized a telling of them, their union and separation, might help me form a basis for the other legends I hoped to tell in a series of poetic reflections at the heart of the (s)AND piece.

My "Pangaea" poem, cut up and mixed with obituary text, before going into bottle. Looks like a little jagged super continent, I think.

I realized too, as I was writing and preparing to send my bottle for Gordon into the sea, that drifting and collision too became a metaphor for us. We had shared an intense and personal history at a key time in our youth when the normal growing pains of becoming-adult were particularly charged for each of us, in different painful ways. But we also shared huge gaps of time, watery distances in between, which we never fully reconciled as grew up and on in our adult lives after college. I always imagined one day we would reconnect in person (rather than via occasional email) and really share our pasts, but it never happened. We had other secrets, much more painful than a plagiarized geography paper about continental plate tectonics, and I know now we will never get to compare scars.

Beautiful sunrise, the next day, at place on ferry where I tossed the bottles overboard into the icy Baltic.

My discovery of his death while in Nida, through my stumbling across his obituary online, was a stony reminder of how far we can pull apart, drift away, and never necessarily get a chance to float backwards and heal. Backstrokes are hard, especially across oceans. I am hoping my inclusion of the poem I wrote and dedicated to him, that is both in my blue bottle drifting in the Baltic, and within the (s)AND project, will help me tell for both of us…

I am including only an excerpt of the poem here, from the beginning and the end. Necessarily, I must leave out the center, the core, and let you guess about what it left (out)…

Pangaea Drifting
for Gordon

The formation of the supercontinent Pangaea
was undoubtedly
a triumph
of tectonic shifting
and mass manipulation.

First it was Laurentia and Baltica that collided.

Although, in all fairness,
Paleozoic time counters
the dynamism and force collision evokes.

They drifted together, more likely,
the scientists say,
as continents are wont to do.

A slow bump and grind,
never natural and yet geologically determinate.

In the stone. Sure as amber.

Crawling into each other,
determining the proper thrust,
and then zigzag fitted,
they roughly sutured
their coastlines
together,
beginning a connection deep in magma earth-boil,
deeper still than sea-bottom,
before even swimming liquid life
and blue-green algae,
long before
articulate brachiopods, graptolites, tabulate
and rugose corals.

Before even that.

Finally, shifting upward, breaking water-surface,
they heaved mountains
in the slow exhalation
of pained
union.

Blue foam trails, mixed with smoky plumes
and rock strata,
dripped
a wake
of stretching
remnants
back to water,
with each expelling
breath
that pushed
up
rocky earth
into
air.

Boulders fingered up from water
and layered life-worlds
in-between
each stony spasm,
each deposit
eons in the making,
trapping and animating
each tier.

Fossiliferous by nature.

Finally,
abandoning effort in high shallow air,
breathless,
in the unoxygenated peaks,
they gave in.

Merging done,
they steamily gazed back down at their wounding.

Together, they saw the criss-cross scar
they had propelled across
the surface earth-flesh,
a scabby chain,
bearing treacherous witness of drifting,
and daring others to traverse, full-across,
away from level coasts.

But deep as it was, and jagged,
they knew the rawness
soon would heal,
and then numb.

These peaks too would wear down and new joining would begin.

Pangaea was coming.

[ …a  long part in the middle of the poem, describing the coming together of Baltica, Laurentia, and Gondwanaland is left out.  Suffice it to say, it was a painful joining. So, I jump to the end of section 1 below…]

Pangaea was done.

Patient work this devastation,
this drifting, exacting coalescence
from mass and liquid.

So much effort just for one-ness.

Pangaea ( “all-earth”)
surrounded by Panthalassa (“universal sea”),
one plus one,
again.

For now.

Equatorial crossing and stitching over
entire seas,
hiding them under rock face,
land mass trek,
abandoning
the poles.

Such is the heavy work
of moving away and moving together.

Scientists call it drifting.

But really it is only massive collision.

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raw

The Telling the Baltic ( TTB ) Artist Workshop I recently hosted at BTH with my Art Line colleagues over the past two weeks has been exceptionally interesting and creatively stimulating—which also means I’ve been totally exhausted most days. That said, having a group of artists and story-collectors in the same room together for such an intense, concentrated period to share their work and to develop ideas for building this grand touring exhibition is really a luxury.

Polish Story-Collector Marcin Boryczko describes his methods for collection and transcription

The breadth of stories collected from the different partners in their different areas of the Baltic has been fascinating. I’ve listened, totally enrapt, these weeks to the presentations of what we have been calling “raw materials” (that is the stories we’ve collected, in video, photographic, and text formats that will be the basis for the artists’ rendering into exhibition pieces) and to the artists’ talks about their practices and initial ideas for development. And so, in my ”raw” story-induced rapture, I have been transported to many sites and watery insights about the Baltic and what it has to tell and how it can inspire. As we suspected, the Baltic turns out to be an exceptional story-teller and evocative agent for abstraction.

Telling the Baltic Polish story transcript

Polish story-collector and radio interviewer Małgorzata Żerwe (with Marcin) highlights key moments in story about dog rescued in shipyard

 Raw is, in fact,  an apt term for what the stories we have collected convey, but only if that means the rawness that is a kind of richness of information—that is information that has not yet been distilled down or processed (as in a RAW image format). In this sense it is bigger still than what the artists will use to create what can only in its latter state be seen as selective rendering, an abstraction. This story rawness is pretty full on, and it’s hard to consider what might be left behind if/when the raw stories become abstract art, as if there is a clear difference between the two. Listening to one artist at the workshop  (whom I respected, but with whom I nonetheless disagreed) characterize the stories as “only information” that must be separately “archived”  (in a database or in a library-setting) as opposed to the art works that naturally should be on exhibition given their more abstract form, made me realize why this project interested me in the first place: ontological /aesthetic/philosophical/interdisciplinary conundrums excite me. . .

Lithuanian Artist/Story-collector presentation

Lithuanian Artist Irma Stanaityte describes encounter with fishermen

What is a story, anyway and how can we mediate it without somehow changing or intervening in it? What does it mean to render a story, in art, in digital space, or in the embodied act of listening to it? Of course mediation is always a factor in these interactions, and we are participants in all that we hear; this is both a theoretical and ontological reality fundamental to the theories of material mediation I teach—but in this case I am actively impacted by what that means, particularly when art and story are so closely connected, and yet somehow still opposed in this project. When confronted with the material fact of designing an exhibition space (or contributing to its design), this theoretical musing becomes more pragmatically engaging. Oh, what to do with these stories?

four fishermen

Polish and Swedish fishermen gather in the cultural center (an unlikely setting) with the artists to describe their Baltic fishing practices and thoughts about EU regulations for sustainability

In the project, we separate easily into story-collectors and artists by our actions and the tasks we have set for ourselves (story-collectors gather, then artists make), but the raw materials we work with are not so clearly discernible when we isolate them from those tasked with their mediation and rendering.

fishermen show size of fish

The fishermen show us the size of their biggest catch. They said only amateurs did this, but they reluctantly, and humorously, showed us together it was "this big." (photo credit: Anna Stellar, TTB artist)

 

 

And sometimes we have decided (or were forced to consider through material experiences that stubbornly resisted separation) that the artists and story-collectors should be necessarily the same person. They could not (or would not) divide into hunting/gathering and then making phases …

lighthouse keeper story presentation

Polish Story-Collector Agnieszka Wołodźko presents her interview with Polish lighthouse keeper

For me, the interviews with male and female lighthouse keepers in Poland, with articulate Swedish fishermen concerned with sustainable fishing practices, Lithuanian crow eaters (literally, those that eat the birds, and not in an idiomatic sense), with sailors and seamen of all nationalities who share their sexist superstitions about women on- and off-board (whistling women are the worst) is like being in the middle of some lovely, immersive mythic archive of oddity, history and fantasy—that is, the best possible of all raw archives. It is too much (to be processed) and too rich to be identified as in need of more artistry and abstraction.

artists locate sites on map of Baltic

Russian artist Anton Zabrodin and Polish collector Agnieszka Wołodźko locate sites of interest on the Baltic map

artists at workshop

Swedish artist Johan Thurfjell (L), Polish artist Patrycja Orzechowska (C), and Danish artist Henrik Lund Jörgensen (R) listen and reflect at workshop

And so in the workshop, a central concern for me (but for some others as well) has been to discuss ways to represent and share the stories we have collected, as well as the art derived from them, within the exhibitions we have planned. How can we make the stories accessible and dynamic and how can we be sure in an “art” exhibition that they are not subverted or viewed as a lesser kind of “raw,” as objective information vs.  arty abstraction?

baltic map relfected on collector's face

Agnieszka's Baltic grimace

How can we share the stories with others in ways that encourage immersion and connection with the people of the Baltic who bothered to talk to us (but who are also generally bemused by, or just confused about, our interest in their “ordinary” lives)?  Outside of a kind of traditional “media library” of sources through which visitors to the exhibitions can browse, how may we encourage them to spend time with the stories and find further connection with the art? It’s a dilemma I think we will continue exploring, but I am encouraged that others share my struggle with this.

worshop participants at pub

We end week one of the workshop at a local pub to discuss ideas with "other" kinds of flowing inspiration.

Intimacy with others via their stories is a challenge in a public exhibition space, as is the act of “shared reading” (however we characterize this slippery act, as slow and private,  or shared and embodied). I don’t expect we’ll solve this problem, actually, but I hope to embrace it and see how it flows. Thankfully, we have several exhibitions to explore the possibilities and see where we are led.

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Telling the Baltic Artist Workshop, March 2012:

I’m so happy that our Artist Workshop for Telling the Baltic is finally beginning. We are hosting a number of artists from Southern Baltic region at BTH between March 5-16 to help develop materials for our touring exhibition in 2012-13. An excerpt  from the press release is included below…

The Baltic Sea and its surroundings comprise a natural and multi-layered story that can reveal itself in countless forms, all depending on how and where one chooses to look and to investigate its many depths and surfaces

Beginning in early 2011, Lissa Holloway Attaway,  Pirjo Elovaara and Talan Memmot of the Department of Culture and Communication at Blekinge Institute of Technology, along with independent videographer Martin Arvebro,  began their research into the Baltic sea as a site for collecting stories. They met up with sea-dwellers at the island of Sturkö, south of Karlskrona; they met up with chefs, bartenders, captains and other crew members on board the Stena Vision ferry traveling between Karlskrona and Gdynia, as well as on the much smaller Aspö commuter ferry. They also gathered stories from the landscape itself around the Baltic region, using video and photography to document it. On the other side of the Baltic, Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art in Poland, NCCA Kaliningrad in Russia, Nida Art Colony in Lithuania and Kunsthalle Rostock in Germany  also gathered their stories, each using different methods and collecting unique perspectives.

This pool of different narratives, in video, audio, and in photo format will be presented to the International artists from the Southern Baltic region gathering at Campus Gräsvik. The artists will use the stories as inspiration to create art works to be included in a touring exhibition held in Baltic locations during 2012 and 2013. The tour begins in June 2012 at the Blekinge Museum in Kalrkskrona. This (re-)telling of Baltic stories in artistic form offers new perspectives on what the Baltic is for many, and what it might be for others to come

On Monday 5/3 from 14.30 and Tuesday 6/3, from 15.00 to 17.30 participating artists will present themselves and their varied art practices for 15 minutes each, followed by a general discussion. These presentations will be held at Campus Gräsvik, room C 313A and are open to the public.

Participating artists are:  Anna Brag (SE), Astrid Göransson (SE), Anna Steller (PL), Anna Zaradny (PL), Henrik Lund Jörgensen (DK/SE), Irma Stanaityte (LT), Iwona Zając (PL), Johan Thurfjell (SE), Jurgita Remeikyte (LT)), Katrin Roeber (DE), Łukasz Szałankiewicz (PL), Paetrick Schmidt (DE), Patrycja Orzechowska (PL) and Rikard Fåhreus (SE).

Participating story-collectors are:

Lissa Holloway Attaway (CA/SE), Agnieszka Wołodźko (PL), Marcin Boryczko (PL), Małgorzata Żerwe (PL), Pirjo Elovaara (SE), Karin Nilsson (SE), Talan Memmott (US/SE)

More information about the Telling the Baltic project:

www.ttb.artline-southbaltic.eu

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